Adobe After Effects CS4 review

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If Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 is in large part about bringing format support bang up to date in the latest tapeless era, After Effects CS4 is more about crossing further into the third dimension. This isn’t the only area of improvement, by any means, but a number of the new developments revolve around the Z axis.

At the most basic level, the 3D compositing capabilities have been enhanced. A simple but powerful new addition is the ability to have independent keyframes for X, Y and Z dimensions, which makes certain types of animation easier. For example, constant speed in one dimension (say across the screen) requires just beginning and end keyframes.

Further aiding 3D animation is the new Unified Camera Tool. This joins the other camera tools together (orbit and two tracking), allowing you to navigate round a composition in 3D space with the help of a mouse.

The biggest extension into the third dimension, however, is the ability to import 3D layers from Photoshop. Although 3D layers arrived back in version five of After Effects, they were basically 2D planes situated in 3D space. With the support for Photoshop Extended’s 3D layers, true three-dimensional objects are now supported.

Using the camera tools, animated motion around objects can be created and you can also apply effects such as distortions to those objects, the results of which again operate in three dimensions. You can’t model in 3D or create complicated 3D animations, but it’s still a major step forward for After Effects.

Follow the leader

it_photo_6214Rounding off the trip into other dimensions, After Effects CS4 now bundles Imagineer Systems’ Mocha to create what it calls ‘2.5D planar motion tracking’. After Effects’ motion tracking has been one of the cornerstones of its power for some time, allowing you to track an object within a frame automatically and make other objects follow it – useful for compositing flames into the hands of spell-casting wizards, for example.

Mocha boosts this capability even further, though it’s actually a standalone project, rather than a direct After Effects plug-in. It’s undoubtedly powerful, allowing you to define problem areas to ignore as well as what to track. But the necessity of copying and pasting tracking values from Mocha into After Effects is a little clunky, and having to get to grips with yet another complicated interface is hardly ideal.

The rest of the After Effects interface has had a vague refresh to keep it in line with other apps in the suite, but otherwise the main elements remain as before, with a few minor tweaks. As with Premiere Pro CS4, After Effects CS4 has been treated to a new opening dialog, which allows you to load existing projects and start new compositions quickly. This also acts as a gateway to the online Design Center (a tutorial resource) and to Adobe Bridge.

The Project and Timeline windows have now acquired search boxes, which function in a similar way to the one previously found in the Effects pane. As you type, the search narrows automatically; particularly handy if you have a project packed full of assets, or timelines with umpteen layers. Meanwhile, Mini-Flowcharts help you to navigate through nested compositions.

There’s also a selection of new effects. The headline act is Cartoon. This smoothes out detail, finds and highlights borders, and fills in gradients, achieving end results that look a bit like the hand crafted transformations in Steven Soderbergh’s A Scanner Darkly. It’s GPU accelerated, too, making it very responsive. Other new effects include Bilateral Blur, which leaves edges alone whilst smoothing out details, and Turbulent Noise, a faster, smoother version of Fractal Noise.

Details

Software subcategory Video editing software

Requirements

Processor requirement 3.4GHz Pentium 4

Operating system support

Operating system Windows Vista supported? yes
Operating system Windows XP supported? yes
Operating system Linux supported? no
Operating system Mac OS X supported? no

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