Get in the picture with After Effects

Marcus Lyall has been stretching the limits of the new version 3 of Adobe After Effects and, with our hotshot testers, exploring the merits of Macromedia’s latest version of Director

Although Mac- and PC-based off-line editing systems now seem to be the rule, the prevailing view has been that on-line video effects are the preserve of dedicated hardware systems and souped-up Silicon Graphics machines. But a combination of new technology, such as new PCI video capture cards plus software support such as Quicktime 2.2, mean that broadcast quality video on the Mac is just about a reality. So After Effects, originally owned by Cosa and now by Adobe, has suddenly become a serious, usable broadcast video tool.

The easiest way to explain After Effects is that it is a Photoshop-type application for video. It lets you make multilayer video compositions in which each of the layers can be moved, scaled and rotated over time. You can also add filters and effects to each layer and control the intensity of these effects over time. It uses a timeline window in which the parameters of each of your video layers are set. And a composition window enables you to view frames of the movie.

As with most animation programs, it uses a keyframe app- roach. You define key points of the layer’s movement, and let the program work out what happens in between. Bezier curves define acceleration between keyframes to produce realistic movement.

After Effects can produce stunning results. There’s not much you can do on a high-end Quantel system that you can’t do in After Effects – and doubtless Quantel will be writing in to dispute that. Because you can import movies and graphics from almost any Mac app and use most Photoshop and third party plug-ins, it’s about the most open video effects system available. It includes a range of keying methods, allowing you to use mattes, colour and luma keys for super-imposition work, which produce excellent results.

Adobe has also integrated After Effects with its other design packages. You can import Photoshop 3 files as a set of layers, and type from Illustrator can be manipulated as vector forms, meaning that when it is scaled, it doesn’t lose quality. As with Premiere, you have to render effects before you can see them at full speed, but After Effects lets you switch viewing resolutions while you work.

Adobe’s attempt to emulate the features and terminology of its high-end rivals means a steepish learning curve. The timeline window is a little confusing, but this is mainly because you’re tracking a large number of parameters. However, it’s an interesting lesson in interface design that while systems such as Discreet Logic’s Silicon Graphics app Flint use just one screen, After Effects really needs two for all its floating windows. But then it costs under a twentieth of the price of Flint.

Director 5: In the frame

Macromedia recently upgraded its flagship application, Director, to version 5.0. For the wide range of designers using it for presentation work, the main improvement has been in type control. One of the big complaints of Director 4 was that type looked horrible. Director 5 adds a Rich Text Format (RTF) feature which means type is kept in vector format, and proper anti-aliasing is applied when placed against a background. This feature alone makes the upgrade worthwhile. Multiple casts within a Director movie means that a single movie layout can be used with different sets of content, making the overall structure of movies easier to manage. And then there’s Shockwave, a Netscape 2.0 plug-in which allows you to download Director movies. A Director 5 plug-in, Afterburner, compresses text and graphics to make movies quicker to transmit.

For programmers using it for multimedia production, it’s a mixed bag. Director 5 speeds up Lingo processing greatly, and a debugging window allows you to track rogue scripts. Macromedia has also developed a new plug-in architecture, Xtras, for extending functionality. This system is easier to use than the previous incarnation Xobjects, but current Xobjects don’t always work in Director 5, and since many projects rely on these bits of code, programmers will have to stick to version 4 until somebody writes Xtras which do the same job.

So for the time being Director is still the program of choice. But as freelance Director hotshot Andy Allenson says: “Multimedia people will stick to Director because they’ve invested a lot of time in Lingo. But if something better comes along, we’ll all move over.”

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