Adobe After Effects 6.0 test & review

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Adobe After Effects 6.0

Adobe After Effects 6 is faster, more powerful and a lot easier to use for some jobs than V5 - and cheaper, too - but can it hold off the challenge from Commotion and Combustion?

After Effects used to have an easy life. Beneath it were the timeline editors, such as Premiere, designed for everyday tasks, and above were the industrial-strength compositing systems, such as Flame, that only big post-production houses could afford. In between, nothing offered such powerful tools for the money as After Effects.

But, over the last couple of years, After Effects has started to face increasing competition. Pinnacle's Commotion has improved with successive versions, even though it's still primarily a paint program. More of a challenge has been Discreet's massive price cut of Combustion this year, which has offered a smooth learning curve from desktop to facilities house, albeit a steep one to begin with.

Considering the much greater competition, After Effects needed something special to keep it ahead. Building on the 3D compositing added in version 5 - which was unique at the time in this price range - V6 completely overhauls the rendering engine. This, plus a host of other improvements, could be just what the venerable compositing tool needs to maintain its number-one slot.

Up to speed
After Effects' updated rendering engine has come in the nick of time. As with Combustion, After Effects' engine supports hardware OpenGL acceleration, harnessing the power of the computer's graphics card to make on-screen previews smoother, and preview renders quicker. Graphics card support is limited, but does include most of the Nvidia and ATi chipsets for desktop and laptop systems released in the last few years. Also on the list are Matrox's pricey Parhelia, and 3Dlabs' professionally-oriented Wildcat 4000, 7000 and VP cards.

However, processor power is still important, because the OpenGL acceleration handles just the combining of elements in 3D space, and some related effects such as lighting. Decoding video files and other such functions are still performed by the CPU. On our dual-processor Athlon MP 2400+ system with Nvidia Quadro 4 graphics, screen redraw when compositing was noticeably smoother than with After Effects 5.5 on the same system. We also ran V6 on a less powerful, Athlon XP 2100+ single-processor, system with Nvidia GeForce3 graphics, and found that performance was almost as smooth. A 2GHz-plus Pentium 4 machine with a decent graphics adapter should give similar results.

The benefit of all this is that there's no longer the need to work in draft or wireframe mode when composing effects. It's still possible to toggle the main compositing window between the various preview modes, but hardware OpenGL will be the best option, except when working with extremely high resolution clips such as film transfers.

So, has Adobe done enough with After Effects 6 to keep the top spot secure? Although Commotion is still slightly superior for video painting - with its larger range of brush tools - unless this is the primary intended usage, After Effects' greater strengths in pretty much every other area make it a far superior choice. The competition from Combustion is a different story, especially since that supplies high-quality motion tracking as standard, for a far lower price than After Effects Professional. It also offers the lure of transferring skills learnt on a cheap PC editing setup to Discreet's Flame and Inferno broadcast systems. But, After Effects reaps the advantage of its Adobe heritage, as many of the tools will already be familiar to users of the company's other products. So, while there's no chance of After Effects ever being considered easy to use, it's certainly more accessible than Combustion.

The final trick up Adobe's sleeve is the new Video Collection, which bundles Premiere Pro, Audition (Adobe's new name for Cool Edit, purchased in May 2003), and Encore DVD. The Professional Video Collection also includes Photoshop. These cut-price bundles greatly boost the value of After Effects.

With its OpenGL hardware acceleration and host of other productivity and creativity enhancements, After Effects 6 is a must-have, and affordable, upgrade for existing owners. Adobe has done it again. Combustion does offer more power for less in some areas - especially for those compositing 3D animation footage created in 3ds max - but After Effects' overwhelming array of creative tools will make it the better choice for most mainstream desktop video compositing tasks.

James Morris

Read the full review in December 2003's Computer Video magazine.



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Reviewed in this issue:

Adobe Premiere Pro 7

Adobe After Effects 6.0

Apple DVD Studio Pro 2

Pinnacle MovieBox USB

Roxio VideoWave Movie Creator

In December's news:

IBC 2003 Show report
Apple PowerBook overhaul
Pinnacle Edition relaunched
Avid FreeDV available for download
Pure Motion EditStudio 4 feature upgrade LaCie four-way external burner Canopus's OHCI-friendly LetsEdit
LG five-way burner
Royalty-free animation
Royalty-free music scores
Double recording time DVD discs

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