First Look: After Effects CS4
Just when you thought there was nothing more to add to After Effects, Adobe has crammed a large number of new features and enhancements into the CS4 release of its flagship visual effects and motion graphics software.
This major upgrade to After Effects lets you more easily search and navigate around your project, import 3-D layers from Photoshop, fine tune your composites with separate X-, Y-, and Z-position keyframes, create a cel animation look from live footage, and export projects to open and edit inside Flash. A new add-on program, now shipping with After Effects, helps you track hard-to-manage shots.
Here's what to expect when After Effects CS4 arrives next month with the rest of Adobe's Creative Suite 4 updates.
Production and authoring
Adobe has added much-needed production features to After Effects CS4, such as keyword-searchable timelines and projects and nested composition navigation. In keeping with the inter-application integration touted in the other CS4 updates, you can now export rich media from After Effects to Flash CS4 Professional while still retaining layer and keyframe data for further editing. (I'll talk more about integration with Flash below.)
Even better, the new version improves asset management and copyright tracking by letting you add and maintain XMP metadata throughout your After Effects projects from start to final render.
The new version also integrates mobile-device authoring into the workflow, complete with multi-device previews.
More than just interface and workflow enhancements, Adobe has enhanced After Effect's core functionality. For example, you can now import 3-D layers created in Adobe Photoshop CS4 Extended or apply effects like distortion or other filters over time. Improved X-, Y- and Z- position keyframes give you better control of your 3-D project by letting you break out and manipulate each one independently.
Photoshop 3-D layers can now be imported and animated in After Effects CS4. The 3-D objects are imported as Photoshop layers but they still retain their full volumetric space--not just a 2-D snapshot from a predetermined angle from Photoshop. You can animate Cameras around them as well as any other 3-D layer in After Effects, but since the 3-D layer is still after all, a layer, effects like distortion or other filters can be applied to them over time.
Searching and navigating
The new QuickSearch box lets you search for either keyword or file type on both the Project and Timeline panels. Even deeply nested files are now visible in the Project panel. Plus, the Timeline panel's QuickSearch reveals layer properties such as rotation or position at a glance.
After Effects CS4's new Composition Navigator shows you the Mini-Flowchart with the names of all the incoming (nested) compositions, as well as the outgoing (parent) compositions.
If you're working in the 16:9 aspect ratio, there's a new 4:3 center cut safe area visible (with the Title/Action Safe overlays) to help you focus on the center for broadcast media production. A new Auto Resolution/Down Sample Factor menu item on the Composition panel only redraws visible pixels when you preview at any scale to save time and video card memory. You can now adjust RAM, multiprocessor, and OpenGL memory to take advantage of today's powerful, multicore Macs.
Cool and useful effects
Here are some of After Effects CS4's high profile new effects:
Cartoon Effect: This simulates the effect of cel painted animation to your live action video footage or animated compositions. Similar to a "watercolor" filter, it actually smooths and enhances the edges and soft gradients while ignoring minute details, leaving a smoother result.
Bilateral Blur Effect: Somewhat similar to a "Smart Blur" effect, the Bilateral Blur uses edge detection to preserve sharp edge details while further softening smooth surfaces with less contrast than what might be in the original footage.
Turbulent Noise Effect: This effect simulates clouds, fog, smoke, fire, light rays, plasma, and more. Using fractal-derived noise, it can create some stunning natural effects beyond the more common particle effects.
As mentioned above, After Effects CS4 boasts tighter integration with Flash. You can now export compositions as layer projects (XFL files) that you can then import into Flash CS4 Professional and edit with all their properties. FLV, PNG, and JPG source footage files need no further transcoding, and animated transformations such as scale, position, and rotation are preserved in the layers and can be further edited in Flash. Other media files and layers with attached effects are converted to Flash-compatible file types.
You can use scripting to embed the results of After Effects motion tracking, expressions, and keyframe assistants, into media you can then access in Flash.
Imagineer Systems' Mocha for After Effects is a stand-alone application that now ships with After Effects CS4. This powerful 2.5-D planar motion tracker works better than point-based trackers on problem footage--for example footage with objects moving out of frame or poor lighting conditions that show little detail, or excessive noise.
Mocha, a 2.5-D planar motion tracker, comes with AfterEffects CS4. The program's tracking data is imported back into After Effects and then applied to corner pin position data for accurate tracking. There is a learning curve for Mocha, but the results are amazing.
Mobile device authoring
It can be frustrating and time consuming to produce projects over and over again for each of the wide variety of mobile devices out there. That's why Adobe has improved the workflow between After Effects CS4 and Adobe Device Central CS4. You can now preview several devices at a time in a multi-panel window so you can tell if your composition is going to work globally.
You can control asset management and tracking, copyright and royalty management, and project management from source materials to the final product.
Song or image file copyrights, for example, can pass through the process and incorporate into the final composed video or Flash project. You can even preserve Marker metadata on a timeline from a project such that the rendered movie retains this data when imported back into After Effects CS4.
After Effects CS4 represents one of the most significant and useful upgrades in recent history. The new version's interface now integrates more seamlessly than ever into the CS4 suite and is even easier to use on a Wacom Cintiq tablet, with less need for pull-down menus from the top menu bar.
While available as a standalone product, After Effects CS4 also ships as part of Adobe's Production Premium and Master Collection suites. We'll have a full review of After Effects CS4 after the product ships in October.
[Jeff Foster has written and contributed to several books and magazines, and has been producing motion graphics, photography and creative design for major corporations, television and film for more than 20 years. He is currently producing a new book and several training video titles for motion graphics with After Effects CS4 and Photoshop CS4.]