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After Effects 7 new features overview

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After Effects 7 new features overview
A CreativeCOW.net Adobe After Effects 7.0 Overview
After Effects 7 new features overview

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After Effects 7
After a long wait it's finally here - the new version of After Effects. People have been getting nervous already because it seemed like forever when version 6.5 was released, but now that it's here, let's take a look at what the new version has on offer. I work mainly as a 3D artist/ motion graphics artist, so please forgive me if I'm not commenting on some functions that may be of larger importance for your type of work.


Interface

When you first start After Effects 7, you will be pleasantly surprised. It boasts a completely new interface design that mimics pseudo-3D elements. Basically everything has rounded or beveled edges. There is also a lot more color to separate elements from one another and make them more distinct. However, the best part of the new interface is its flexibility. Let's look at it in some more detail.

Per default, After Effects will start with a new docked interface. This means there are no empty areas between different panels/ windows and the entire screen is filled with them. You can easily change the size of a panel by dragging its edges and the other windows around it will adapt. The following image shows you the new interface.



Interface with docked windows/ panels

As you may well agree, this new type of interface is especially useful if you have only limited screen space because it holds everything together. However, if you are one of the lucky people working on large screens or multiple monitors and want to spread out your panels, what then? No problem, either! The interface allows that too. By clicking on a little arrow on the top right corner of each panel you can easily undock it and freely move it around. And guess what - yes, this time they did it right! Each of these independent sub-windows can exist outside the main application window. This means that you can e.g. have your main window on one monitor and still move the other windows out of the way onto the second monitor without affecting the workflow. On the picture below you can see this - the blue areas are the desktop, the rest of the windows are After Effects.


Interface with undocked windows outside of the main application interface

The fun does not stop there, though. You may have screen space as much as you want, but normally you will still want to arrange everything in a clean fashion. The cool people at Adobe have just thought of that and introduced a system the call dropzones. Let me explain that a bit.

1.

Undocked Time Controls and Info panels as you know them. Now we grab the tab of the Info panel and drag it onto the Time Controls.
2. 

While over the panel, After Effects will show you an overlay with colored areas (turquoise outline added for more clarity). Different areas mean different results. In our case we chose the lower third.
3. 

Our panels are now docked inside one window, but are independent. Had we chosen to drop the Info into the middle, it would now be tabbed behind the time controls. Dropping onto the side areas will dock your panels side by side.

With all that new flexibility it is easy to create the perfect interface for yourself. Once you are happy, you can save it as a Layout. All information will be properly stored including if your panels were docked or not. In order to make it easier to switch between Layouts, you have now a quick access rolldown at the very top of the main window. There are a few pre-made setups for Animation, Motion Tracking etc. that can also be accessed from there. Three of the layouts (prefab or your own setups) can be tied to keyboard shortcuts so you can easily switch around for different tasks. So you can e.g. have one layout for doing tracking and after that you can easily switch to a paint layout to attach your tracker to your strokes.


Workspaces quick access rolldown

Lastly there are a few minor additions and changes to the interface. After Effects will no longer open a separate composition window/ tab for each new composition. Instead it will take an existing viewer, as they now are called, and open the composition in it. The other comps can then be selected from a rolldown at the top. If you don't want new compositions to "steal" your window, you can lock it. This will force After Effects to create a new viewer. The same behavior applies to footage viewers and layer views.

As a side effect of separating the graph editing functions from the main timeline (see a few paragraphs below), another minor inconsistency has been rectified by "undigging" the preview gradient for animated colors. This is nothing new, but like me I think many users won't have used it that much in the past because it required you to twirl down the respective color control in an effect and then was barely noticeable below the graph. After Effects will calculate this gradient based on the keyframe data with respect to the keyframe interpolation behaviors.


Color preview gradient in the timeline


Rendering engine

First off some good news: After Effects can now render up to 32 bits per channel (bpc) in the Professional version. The bad news: The 3D renderer once again has not received any major improvements. But let's focus on the good things.

Why 32 bpc? After Effects users have been looking jealously at other programs for quite a while in this area. A long time After Effects was more or less an 8 bpc program as it was more intended for motion graphics then what I call "realworld compositing", i.e. working with filmed footage and doing keys and such. Yes, it has had 16 bpc for some time, but only very few effects made use of that. Then came version 6 and things were improving a lot. Companies actually began using it even for serious film work and not just storyboarding. With the 6.5 release this improved even more. However, while 16 bpc may cover a lot of ground, it still is not good enough for many tasks - there is for instance not enough headroom for color corrections when working with film stock. So people started to create their own tools such as eLin to overcome these limitations. While it worked, it was still awkward to use. Now that is no longer necessary because After Effects' entire rendering pipeline works in 32 bpc. Needless to say that even if you don't work with film, this ability might come in handy at some point, be it just some nasty banding on color corrected HD footage that you can't get rid of otherwise. The only downside at this point is that it may take a while before all effects are properly working in 32 bpc. As with the transition to 16 bpc back then, for the time being only the most important color adjustment and channel tools have been revised.

Of course there are also the usual speed improvements. One should not expect miracles, but it certainly feels a lot smoother and faster if you work in the 8 bpc and 16 bpc modes. In many cases feedback is almost instantaneous even if you use multiple effects. By its nature 32 bpc mode is not as fast, but still quite speedy. Some speed improvements can be attributed to a rewritten OpenGL pipeline which makes working in your compositions and previewing much easier. It now supports OpenGL 2.0 and offers a few new features. The antialiasing is much better, it now supports almost all blending modes and motion blur can be previewed using the power of your graphics card. On top of that several effects have been adapted to make use of this new pipeline and can be used to make interactive adjustments.

One warning: As with all OpenGL implementations, the gain in speed and the supported effects largely vary on which graphics board you have. So check if you can make use of it and don't be disappointed, if it does not work as promised. Adobe maintain a list with compatible graphics cards and cannot be blamed if yours is not among them. If you are still using OSX in one of its pre 10.4.3 incarnations, there are certain issues that stop OpenGL 2.0 from being used on Macs. So maybe you should consider updating your OS if you haven't already. Should your system not support all features, there is no need to worry. You can always use the old adaptive rendering modes and they are also very fast. A list of compliant card can be found at http://www.adobe.com/products/aftereffects/opengl.html .

In order to complement the new expanded color space, After Effects has learned how to deal with color profiles and also offers several new effects/ filters to adjust your footage. You will still need adjustment and guide layers to preview the results on your computer monitor, but by choosing proper color profiles it is now possible to e.g. easily convert film stock for use in standard video. Using the Color Profile Converter effect in your projects you can combine different sources in your project and convert them to one coherent output profile.


Input/ Output

So what good would all this new power in the rendering pipeline be good for, if there is no way to get imagery using that fidelity in and out of After Effects? Correct, it would not be of any use. So consequently Adobe have thought of that and added input and output modules that can take care of that.

The word of the day is OpenEXR. This is an image format developed by the tech buffs at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) for in-house use and whose specs were made available as open source. It can store image data in a floating point format which makes it ideal if you e.g. scan film stock for compositing. It also takes care of things such as Gamma curves and in addition to that it is not only limited to RGB and Alpha channels, but allows additional channels to be embedded as well as meta data. This can be anything from additional Alpha channels/ Mattes to the buffers from 3D programs such as Z-Depth, Object-ID, Unclamped RGB and whatnot. For this particular reason it may even replace the now popular RLA/ RPF formats some day.

Another new format are HDR (High Dynamic Range) images. Most of you will only have heard of that in the context of 3D programs, where certain varieties of this format are used for a technique called image base lighting (IBL) and therein lies a bit of a problem: so far everybody has been cooking up his own flavor of HDR and an image that works in one program must not necessarily work in another program. To make matters worse, there are special formats that store the images in a distorted form and are really only usable for the above technique. For compositing only the "normal" flat type is of interest. Still, 3D artists will greatly welcome the opportunity to be able to use HDR images in compositing without needing to convert them, adjust them and create animated sequences that can then be exported with the same high color depth back into their 3D program of choice.

As well as the above two formats, you can also im- and export TIFF and Photoshop files with 32 bpc and work just the same with them. This allows an coherent and cohesive workflow if you e.g. happen to have the latest version of Photoshop. From Photoshop After Effects has also inherited the ability to import several RAW camera formats from different manufacturers.

There are some tools to complement the new image formats. If you have ever used the Cineon format, you know why. Cineon stores its data logarithmically rather than linear (as is After Effects' workspace) and Images will look blown-out or show color shifts. The same can happen with OpenEXR and HDR images. Not only do you need to consider their Gamma curves, but also limit their theoretically infinite color space to something that can be displayed on a computer screen or broadcast monitor. So for instance there is an effect called HDR Highlight Compression. In an HDR image there is a White that is whiter than White. Does that make sense? I bet you say "No!", so let me explain. A lot of how we perceive our environment is limited by our insufficient eyesight. In comparison to some animals we are downright blind and the same is true for technical devices such as cameras. A camera will see details where the human eye will only see an white area from a specular reflection or light source - we may know that there is something there, but we cannot see it because the light is already blinding us. HDR Highlight Compression is just for that. It will adjust our Whites and bring out details that we could not see before. But let's not get lost in technical details and move on to more goodness from Adobe.

Once you are ready to render your stuff, you will find some new switches on the render settings that can be extremely useful. First off, you can now render everything using OpenGL by simply ticking a box. In the past you had to explicitly set your composition to OpenGL 3D to make this work. As said above, the benefits of that depend on your hardware, so it may not be faster than using no OpenGL. Another and probably the most useful is the ability to select a different color depth without affecting the entire project. For instance this way you can have a high fidelity version of your composition that goes onto film and also have an 8 bpc version for offline editing or web trailers by simply defining different output templates and render settings.



Render settings panel


All you web-heads out there will be pleased that After Effects now can export Flash video. This includes all the features that can be found in the current version 8 of Flash, including support for Alpha channels.

Some final words regarding other output methods. If you were hoping for revolutionary new features for MPEG 4 and HD DVD authoring, you will be disappointed. There is nothing new beyond what After Effects 6.5 could do and if you need things such as H.264, you have to rely on Quicktime. Windows Media and MPEG II export have also received an overhaul. Beyond the speed optimizations one can expect and a re-designed interface, you won't find much that takes things to a new level. Hopefully more tools will be incorporated in a future version.


Graph Editor

This feature is perhaps the most anticipated of them all. Rumours have been persistent and finally they have proven to be true. While technically little has changed in terms of how After Effects will treat your keyframes, it is now much easier to adjust their behavior. This is best explained by looking at some screen shots.

First let's look at the old way one more time. Until version 6.5.1. each animated parameter had his own function graph. You had to twirl down the respective parameter control in the timeline to see it. If you now needed to do this for many parameters, you had one big problem: Your monitor could be sky high and you'd still not have enough room to accommodate all graphs. You could minimize the height of the graphs to gain some space, but by doing so you also lost some of their distinctiveness.


Timeline/ Graph editor in After Effects 6.5.1

Now this problem has been overcome. The twirl-down arrows are gone and instead a button at the top of the timeline will switch your track view to a graph view. In this view as many curves as you like will share the same display area. Initially the graph editor will only show the property that was selected when switching over but you can easily show other property graphs by selecting their respective property. You can force this graph to be permanently displayed by activating a small graph symbol next to the property stopwatch. In case multiple attributes are displayed, After Effects will randomly assign different colors to their curves. Unfortunately this cannot be influenced and some colors are not very clear (see the light pink in the image). After Effects will also try to fit your graph(s) inside the window pane so they are ready for you to use. Of course you still can pan and zoom in if you need to work on a different area or want to fine-tune your interpolation.


Graph editor in After Effects 7, editing speed graphs


Depending on which property you are working, the graph editor will show you either value or speed graphs. You can change from one type to the other and back with a click of the mouse. Also, and this is a complete novelty, you can edit a layer's position property values in the timeline.


Graph editor in After Effects 7, editing value graphs


To further facilitate and accelerate your workflow, many functions for configuring the graph editor and manipulating keys are integrated into the graph editor interface. The image below shows these. The menu is the right-click menu you get without any keyframes selected. When keyframes are selected, the same menu that you already know from the classic timeline is revealed and allows you to input values numerically, change the interpolation type etc.. At the bottom of the graph editor pane there is a row of buttons that toggle or activate certain options. The area within the turquoise frame depicts the configuration menu and contains the same options as the right-click menu. The buttons in yellow frame are used for navigation. The red frame contains quick toggles for setting interpolation types such as stepped (no interpolation/ hold), linear and smooth. Lastly in the purple frame you can find some tools that equate the Easy Ease, Easy Ease in and Easy Ease out keyframe assistants.



Graph editor menus and functions


Frame blending/ Time remapping

If you are using the Professional version, you will be happy to find a new Timewarp effect. If you have ever used ReVisionFX Twixtor or similar tools, you will feel some dèja-vu. The interface of the new effect looks very similar to the aforementioned third-party plugin and is also based on per pixel motion evaluation. Not only can this effect be used to create slowmotion or speed ramps with smooth movement, but it can also introduce motion blur based on the same algorithms. The controls are very clear and understandable, but it will take some time before you really know what each of them does. You can even use mattes to exclude parts of your images from the calculations. However, many good things don't come for free and in this respect the price is long rendering times. Keep that in mind when working with this tool. It is often better to spend some more time on optimizing the settings than wait forever for your render to finish.

So what? You do not use the Professional version? No reason for you to weep, either. Based on the Timewarp effect, the new Pixel Motion is also available in the timeline in addition to the old Frame Blending method. For most everyday tasks it will do just fine, but if you need more control and work on critical footage, you may want to keep an eye out for the Professional version.


This & that

Now that we are moving towards the end of this review, let's take a look at the things we haven't mentioned yet. The big new feature of version 6 and 6.5, the text tool, has only received a minor addition. There is now an animator for blur on a per letter/ word basis which is illustrated in the small Quicktime movie below (click on the image). Anybody looking for something like proper layer styles or access to more font properties via expressions will not be happy, as those have not been implemented yet. I guess this is still on Adobe's to-do list for the next version.


Per letter blur (Click on the image to see Quicktime movie)

Speaking of blur: there are some new effects here. Both the Lens Blur and Smart Blur have made it over from Photoshop and are now waiting for you to use them. While the Lens Blur is a welcome addition, some third party plugins still offer more options and even better quality like Frischluft's Lens Care.

Another minor improvement is the automatic tracking of names in expressions. Up until version 6.5, expressions broke down when you renamed an element that was referenced in one of them like e.g. the name of a layer. This is now no longer the case. After Effects will now watch out and adjust your expression automatically if you decide to rename things.


Integration

With all that knowledge about the power of the new After Effects, one question remains open: How well does it integrate - integrate with my workflow and more importantly other Adobe products? While the first question is mainly up to yourself, I can shed some light on the latter.

After Effects has now one thing in common with all other Adobe apps: Activation. It's no big deal and has been largely improved to earlier incarnations (e.g. transferring an activation is now very simple) but can bring with it one or the other problem during install and uninstall procedures, so I thought it worth mentioning.

Another tool now used in all Adobe applications is Bridge and from this version on, After Effects is part of that gang. If it is really useful, is for you to decide, but it provides an elegant way to browse the animation presets that come with the package without actually having to open them - if you select an effects preset, you will be shown an animated preview of the effect. Of course it will also browse your media files and allow you to use meta data. One shortcoming is that so far Bridge does not show you any thumbnails of compositions contained within an After Effects project, a feature that surely needs to be added in a future version.

For those among you who are more into the mathematically abstract side of things or the black art of programming, the Extend Script Toolkit awaits. It basically is a combined script editor and debugger that hooks into your Adobe apps and allows you to automate tasks. Of course scripts were a part of After Effects ever since version 6 Professional, but it's now a bit easier to figure out their specifics.

Photoshop integration has received only a minor boost. If you now create a new layer inside your comp, you can create it as an PSD document. After Effects will ask you where you want to save the document and launch Photoshop for you, creating an empty document with your layer's dimensions. This can be handy when you do not have all elements while defining your project structure or if you haven't decided about the size of your elements. It's some simple form of creating proxies. There is still no decent way to get all layer styles from Photoshop into After Effects, which is something that Adobe really should get working one of these days and I do not mean the way it's implemented now by using sub-comps for even a simple Inner Glow.

Premiere users will find the options they may already be used to - import projects and use copy & paste to get clips and timelines from Premiere to After Effects and back. There have been improvements, but as to how far they go I'm not fit to judge from the bits and pieces of info that other users have given. I myself do not use Premiere.

Flash users will be pleased with the export options for Flash video as already mentioned earlier. This is the first result of Adobe's merger with Macromedia and I'm sure in the future we will see much more along those lines. Perhaps this even means the resurrection of parts that were once in Live Motion ( a supposed counterpart to Flash) inside After Effects.


Integration Reloaded - Dynamic Link

While obviously some enhancements already have been made to integrate the programs of the Production Studio more closely, one problem remains: In order to exchange data between the apps, you need to create that data first and then import it into the other program. In case of After Effects this always meant that you first had to render out your compositions before being able to use them e.g. for a menu in Encore DVD. In some not so rare situations this could mean that you were committed sooner in the production process than you may have wished for. We all have clients that just love to throw last minute changes at us one day before the deadline be it just some changed text or the placement of the client's logo. Not only is this not the most intuitive way to work, but due to the render times it also could make a tight situation worse. Dynamic Link is there to change this.

So what is Dynamic Link exactly? On the surface you won't notice it that much at first except for the menu entries. When you choose the menu entries pertaining to Dynamic Link in Encore DVD, you are basically provided with two options: either create an empty project or use a composition from an existing project, which might be the option you are going to use most often. In the first case you will be asked where and under which name you want to create and save the project. After that, After Effects will automatically be launched and the composition opened. Should you choose to use existing projects and compositions, you will be provided with a dialog that allows you to locate a project and pick one of the compositions contained in it. Once that's done, the composition(s) will appear like normal clips in the project window and can be used for menu backdrops or in timelines. The beauty of working this way is that you don't have to render anything until you decide it's perfect for your purposes. You can work back and forth and whenever you have adjusted anything in After Effects, Encore DVD will update accordingly. While working in Encore DVD, it will render the current frame on the fly just like it would if you were working directly inside After Effects. However, that type of behavior could also be considered the biggest disadvantage of this approach. With halfway complex compositions that use a lot of different effects and layers, things can slowdown to such a degree, that working on the DVD project can become a major pain. In such cases it would still be wiser to render everything beforehand and import it as a movie clip just for reasons of maintaining interactivity.

As I'm told, a similar workflow can be achieved in Premiere. This can for instance be useful if you are doing lower thirds and text overlays for video. The big advantage here is that you save even more rendering time and disk space - not only do you not need to render in After Effects, but also not in Premiere which effectively does not create any temporary clips. If you do a RAM preview in After Effects, this will even carry over to Premiere.

Now that sounds like magic and perhaps to some degree it is, but the technical explanation is much simpler. So what's going on behind the scenes? Whenever you create a Dynamic Link, a little tool will launch that is called the After Effects Link Server. It will take care to reserve a area in your memory that is shared by all of the apps in the Production Studio series and thus makes it possible for them to see After Effects' data. It will also launch After Effects in the background without the interface so it can use its functions. The diagram below should make things more clear.


Principle of Dynamic Link

Presets galore

While effects presets (or favorites, as they were called back then) were around for quite some time in After Effects, they were only really put to some good use with the introduction of native text layers in version 6 to show the potential of those text layers and their animators. As you might infer at this point, that has changed as well. Now there are more than 500 presets that allow you to create several effects. Some of them can be used to beef up your Premiere projects and provide custom transitions, tinting and film-look effects, others may be used for background designs. They have one thing in common: They are all there to make your life easier or in case you don't use them for your productions you can dissect them and learn how to use effects creatively. Even as a long-time user who normally doesn't use such "instant" setups, you may still find one or the other idea that you haven't explored yet.

The presets are accompanied by several complete project templates that can be used to create bumpers, credit rolls and DVD menus. Just like the presets, they mainly illustrate techniques and give inspiration. Everything is created in a way that you can easily change text layers or replace footage, but you should not expect to find a complete library that could make the use of stock footage or other commercial project collections redundant. One particular template illustrates the use of expressions and provides a set of simple examples that may help those of you, who have shunned away from the use of expressions until now, to "get your feet wet".


Conclusion

Personally I was a bit disappointed to see that certain parts which would have been of more importance for me have received only minor or no attention. This refers to the text layers that really could get a boost by giving them proper layer styles instead of the workaround Photoshop effects. I also would have loved to have some way of working more efficiently with text layers via expressions and scripts. The tracker did not receive any refinements, either, and instead having a native color correction tool that can benefit from the newly gained abilities, you still must install and use Color Finesse. Don't get me wrong, it's a great tool, but works with its own interface which makes it sometimes difficult to use. The big bummer for me, though, was that with all the attention to hardware acceleration through Open GL 2.0, absolutely no work was done on the 3D rendering part. These days, where even games offer real-time antialiasing, reflections and real-time bumpmapping, After Effects' 3D modules are beginning to look very, very old and outdated. It is about time to change that asap.

Still, the 7th installment of After Effects is definitely a step in the right direction. It provides a sound foundation for future versions. This can especially be said in light of the expansion of the rendering pipeline and the new interface. The graph editor for instance is sure to make it easier for people coming from other compositing apps and 3D programs to get used to After Effects . Most of what has been done in this release is "under the hood" and will not necessarily change anything in your day-to-day work. The program does what it has been able to do for quite a while, now better and with less hassle and less workarounds. A lot of the groundwork done so far is mostly unnoticeable at first sight. It also will take a while for third-party developers to update their plugins so they can make use of OpenGL hardware acceleration or 32 bpc color space. In general it's nice to see Adobe give up their stubborn insistence on some of After Effects' quirkiness (like the old timeline) and implement things in a fashion that is considered industry standard, so let's hope they will be following this line consequently in future releases. This release has definitely moved After Effects more towards a "serious" compositing tool or complimentary app for editors.

For its new features and largely enhanced usability this update receives 4.5 out of 5 cows.

COW RATING: 4.5 Cows



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