After Effects CS5 is Adobe’s powerful motion graphics software for designers and visual effects artists. The program is one of three in the new version of Adobe's Creative Suite to go 64-bit native, taking full advantage of the multicore processors and more RAM.

The new version introduces some high-end features: The Roto Brush tool lets you easily isolate foreground elements in complex scenes. It also features native support for the new AVC-Intra 50 and AVC-Intra 100 codecs, as well as expanded native support for RED camera footage.

It also offers an auto-keyframe mode, supports custom color lookup tables, includes an updated version of Synthetic Aperture’s Color Finesse 3 LE color correction tool, and now includes the Digieffects FreeForm plugin.

64-bit performance boost

The most significant feature of this update is the 64-bit native performance boost Adobe has given After Effects CS5. Adobe engineers have touted 20 to 40 per cent shorter render times on single core machines and 30 to 50 percent shorter render times on multicore processors.

My personal comparisons for RAM previews on similar projects, on the same MacBook Pro (a 2.6GHz Intel Core Duo with 4GB of RAM) gave me an average of about 35 percent faster RAM previews and project rendering time. RAM usage is optimised to give you longer RAM Previews too. This is huge news for post-production and motion graphics pros, especially if you have a loaded multi-core workstation.

One caveat: you must be running OS X 10.5.7 for After Effects CS5 to install. And you will need to upgrade all of your third party plugins to 64-bit versions, which will most assuredly cost you extra—and that’s assuming the plugin manufacturer has a 64-bit version available.

After Effects is not backward compatible with older versions, so it’s a good idea to keep your copy of After Effects CS4 installed so you can work on your existing projects and access your 32-bit plugins.

AVC-Intra and RED compatibility

As the popularity of tapeless HD digital video workflows increases, so do the demands for post-production to accommodate these new formats with a minimal amount of pre-processing and data wrangling. After Effects CS5 can now read native AVC-Intra files from Panasonic’s P2 cards, and raw R3D (RED Cam) footage.

With improved colour management and the included plugins like Synthetic Aperture’s Colour Finesse 3 and Apply Color LUT, it’s easy to add these native formats to your production directly from the source.

Roto Brush tool and Refine Matte effect

The most publicised new feature in After Effects CS5 is the Roto Brush tool. At first glance, it appears similar in function to the old Photoshop Extract plugin, but it works much differently, since it spans several frames of footage at a time. You start by selecting the foreground object with broad strokes of the green brush, and then reduce the brush size to pick up stray elements such as edge highlights, hair, ears, and so forth. Then use the red brush to identify the background.

After Effects CS5’s new Roto Brush tool makes short work of usually complex roto-matting tasks. The green represents the foreground selection, while the red identifies the background selection. The pink outline defines the matte edges on each frame.

When you first apply the Roto Brush tool to a footage sequence, it creates a keyframe point and then looks for edges and changes across several frames forward and backward from the point at which you apply it. You can make adjustments on each frame as needed, but mastering this workflow takes time and practice. I was able to use the Roto Brush tool on about 20 shots for a commercial in which I needed to do color grading on the background. After working on the first few shots, I was continuing to perfect my process.

The new Refine Matte effect, which is also applied when you use the Roto Brush tool, can be used with any matte layer as a standalone effect. It affects edge smoothness, feathering, chatter, and even motion blur, which is critical when matting people and objects when they're moving. The only downside is that the Roto Brush is looking at pixels in a sequence, instead of drawing vectors that can easily be edited along the timeline.

A simple change on one frame may affect 10 to 15 frames after it, so it’s best to create short sections of about 15 frames instead of a full footage sequence from the beginning. Also, don’t expect the same quality matte results that you would get from shooting your subject against a green screen.