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Barend Onneweer reviews After Effects 6.5

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Barend Onneweer reviews After Effects 6.5
A CreativeCOW Product Review

Alan Edward Bell reviews particleIllusion 3
Barend Onneweer Barend Onneweer
Independent Producer, raamw3rk studios
Instructor, Art Academy, Rotterdam, Holland

©2004 by Barend Onneweer and CreativeCOW.net. All rights are reserved.


Article Focus:
Creative Cow's Barend Onneweer gives Cow members a look at After Effects 6.5. Barend has been working with After Effects 6.5 and says "...Where to start? The short version is that in my opinion 6.5 is a great dot-release. It's probably the most exciting dot-release that After Effects has ever seen. There are a couple of very powerful new features and additions -- and a huge amount of small improvements in the user interface and tool functionalities." Here is Barend's complete report...

Introduction:
I've been working with several beta-versions of After Effects 6.5 for a while now, and the last couple of months I've been doing all my production work with 6.5 in various stages of completion. With the official release coming up very soon, I'd like to share a little bit of my personal experiences with it.

Where to start -- The short version is that in my opinion 6.5 is a great dot-release. It's probably the most exciting dot-release that After Effects has ever seen. There are a couple of very powerful new features and additions, and a huge amount of small improvements in the user interface and tool functionalities.

Performance and stability:
After Effects 6.5 has proven more stable even during the beta stages than 6.0. The mysterious 'Abnormal Condition' errors that have been plaguing mostly Mac users seem to be a thing from the past now. It's been real stable for me for the last months on the Windows platform.

There have been speed optimizations for both G5 and Intel processors. Especially Paint seems to have benefit from the improvements, but depending on the type of project you'll see a subtle speed increase.

But now the big news:


GridIron X-Factor (Professional Version only):
In February 2004 GridIron Software officially announced that its grid computing technology would be included in the next version of After Effects Professional. GridIron Software has developed X-Factor, a plugin that allows After Effects Professional version 6.5 to use GridIronss XLR8 framework to distribute compositions to available computers over the network.

In short, Grid Preview distributes the Previewing task over any number of 'peers' (render nodes) that are available on the network. When using Grid Preview, two additional computers let you Preview twice as fast, three computers let you Preview three times as fast, and so on. And the most exciting part of it -- It works!

I have only been able to test on a small grid, but other users have reported similar successes in terms of the speed up being almost linear in relationship to the amount of render nodes.

Installation:
I found it very easy to set up the system on my small network. Each 'peer' needs to have After Effects Professional 6.5 installed, either the full version, or just the render engine (which can be freely installed on as many machines as you need). On top of that, the peers and the workstation need X-Factor installation, which will automatically add XLR8 and the necessary JAVA components for your particular OS. Some testers have reported some issues with the installation, but for me it was very easy to set up. And I'm no networking wonder and definitely no command-line junkie.

Ease of Use:
With X-Factor comes an extra Palette, that houses different functions, like selecting which peers you want to use for a Grid Preview, a PreStage function that distributes all the necessary source material over the network to speed up rendering. If you buy an additional Plus or Unlimited license, you get the Audit function that checks whether all necessary fonts and plug-ins are available on all peers.

Network Demands:
Since accelerated previews using X-Factor rely heavily on network traffic, for sending the necessary source material to the peers and receiving the rendered frames back, a gigabit network is no luxury. I tested on a 100 Mbit network which definitely did the job, but with larger clusters of machines the network bandwidth easily becomes a bottleneck. Also the proprietary XLR8 software makes smart use of network switches for efficient distribution of files to all the peers. It's highly recommended to use switches over hubs.

The Downside:
Currently, X-Factor only accelerates Previews. There's no connection to the Render Que. While it would be nice to see this change in the future - and I know GridIron is looking into it - it's not necessarily that big of an issue. First of all, rendering can often be done overnight, while previewing is something we always need to sit and wait around for. But there's also some sort of a work-around that can be used in certain cases. After Effects 6.5 now has Disk Cache, which (if enabled) moves the rendered frames to disk if RAM is full. The maximum volume of the Disk Cache can be specified in the preferences. For short projects this means you could run a Grid Preview, a couple of GigaBytes of rendered frames will return to the workstation that will store these in Disk Cache. Then when you add the composition to the Render Que, it'll render very quickly since all of the frames have already been stored in Disk Cache. This won't work if you change settings in the Render Que or need interlaced output, since After Effects still doesn't do interlaced Previews.

Apart from that, Grid Preview works by sending out specific ranges to be rendered to each peer. Some plugins (Particle Playground for instance) are dependant on information from all the previous frames to calculate the current frame. X-Factor typically sends out tasks of 10 consecutive frames to each peer, which in those cases won't work well, causing a performance drop.

But all in all I find Grid Preview a very exciting new feature that is most useful for complex projects that are CPU heavy and slow to render.

After Effects 6.5 Pro comes with two extra X-Factor licenses, that will allow you to use two extra CPUs apart from the workstation. A dual processor machine counts as two CPUs in GridIron's licensing scheme, but additional nodes can be bought for $99 each, or a site license for $1995.

http://www.gridironxfactor.com

Product integration:
One thing that has always been a strong point for Adobe is product integration. Especially with the competition in the NLE and compositing market stiffening, this is an area where Adobe has clearly done lots of work. One of the most exciting new addition is the ability to copy and paste clips from Premiere Pro 1.5 into After Effects 6.5, while preserving edits, position keyframes, opacity settings etc.

Something else that I've been asking for since the launch of Premiere Pro is the ability to import a specific sequence into After Effects, instead of having to import the entire project. You can also choose to leave out audio files -- since most people use After Effects for compositing and sweetening the images, and then import back into their NLE without touching the sound in After Effects.

Integration with Encore 1.5 has also been patched up dramatically. You can now import Encore menus directly into After Effects 6.5 for treatment, and After Effects 6.5 also features tools like 'Create Encore Button', making it very easy to create fancy motion menus in After Effects 6.5 and integrate them into your Encore 1.5 project.

And of course the integration with Photoshop CS has been worked on, too. The biggest new improvement is the ability to edit text (point text, path text or paragraph text) in After Effects 6.5 when you import a Photoshop CS document. Also, since Photoshop CS now allows layered documents in 16-bit, you can also import 16-bit Photoshop documents with their layers intact.

The biggest omission here is that we still can't edit paths in imported Illustrator documents. Which is somewhat embarrassing to Adobe since Discreet Combustion* can do this.


Improved Painting and Clone tools:
The Paint and Clone tools have also been worked on, most notably it's now possible to overlay the clone source frame while painting with the Clone tool. This means you can actually see what you are doing. It takes a little getting used to, but I've found this to be very valuable. Apart from that you can save your most-used clone settings in presets, which is a small but nice productivity enhancement if you're doing lots of wire-removal. These days I find I do all my Paint and clone work in After Effects. The main competition in this field used to be Commotion, which hasn't seen any updates or support in ages. Commotion feels a bit faster when Painting and Previewing on high-resolution sequences, but it's also completely pixel-based and destructive, while After Effects used a much more sophisticated vector based process, which for instance allows you to nudge individual paint strokes, or erase only the paint strokes with an eraser, without affecting the underlaying footage. Each paint stroke can be individually transformed, rotated or have its brush size changed later on, in the Timeline Window.

 
The improved Clone Tool Palette   The clone source overlay can improve the overview and accuracy of working with the clone tool.



Animation Presets:
In previous versions of After Effects, we could already save effects combinations as favourites, to build a collection of homegrown recipes so to speak. New in After Effects 6.5 is the ability to save anything that you can keyframe, from scale, mask, an effect of even an expression, in an Animation Preset -- which can be a real timesaver for certain projects.

Text animation presets:
But if you do a lot of quick text animation, you're going to love this: Adobe has included hundreds of text animation presets, that can be applied to your own project, and can easily be adjusted and tweaked to make them work for your specific piece. You can also create and save your own animation work as presets that can be reapplied in other places. All the included presets are documented in a gallery of animated gif's in the on-line help files - for a quick overview. But since images say more than a thousand words, here's just a small selection of the included presets:

 

New Effects

CycoreFX:
Apart from the improvements of the core application, After Effects 6.5 comes with a wealth of very valuable new Effects. The most exciting news is probably the inclusion Cycore FX.

A little history: Cycore is a Swedish software developer (in Uppsala) that produced a couple of very popular plug-in sets for After Effects. As a matter of fact their Final Effects set was one of the first 3rd party plugin sets ever released for After Effects, just after Knoll Lens Flare.

Cycore went on to develop Next Effects, and Studio Effects, but in the mean time the sets had been bought by Metacreations who instead decided to release all three under the name of Final Effects Complete. Metacreations later on sold it to ICE (the manufacturer of accelerator boards for After Effects) which in turn was acquired by Media 100.

Even though this set contained a couple of the most popular plugins for After Effects to have ever been produced, Media 100 didn't really support the package well, and added a very flaky licensing scheme which put off many users.

But, apparently the original deal with Metacreations gave the original developers all rights to use the code for anything they wanted, including After Effects plug-ins, after a certain time. Which is how it's possible to see Cycore FX bundled with After Effects 6.5, including updated and improved versions of all the original filters from Final Effects Complete. They don't support 16-bit yet, and they aren't backwards compatible with the original Final Effects plug-ins, but this set of around 60 effects contains some real gems!

(Final Effects Complete is still for sale at Media100 for US $ 795!)


Grain Surgery (Professional Edition only):
Another old personal friend of mine is Grain Surgery, developed by Visual Infinity. This advanced noise and grain removal and matching tool is now included with After Effects 6.5 Professional. I've been using Grain Surgery in almost every production the last years. It's great for removing excessive film grain, or video noise with minimal loss of image quality and detail. The set contains three plug-ins, Remove Grain, Match Grain and Add Grain. All three are based on the same technology of sampling grain samples from existing images, creating an algorithm from that and either adding or subtracting this from images. It works similar to audio noise removal tools like ProTools DINR, where a sample of clean noise is used to remove the noise from the rest of the signal.

It's also a very effective solution for matching grain on footage from different sources, or matching computer generated material to film or video material.

(Grain Surgery 2 is still for sale at Visual Infinity for US $ 399)


Color Finesse 1.5:
And as if all this wasn't enough, After Effects 6.5 also comes with Color Finesse from Synthetic Aperture, which is widely considered to be the best color correction tool available for After Effects. Color Finesse features a comprehensive range of tools for primary and secondary color correction and a built-in waveform monitor and vector scope.

My only complaint with Color Finesse has always been that it only runs within its own window and user interface. This is probably necessary because it processes in 32-bit floating point color space, which results in a lot higher accuracy even compared to After Effects 16-bit color space. Maybe in a next version of After Effects we'll see floating point color space supported, and tools like Color Finesse could also be accessed from the Effect Control Window.

(Color Finesse normally costs US $ 575)

The only thing you have to keep in mind is that although all these plug-ins are full versions in the sense that they have all the functionality - they will only run in After Effects as a host, so they won't run in Combustion*, Final Cut Pro or other applications that support the After Effects plug-in API.

Then there are a couple of new effects like a series of auto color effects for automatic color adjustments, and a very nice Box Blur. And let's not forget the goodies that came with 6.0 that are once again included: Keylight from The Foundry, 3D Assistants Lite from Digital Anarchy and Zaxwerks Invigorator Classic -- with a combined value of hundreds of dollars.


Wrapping it up...
This article is becoming quite lengthy and there's so much that I haven't even touched upon. Like the possibility of adjusting the brightness of the user interface - as you may have noticed from the screenshots in this article. You can now have a bit more control over what your workspace looks like. It's a small thing but has proven to be very popular as a way to get a bit more of a high-end look to it. Actually for critical color correction it's nice to be able to dim the workspace.

Firewire Preview:
After Effects 6.5 now finally does Firewire Preview on Windows, too -- which has been a long awaited feature. Anyone with an OHCI compliant firewire output and a firewire to analog converter can now view their compositions on a video monitor. Although this won't give you the output quality of an uncompressed video output as seen on Blackmagic or AJA hardware, if you work with DV material and don't want to be guessing what your material will look like on a TV set, this is a very cost-effective solution, especially since many people are using their DV camera as a converter.

General UI Improvements:
There's also lots of small interface improvements, like a preview for the Auto-trace tool.
In After Effects 6.0 you had to guess the settings, apply, undo, change the settings etc. But Adobe has obviously listened and improved many of these small annoyances in the interface. You can now also automatically cycle mask colors, so After Effects automatically assigns a new color to each created mask. A nice time-saver if you do a lot of complicated masking with multiple masks.



Hidden Power:
With After Effects 6.0 Professional came very powerful scripting possibilities to script the user interface, add buttons and menu items etc. Although expressions have been a 'hot' item ever since they were the UI scripting possibilities doesn't seem to get a lot of attention from the field.

The UI scripting power has increased a lot with this update (Professional Edition only). Part of the functionality can be compared to Photoshop Actions, where a user can automate specific combinations of procedures and tasks. Except in After Effects you need to script all these actions instead of hitting the record button and doing you thing. Fortunately After Effects 6.5 Professional comes with a couple of cool example scripts to take a look at and dissect, before creating your own.

Included are scripts to look up and replace texts in multiple compositions across multiple projects, or even create a gravity situation that will create position keyframes for selected layers based on a couple of parameters that you can adjust in the custom Palette.

There's also a render and e-mail script that will launch a render, and send an email to a specified e-mail address when the render is done. The scripts can access and change most of the parameters and features within After Effects, like layer properties and blend modes, but a script could also create comps, create layers etc.

Another good example of what can be done with some handy scripting in combination with the new Guide Layers is eLin, developed by The Orphanage. I won't go into it too deeply, but eLin is a system of scripts and tools that fakes high dynamic range compositing (HDR)within After Effects. The system relies heavily on the advanced scripting in After Effects 6.5 Professional to make it easy to work with -- in the form of a custom palette to trigger the most important combinations of actions by automation. If you're interested: http://www.redgiantsoftware.com/elin.html


Conclusion:
I have to finish this article, and get back to work. I haven't even mentioned the improved Motion Tracker which now also tracks scale, or Guide Layers that can also have effects on them, but won't render in the final result. Great for creating custom Look Up Tables (LUT's) when doing film work, which is why eLin - the very cool new toolset developed by The Orphanage and distributed by Red Giant Software relies so heavily on them.

COW Rating:

The bottom line is, this is a great release and there's more to it than I could ever hope to cover in this article. Is it all I'd ever want from After Effects? No. I still have a long wishlist, and I know many of you have their own wishes that haven't made it into 6.5. But let's get real: even at the Adobe facility there's only so many hours in a day, and with an upgrade price of US $99 we are getting a whole lot more than we pay for.

At this price, I can't do anything but give it the full 5 cows. Highly recommended.




More information and system requirements are available at Adobe.com.


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