Looking Back on Twenty Years of After Effects
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Adobe After Effects. To mark the happy occasion (for us graphics and effects guys anyway) I thought I would look back at my own experience with this groundbreaking program.
I was lucky enough to be among the first artists in New York to get turned on to After Effects (AE). This was the early nineties, when I had just witnessed one revolution–desktop publishing–and was about to experience another. At that time most of my work was as a graphic designer and illustrator. For that I used the programs of the day, including Adobe Illustrator, QuarkXpress, Specular Infini-D and of course the always formidable Photoshop.
Around 1994 I was working as a freelancer at advertising agencies and graphic design firms when I was hired to make some props–mostly using Photoshop–for a stop motion animation shoot at Curious Pictures, the large multi-disciplinary animation studio that’s still in business. Curious had a large stage with a motion control rig and green screen wall. They also had a thriving cel animation department and model shop. It was here that I began working on the moving image. I was also the place where I would witness the second revolution take place.
The start of something
Working at Curious, I spent time prepping elements that would in turn be imported into Quantel editing and effects systems at high-end post facilities. I learned that they would be opening a new computer animation department. Curious had hired Steven D. Katz to create and run the new department. Steve had a lot of knowledge about filmmaking, I soon learned, and was a computer animation pioneer. He had written the highly esteemed book about directing, <em>Shot By Shot</em>.
When I met Steve, he told me about a new software application called After Effects, which at the time was being sold by Aldus Corporation. Aldus made its name with the creation of PageMaker, one of the original programs responsible for creating the desktop publishing revolution. Originally, After Effects was written by a small Rhode Island-based company, CoSA (Company of Science and Art).
Steve Katz was well acquainted with the developers of After Effects, all of whom had originally hailed from Brown University; that included Dave Simons, who still works on After Effects. Steve was also a journalist and always several steps ahead of the pack. He immediately recognized the power and potential of After Effects, even in its nascent stage. Up to this time, creating even rudimentary animation or compositing on the desktop was something that was practically impossible. Instead you needed to book time at an expensive postproduction facility or have a pricey Silicon Graphics workstation at your disposal.
People in the industry wanted something cheaper and simpler. Some had turned to Macromedia Director, a program that could do simple desktop animation of text and graphics. But the results were, for the most part, not very good. One reason: Macromedia Director moved things around in single pixel increments, which gave everything a jerky look. After Effects, however, moved images in fractions of a pixel. The app actually calculates spatial values to an astounding 1/65,536 of a pixel. This resulted in incredibly smooth and precise movement and allowed for smooth easing and velocity curves.
It was immediately apparent that this was no amateur's tool, with its sub-pixel placement together with Alpha channel compositing, the ability to apply filters to layers topped off by After Effects intelligently designed interface.
Soon, Adobe acquired Aldus. Adobe, of course, also played a major role in the desktop publishing revolution from the start. This was a factor not only of software such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, but crucially by developing the PostScript language, the foundation for the entire desktop revolution in the first place.
To what extent Adobe's acquisition of Aldus had to do with After Effects is a good question. The acquisition of Aldus might have had more to do with PageMaker, a mature product, rather than the promise of After Effects.
Adobe rolled PageMaker into its own product, InDesign, which has eclipsed QuarkXpress to become the standard application for traditional print-based page layout and graphic design. Meanwhile, Photoshop is the world's dominant photo editing and painting application, and Adobe Dreamweaver is among the leading website design tools. And then there is After Effects. For that, let's go back to our story and pick it up where we left off.
The Second Revolution
After Adobe acquired After Effects, the app soon became ready for the big time. At Curious, we began using it to composite, design and finish entire nationally broadcast commercials. These were significant commercials with substantial budgets from well-known agencies, so using AE was like having a unique tool of our own since Curious was among the few companies in New York to start using it for this. When art directors from the agencies would come over to see our work in progress, they were amazed that we could do what we were doing on an inexpensive desktop computer. We had no need for the typical devices of the day such as a high end Flame suite, Henry or a Silicon Graphics box.
It was during the next few years that I witnessed the second revolution, the “desktop video revolution”. After Effects was involved here too, and became one of its driving forces as we, and others like us, began to composite and design ever more complex projects using it. Eventually, super-expensive SGI machines were replaced by more affordable workstations.
In my work with Curious as well as a number of other production companies, the one thing I could be sure of was that whatever I threw at After Effects, not only could it handle it in stride, it seemed to offer up new creative possibilities. This was the case whether I was using it for compositing, roto, keying, VFX, motion graphics or animation projects. Even the legendary John Knoll at ILM—who was involved in making Photoshop a success—used it to composite Star Trek: First Contact.
Over the years, After Effects steadily continued to improve. Someone was listening, as important capabilities continued to roll out, like multiple masks (previously, only one mask was allowed per layer) and the ability to make 3D composites (well, okay, two-and-a-half D). We soon enjoyed the use of other toolsets via the many third party plug-ins that proliferated such as Final Effects, Trapcode, Particular, Keylight and so on. When the app was ported to the Windows platform, the world of users proliferated.
Today, After Effects continues as one of the most important tools in the compositor's and motion graphics artist’s toolkit. Together with its potent stable mates Photoshop and Illustrator, along with such useful 3D apps like Maxon's CINEMA 4D, individual artists, designers, animators and storytellers are empowered like never before. Not only do I use After Effects on practically every job I do, but also I used it to make an hour long animated movie. I'll tell you about that some time.
Witnessing After Effects develop over the past twenty years has been an incredible experience. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens in the next twenty. Long live After Effects!