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Monday
Sep222008

AE CS4's Best New Feature is Backwards

The details of the next release of Adobe After Effects are now public. AE CS4 features 3D object rendering (objects come in via Photoshop CS4 3D documents) and a full seat of Mocha AE. But my favorite new feature is more subtle than that. It fixes perhaps the biggest problem with After Effects. And out of the box, it's backwards.

 

In order to do real compositing work in After Effects, you frequently must precompose, creating nested relationships between compositions that can become quite complex and deep. Navigating these relationships can be the least fun aspect of working in After Effects. Taking over someone else's After Effects project is notoriously difficult for this reason. Half my time looking over an After Effects compositor's shoulder is often spent watching them search desperately for which tab, which alphabetically-sorted comp contains "the place where I did that."

CS4 adds a new feature for rapid, graphical navigation of nested comps. It's called the Mini-Flowchart, and it resembles the After Effects Flowchart View that was previously the only visual way of browsing the relationships in an After Effects project. No one ever uses the Flowchart View, because its half-implemented status punishes you for doing so. But it's a good idea, and the Mini-Flowchart extracts some of the best things about it. It's a little slice of nodal goodness integrated seamlessly into the slick new CS4 user interface.

But did I mention it's backwards?


As you can see, I have four source comps that I'm using in Main Comp. I then have two different output comps, HD and SD. But if you're like me, the flow is backwards here. The sources are on the right and the outputs on the left. The arrows show that images flow from right to left.

The theory is that you might view your After Effects comps as nested folders, and like the NEXT-inspired column view in OS X, your top-level directories are on the left and your deepest-nested assets are on the right. The problem is, nested comps are not files and folders. You can have a footage item that is deeply-nested from one comp and used directly in another. You can't do that with files and folders.

But more importantly, compositing is not storage. It's defining a process. After Effects projects are lists of instructions, and the ones that happen first belong on the left, the ones that happen last belong on the right. At least in countries that read left to right!

Luckily, if you agree, you can fix this easily enough. Just click the wing menu and select Flow Left to Right.


Much better. Source on the left, output on the right. Arrows flowing patriotically. If, like me, you hope that AE will someday do more with nodes, this would be a good change to make (you only have to do it once). Obviously, nodal systems tend to flow left-to-right and/or up-to-down. It's a bummer to me that Adobe chose right-to-left as the default—it feels like it puts more distance between me and a nodal future for After Effects.

But whether you roll left-to-right or right-to-left, the Mini-Flow is wicked awesome. You access it with a button in the Timeline, but better still you can bring it up with a quick tap of either Shift key. You can then easily navigate it with the arrow keys, jumping into any comp by hitting Enter. Trust me, before long you'll wonder how you lived without it.

UPDATE:
"An unordered, approximately comprehensive list of new features in After Effects CS4" can be found here.

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Reader Comments (20)

Hate to disagree with Teh Stu ;) but I like this right-to-left thing, and I would intuitively say that most people that grew up on AE would too, because it's kind-of how you "think" they layer stack in AE....

Mentally...the layers flow left-and-up into the "comp", and subcomps are "down and to the right" to the layers they are precomped in. [I actually always wanted AE to have a feature to "untwirl in place" of a precomp, and I think that is a MORE useful feature than noodliness]

But I'm just me.

/Z

September 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMaster Zap

It's true, if you could twirl open precomps, they would indent to the right. But there are other flow-direction discrepancies in AE. For example, layers are processed bottom-to-top, but effects applied to layers are processed top-to-bottom.

I just wonder how you would draw the inner workings of a complex AE project on a whiteboard if you were trying to explain it to someone?

I think you might be right, if you were raised on AE, the right-to-left might be the most intuitive.

For some people anyway—there are those of us who have always been visualizing the innards of our AE projects as nodes.

September 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

Since we're talking flow-based semantics, shake had it nailed with the vertical nodes. Having said that, how cool would a '3d looking' node tree be? Using some z-space would fully visually represent a compositing chain.

Regardless, this is a welcome addition, as I'm currently in pre-pre-pre comp hell right now.

September 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKen Ecker

Agreed, this is nice new feature and I like it backwards as well.

But real best AE CS4 feature is missing - 64-bit, at least for Windows. AE needs a serious architecture overall internally handle 32-bit 4k or 8k compositing without barfing. It looks like CS5 before we see it. Ironically, I'm now running Vegas 8.1 64-bit with does okay compositing including basic 3D and it's a "pro-sumer" NLE...

September 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterstephen v2

Ken, it seems that everyone can agree with top-to-bottom. Funny that, given that layers are processed bottom-to-top, and in the file system analogy nested assets are down, not up.

September 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

For example, layers are processed bottom-to-top, but effects applied to layers are processed top-to-bottom.

Interesting - that never crossed my mind.

However my mental image of the layers is more of a stacking which you "peel off" top-to-bottom. While technically the "processing order" is the reverse, it's not really the "mental order", so to speak.


I just wonder how you would draw the inner workings of a complex AE project on a whiteboard if you were trying to explain it to someone?


Probably flowing right-to-left. Probably because that's generally how I "think", i.e. I start at the root, mentally, as in "we need to accomplish *this*. To do *this* we need A and B. To make A and B we need to take a1 and a2 and a3, and b1 and b2 and b3....."

Although I'd probably draw in effects as little blobs on the layers. Or nodes on the "graph" (yet still flowing right-to-left".

I wonder, how does that "flowchart view" deal with adjustment layers? Does it become another node? I mean, an adjustment layer is sort of a poor mans precomp, as in "I'm precomping everything below this point without actually doing that".


For some people anyway—there are those of us who have always been visualizing the innards of our AE projects as nodes.

I have done that too, yet always in a right-to-left flow.

It's the same with a 3ds Max material tree; I always visualized it in a right-to-left flow (and this is also how the 3ds Max material editor shows it... in as much as it can show it).

What throws you off totally in 3ds Max is that odd anachronistic "thing" they call "Video Post", which is totally upside down and backwards to any sane persons thinking. IMHO. ;)

/Z

September 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMaster Zap

why hasn't adobe implemented comp sets? They would be just like layer sets in Photoshop. You could twirl the compositions open in context to where they are in time. View the composition in it's current time and would be analogous to the layer sets in PSD. It's a feature I've been wishing a long time for and have written adobe about.
-Just a thought.

September 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterquinniusmaximus

quinniusmaximus, that's exactly what a precomp is! You just can't twirl them open. Twirling open nested comps is a very popular feature request and deservedly so.

September 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

What about a script that opens the precomp in another timeline window directly below your current timeline and locks the viewer to the master comp. Is this possible with scripting? Has someone already done this?

September 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterWill Summers

I "grew up" on AE and agree with stu. i always think of things flowing left to right not sure why but it just makes sense to me.

September 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjdiamond

> For example, layers are processed bottom-to-top <

Layers were processed in front-to-back order until AE3.0. (really!)

> it seems that everyone can agree with top-to-bottom <

You'd be surprised. Not me of course... :-)

September 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdmw

I think an early version of this had the menu selection ready "Stu-ward" and "Un-Stu-ward."

September 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjcb

Guys, what a problem you're discussing here?! Direction of flowchart? O God!
What about missing 64-bit, insufficient number of plug-ins for work with 3D-channels?

September 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdvmaster

dvmaster, don't you find the slightest bit of critique in the subject of this blog post? Should I really be describing a pop-up nav tool as the "best new feature" of a major release of AE?

September 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

The greatest new feature would be definately the one that mimics Flashes "Break Apart".

September 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTokyo

I was little disappointed on IBC when the presenter announced the best feature when you work with complex compositions and can't find your way through. I expected something like a (usable) node view but it was only about the search dialog and this comp flow preview.
I take this rather as an excuse than a success because it shows that a very intuitive way of working is with nodes but they didn't implemented it to the end.
And the search dialog is not a big help in this matter.
I'm sorry I'm a fusion user and quite happy with it. I don't want to blackmail ae because it is a powerful application. It justs reminds me that the only reason why I didn't start with ae was the lack of a node view. I believe it is the logical order to work with the data in each application anyway so why not give a visual representation to the users? If I'm missing some feature because I barely know ae take this as an excuse. After all use the tool YOU like best.

Cheers
Blazej

September 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBlazej

I forgot. As to left right / up down preference I like left to right because that's the reading direction and the widest side on my monitor.
On big flows it makes prefect sense to use top to bottom and left to right for each branch (I use the right side for masks in fusion mostly).

Cheers
Blazej

September 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBlazej

i disagree also, right to left is more suitable for ae. its not a nodal compositing application, it is still layer based and thats its upside.

September 29, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterטטט

I think either way gets the job done. It seems like it's more of a personal preference? I really like node views! it reminds me of shake, or another node based composting software.

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJason

wow sorry for the wrong post before.
Somehow i feel with the new "3d Features" of afx they are kidding us. im pretty sure that you can fake much stuff if you can untangle some of the limitations but stu you have the best explanation its totally backwards..
and i cant hold myselfe of thinking
"how could the sell cs5 if they had did everything right in cs4 and cs 3,2......"

November 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterthereisnospace
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