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Scott Saunders tests Adobe After Effects 5.5, CineLook and CineMotion


If you were to look at the hard drives of most independent filmmakers these days, you’d probably find a non-linear editing application like Premiere or Final Cut Pro. But you’re much less likely to come across that other mainstay of the digital video universe: Adobe After Effects.

Filmmakers are generally comfortable with non-linear editing systems because these programs are designed to arrange video clips in a sequential manner not unlike the process of cutting film. (Remember cutting film?) Editing applications even draw on the world of film for their visual design, making iconic use of images of film perforations, razor blades, film slates and other emblems of celluloid cutting.

Adobe After Effects takes a fundamentally different approach to digital image manipulation. Though it can work sequentially to some extent, it is really designed to work with digital images in layers. In Final Cut Pro, for example, you build your program outwards like a railroad track. In a motion-graphics application like Adobe After Effects, you build upwards like a tower. With an editing system, you have a sequence that plays out over time. With Adobe After Effects, you have a composition in which many events happen simultaneously.

Because it allows you to manipulate multiple objects, effects, filters and transitions at the same time, you’ll see After Effects used most commonly for film and television special effects, in commercials, in show opens, in logo animations and so on. For these applications, After Effects really excels. But After Effects also has a number of functions that make it increasingly useful in more traditional filmmaking applications as well.

I can’t possibly describe every After Effects function here. The program is enormously complex, so much so that people study After Effects how-to books for arcane effects techniques like they’re pouring over holy texts. Instead, I’ll focus on a few likely to appeal to filmmakers.

After Effects excels at controlling the motion of digital images which makes it a wonderful digital camera stand. After importing a high-resolution digital still into your project, you can zoom and pan across the surface of the image. You can control speed changes, camera trajectories and rotation with precision and ease into and out of keyframe points for extremely smooth movement. Documentary filmmakers who work with stills will probably find this function invaluable.

After Effects also gives you excellent control over the speed at which you play back your shots. For example, you can easily create multiple slow motion speed changes within a single clip, and the Frame Blending function interpolates new frames from existing ones to create very smooth motion.

The ability to manipulate frame size, frame rate and frame blending in After Effects makes it possible, for example, to do a poor man’s standards conversion right on your desktop. With After Effects I’ve successfully converted NTSC video to PAL without much difficulty. The results, as you might guess, don’t rival those of dedicated standards-conversion hardware, but for my purposes – cutting in a few short NTSC shots to a PAL program – the result was quite acceptable. (See our sidebar for a down and dirty standards conversion recipe.)

After Effects 5.5 comes in two flavors: Standard ($649 list) and the Production Bundle ($1,499 list). The Production Bundle includes several new effects that could be extremely useful for digital filmmakers. The Color Stabilizer is designed to work primarily with time-lapse footage and animations marred by uneven exposures. The stabilizer does a remarkable job of automatically smoothing a clip to create a uniform exposure. Vector Paint allows you to hand paint a frame and then animate the painting in a variety of striking ways, and the Advanced Lightning effect can generate all kinds of surprisingly realistic lightning strikes and other electrical discharges. The Production Bundle also allows you to harness the computing power of multiple workstations on a network to drastically speed up the process of rendering your effects.

The newest version of After Effects 5.5 integrates well with Photoshop, Premiere and Illustrator. For example, you can import a Premiere project directly into After Effects, preserving the order of each shot from your Premiere sequence. You also can import Photoshop files with all layers intact. After Effects 5.5 is fully compatible with Mac OS X and Windows XP.



Two After Effects plug-ins of particular interest to filmmakers are CineLook and CineMotion from DigiEffects.

A tremendous amount of research has been directed at the problem of making video look like film. Researchers are up against a number of big obstacles. Video and film run at different frame rates. Standard video is interlaced, which means each frame is cut in half like it was shoved through a very fine slicer with 256 blades. (Now you know why TV can be so painful to watch.) Video has no grain, and its color characteristics and ability to handle contrast are very different from film. And transferring film to video introduces a host of other complicating differences.

DigiEffects' CineLook can modify your
video to make it look more like film.
CineLook and CineMotion are perhaps the most comprehensive desktop tools yet for overcoming these differences. CineLook modifies your video in three ways to make it look more like film: It gives you an extensive set of controls for adding layers of film grain to your image, color corrects your image to better emulate the color characteristics of film, and employs After Effects’ 3:2 pulldown function to give your footage the look of telecined film. The results can be quite effective, but this is not a simple tool you’ll master in a couple of hours. In an effort to simplify things, DigiEffects provides preset effects that emulate the characteristics of various film stocks – everything from 8mm to 35mm film. But in my experience, you must modify these presets on a shot-by-shot basis to get the best possible results. These modifications can be a time consuming affair usually involving a great deal of trial and error. CineLook effects take quite a long time to render, so the trial-and-error cycle can be very long indeed.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that CineLook cannot take badly-shot low-resolution video footage and give it the look of a studio feature. That said, many films work not because they have a pristine visual appearance, but because they look distinctive. CineLook is a tool that can give your video just such a unique look. For example, I needed to fix a hopelessly contrasty shot I’d made with a single-chip DV camcorder. To get the correct exposure on my subject, I’d been forced to let the sky burn to an ugly radiant white. To my eye, the electronic sky made the shot unusable. I applied a CineLook 8mm-film effect to the shot, rendered it, and the result was a sky teaming with lovely film grain. The sky, though grungy with grain, was now quite beautiful, and the shot quite usable.

CineMotion offers more precise control of a shot’s film-motion characteristics than CineLook. It offers eight different styles of telecine simulations and (precise control) over parameters like shutter blur. CineMotion also includes nine additional plugins, including a Banding Reducer, a Grain Reducer and an Interlace Aliasing Reducer. CineLook can be used on its own, but CineMotion must be used in conjunction with CineLook to really achieve a film look.

Like many other After Effects plugins, CineLook and CineMotion will run on Premiere 6 and on Final Cut Pro. However, some functionality will be lost, so it’s probably best to work in After Effects whenever possible. Demonstration versions of these plugins are available for download on the DigiEffects Web site, These are excellent plugins, but I’d highly recommend trying them out before making a purchase.

CineLook will work with PAL video, but because PAL runs at 25 f.p.s, you can’t make use of the telecine simulation. Grain effects and color corrections are fully functional. CineLook is available in two flavors: CineLook Broadcast ($699), which handles images up to 768 x 576 pixels, and CineLook FilmRes ($1995), which can handle images as large as 4000 x 4000 pixels. CineMotion ($299, or $199 if purchased with CineLook) will work with NTSC footage only. These plugins will work on Mac or Windows machines.

CineLook and CineMotion can achieve striking results, but the learning curve is steep. More comprehensive manuals would help. These plugins interact with After Effects in myriad ways, and the documentation is rather spotty in guiding the user through the various settings you must set manually to achieve the best results. More detailed explanations would make these very powerful applications much more user friendly and, I suspect, much more widely used.


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