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After Effects 5.5: Fleshing Out the 3D Environment

Is Adobe's After Effects 5.5 upgrade a significant improvement for animators? George Maestri thinks so. Version 5.5 expands on Version 5's introduction of 3D and now contains over 90 different effects.

The new After Effects 5.5 offers a number of improvements over its previous incarnations.

Adobe's After Effects has had a long history in the animation and motion graphics community. The software is the de facto standard for motion graphics designers, but After Effects has also found a solid following in the animation and special effects communities. Version 5.5 offers a significant number of advances that make it an excellent choice for anyone involved in creating moving images.

Michael O'Donnell, head of the digital department for Acme Filmworks, a Los Angles based animation studio, has chosen After Effects as the standard compositing and post-production software for the studio. Acme produces a wide range of unique animation styles, including digital, stop-motion and cel animation among many others. "We use it on almost every project that goes through here," claims O'Donnell.

After Effects is available for both the Mac and PC platforms. As with any compositing application, a fast hard disk and lots of memory is a plus. The software is also multithreaded, which means those with multiple processors will get an added boost in speed. Version 5.5 is now fully native on Apple's OS X operating system, which Adobe claims will increase performance. Nicholas Mermet, a digital artist at Acme confirms: "The speed increase with OS X is very dramatic."

AE 5.5 now has the capability to handle intersecting layers better. © 2001 Adobe Systems Incorporate. All rights reserved.

Expanding On A Good Thing

The biggest feature with After Effects 5 was the addition of 3D. Having 3D in a compositor can be a real lifesaver, as it allows you to easily animate the layers of your composite forward and back along the Z-axis. This means that artists no longer have to "cheat" the third dimension. Version 5.5 builds on this foundation with a number of tools to flesh out the 3D environment. Multiple viewports are now available, and the software has improved the way that it handles intersecting layers.

Another advantage to 3D is the ability to have multiple cameras and lights in a scene. Cameras allow you another way of moving through the composite. Lights give you the ability to highlight an area of the scene, or colored lights allow you to tint it. Lights can also cast shadows, and in version 5.5, colored shadows are supported. This gives you some nice tools for compositing animation with live-action. For those who use 3D software, the Production Bundle can now import camera data from Maya and 3ds max, which enables After Effects to integrate into the special effects pipeline seamlessly. In addition, the Production Bundle supports full 16-bit images, which opens up the package to feature film production. The software can import and export industry standard Cineon and RLA files. On the PC, After Effects offers full support for DV based codecs.

A cutaway look at the Charmin tissue ad in progress. © Procter & Gamble Productions, Inc. 2001.

In animation production, the software has become a Swiss army knife for the people at Acme. Mermet likens it to being a "one man band," in that the software can do many tasks well. "I'm grateful for the mesh warping and deformation tools. These are very useful when working with hand drawn animation," says Mermet. He also uses the software for other tasks required by the studio.

One example is a series of Charmin bathroom tissue ads directed at Acme by Joanna Quinn. In these ads, hand drawn colored pencil animation was scanned into the computer and output directly from After Effects. The software was used to finalize all of the animation, correct minor problems with the drawings, such as smudges, and color correct for final output.

The final output of the Charmin tissue ad after using AE 5.5. © Procter & Gamble Productions, Inc. 2001.

maestriae05.jpg The addition of the Smart Mask tool makes complex images easier to animate. © 2001 Adobe Systems Incorporate. All rights reserved.

Color correction is one of the many effects that are bundled with the package. A number of new effects have also been added or improved with version 5.5. One of the more important additions is some enhanced masking tools, including the Smart Mask keyframe assistant. This makes it much easier to animate between complex masks. The software can now add motion blur to masks as well as duplicate mask shapes. Masks can also be created and edited on the fly in the composition window. Each mask can be a unique color to make it easy to tell them apart.

A Full Bundle

Other effects have also been added. Lightning offers a number of ways to create electrical discharges. Cell and Grid are new texture-based effects. Roughen edges allows you to "roughen up" the edges of text or an outline. This is perfect for those wanting to add a "grunge" look to their projects.

With these, After Effects now has over 90 different effects bundled with the software. Add in a few extra third-party plug-ins and the list becomes pretty hard to manage. To address this, After Effects 5.5 offers a new Effects Palette that lets you organize things to your liking. Effects can be alphabetized or sorted by type. You can also create custom folders for groups of effects as well as search for effects by name.

For those dealing with complex projects, After Effects allows you to link layers together in a hierarchy. Moving the parent layer also moves the children. A lot of people have been using After Effects for creating cut-out style animation, composing characters from many layers. Hierarchies will help stitch together characters, making complex character animation much easier.

Another nice feature is Vector Paint, which is part of the Production Bundle. Vector Paint allows you to paint color interactively on a layer. The brushes have soft edges, as well as opacity. The strokes can exist for a single frame or be animated over time. You can also use brush strokes to reveal an image over time, which is great for handwriting and wire-removal effects. Another application for Vector Paint is in the area of animation. You can literally draw animation into the system with a tablet, using an onion skin feature to see the previous frames.

After Effects also supports expressions. This allows you to create procedural animations automatically by linking different parameters from different layers together. One example might be to tie the opacity of one layer to the position of another. As the second layer moves in, the first fades out. Version 5.5 has simplified the expression syntax, making it much easier to program.

Overall, this is a very good upgrade and the package is a great addition to any animation studio. I'd recommend it to all After Effects users as well as those just purchasing a desktop compositing and motion graphics package. The software remains a standard. After Effects offers a great set of tools for an affordable price.

George Maestri is a writer, director and producer working in Los Angeles. His characters "Karen & Kirby" have been seen on the Kid's WB! George was the original animation producer for South Park and has worked for studios such as Nickelodeon, Warner Bros. and Disney. He has also written and edited numerous books on character animation and CGI for New Riders Publishing.