A lot of expectation had been created around the CS3 Premium packages since they were first announced around 5 or 6 months ago. The software sets come in different flavors you can choose from, whether you are a graphic designer, filmmaker, web developer, etc. My focus throughout this series of articles will be the Adobe Creative Suite 3 Production Premium software set.
The philosophy behind these Creative Suite sets has been to provide what you may call a unified framework, which means you would be able to directly jump from Photoshop to Illustrator or Flash in a seamless way. The Production Premium is meant to provide the same seamless workflow for video production as the Design Premium does it for graphic design, for example.
The applications included in CS3 Production Premium are: After Effects, Premiere Pro, Flash, Illustrator, Photoshop, Encore (Adobe's DVD Authoring tool), Soundbooth (used for audio editing. You can think of it as a reborn Adobe Audition), OnLocation (an application that helps you calibrate your shooting equipment to get the best possible video quality) and Ultra (used for blue or green screen keying).
For the first article in this series I will start with the post production side of things with After Effects, and how you can integrate other programs of your suite with it. Some people argue whether or not After Effects could be used as an editing tool. Personally, I don't like the idea of using After Effects as an editing tool (even if it supports multiple audio tracks) because it lacks the realtime playback support that Premiere has.
Surely everyone has seen, or at least heard about After Effects, so instead of focusing on that software alone, I will take it as a starting point to speak about postproduction in CS3. As I said before, pretty much all applications in the suite can exchange data between them, however, you will realize that, in some cases, the application data flow between applications takes play only in one way. For example, you can import a Photoshop file into After Effects, but you can't import an After Effects composite in Photoshop. When you import a Photoshop (or Illustrator) file into After Effects, you can have the file broken into layers, just like they are in Photoshop. This is a nice feature in case you were making interactive menus for a DVD, for example, since you can easily create the menu interface in photoshop, bring that into After Effects for animating and special effects and then send the finished video to Encore and use it as a menu.
Photoshop has a feature called Vanishing Point, which lets you use planes to project textures (you can read a better description of Vanishing Point in Paula Sander's Photoshop CS3 review). Although the feature alone is very handy for graphic designers, After Effects takes that feature to the next level. Imagine you need to build a virtual version of your set so you can move your camera around and still retain the correct parallax. Photoshop lets you export a Vanishing Point set, which includes a Vanishing Point file and a set of textures extracted from the projection planes. In some cases, those textures will be useful out of the box, but sometimes you will need to edit them a little (for example, if something was occluding the texture). When you import that Vanishing Point file into After Effects, the program will generate textured planes, creating an actual 3D version of your VP file. Since the software already features 3D compositing, you can create a camera and move it around, without being afraid of getting perspective artifacts (for example, a deforming bulding or something like that).
Vanishing Point is only one of the 3D compositing features found in After Effects. Another nice feature is the ability to import camera animation data into the software. This can be especially useful if you want to combine live footage with computer graphics. If you made a camera tracking in Boujou (or any other camera tracking software), you can store that data in Maya format and then bring that into After Effects. Another example would be if you wanted to combine some Maya animation with a Vanishing Point file. In this case, importing the camera animation can save your life.
Being able to import camera animation is a valuable feature. However, it would be better to have support for more formats (Max, XSI and such), or possibly support for the industry-standard FBX format instead. Any respected 3D application has (or should have) support to export FBX data, so I believe that being able to read FBX files would be far more useful than reading MA files.
In general, 3D compositing in After Effects is good, although there is still room for improvement. Some may argue with me, but personally I would like to have a grid when I am working in 3D Space, since I like to know the object's position relative to the origin. Another thing that was difficult to grasp was camera navigation. When you have some experience with 3D software, you have an idea of how camera navigation should work. In After Effects, camera movement is done by selecting the button for either pan, zoom or dolly (alt+mouse doesn't work here).
Another thing I found interesting, but left me wanting more, is the Flowchart. This feature lets you visualize the elements of your composition in a "flow diagram." If you have used, or at least seen, compositors such as Fusion, Toxik or Nuke, you may be familiar with the way a flow-based compositing works, opposite the After Effects or Combustion and their layer-based compositing. Some people prefer to use layers, while others (like me) prefer to use nodes and flowcharts, so I believe it would have been interesting to have the ability to make the composites using that Flowchart, rather than just use it to know what is connected where.
A very interesting feature available in After Effects is the Puppet Tool. What this tool does is create control points attached to the layer to deform it using something similar to the "wrap deformers" available in 3D applications. This tool is especially useful if you want to create cut-out animations, like the ones you would do in Anime Studio Pro. When used correctly (meaning that you placed the necessary joints to deform your figure), this tool can yield very nice results.
Most of the CS3 suite works with dynamic links between applications. You can send an audio file into Soundbooth for editing, and after you hit the Save button, the sound will update in After Effects. In my personal case, that didn't happen when I used Photoshop files. Even if I saved a Photoshop file, I always had to reload (or "interpret") the file again for the changes to take effect. Another example is that you can open an After Effects file in Premiere Pro for editing, while keeping all the filters applied. This means you don't need to render your After Effects composite before bringing it into Premiere Pro. The downside is that you lose all realtime playback because of the filters, so you may want to use this feature with caution.
Most compositing applications include painting tools. Painting tools are used when you want to clean up parts of a video, or erase some undesired elements. However, sometimes these tools may be limited (which is somewhat expected, considering that you are using a compositing application, not an image editing software). Adobe CS3 puts an end to that by allowing you to use "video layers." Using video layers you can import a video into Photoshop, and paint over it or layer photoshop elements on top of it, allowing you to treat your video as a multi-frame artwork image. After you are done with it, you can render that video and send it to Premiere for editing. The best part is that you have access to all the Photoshop tools, so you are no longer limited to what your compositor's paint tools are able to achieve.
Inside the different applications, the UI elements can be ripped, arranged and even moved out from the main window. This is especially useful if you are working on two monitors, since most of the people I know complain that the video output window in video editing/postproduction applications is too small. You can simply take the video output panel and place it on your second monitor, or even maximize the window to make it fit both monitors.
As I said before, the basic idea is that you can be working in After Effects, but then use Photoshop to create an image layer for your composition, or even use Photoshop's video layers to paint over your video. All of this while you have Soundbooth open to edit some audio tracks. This can mean a big impact on your machine, especially if you don't have a powerful system. I found myself in a scenario very similar to the one I just described, and my task manager showed a memory usage of 94% of 4Gb. This could be considered something serious as I had never reached more than 55% while working with Maya and any other 3D application at the same time. However, the memory usage is very dependant on the kind of work you are doing.
As a postproduction and finishing suite, Adobe CS3 Production Premium is a very good option when you consider the power you get for such a competitive price. There is still room for improvement in certain areas, especially in 3D compositing. However, the power of CS3 lies not only in the features of a specific application, but rather the software's ability to work as a complete postproduction and finishing solution.
For more information, including pricing and system requirements, please visit Adobe's website.
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Animation Alley is a regular featured column with Renderosity Staff Columnist Sergio Rosa [nemirc]. Sergio discusses on computer graphics software, animation techniques, and technology. He also hosts interviews with professionals in the animation and cinematography fields.
September 10, 2007
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