For many years, After Effects (AE) was the only real choice for PC video compositing -- everything else was in a different price/hardware league. But in the last couple of years, with the steady improvement of Pinnacle's Commotion and the huge price drop in Discreet's Combustion, AE isn't alone anymore. Fortunately, Adobe hasn't been caught napping. AE5 brought 3D compositing to the mainstream, and now version 6 is adding a myriad of smaller tweaks and an overhaul of the underlying render engine.
The most important enhancement is support for OpenGL hardware acceleration. You can use the most recent NVIDIA and ATI chipsets, including mobile ones, plus Matrox Parhelia and 3Dlabs Wildcat 4K, 7K and VP cards. If you're working with DV on a 2GHz plus machine, the screen redraw should be smooth enough not to need the draft or wireframe modes anymore, although they'll still be handy at film resolution. The composition window is extremely responsive, whether you're modifying effect parameters or adjusting transformations, although scrubbing isn't noticeably quicker.
A less global improvement is text handling. Text can now be typed straight onto the composition, making placement far easier than before, and the tools behave just like those in Photoshop or Illustrator. This family feeling continues into improved integration with other Adobe programs. Imported Photoshop files, for example, now keep their text editable, and layers are preserved in file sequences. Premiere Pro (page 63) files, meanwhile, have their nested sequences maintained along with their transparency, cross dissolve and motion keyframes.
The text-animation controls have been vastly improved too -- you can now animate characters, words or lines. You also have the ability to blend different animation types within a layer - for example, having one word animated as a whole while another is moved letter by letter.
In fact, AE6 is replete with new effects, as the AE5.5 Power Pack is now included as standard. So you get 3D Glasses, Color Link, Magnify, Radial Shadow and a host more to add to your arsenal. Also new is Scribble, which gives masks an animated hand-drawn look, and Dust & Scratches, which cleans up the offending artefacts from your footage.
The distortion tools have been enhanced too, with the new Liquify and Warp effects. Liquify allows brush-based tools like Photoshop's to be used for distorting footage. And the same fast engine now underlies the Production Bundle's Bézier Warp, Mesh Warp and Reshape effects, plus the Smear effect found in both versions.
Speaking of which, you may be surprised that there are still Standard and Production Bundles of After Effects, particularly with the massive price cuts in professional content-creation software. You still need the Production Bundle for motion tracking, though, and AE6's Motion Tracker has been hugely improved. It's much easier to use, tracks more accurately and is a lot quicker. Adobe claims it's up to 35 times faster, but it's the overall usability improvement that makes it so good -- now you hardly need the manual. The Production Bundle includes Keylight keying, which is better than the traditional tools at tracking reflections and dealing with problem areas like hair.
It all adds up to a complete package, especially when the new integrated vector paint system means you no longer need another program like Pinnacle Commotion to help with painting. Replacing version 5's modest painting capabilities, this new tool is based on Photoshop's brush technology. You can paint directly on any layer, but non-destructively, so the results always remain editable vectors. Each individual stroke can have its parameters changed or animated, including size, opacity and many more. However, it would have been useful to have the option to paint directly into the composition as well as a layer.
The rest of the improvements are minor but still worthwhile. Alpha channels can now be easily turned into masks, and there's the new RotoBézier tool for more precise mask adjustment. There's also 24PA pull-down support for 24-frame progressive camcorders like Panasonic's AG-DVX100, and Solids have been enhanced too. These appear in the Project window like video clips and are automatically named with their colour.
AE6 may not have a headline change like AE5's 3D compositing, but AE6 is a bigger upgrade overall. The updated text and vector paint tools are huge creativity boosts, and the new Motion Tracker will make this technology available to many who couldn't understand the previous incarnation.
Considering the low upgrade price, there's little reason for existing users not to get version 6. It is, however, slightly more complicated for new users. Vector paint and the overall stronger compositing make AE the clear choice over Commotion, but Combustion offers motion tracking for less money, as well as the option to use your Combustion skills on Discreet's high-end Flame and Inferno systems. But AE is the leader for usability, and it now has no clear weakness. With the Adobe Video Collections offering Premiere Pro, Audition, Encore DVD and (in the Professional version) Photoshop for much less than the standalone prices put together, AE6 is great value as well.