The After Effects Killer Killer


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At the beginning of 2011 I had a motion piece I needed to create, and as I was putting together the concept I realized that I needed a scene where I had a rope falling down from the top of the frame, to then have two opposing hands pulling on it. I was still using Apple’s Motion as my motion graphics creator, and I think this may have been the first point where I ran into a limitation that I didn’t see a way to overcome.

A rope bending isn’t actually that complicated of a thing, but with the existing artwork that I had created I just didn’t see any way I could pull it off in Motion. In retrospect, I probably could have recreated the artwork using shapes and animated the control points, but since the artwork was already a .psd I needed another way to do this.

I realized that I needed some kind of mesh warp, which Motion didn’t have (and I checked the internets for plug-ins, effects, script, etc.). I could have tried some kind of ripple effect (and did), but it did not have the control I needed, and honestly just looked kind of cheesy.

It should be noted that to this point Motion had been the only motion graphics application I had ever used. Well, I had played around in After Effects a little, but not too seriously. Ever since Motion 2 I had been hoping that Motion would become some sort of After Effects killer, and I like to think I was able to create some cool videos with it.

But for as powerful as Motion was (and is) and as enjoyable as it was to use, at the end of the day I had run into a wall. After trying a few more things in vain to get this type of movement to work in Motion, I finally reluctantly decided to just jump full-on into After Effects and create the project in its entirety in there.

It should also be noted that this was my first attempt at using After Effect’s Puppet Tool, which was the solution for the mesh warp that I needed. I was as of yet unfamiliar with better ways of using it, not realizing that in its native state it is notoriously difficult to control.

Yet I soldiered on, meticulously moving multiple pins around to create my rope movement (which, in retrospect, didn’t actually turn out that great). And to be honest, After Effects in many ways felt kind of clunky compared to Motion, at least as far as the interface and lack of organizational tools was concerned. But I was so impressed with the mesh warp of the Puppet Tool (as well as RAM Previews that actually consistently played) that I had to experience more, and from that moment forward it has been After Effects all the way.

Fast forward 5 years and I am still using After Effects on a daily basis, and hopefully am at least a little better at it then in my nascent attempts.

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When I was still using Motion I would frequent various tech forums, noting the ones in which comparisons between After Effects and Motion were made. It somewhat pained me, because while one could without difficulty find people who liked Motion and used it, it seemed to be making little if any traction in that field. I was hoping it would become an After Effects killer- or at least provide good competition- but this just didn’t seem like it was going to happen.

One theme I kept noticing again and again was that part of the the value of After Effects was its robust extensibility via expressions, scripting, plug-ins, etc., as well as a vast array of knowledge, tutorials and the like available simply because of its dominant market position. For the longest time I always kind of blew this rationale off; after all, if you have to have all these additions to make the core software do what you want, then (so I mentally argued) what does that say about the functionality of the core app itself?

It perhaps says a lot more than I originally thought.

I did notice that Motion had relatively few ways to supplement its functionality, which is probably partially why I eventually left it. There were effects and plug-ins and such, but most of these seemed to be quite a bit similar to what was being developed for After Effects (and we’ll get into this a bit later).

But what I eventually came to discover is that it is precisely because (rather than in spite of) After Effects is so extensible that it has come to occupy the market position it currently has. After all, for a long time I was able to squeeze a lot out of Motion and make a lot of the same things I could (and still do) make with After Effects. But there were some things that were out of reach to me. And as easy-to-use as Motion was, I eventually found out that in many ways After Effects has the ability to make a lot of things even easier.

So now I have a folder on my computer dedicated to storing the scripts I have obtained for After Effects, and right now it holds at least 50 items. Of those, I probably use at least 5 on every project, those being scripts that automate or give more fine-tuned control over the interface or some commonly used functionality.

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After Effects has undergone quite a transformation since 2011, most notably now being part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud, which means that it is only available on a subscription basis. I have written on this in another place, but it is interesting that in many of the same tech forums I am now seeing people who- like the Motion version of me- are looking for the next After Effects killer, if for no other reason than to escape the subscription clutches of Adobe.

My thoughts can be summed up simply: It’s not going to happen any time soon.

I don’t say that because I have some great love for After Effects (although it is useful and essentially enables me to make my living). Nor do I fear the potentially wasted investment in subscription fees, plug-ins and scripts (as on average one project pays for it all for the year).

Rather, my former experience with the transition from Motion to After Effects causes me to make this assessment.

When I was working in Motion, I knew the app very well and could work efficiently (well, as efficiently as it would allow) with it. There is a certain comfortability in knowing that an app has allowed you to create something in the past. It gives you the confidence to not only know that you can pull off that upcoming project, but also gives you an idea of a reasonable scope of time in which to do it.

At the time, for me to move over to After Effects represented  a major shift in my workflow. Not only did I have to apply what I knew of Motion to After Effects’ way of doing the same things, I also had to learn new workflows, a new interface, and be confronted with things I didn’t know how to use. Couple this with a looming deadline, and it may not have been the best idea to dive into it cold turkey, although there is something about a deadline which has a peculiar way of focusing the mind…

I now have about 5 years of daily (and too often nightly) knowledge and experience with After Effects, as well as a constantly growing array of scripts, plug-ins and the like, coupled with bookmarks of informational sites, help articles, tutorials, etc. The list goes one and on.

Now as I contemplate the possibility of an After Effects killer, I realize exactly why so few people moved from After Effects to Motion, ad why few are likely to move to anything else anytime soon.

Speaking only for myself, feature parity (which, to be fair, Motion never had with After Effects) would actually not be enough to get me to switch. After all, as I discovered after getting into After Effects over the years, it’s not really even about how powerful and functional After Effects is, but rather about just how much you can build onto it and extend it beyond its native functionality.

For me, an After Effects killer would have to at least begin to approach this same level of extensibility before I would consider switching. It would also need to at least begin to approach the level of knowledge-base and support that is available. It is only recently that I have discovered just how important these things are and how much they build in value to the core functionality.

To be sure, none of these things can happen overnight, which is why a true After Effects killer is something that is going to take a long time to develop and penetrate the market. And to be honest, I am happy to support these types of efforts, not because I am unhappy with After Effects, but rather primarily because I think competition is good for the market as a whole. Nothing would be better- in my opinion, than for there to be an app which truly battles with After Effects for market dominance (as is more the case in the NLE world).

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So at the end of the day I will still be with After Effects for the foreseeable future, but hoping that someone has the resources and commitment to develop something that will give it a run for its (and my!) money.

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