Adobe After Effects CS6: Features and reviews

There are plenty of productivity enhancements in After Effects CS6, and a couple of razzmatazz features, too. The Global Performance Cache is a new architecture that enables the background caching of one project while you work on another, so you can be working on multiple compositions at the same time.

Adobe After Effects also saves the data in your initial RAM previews to a persistent RAM cache, so that if you make changes to the comp, then decide against using them, you can just discard them without having to run the RAM preview again to see real-time playback.

The 'global' in the title means previously rendered and cached frames are recognized anywhere on the timeline, including when using loop expressions, time remapping, or copying and pasting key frames — not just on adjacent frames.

What's even more enjoyable is witnessing the reopening of a previously cached project: it will display blue lines above the comp layers, indicating that After Effects has located all the previously cached frames on your disk, forgoing the need to re-render them. Disk-cached frames from one project can also be retrieved for re-use in other projects that need those same frames.

This version of Adobe After Effects also enhances the use of masks. The new Mask Feather tool provides considerable control over the areas of the mask that you want to be semi-transparent - for example, allowing some to be feathered while other edges remain sharp. Where you would previously have needed two or more masks, one mask with variable feathering will do the same job. Keyboard shortcuts and real-time feedback aid the process.

Closer integration with Illustrator is welcome. Just one menu command will create Shapes from imported vector layers. You can then adjust Shape attributes such as fills and strokes as normal, as well as doing regular editing tasks such as blending with other shapes created in After Effects or transforming the scale, position, and rotation of the layer and Bézier-editing the shape. You won't be deleting Illustrator, but you'll probably find you're switching to it less.

This leads neatly on to the new raytracing 3D renderer in CS6, which brings the possibility of greater photorealism. Images can be used as environment maps in a Composition, allowing for photorealistic reflections of virtual imagery on 3D objects.

The new renderer in Adobe After Effects can also create bevelled and extruded text and shape layers. Curvature settings for footage and composition layers can be adjusted to add dimension and enhanced lighting effects, with the ability to increase segmentation of the layers for a smoother bend. It was found the most useful enhancements were the new material operations, including reflection and transparency the index of refraction setting mimics light traveling through translucent materials.

Existing capabilities such as soft shadows and motion blur are also supported in the new raytracer. It renders 3D images using the Mac's CPU, but if you have a supported NVIDIA graphics card with at least 1024MB of texture memory, you can take advantage of GPU-accelerated previews and final rendering. Anything complex becomes quite processor-intensive if you don't have such a card, as found with MacBook Pro. The less-demanding scanline-based 3D renderer that's been available for several versions is still available if you prefer.

In a step backwards for Adobe After Effects, live 3D models from Photoshop are no longer supported in CS6. Instead, 3D objects in PSD files are imported as footage. The 3D camera tracker can place new 3D layers more accurately in imported footage. It does this by building a virtual camera that defines the parameters and movements of the original camera, allowing for quicker positioning of objects in the composition. CS6 also adds valuable new features such as a fix for rolling shutter errors caused by CMOS-based video cameras and enhanced application of effects and color lookup tables.

A particularly welcome feature is the Pro Import After Effects utility that Adobe acquired from Automatic Duck. Now integrated into the File menu, this allows projects from Final Cut Pro 7 (not X), Avid Media Composer and Symphony to be imported en masse as an After Effects composition, complete with many effects and parameters from the host application intact. Video layers from Photoshop PSD files are no longer supported in AF. C56, however; you'll need to export them as QuickTime movies first.

The reduced support for Photoshop rich media layers (and also for Pixel Bender filters) seems odd and will upset some users' workflows. Otherwise, though, this release is a win for productivity. You'll need GPU hardware to take full advantage of the 3D raytracer, but variable mask feathering and enhanced support ibr Illustrator files sweeten this upgrade for all motion graphics pros.

Price: £1000.80 including VAT
Seller: Adobe
Requirements: Multi-core Intel processor, OS X 10.6 .8, Adobe-certified GPU recommended, 4GB RAM (8GB recommended)
Pros: Global Performance Cache, 3D features, Variable feather, More cross-app integration
Cons: Reduced support for Photoshop video and 3D Limited GPU support, Expensive alone

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