I've been enamored with After Effects since 1993 when it's founder, CoSA had it, before it went to Aldus and inevitably Adobe, over a very short period of time. I've studied it; I've even rubbed elbows with some of the planet's foremost After Effects experts but like Premier and Soundbooth, I've never mastered any of them as I have InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and others. Now a deadline is breathing down our necks so we are in crash learning mode for all three apps. We go way back with Classroom in a Book (Photoshop 5, maybe)? As a book series, it has had a few bumps in the road, mostly at the turn of the century, but of late (Creative Suites and beyond), they've been terrific. I've reviewed five Classroom in a Book (CIB) volumes for CS5, so far, in our quest to master the Master Collection. They've all gotten five stars from me (or disallowed fractions there of). December 27, 2010, I published a lengthy review of Premier Pro CS5. It was my favorite, so far. I compose these things as I learn, so I wrote this first paragraph on After Effects (AE) CS5 as I crack it open, later in the same day.
First, now that I have a handle on Premier, the AE interface seems like I'm right at home. AE, like many other Adobe apps, is all about layers. I go back to Photoshop 2.0 and Illustrator before it. As much as I like the way AE has a similar user interface (UI) to Premier, learning about a layers panel, which differs from Adobe apps, which I'm familiar with, is a bit troubling (but that's not the fault of CIB, of course). I mention that with good reason: the first lesson of the book builds my confidence about my AE abilities. I'm on some familiar territory and in some new spaces but CIB makes it all feel doable.
This is one of those CIBs where plenty of consideration has been given to the readers' learning curve. In the second lesson, on basic animation, the learning environment has been optimized with the ample availability of digital assets. This allows the readers to concentrate on the learning tasks, at hand, which are most important. That said, some of the original CIBs inspired us with some great assets to work with. They were clever enough to make us go, "That's SOOO cool. I want to do more." The third lesson on animating text signals the return of those days as do other CS5 CIBs. This is exactly the kind of things we need to do for the projects in front of us, in 2011. So, I not only know how to do it, but the example gets me revved about what the learning experience has empowered me to create.
If you are reading this with some Illustrator and Photoshop know-how, in your back pocket, and wondering if you have the knowledge to master After Effects, lesson 4 makes you feel very much at home. What you already know about pucker, bloat, stars, and gradient fills falls right into place with AE tools.
Not to over-simplify this or go off on a thematic direction which I am discovering, but AE is filled with many principles of not just other Adobe apps, but animation, the AE-way, borrows from other media-rooted metaphors. By way of example, lesson 5 shows how you use AE to animate a multimedia presentation. This is a nice departure from the more broadcast oriented projects. A few weeks ago, we posted to the Online Learning section of our website a PDF on using InDesign to create a series of Flash animations for a multimedia presentation. It's a growing use of these apps. In this lesson, we are introduced to the parent-child relationships which we find in creating Dreamweaver website page hierarchies. If you've ever done big websites, you need not be told more, you know what this CIB volume is talking about. Though using the masking vector shapes also makes me feel at home, this portion of chapter 5 makes me feel like I'm back in some Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel early MTV video. The lesson is great; the sample is a little whacky.
The sixth chapter takes me back to the days of GoLive as it shows us how to duplicate animations with the Pick Whip. But, once again, CIB makes me feel more comfortable with AE as I go through each lesson.This one starts with layered Photoshop files and adds lighting. This is the lesson where we begin to get pretty serious about animation, but its all very doable, though at times I needed a little breathing space.
It's pretty much impossible to be even moderately adept in Fireworks, Flash, InDesign, Illustrator, or Photoshop without knowing how to use the pen tool. This volume of CIB teaches you how to use that tool to create a mask and drop in a news clip, add reflection, blend it, 3D light the thing, and vignette the overall image. These are all techniques I am familiar with for still imagery, which I now feel very comfortable to apply in AE.
For CS5, Photoshop borrowed AE's renown puppet tool. Before CS5 I would have struggled to figure this out in AE. Now lesson 8 is a breeze but not boring. In this case we need to animate what we do with this tool, so it makes the chapter very interesting.
I don't come into AE CS5 as a novice. The very first project we did in AE CS5 was for the Online Learning section of our website. Watching Adobe TV demonstrate the Roto Brush tool, a modern day version of Hollywood's tedious rotoscoping, revved our engines to try it. The lesson CIB offers is more challenging than anything we've done, which is exactly what we have come to expect from this series. It's a very full explanation of the possibilities and it brings together much of what we have learned in the previous eight chapters.
The tenth chapter goes into something we had no idea AE did: color correction to footage, plus the application of effects. Once I completed this lesson, I realized that many AE artists need to deliver finished projects. It's not something where they have the luxury of saying, "We'll fix that in Premier."
We have been building 3D objects with many apps, for at least twenty years. The approach AE takes differs from anything else we have worked with and since the end result is animation, we understand why. 3D is not an easy one to teach. CIB makes it seem second nature, even if this is not something with which you have a great deal of familiarity. This CIB author could have stopped with the basic principles but he/she took it a step further to integrate what you just created and taking it out to what could be a finished project. That provides the reader with all the more of a "can do" feeling of accomplishment. However, when we get to the next chapter, 12, CIB takes us further, with the same project, using many of AE's features to make this a truly polished end-result.
Lesson 13 has many pleasant surprises which I did not know AE could do. Some of it's magical: You'll stabilize shaky hand held shots. It takes you into tracking possibilities. There's something little-kid fun about sending the particles from an exploding super nova flying toward the screen. This is one of those CIB chapters where I had to take a break and come up for air. It took me a little while to wrap me head around what Timewarp even was. This isn't CIB's fault or Adobe's. Taking it slow, I eventually figured it out.
The final chapter is the least fun, but of great necessity to understand. It's logically organized, like everything else in the package. It takes you through some well-designed rendering templates for AE. The chapter takes you through a variety of output possibilities and even schools you in pixel aspect ratio correction. It makes me smile since we once had the first three Mac Quadra 700s shipped into Virginia. To render a 3D project which consumed a small portion of a 30 second television commercial would have to start when we closed up of the evening and was sometimes still in progress the next morning!
Tough I feel the book/DVD package could be made better by improving some of the samples to be a bit more inspirational to my creativity, I cannot downgrade it more than one or two tenths of a point. So, I say at worse, it's 4.8 stars, which has to round up to the whole number of 5.
Adobe After Effects CS5 Classroom in a Book is fun. It's educational. And, above all, left me feeling empowered to take on an app which I went into not 100% sure it was something I could master. Now that I've done these lessons, I can say, "I CAN DO THIS!"