|After Effects 7
Adobe’s popular compositing and motion graphics app is back, sharply dressed and showing off some new tricks
Amazingly, it’s been 20 months since the release of After Effects 6.5, and most users were starting to wonder whether they’d see an update at all. However, After Effects 7 has finally arrived and we think it’s something of a mixed bag... The biggest and most overdue change is to the interface, which is now unified with dockable panels and tabbed palettes. This is a clear workflow improvement over previous versions, which left most users struggling for screen real estate. It’s also nicely customisable: as well as allowing user-defined workspaces, it also features a handy drop-down menu of standard layouts, which realign the panels for different tasks, such as motion tracking, effects, painting and so on.
Depending on your sense of aesthetics, you’ll find the new look elegant or ugly. At first glance it certainly seems fussier than its minimalist predecessor or other members of the Adobe family, mainly due to the number of tabs, grab handles and so on. Unfortunately, this new OpenGL interface has caused incompatibility with legacy plug-ins. It’s not a widespread issue, but some plug-ins bought just three or four years ago (that functioned perfectly well in AE 6.5) either display oddly or not at all. This means that long-time plug-in hoarders will either face paying for upgrades or keeping an older copy of After Effects on their hard drive for obscure or unsupported plug-ins. On the topic of OpenGL, After Effects 7 is now v2.0 compliant and provides high-fidelity previews with accredited graphics cards. Supported effects include anti-aliasing, 2D motion blur, blending modes, plus lights and shadows. At the moment, Mac OS X only has partial support for OpenGL 2.0, so some effects are not yet accelerated, although we expect this to be fixed in due course.
Along with the new, improved interface, After Effects 7 gets a motion curve graph editor that anyone can understand. The previous version was idiosyncratic and has been completely replaced by an intuitive and functional editor that works just as you’d expect. The ability to drag-select, tweaking multiple curves and editing key frames en masse is a huge timesaver. A similarly substantial benefit is that rendering is quicker across the board. Using a standard test file running on a Quad G5 we saw render times drop from 42 minutes 41 seconds in After Effects 6.5 down to 32 minutes 51 seconds in version 7 – an impressive 23 per cent improvement. However, complex mask rendering has been specifically targeted and some users have enjoyed render speeds twice as fast over After Effects 6.5. Adobe has sweetened the deal by incorporating a third-party plug-in. In this case, the new Timewarp feature is a licensed version of The Foundry’s Kronos technology. Timewarp is a vector flow re-timer, which can be used to speed up and slow down footage, effectively recreating entire frames by analysing pixel movement. This is a great addition to your armoury, and with suitable finessing, the results can be astonishing. And since Kronos once formed half of the Furnace suite, which originally sold for £695, you don’t have to be a genius to work out the added value.
On a side note, we do take issue with the upgrade pricing, which is $199 in the US and £199 (inc VAT) in the UK. Going by the exchange rate at the time of writing, that’s a brow-furrowing difference of £85 for UK users. Worse, if you’re upgrading from Standard to Pro, UK users pay £205 more than their US customers. This seems deeply unfair. A fillip for power users is the move to 32 bits-per-channel. The use of high dynamic range imagery provides greater latitude when dealing with colour correction and working with the sensitivity of film stock. Operating at higher colour resolution is a definite plus point for movie projects, but sadly the implementation is slow compared to the likes of Shake, and currently limited by the number of 32-bit-aware plug-ins available.
Overall, there’s not an awful lot for VFX users to get excited about, apart from 32bpc and openEXR support. After Effects’ paint system and splines remain untouched and its tracker is still woeful compared to the competition. The problem with trying to appeal to everyone is that you leave yourself open to smaller, one-trick ponies that actually do that one trick really well; there are plenty of apps, such as Curious gFx and Silhouette Roto/Paint, that are all too happy to fill any void After Effects may fail to capitalise on. However, if you’re doing intricate motion graphics that require extensive use of the graph editor, this improvement alone is a godsend. Timewarp is also a genuinely valuable tool, and the addition of a whole library of templates and presets can really help on all-nighters when your inspiration – or motivation – has dried up. Close integration with other apps in the Adobe Production Studio is also a tangible benefit. So, should you upgrade? As it stands, there’s a pretty clear checklist of advantages over 6.5, but if none of the new features fall into your category of work £200 is a lot to pay for a spangly new interface. There are still a few stability issues to be worked out and if your system is production stable, or reliant on specific plug-ins, then you need to seriously weigh up the pros and cons of moving to a new version.