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Adobe After Effects 7 Review: Welcome Upgrade Value

Chris Robinson digs up It Pains Me to Say This by George Griffin for close inspection in this months Animators Unearthed.

Is there enough new stuff in the Adobe After Effects 7.0 upgrades to warrant the cost? Fortunately, there are some excellent additions that will appeal to large and small companies.

Adobe continues to follow the pattern it began a few years ago, with products that are upgraded annually. As some of us have learned the hard way, some upgrades are worthier than others. The software marketing gurus surely know what they are doing, but what about the end user? Is there enough new stuff in these upgrades to warrant the cost? Large corporate customers have probably built these costs into their budgets, but what about small shops and independent users that dont have the luxury of a fat budget? After Effects, Adobes long-standing compositing and animation market champion is no exception to this upgrade fever. Fortunately, there are some excellent additions to the latest version upgrade, After Effects 7, that appeal to both small and large companies. This review will focus on the PC version, while covering most of the new features.

The most immediately apparent change to this new version is the new user interface. Gone is the bland looks like every other piece of software on your system windows standard interface. In its place Adobe has given us a smooth gray, slightly beveled user interface. Another new feature of this new interface is that each window now has a home, where it locks into place so that it peacefully coexists with its neighbors. In the past one of the most frustrating things about After Effects has been its multitude of overlapping windows. These new windows, which Adobe calls frames, are better than the old free floating windows, but not a cure all. For one thing, users are still permitted to break these frames out and place them wherever they want, just like in previous versions of the software. Granted, users might be frustrated if they were not given this option, but many users will immediately default to this old behavior. Given some time the frames are appealing as they keep your workspace organized. The main issue is that After Effects is a deep program. As soon as users get into an even mildly complex project, they will find themselves having to scroll through frames often. In future versions Adobe should consider multiple monitors as something of a standard; perhaps even offer custom user interface options specifically for multiple monitor use. One great thing about the new interface is the workspace selector. This dropdown list allows users to choose a custom workspace on the fly. This is useful for those who are jumping from project to project or even moving between portions of a single project. In addition to a handful of useful presets, such as effects, animation and motion tracking, users may create their own customized workspaces, which, of course, can be saved and recalled for later use. The questionable execution of frames aside, the new user interface is pleasing to the eye and will be useful for those new to After Effects.

The most apparent change is the new user interface. Gone is the bland windows standard interface, and in its place is a smooth gray, slightly beveled user interface. All screenshots courtesy of Fred Galpern.

The most exciting change in After Effects 7 is the new graph editor. Computer-based animators rely on their graph editors more than any other tool in their toolboxes. Without a strong graph editor, manipulating animation can be tedious and time consuming. For years now After Effects has lagged in this area, but not anymore. The new graph editor allows users to have more control over their animation and more flexibility in tweaking that animation. Adobe has added some automatic color coding to help users notice at a glance what is happening with their animation. This may seem like a minor change but it is quite effective as your eye becomes trained to immediately go to the red number block, for example, when you want to make a change to the width scale value, and the green block when you need to change the height scale value. The graph editor frame can be switched to view different graphs. Users can choose between Auto-Select, Value, Speed and Reference graphs, all of which offer up focused, narrow views of the associated animation graphs. This feature allows users to quickly jump around and to manipulate the values that need tweaking. Users may also narrow the display of select properties for their entire graph by choosing to display only selected properties, only animated properties or all; another useful, time saving feature. Users can now use the Hand tool to move around the graph editor pane, as well as use their mouse wheel to do the same. This takes some getting used to, but it does speed things up. The graph editor update is one of the most appealing additions to After Effects 7.

For years, After Effects has lagged in the graph editor area, but not anymore. The new graph editor allows users to have more control over their animation and more flexibility in tweaking that animation.

HDR color support is another one of the new features, one that is going to be important as high-definition programming becomes more prominent later this year and beyond. HDR, short for High Dynamic Range, is achieved through the use of the 32-bit color space. This After Effects Pro-only feature is essential to creating realistically lit scenes. HDR does an amazing job of processing light in much the same way as our eyes, using a larger range between light and dark. This means that scenes containing rich darks, such as a cavern, but also punctuating brights, such as a campfire in that cavern, can be breathtaking and indistinguishable from reality. The end effect is a scene with rich detail in the bright areas, but also improved clarity in the darker regions of the scene. HDR is all the rage these days for next generation game developers, and has been widely used in visual effects for quite some time now. Adobe may have been slow getting this important feature into After Effects, but they have also shown some forethought by including a color profile converter that intelligently converts projects from one color space to another. HDR support is right behind the graph editor improvements in upgrade value.

HDR support is right behind the graph editor improvements in upgrade value in After Effects Pro.

This animated image shows the initial blown out image, adjusted first in standard 8-bit color space and finally adjusted most effectively in 32-bit color space. The result is detailed lights and darks.

Next in the line of useful improvements is realtime OpenGL support. Gamers, usually cutting edge users, have appreciated the wonders of OpenGL for years. Without OpenGL, many games would be stuck in something not too far removed from the ancient two dimensional Atari 2600 age. Adobe recommends the ATI 9800 card for PC users, one of the more popular video cards utilizing OpenGL. With this video card, or another compatible one, users will see many improvements in their realtime effects and animation. With OpenGL acceleration lighting, including shadows, can be displayed in realtime, although not all lighting is supported. Users are limited to eight real timelights and colored shadows will appear gray when played in realtime. This is better than no OpenGL acceleration, but future versions should focus on improving these limitations. Alpha channels and masks are now OpenGL accelerated, as are some effects, including some of the blurs and antialiasing. Users will still need to create many test renders to evaluate their work in progress but these OpenGL enhancements will reduce this some.

With the ATI 9800 or another compatible card, users will see many improvements in their realtime effects and animation in OpenGL support.

There are many other changes in After Effects 7 that make it a worthwhile upgrade. For example, there are many new animation and behavior presets that can help users save time. There is a new feature called Timewarp, which slows footage down and speeds it up with minimal distortion. This is really the evolution of frame blending, which has been part of After Effects for years. Whats new is something Adobe calls Pixel Motion. This creates new frames from the blend between two existing frames, resulting in smoother slow motion. Timewarp is a Pro-only feature that adds much more control over the Pixel Motion feature. Other new features include smart blur and lens blur, new versions of the already excellent motion blurring effects in previous versions of After Effects. Finally, Adobe has now included Flash video export. This will surely be useful to web developers looking to jump on the bandwagon of Internet video. Adobe continues to push integration between its products via Adobe Bridge, a file browser, web viewer and automated method of switching a project between Adobe applications. As useful as it may be to new users, this is likely something to skip for advanced users.

Despite the need it or not annual stampede of Adobe product line upgrades, After Effects 7 is a winner. If you use After Effects on any kind of regular basis, this upgrade is one you should strongly consider.

Adobe After Effects 7 is available in two versions, Professional and Standard. As with previous versions, Adobe has done a good job of including the appropriate features in each version. The Professional version will set you back $999 for the full version or $199 for the upgrade. After Effects 7 Standard sells for $699 for the full version, and $199 for the upgrade. All versions are available for both PCs and Macintosh computers.

Fred Galpern is currently the art manager for Blue Fang Games, located just outside Boston. He is also a part-time Maya instructor at Northeastern University and a co-creator of the game development program at Bristol Community College. Since entering the digital art field more than ten years ago, Galpern has held management positions in several game and entertainment companies, including Hasbro and Looking Glass Studios. He began his art career in comic books and also has interactive, print and web graphic design experience.