Adobe After Effects CC 2015 review
Using a mask to track and apply CG objects and VFX isn’t a new concept in After Effects, but the new Face Tracker takes things to a whole new level of detail. It offers two modes: Outline and Detailed Features.
With the former, the automated tracker instantly recognises the shape of the face and will follow its outline through the footage. It’s then easy to add effects to the facial area or have an object follow face movement.
For finer work, however, the Detailed Features option is far more suitable. Setting this in motion on captured footage of myself, I was impressed at its ability to recognise and track specific points on my face. It can follow your eyes, pupils, mouth, and nose – and the analysis works quickly, too.
Each facial feature, including eyebrows, cheeks and chin, gets its own set of parameters in the Effects Controls panel, allowing you to add effects to them in isolation. You could replace one eye with a false CG version, for example, or attach a beard to your subject’s chin. Measurements for each feature are also listed, for use in even more exact animation, and all facial feature tracking information can be copied and exported.
The other big feature in After Effects is Character Animator. It’s included with After Effects CC 2015 as a preview. After opening it on a MacBook Pro, a small preview window appeared and automatically applied tracking markers to my face in real time, using live footage from the the webcam in the MacBook. Using this data I was then able to instantly control a puppet’s expressions in real time using Adobe’s interactive tutorial.
The lessons also show you how to apply primary and secondary animation to characters in the scene, and also introduce concepts such as facial tracking, keyboard and mouse controls, and using physics to animate your characters.
The facial data recorded by the Face Tracker can be copied and used to animate the puppets in Character Animator. I was unable to get this capability to work, but the application shows great potential. And it’s great fun to play around with as well.
After Effects is now more usable than ever but it’s worth bearing in mind that it most certainly isn’t the only game in town. The main rivals for After Effects on the Mac are Apple’s Motion and Autodesk’s Smoke for Mac, as well as Nuke from the Foundry and now Blackmagic Fusion, which both run on Mac, Windows and Linux.
If you’re working with Final Cut Pro X, Motion is a great tool for adding motion graphics and costs only £40, but After Effects offers considerably more flexibility and a lot more features.
Nuke and Fusion are comprehensive, high-end 2D and 3D compositors, and heavily used in film and TV/commercials post production for working with VFX shots. Their node-based workflows lend themselves well to VFX pipelines, and the very complex scenes involved in heavy duty VFX and stereo 3D compositing. Smoke for Mac also offers a node-based effects workflow, but like the Studio version of Nuke, has the additional benefit of a timeline for editing.
That’s not to say the layer-based nature of AE makes it a poor proposition, but while it has seen action on feature films, it does seem to be used more to supply motion graphics for TV and interactive work, or as a standalone animation tool.
While the lack of Linux support is a problem for VFX studios, After Effects provides a rapid environment in which to put together compositions and projects quickly, especially with the rewritten code, and has the considerable benefit of close integration with Photoshop, Illustrator and Premiere. If you go for the full Creative Cloud offering, this integration also extends to CreativeSync and the Creative Cloud Libraries, as well as mobile apps, stock footage and portfolio services.
With the recent price drop of Fusion to £635, Nuke is the most expensive alternative at £2,534 for the most basic commercial version, while Autodesk’s subscription model for Smoke (starting at £155 per month) pegs it considerably higher than a monthly Creative Cloud fee.
After Effects has a massive and well-deserved user base, probably greater than all its competitors combined. However recent developments, such as a non-commercial license for Nuke and a completely free basic edition of Fusion, seem certain to cut the market share for the subscription-only After Effects. Wise users will take the opportunity to learn and utilise all three.
There’s no doubt that the revamped After Effects is a great improvement on previous versions. It’s faster, more intuitive to use and, with the new face and facial features tracking, it has some great new tools.
Animators in particular will love this version, with the introduction of Character Animator, and there’s no doubt that After Effects remains great value for money, either when purchased as a single application subscription (at £17 per month) or as part of the wider Creative suite.
However, with its main rivals now fighting back with free versions that allow budding compositors to cut their teeth without investing, it’s up against some daunting competition.