May the force of After Effects be with you…

By Stephen Schleicher

Every so often a company does something that makes you say, "wow, they read my thoughts". Adobe has done just that with the release of Adobe After Effects 4.0 (AE4.0). In case you’ve been living in a galaxy far far away for the last several years, Adobe After Effects is a compositing, animation, and effects program that can combine any type of digital media element (illustrations, scanned images, digitized video, animation, etc) and output the results to anything from web animations to motion picture visual effects work. While designed with the professional in mind, it is easy enough for a novice to start creating dynamic content within an hour of use.

The New Stuff

Figure 1

The first thing that will jump out at you when launching After Effects 4.0, is how much the interface now looks like other Adobe products. Adobe has redesigned the interface to be more tightly integrated with Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Premiere. The windows in After Effects 4.0 have become tabbed allowing the user to have two or more compositions, timelines, or palettes open at a time without resulting in a cluttered workspace. By clicking on a tab, users can instantly jump back and forth between compositions, make adjustments, and see how these changes effect the rest of the project (figure 1).

Figure 2

The Project Window has been redesigned to allow the user to sort items by name, type, etc., and even assign Color Labels to the elements (figure 2). Now all imported items can be grouped together based on color scheme (all Illustrator files orange, all movies green, etc). These color labels stay with the item when dragged to the timeline so you can easily identify/modify elements by color. For example, you could assign a red label to all text elements and then select and change the quality of those items in one step. The Project Window also contains a comment area in which you can add your own production notes for others working on the same project; "File will be replaced", "Needs Color adjustment", "I don’t know what the heck this thing is", etc.

How often have you been working on a project and the client/boss walks in and wants to see how it looks? In the After Effects 3.1 days you would have to render out the entire movie, choosing the right resolution, CODEC, etc., then go get a snack while the project rendered out. To make work more efficient, Adobe has added RAM Preview, which uses available/allocated RAM to render frames to memory and play them back in real time. This allows you to review and make revisions to your composition more quickly. Since preview frames have been cached, when it comes time to render the final movie, if you haven’t made changes, and choose uncompressed as the output module, the render flies at lightspeed.

In After Effects 3.1 days, rotoscoping may have seemed like a long and tedious task, but with After Effects 4.0’s enhanced masking feature, you can tackle really tough jobs with ease. The pen tool now acts like the pen tool in Photoshop and Illustrator. After Effects 4.0 also supports 128 masks per layer, and allows copying/pasting of Illustrator or Photoshop paths via the clipboard. Masks, in After Effects 4.0, also allow some Boolean functions (difference, subtract, intersect, etc.) when two or more masks are on a layer. AE4.0 also preserves masks and transparencies when importing Photoshop or Illustrator projects as layers.

After Effects 4.0 Production Bundle has four new warping effects which allow one to distort layers. The Bezier Warp has a dozen or so control handles so you can get just the shape you desire. Reshape lets you take an image and fit it into another shape (now you really can have a square watermelon). Mesh Warp applies a grid to a layer, and by pulling the control points, you can manipulate select areas of the image. The final warp effect is Smear, which allows you to define an area and then stretch it over time.

After Effects 4.0 also includes the Particle Playground. With this particle engine, you can create realistic water fountains, fireworks, rain and snow. You can replace a particle with a layer containing motion footage to create complex animated effects. For example, if you have a composition containing a single man marching, you can apply Particle Playground to quickly create an invading army.

The list goes on, and every new addition that has been made makes Adobe After Effects 4.0 that much more valuable as a production tool.

The Old Stuff

While the interface has changed, within 20 or 30 minutes, a After Effects 3.1 user should have the hang of working with the new interface and have located some old tools which have been renamed. With the changes in the interface and new elements that have been added to After Effects 4.0, you may ask, "will my old projects and plugins still work with the 4.0 version?" The answer is yes. I have loaded several past After Effects 3.1 projects into AE4.0, and have re-installed my third party plugins without a problem. In fact, I have noticed slight increases in render and update times when using third party plugins with After Effects 4.0 (see the CineLook tutorial on this sight).

The Tutorial

Download the complete After Effects project and elements here.

This tutorial may seem a bit simplistic, but over the last few months I have seen many requests on mailing lists on how to do this effect. Most do not realize the potential behind nested comps, and this will give you a starting point. It will also give you something to do before your last minute rush to try and get into the first weeks showing of Star Wars. For the most part, this tutorial can be done with the Standard Version of After Effects 4.0, but we will use one of the Production Bundle effects to complete the tutorial. So turn off you light-saber, strap in your Wookie, and fire up that R2 unit as we dive into "The Star Wars Opening". Please note: If you are wearing your Storm Trooper uniform right now, turn off the computer and seek professional help now.

Figure 3

For this example, create any body of text in Adobe Illustrator that is at least 320x500 pixels (figure 3). Save the file and then launch After Effects 4.0.

The classic roll will be created in two parts. The first is the roll from bottom to top, and the second part will be tilting the title back so it looks like it is reaching to infinity. Create a new composition that is 320x500 pixels (or the same size as your text element) and set the time to a length that will allow the viewer to read your message with ease (figure 4). In this example I used 30 seconds for the length of Composition 1. While it is too short to read the text with ease, it is long enough to give you an idea that the effect is working.

Figure 4

Import the Illustrator text file into the project and then drag the element to the timeline or project window. Move the text element below the bottom of the composition frame and create a position keyframe there. Move to the end of the timeline, and move the text element above the top of the composition frame. Make sure the text travels in a strait line and create another position keyframe at 30 seconds.

About as exciting a riding inside a Jawa sandcrawler, huh?

To clarify the need for nesting compositions, go ahead and apply the Basic 3D effect from the Effect/Perspective menu. Apply a tilt of –70 degrees. Move the current time marker halfway through the animation and view the results. It looks like we have the classic roll complete after this step. Move the marker further into the animation and then view that result. While the tilt is still there, the whole text element is moving up and not away from us. This is why we need to create two compositions.

Delete the Basic 3D effect from the layer and create a new composition. Make Comp 2 the same length as the first but change the aspect ratio to 320x240.

At this point you may load other elements into Comp 2. These might include a star background, planet, ships etc. Apply Color Labels to the elements to help in identification. Move these elements into the timeline and layer them accordingly.

Finally drag Comp 1 from the project window to the timeline and center it in the view. We have just nested a composition. By nesting a composition, you are organizing your project into a hierarchy. By nesting compositions inside one another you can create some very dynamic motions without pulling your hair out. For example, Comp 1 might contain a tire. In this comp, you rotate the tire about its center point. Comp 2 contains the car moving Right to Left across the screen. By nesting Comp 1 into Comp 2, the tire rotates independently of the forward, or up/down movement of the car.

Apply Basic 3D to Comp 1, with a –70 degree tilt. Make a RAM Preview and view the results. Our effect has been achieved, but the text rolls off the screen too soon. It doesn’t look like it is reaching to infinity. It would be nice if we could pinch or "warp" the top portion of Comp 1 to force perspective.

We can do this next effect two different ways. Turn off the Basic 3D effect for a moment and let’s apply the Mesh Warp effect from the Production Bundle package. To reduce our grid to four points lower the Rows/Columns to 1 each. Move the Upper Left and Upper Right corners inward on the x axis. You may have to adjust the handles to get a straighter line.

The other way to force the perspective is by using the Corner Pin effect to distort the text layer. You should try both to see which one works best for you. I like using the Mesh Warp because it gives me greater control over the forced perspective effect. Corner Pin tends to distort the text a little too much for my taste. In either case, you will need to have the Production Bundle to complete this portion of the exercise.

As the text reaches infinity, "pan" down to reveal a mysterious planet below. When you are satisfied with the effect, render out the animation. If you are a stickler for recreation and wish to achieve a gateweave effect for the text (the original opening tends to waver or weave the further it gets from the viewer) apply field rendering and 3:2 pulldown to the render process.

Click the image above to view the complete 30 second open in mpeg format. (approximately 1.37mb)

Final Thoughts

Turning on the television, visiting a website, playing an interactive CD-ROM, even current movies, read like a who’s who of those using Adobe After Effects 4.0 in some way. That list includes Banned from the Ranch Entertainment, Curious Pictures, Foundation Imaging, NBC, and YOUR NAME HERE. That’s right, Adobe After Effects 4.0 is powerful enough to be used by the high end companies, yet cheap and easy enough to learn, that it should be on the necessity list for any young Jedi in the business. The Standard Version lists at $995, while the Production Bundle runs at $2,195. If you do not own After Effects 3.1 or other Adobe products, you might want to check out Adobe Dynamic Media Studio, which combines Adobe’s Big Four into one package. Rest assured After Effects 4.0 will quickly pay for itself in two or three jobs, as you quickly discover that you are using this high-end tool almost everyday. I would recommend that you consider getting the Production Bundle because it has features that are a necessity for detailed compositing work.

Features: 10
Ease of Use: 10
Performance: 9
Documentation: 10
Overall Rating:

Adobe’s World Wide Web address is

When not molding the minds of video production students at the American InterContinental University in Atlanta, Georgia, Stephen Schleicher creates graphics and animations for many video production companies. He can be reached at

Star Wars and all related names and items are copyright Lucasfilm, Ltd.