Tor Johansen
Issue: January 1, 2009


PRODUCT: Adobe After Effects CS4


PRICE: After Effects CS4, $999; upgrade, $299

- Mocha from Imagineer included
- Searchable timelines and projects
- Import of 3D layers from Photoshop
- Integrated workflow for mobile device authoring

Adobe After Effects is still the industry standard for visual effects and motion graphics work. No matter what the medium, from 60-foot motion picture screens to two-inch cell phone and PDA displays, from television to Websites. After Effects CS4 is stacked and packed to the rim with new features that can supercharge your productivity and break down creative barriers. This is the mother app of all apps, and I couldn't complete a single project without it. 


Working in After Effects can be intensely creative, while at the same time being massively tedious as you try and wrangle all your layers. I know my comps quickly become a pile of layers on top of another pile of layers, and it can be a trick to find a specific layer or other asset — especially on deadline or when you're working on a project that was handed off to you.

In CS4, Adobe came up with the brilliant idea of including live search functions directly inside the Timeline and Project panels. Now you can quickly conjure up project elements, keyframe-able properties, effects and more. This ability to directly target properties saves a bunch of time scrolling around and twirling open layers. Don't get me wrong, I like to twirl as much as the next guy, but why not save more time for the actual creative stuff. You can also search projects for specific footage items or footage properties, such as scanning by file type to find all the .psd files that have been imported. 

Search results are Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah-speedy and appear as soon as you start typing.
Another great way to keep things organized is by using nested comps inside After Effects as a way to break down complex projects into smaller, more manageable elements. This allows both the creation of elaborate animation chains and also the ability to make quick updates to a project where a change in one composition may be immediately rippled out through other comps.

To make these composition hierarchies easier to navigate, this new version sports a nifty composition navigator along the top of each Composition panel. These compositions can be opened to access the Mini-Flowchart, which reveals the nesting organization of related comps. I found this to be a far better way to visualize and navigate the structure of my meatier projects: you just have to click on a comp's name in the Mini-Flowchart to instantly switch to it.


Ready to get your 3D on? Wanna animate Photoshop 3D layers in your composition where they can be viewed as 3D objects using cameras in After Effects? Well in CS4 you can! You can also apply effects to change the layers' appearance over time, composite 3D layers with other objects and render the result as you would any other project element.

This feature alone creates a game-changing new 3D workflow in which artists, instead of rendering a 3D scene from within a dedicated 3D application and treating it as finished footage inside After Effects, can import and paint objects in Photoshop, import the .psd file with the 3D layer into After Effects, and further process and animate the objects without having to go back to a 3D application and re-render the result. Now if only Adobe had a 3D program of its own, it would be a one-stop shop for all your post needs. Hmmm…  may I suggest a Maxon merger?


It's true — no upgrade to AE would be complete without a smorgasbord of new effect offerings and CS4 is no exception. Motion graphics professionals will be giddy as these additions simplify some common tasks, such as raw content creation and reducing the need to make multiple effects and masks on layers to achieve certain stylistic results.
A huge addition that is now included with AE is Imagineer Systems' Mocha. You can use this powerful 2.5D planar tracking application to track the motion of elements — even in tough shots where subjects move off-screen or where there is motion blur or excessive grain.

Other notable effect additions are the Cartoon Effect, which simulates the effect of a cel-painted cartoon animation to your live-action video footage or animated compositions; and the Turbulent Noise Effect, which simulates clouds, fog, smoke, fire, light rays, plasma and more. Using fractal-derived noise, it can create some stunning natural effects beyond the more common particle effects. This effect alone can replace several standard particle effects you may already be using, and will allow you to design your own background elements as well.


In CS4, Adobe has made significant improvements to the controls for multi-core rendering. Apparently CS3 was a bit of a memory hog and it would try to use all your system resources at once, and then go on to borrow some from your neighbor, too.
Thank goodness, a new preference panel in CS4 allows you to throttle the amount of RAM and number of CPU cores in use. This prevents the computer from getting bogged down and allows you to reserve some resources for other activities, like minute-by-minute Facebook updates and Red Tube screenings.

Tor Johansen is an LA-based director/producer. He can be reached at: