This post is prompted by the following questions and comments from a reader:
Was AE used for Davey Jones in Pirates 2? Is it capable of those kinds of effects or was that another program altogether? I don’t expect to do anything that advanced in my movies yet but I love learning new things.
I’ll extract the real question here, rather bluntly, and then address it (hopefully without falling into the usual traps inherent in comparing software, operating systems, religion, sexuality and party politics):
Is After Effects a real high-end tool or does its mass appeal make it more limited?
The short answer is: you can do pretty much anything you can think of (2D compositing-wise, at least), in After Effects.
That’s it. Seriously.
Okay then, has it been used at the pinnacle of effects work? Yes. Want proof? Look at The Day After Tomorrow, which I happen to know was composited in just about every package available – not just After Effects but Flame/Inferno, shake, Nuke, and probably more. Can you tell which shots were done in After Effects? Of course not.
But now it gets complicated. Is After Effects the software of choice at most high-end visual effects houses?
Although the list of features on which After Effects has been used is long and prestigious, numbering well into the hundreds, among high-end visual effects houses, The Orphanage (and preceding them, ILM) have been prominent among a very few to use After Effects for the biggest vfx jobs.
Why? Is After Effects not up to the demands? Let me try to avoid the religion/politics part be as simple and concise as possible (and beyond that, hey, it’s my blog!).
There are four basic points on which compositing software (and, perhaps, all software) is evaluated:
Which of these is 80-90% responsible for major vfx companies choosing anything but After Effects? If you said C, we agree.
After Effects does not fall short on features, nor is its performance truly inferior, compared with other desktop sotware. It’s price used to be cheap but would now be considered middle-of-the road with shake having reached the bargain bin.
Yes, with every new release of After Effects, people find some feature to pick on that other software has and it lacks, but if you pay attention, that’s true of all of its competitors as well. The After Effects team has consistently responded to the needs of the visual effects community, and the complaints of what’s missing (individual curves for x, y and z axes! More iterations in the motion blur!) are not true deal breakers.
And yes, work in After Effects can be slow on a big shot – but I can tell you from working on 2K plates in Shake, very similar speed issues exist there unless you manage the shot properly, something I focus on quite a bit in the After Effects Studio Techniques books.
The real reason After Effects isn’t considered for more feature films clearly has to do 80-90% with workflow.
But here’s the funny paradox: of all of the major desktop compositing software packages available, only After Effects has been used both for the highest-end visual effects work and the highest-end motion graphics. And because the needs of those communities, while closely related, are unique, serving both markets actually makes the After Effects workflow more complicated for visual effects work. Certain operations require far more steps in After Effects and involve pre-composing, an operation foreign to the all of the other node-based competition.
Therefore you could make the case that After Effects is its triumph – it is more versatile than the competition. So what makes the difference?
The strength, and therefore the Achilles heel of After Effects is the Timeline. It is the heart of the application (or as I call it in my book, the “killer app”), the place where all of the work gets done, and it allows for complex timing and spatial animation of elements. Among all major compositing packages, this workflow is unique to After Effects.
And in some cases, the Timeline becomes a liability instead of the fantastic feature that it often is. More on this in a future post.
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