Last week, both Adobe and Apple unveiled new software: CS5.5 and FCP X respectively. The greatest changes to the Creative Suite are within Premiere Pro, Flash and After Effects, the latter being the only one of the three that I use regularly. I don't use Final Cut very often these days either, but I followed the announcement because I have a vested interest in Apple's commitment to the Pro market (which they have been neglecting somewhat in the last few years). I mostly use Apple computers.
Final Cut Pro X seems to offer at least one or two paradigm-shifting ideas: the kind of features you didn't know you needed until you were given them. This is what Apple are often so good at, and it's the reason why I prefer OS X over Windows. It was reassuring to see that they are still applying this broad thinking to a professional product. In contrast, Adobe seem to have a juggernaut on their hands with the Creative Suite, and far from re-imagining their products they just keep bolting on extra features. The last few additions to After Effects have focused on middleweight compositing tools to complement the middleweight NLE that is Premiere. This seems like rather a limited vision of the software to me, and I find myself siding with Angie Taylor:
"I’m more interested in making things look surreal than real! I want tools that help me push new boundaries and inspire me creatively."
So what could Adobe do to really improve After Effects for those of us with a more... artistic persuasion (dare I say)?
More control over basic properties.
One of the things I love about After Effects is that we have a fairly natural, almost painterly control over the image that is lacking in 3D apps which are founded upon simulated laws of physics for light and space. In AE we can use 3D layers as mattes for 2D layers. We can apply blending modes to them. We can have 2D layer 'containers' of advanced 3D effects (Trapcode etc). There are some gotchas and issues with the way things are implemented, but once you understand the idiosyncrasies of the timeline and render order you get a lot of artistic control. Yet it could have been taken further. Motion blur can be enabled per layer - so why not Depth of Field? Why can't we keyframe motion blur? I'd also love to be able to set hold keyframes for a layer's parent, which would greatly simplify a lot of animation tasks. Whilst the Expression Timeline script goes some way to interpolating expressions on and off, I'd like that to be easily keyframeable too. Why do we not have reflection properties to complement the shadows as Motion 4 did? And now that we've finally been given light falloff, what about adding camera (visibility) falloff?
Advanced Render Order
Something I've always admired about AE over Photoshop is how non-destructive it is. But for my liking, AE's 2D layer feature set borrows too heavily from Photoshop's simplistic paint-mask concept. The layer order in the timeline becomes useless as an indication of render order as soon as we mix 2D and 3D layers, collapsed 3D precomps and so on. Why not take things a step further and bring in something like smart adjustment layers. This would provide a better system of applying single, unified effects to multiple layers. At present, you can either set that up by pickwhipping expressions, or by precomposing if you don't mind all the layers being flattened into one in the render order. Neither is very elegant. What I imagine is smart effects, which effect all layers of type 'x' so that, for example, I can apply a single levels effect to all my 3D layers tagged 'background' in just a few clicks, knowing that any layers I create in the future with those properties will also be adjusted.
Tags and Groups
Which brings me on to the subject of tags and selections. AE's support for layer sets (in the form of labels) is too rudimentary. The 'Zorro' script goes some way to providing a tag system, but it should be done better, natively. I also want menu commands or a palette for 'Select all 3D layers', 'Select all layers with animated properties' and so on. Many people have asked for simple layer groups in the timeline so we can twirl-up a bunch of layers not in use. I almost wonder if it might be worth considering a more fully-fledged, combined grouping and parenting function such as that in Cinema 4D, perhaps even dispensing with 2D layers altogether. The layer stack = render order could still function for objects sharing a Z depth just as it presently does.
Many people have called for AE to offer support for basic 3D extrusions, or OBJ support, which to an extent is what the Zaxwerks plugins provide. Personally, I think we should be aiming higher, and even halfway decent 3D requires a whole host of modelling and texturing tools which are best left to dedicated applications. What I would love to see instead is some kind of 'Edit Original' for cameras, lights and certain 3D nulls, which would open up my corresponding scene in Cinema 4D or Maya. Upon returning to AE, my 3D layers' properties would be updated and my footage items would also be auto-replaced with my new 3D renders. I guess this won't happen until Adobe owns a serious 3D application because they would need to rewrite the entire AE 3D engine to bring it into line with the 3D app. But until they do this they are leaving the door increasingly open to their competitors.
Physics simulations such as we see in apps like Cinema4D, Motion and even Anime Studio Pro, would really require a whole new feature-set, as they need to be 'run' in order to calculate their outcomes. After Effects has traditionally eschewed this kind of thing because the processing power required often bogged down the underpowered desktop hardware that AE has to run on. The old, slow Particle Playground effect is a case in point, and Apple Motion's knack of crashing under strain also proved that desktop computers aren't quite ready for sophisticated realtime physics yet. With the Roto Brush and it's 'freezing' of spans, Adobe has introduced a very basic interface for caching complex calculated values without having to actually bake them into keyframes. I wonder if something similar could help with the GUI of 3D physics simulations, effectively freezing groups of 3D layers into cached 2D outputs upon running a simulation.
Expressions are undoubtedly one of the most powerful native features of After Effects, allowing us to concoct recipes and simulations of simple behaviours that can save a lot of time and offer new styles to our work. There are a lot of things Adobe could do to make them easier to work with, like including a dedicated expression editor panel, visible line numbers, colour-coding and auto-complete/hinting. One simple feature that would make expressions so much easier to learn would be an output panel that displays the changing values of variables as a comp is previewed. Multiple expressions should be easier to work with, rather than the hack of having to look them up from text layers. True global functions with greater 3D access and effectors like 3D noise or repulsion/attraction would create enormous possibilities.
AE's Paint tools seem to focus on animating the paint strokes themselves. Whilst I'd love to see better frame-by-frame drawing and onion-skinning tools in After Effects, geared more towards line-testing character animation, it's something that other applications like Flipbook or TVP do well enough as a standalone. Where I think AE could improve is with it's vector tools. Shape Layers were a boon when they first appeared but it's such a shame that they have not been improved with successive versions. I'd like to see some of Illustrator's drawing tools like the Pathfinder, the Blob brush and variable width strokes adopted in AE so that
it could begin to be used as a cartooning tool, not just a graphic symbol framework. Within the time-based tools we could really benefit from smoothing controls and morphing hints for animated paths. Support for brushes could bring us boiling line effects. I'd love to be able to automatically link-up a portion of two or more animated paths, possibly via point-based expressions, to ease figure animation and shading. Global live colours with a swatches palette is also a bit of a no-brainer.
This is probably the biggest area in which Adobe could learn from Apple, and I'm not talking about multi-touch. Something I liked about Combustion was the way that the interface altered quite significantly depending on what you were doing. Of course it is useful to be able to keep an eye on one thing while doing another, but the mini-interfaces of more complex tools like Shape Layers, the Puppet Tool or Trapcode Particular are just so poorly presented to the artist. I'd like to see custom controlled HUD's in my comp window much like those in Cinema 4D, without having to resort to rolling my own via complex expressions (see the second video on this page for an excellent example). I'd like to see methods of controlling the interface on a per-comp, per-layer and even per-timespan basis so that, for example, when I select my camera in my precomp, the comp window automatically jumps to showing me 2 orthographic views, alongside a second viewer with the Active Camera view in the main comp.
Adobe is in a unique position: with software like Photoshop, Illustrator and to a lesser extent After Effects they have something of a monopoly which can stifle innovation. They also seem to operate under a slightly old-fashioned model of responding to quantitative market-research over initiating ideas from key thinkers like Apple and Google do. And they've taken the path of marketing bundles of applications as suites whilst struggling to usefully integrate them into one another and develop them all in the same timeframes
When Adobe decide to make a competitive product like InDesign, Lightroom or Premiere, they produce great results and everyone benefits, but for the last few years the apps I use daily have languished and bloated somewhat which I think is a real shame.
With FCP X, Apple have decided (presumably many months ago) to take the risk of rebuilding their biggest piece of pro software from the ground up. This will fight back against the looming threat of Premiere, and bearing in mind the tech that Apple bought with Shake and Color, we may yet see something to rival Smoke or After Effects. Fingers crossed.