Adobe has raised the bar for motion-graphics and animation production software with its release of After Effects CS3 Professional.

Incorporating an interface that will be familiar to users of After Effects 7.0 Professional, Adobe has added impressive animation features and improved functionality to this version. It runs natively on Intel Macs and works seamlessly with other members of Adobe's new Production Premium video suite.

Adobe has obviously been listening to its users. This version adds many items that After Effects 7.0 lacked, such as the new timeline tools and true 3D animation of individual text characters.

More importantly though - at least for production professionals - is its tight integration with Adobe Photoshop CS3 Extended and Flash CS3 Professional. This version streamlines the workflow of many projects by incorporating a better import/export path, and retains more layer and effects information between After Effects and each of the other two programs.

Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional's new Brainstorm feature, which allows users to select key elements of a layer and experiment with a variety of alternative modifications and effects to it, greatly enhances the creative process. In addition, new animation features such as the vector-based Shape Layers and the Puppet tool will likely head off creative blocks for a long time.

Quite shapely

The new Shape Layers feature comes to Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional in a big way - and not just in the form of basic rectangles and ellipses - but actual scalable vector shape polygons and multipoint stars that you can modify and keyframe to create animations like never before.

Not only can you edit and animate the shapes themselves, but also the components of the shapes, including strokes, fills, roundness, dashes, gradients and more. Shape layers can contain a compound shape--a group with any number of shapes - so that animations or settings for a particular layer affect the entire group of shapes on that layer.

You can also create your own shapes using the Pen tool, which is similar to Illustrator's tool. And now, you can convert text to a Shape Layer, which means you can apply vector warping to its shape in addition to rasterised effects.

And speaking of text, you can finally move individual text characters in 3D (also called Z-space) through the animators. When Adobe released its powerful text animators in After Effects 7.0, users were ecstatic at the possibility of creating mind-blowing titles and animated text sequences - until they discovered that they could manipulate only the x and y coordinates within a text layer. With Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional that's all changed: designers now have endless new text animation possibilities.

Puppet show

Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional's new Puppet tool is intuitive and powerful, giving you the ability to take a rasterised image layer and animate it by stretching and bending character parts and limbs. This isn't just another Liquify tool on steroids, but a truly remarkable independent warp mesh that can overlap other areas of the layer, such as a hand moving in front of the body.

By using the Pin tool to mark out joints and overlays, and the Starch tool to stiffen areas of the mesh, you can animate and warp a character with either exaggerated or natural movements. Previously, the only way to do this was to create several layers and try to distort them individually. The organic motion that the Puppet tool creates with a graphic layer is truly phenomenal.

Creative smorgasbord

The new Brainstorm feature in Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional helps you avoid creative ruts. If you select various layer and effects properties and then click on the Brainstorm button, the program gives you a number of possible size, shape, colour or motion options that you can refine and change as you select new criteria.

It provides more than just a random selection of colourisation or layout options - you get a previsualisation grid of animated variations utilising all the elements of the selected layers. From that grid, you choose the option that you want to apply.

Photoshop Extended integration

Never before have Adobe After Effects and Photoshop been as closely integrated as they are in this new video production suite. With its Photoshop-like Layer Styles, editable PSD Video Layers, and Vanishing Point 3D scenes, working between the two applications is swift and efficient. Many of the features in Photoshop's effects can be animated on the After Effects timeline - a huge time-saver.

Previously, you had to animate layer style effects in ImageReady and export a QuickTime movie into After Effects. Now you can apply and animate individual effects such as light angle, bevel, and strokes on layers and text with ease, while retaining all of the layer's transparency and 3D properties.

One element of the feature remains slightly disappointing, however. The layer style effects from your PSD layers do not transfer directly into Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional's layer styles. You have the option, upon importing the file, to either commit the effects applied to the layer and render them into the layer image data or ignore the effects altogether and reapply a similar setting in After Effects. This workaround is doable, but it's not quite a 100 percent effective yet. We're hoping Adobe will resolve this in future revisions.

Rotoscoping is also much easier with the new integration of PSD Video Layers. You can seamlessly import Photoshop Extended Video Layers, allowing you to go back and forth between the two applications to fine-tune your rotoscope editing or layer animations. The cloning and paint tools are much improved as well.

Photoshop Extended's Vanishing Point feature now exports 3D scene data, which you can now import into After Effects to create realistic 3D scenes from two-dimensional still images. For instance, if you take an image of the corner of a building and apply two Vanishing Point grids on either side, and then export the data and import it into Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional, you get a scene with a camera built in and ready to pan around the corner of the 3D building. This opens the door to even more creative fun.

Adobe Bridge CS3 can now play image-sequence stacks as animations, allowing Photoshop image sequences to play in large preview windows before being imported into Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional. If you have a series of sequentially numbered frame files in a folder, selecting the folder will preview the contents as a movie.

Flash CS3 integration

Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional is highly interoperable with Flash CS3. Import Flash (SWF format) files as scalable vectors with alpha channel transparency, and use them to easily create 3D layer animations. The rasterised vector shapes - along with the alpha channels from Flash - are preserved in the same manner as Photoshop or Illustrator layers.

This is great for motion graphics producers who do most of their animation work in Flash. Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional also lets you render videos out to Flash movies, along with exported cue points. You can use any of the keyframes in the After Effects timeline to generate cue points in the Flash movie.

PDF Clip Notes

The addition of Clip Notes in Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional makes client approvals and project team reviews much easier. You can render your movie into an Adobe PDF format file, and select whether or not to embed the movie data (which creates a larger file) or stream it from a server. This allows you to send a client or colleague a PDF for review via Acrobat Reader.

The video opens up as a player in Adobe Reader, and reviewers can comment in timecode-accurate positions along the movie's timeline. They can stop the movie at any point to type a comment in the provided comment box and then continue on. When they send the reviewed notes file back to you for your editing notations, their comments will appear as tagged markers in your Timeline editor, allowing you to read the tag or text on the marker directly in the timeline.

Mobile video to go

Adobe Device Central CS3 allows you to create and save movies for cell phones, PDAs, and other portable devices, such as Apple's Video iPod. This new feature lets you preview web and Flash Lite movie content on a simulated image of the device and make changes to a movie's scale, aspect ratio, or rotation to best fit a particular device's screen.

And the program supports the rendering of 3GPP (mobile device) codecs along with the existing MP4 and H.264 codecs.

Improved performance

Adobe couldn't release a new version of After Effects without addressing the need for greater speed. We experienced noticeably faster preview and render times compared with the previous version. There is no longer a delay in rendering audio in previews, and performance with HDV and Mpeg clips is much improved.

While previews can now take advantage of multiprocessor and multicore machines that render more than one frame at a time - a step in the right direction - you must still render the preview out before viewing your changes. Having the real-time previews available would be a great help in making live tweaks and animation moves more intuitively.

Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional provides more accurate colour management. Taking its cue from Photoshop, After Effects uses ICC profiles that allow you to embed colour profiles into your projects.

So not only can you preview your project on a calibrated display and with a workspace setting that emulates a variety of broadcast monitors and film stocks, but you can also make sure that when you open your project on another computer or hand it off to a colleague, the colour profiles will not change. colour management gets its performance gains through the graphics processor hardware; so 32-bit high-dynamic-range projects will composite accurately if you have the appropriate graphics card.

Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional: Specs

  • Intel Pentium 4, Intel Centrino, Intel Xeon, or Intel Core Duo (or compatible) processor
  • Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or Windows Vista Home Premium, Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise (certified for 32-bit editions)
  • 1GB of RAM for DV
  • 2GB of RAM for HDV and HD
  • 3GB of available hard-disk space plus 2GB of space for optional content
  • 1024x768 monitor resolution with 32-bit video card
  • Adobe recommended graphics card for GPU-accelerated playback
  • For OpenGL support: Adobe After Effects supported OpenGL 2.0 card (NVIDIA recommended)
  • DVD-ROM drive
  • QuickTime 7.1.5 software required to use QuickTime features
  • internet or phone connection required for product activation
  • broadband internet connection required for Adobe Stock Photos and other services
  • Intel Pentium 4, Intel Centrino, Intel Xeon, or Intel Core Duo (or compatible) processor
  • Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or Windows Vista Home Premium, Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise (certified for 32-bit editions)
  • 1GB of RAM for DV
  • 2GB of RAM for HDV and HD
  • 3GB of available hard-disk space plus 2GB of space for optional content
  • 1024x768 monitor resolution with 32-bit video card
  • Adobe recommended graphics card for GPU-accelerated playback
  • For OpenGL support: Adobe After Effects supported OpenGL 2.0 card (NVIDIA recommended)
  • DVD-ROM drive
  • QuickTime 7.1.5 software required to use QuickTime features
  • internet or phone connection required for product activation
  • broadband internet connection required for Adobe Stock Photos and other services

OUR VERDICT

Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional is not just another update, but a major advancement, and unquestionably worth the price of the upgrade. Motion-graphic artists will quickly find the new features and tools indispensable in their daily creative production, and the workflow between After Effects and the rest of the suite has been refined and more thoroughly integrated. This program's many innovative and creative new tools will keep you coming back for more.

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