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What AE’s Still Missing… where to find it from third-party vendors.

By Chris and Trish Meyer | December 30, 2008

We had an idea here on PVC that we would make lists of what has been most interesting this previous year, and what we anticipate in the new year ahead. Several of us planned to write these, but unfortunately few of us have so far. You know - we've been busy with work, the holidays, and such. After all, there's only so much a person can do.

Well, it's the same for many software tools as well, such as our main tool After Effects. AE CS3 was (in our opinion) one of the best updates ever for motion graphics artists, and AE CS4 has its charms (here is our roundup of the new features that caught our eye; here is Todd Kopriva's more comprehensive list). Still, there are many features that remain unimplemented or underimplemented - because either resources weren't available, a new feature caught a programmer's eye, or not enough people have jumped up and down screaming for the feature we personally want.

Following are some of the features we're still waiting for. As we have a personal policy of "you're not allowed to complain about something unless you are also willing to offer a solution," we'll also mention some ideas for cheats and workarounds inside AE, from third parties, and in alternate applications such as Apple's Motion. The first two pages will focus on issues in 3D space, and then we'll move onto issues such as mask shapes and text.

Extrusions (and other 3D issues with plug-ins)

Problem: After Effects' implementation of 3D space is often referred to as 2.5D, as the individual layers have no thickness. One result of this is that as view them from their sides, they disappear. But clients expect their "3D" logos and titles to be chunky (often too chunky) rather than paper-thin - the web-influenced "dimensional flat" look notwithstanding.

Solution: The cheater's method is to add a bevel and shadow, and hope no one notices. Instead of the normal After Effects plug-in effects, try the newer Photoshop-like Layer Styles to get more flexible and better-looking bevels and shadows. We also developed an expression which allows the "light source" of effects such as Bevel Alpha to follow the location of a 3D light in After Effects.

The text and logo in this image contain actual extrusions; the panels in are given fake depth using Bevel Alpha.

The better solution is to use a third party effect such as Zaxwerks Invigorator Pro. The Pro version can take Illustrator outlines or directly-entered text, give it depth, and sweep it with a wide variety of interesting extrusions. It can even import real 3D models. There are people who have built careers out of using Invigorator to create 3D text, logos, and other objects for projects ranging from industrial videos to network TV.

The problem with plug-ins which create 3D objects inside of After Effects is at the end of the day, they just create another flat 2D layer which gets composited with all of your other layers. Note we said "2D" - and 2D layers don't interact with 3D layers, meaning no shadows may fall between objects. We've come up with a simple set of expressions which allows you to place many of these 2D layers back into 3D space, allowing some limited interaction.

A simple set of expressions may be employed to have 3D effects interact with "real" 3D layers.


Problem: Another major clue that you're "really" in 3D is that objects reflect off of each other. However, the 3D rendering engine in After Effects is not capable of reflections or many other 3D surfacing tricks.

Solution: One of the slickest plug-ins to appear in the last couple of years is Zaxwerks Reflector (shown here at right). After you have set up a 3D scene, you apply Reflector to the layers you wish to reflect off of each other, and then order it to cook up a parallel ghost composition where it calculates the reflections. This means you do need to update the ghost comp when you make any changes to the main comp, but the results are more than worth it. The combination of Invigorator plus Reflector in the hands of a skilled user can be an effective stand-in for a real 3D program in many motion graphics environments.

That said, if all you need to do is make one layer appear to reflect on an artificial floor, there are several ways to fake it. The most common is to flip a copy of the layer to be reflected, distort it if necessary with a corner pin effect, make it fade out with a gradient (a shape layer filled with a linear gradient works great as a matte), and increasingly blur it the further away the reflections gets from the source (we use Lens Blur for that). We teach this trick in the final lesson of After Effects Apprentice (2nd edition); the result is shown here. Red Giant Software's Warp can also be used to create similar looks.

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Mark Spencer: | December, 30, 2008

Great article. Agreed on MoGraph in C4D, I love that module - and have barely scratched the surface.

Mezigue: | December, 30, 2008

Very nice list. I would add just two more wishes :

In the color correction department, the curves effect could be improved. And it’s easy, just take it from Photoshop.

And it would very nice to import Illustrator files as shape layers, complete with color and stroke. This would be HUGE for character animation. I know the workaround (I read it here) but it’s not very practical.

And what about this bone tool in Flash, mmmh ?

Chris Meyer: | December, 30, 2008

Thanks for the kind words!

Yes, I consider it near-criminal that AE’s Curves isn’t as nice as PS’s Curves - the PS version has such a better user interface. But I could go on and on about things like that, such as why Layer Styles in AE can’t read presets, unlike Layer Styles in PS…

Agree on the Illustrator implementation. As well as bone envy. I’ve long been a fan of the cross between bones and puppet tool in Anime Studio

take care -

Rich Young: | December, 31, 2008

Great overview. Looks like you guys are focused on improving 3D!

Chris Meyer: | December, 31, 2008

I guess, having dabbled in 3D almost as long as we’ve been using AE, that the 3D mindset is part of our brains (smile). Plus, AE is still easier to use than most 3D programs - so it would be nice if it could incorporate more of those motion graphics functions. I don’t expect to be able to do Star Wars or Jurassic Park in AE, but I would like to do an extruded logo reflecting the objects around it as it flies through a volumetric beam of light…

Sean Kennedy: | December, 31, 2008

Great article, Chris! There’s definitely a few links in there to things I need to check out. And thanks for so prominently mentioning TrackerViz!

I wanted to mention something regarding curves in AE. The guys over at Frishluft have had a beta for a while now of a new curves interface.

Here’s another shot of the interface.

It really makes using curves tons more fun! They haven’t updated this beta page for, hmmm, maybe a couple years now, but since it’s still up, so I assume they wouldn’t mind it being brought to people’s attention. smile

Chris Meyer: | January, 01, 2009

Thanks, Sean, for the link to the Frischluft curves beta. I liked it when it was first released, but kept waiting for them to finish it (there’s a lot of dicey UI things they’re doing!). I hope they do someday.

But as Merzigue points out: Hey, Adobe - steal from yourselves! Why don’t we have PS’s UI for curves?!? (As well as for Layer Styles…)

happy new year -

Charles Angus: | January, 02, 2009

Just a question - is there anyone out there doing actual compositing on AE, or is it all MoGraph stuff?

I find whenever I think to myself, “Oh, I’ll just comp this in AE, since I’m in it already,” I end up doing it Shake anyway after I waste time beating my head against AE’s baffling UI.

Chris Meyer: | January, 02, 2009

Oh, yes - lots and lots and lots of compositing. There is a ton of visual effects for film done in After Effects (see Mark Christiansen’s books for examples). It always surprises me to hear users (or even corporate bosses) say they don’t think AE is being used for “high end” work when it has been for many, many year, and continues to be.

And trust me - many After Effects users find Shake’s UI to be just as baffling as Shake users find AE’s UI to be (smile).

take care -

Chris Meyer: | January, 07, 2009

Actually, Frischluft updated their beta of their curves plug-in and released it as Fresh Curves:

graphicsguy: | February, 11, 2009

Very nice article about AE. AE is the best graphic software. Keep up the good work Chris..

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