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Adobe After Effects CS4: Optimize the Pipeline

Chapter Description

This chapter examines how image data flows through an After Effects project in detail. That may not sound gripping until you realize how much your creativity is hampered by remaining ignorant of this stuff.

Project Optimization

Finally, to finish Section I of this book, here’s a clean sweep of preferences, memory management settings, and what do to if After Effects crashes.

Setting Preferences and Project Settings

The preference defaults have changed in version CS4 and you may be happy with most of them. Here, however, are a few you might want to adjust that haven’t been mentioned yet:

  • Preferences > General > Levels of Undo: The default is 32, which may be geared toward a system with less RAM than yours. Setting it to the maximum value of 99 won’t bring the application to a grinding halt, but it may shorten the amount of time available in RAM Previews.
  • Preferences General: Check the options Allow Scripts to Write Files and Access Network to use some of the scripts included with this book. Most advanced users also prefer Default Spatial Interpolation to Linear (Chapter 2).
  • Preferences > Display: I tend to check all three boxes; I don’t need to wait for thumbnails to update from some network location each time I select a source file, I like to see rendering progress even though it costs processing time (as I said earlier), and I have a good OpenGL card so I hardware accelerate the UI.

  • Preferences > User Interface Colors: The default UI is darker than it used to be, so I am often fine with its shade. If you like it darker, consider enabling Affects Label Colors so they darken too. Either way, Cycle Mask Colors so that multiple masks applied to a layer automatically have different colors (I have no idea why that’s disabled by default).

Hack Shortcuts, Text Preferences, or Projects

After Effects Shortcuts and Preferences are saved as text files that are fully editable and relatively easy to understand, although if you’re not comfortable with basic hacking (learning how code works by looking at other bits of code) I don’t recommend it. The files are located as follows:

  • Windows: Documents and Settings\[user profile]\Application Data\Adobe\After Effects\8.0\
  • Mac OS: Users/[user profile]/Library/Preferences/Adobe/Adobe After Effects/8.0/

The names of the files are

  • Adobe After Effects 8.0 Prefs
  • Adobe After Effects 8.0 Shortcuts

These can be opened with any text editor that doesn’t add its own formatting and works with Unicode. The default applications, TextEdit on the Mac and Notepad on Windows, are acceptable, although there are more full-featured alternatives. Make a safety copy before editing by simply duplicating the file (any variation in the file name causes it not to be recognized by After Effects). Revert to the safety by giving it the original file name should anything start to go haywire after the edit.

The Shortcuts file includes a bunch of comments at the top (each line begins with a # sign). The Shortcuts themselves are arranged in a very specific order that must be preserved, and if you add anything, it must be added in the right place. You can add the line

"NewEffectsLayer" = "(Cmd+Option+Y)"

or on Windows

"NewEffectsLayer" = "(Ctrl+Alt+Y)"

between NewDebugComp and NewLight—this gives you a shortcut to create a new adjustment layer. If you understand this basic format, you can change other shortcuts to be what you like. For example, if you don’t like the fact that Go To Time was changed in CS3 (apparently to align it with other Adobe applications), search for GoToTime and make your changes to the shortcut in quotes after the = sign; "(Alt+Shift+J)" becomes "(Ctrl+G)" on Windows, "(Opt+Shift+J)" becomes "(Cmd+G)" on Mac (but make sure to change the Group shortcut to something else).

Be extra careful when editing Preferences—a stray character in this file can make After Effects unstable. Most of the contents should not be touched, but here’s one example of a simple and useful edit (for studios where a dot is preferred before the number prefix instead of the underscore): change

"Sequence number prefix" = "_"

to

"Sequence number prefix" = "."

In other cases, a simple and easily comprehensible numerical value can be changed:

"Eye Dropper Sample Size No Modifier" = "1"
"Eye Dropper Sample Size With Modifier" = "5"

In many cases the value after the = is a binary yes/no value, expressed as 0 for no or 1 for yes, so if you’re nostalgic for how the After Effects render chime sounded in its first several versions, find

"Play classic render chime" = "0"

and change the 0 to a 1. Save the file, restart After Effects, and invoke nostalgic memories of past renders.

XML

After Effects CS4 projects can be saved as .aepx files. These are identical to use, but are written in plain Unicode text; you can edit them with an ordinary text editor. Most of what is in these files is untouchable, but a few strings, such as source file locations, are easily recognizable.

This feature was added for one reason only: scriptability. Anyone capable of writing scripts to, say, swap source files procedurally (and you know who you are) now has a way to get at this data without having to open After Effects in order to do it.

This feature may open the door to more easily editable properties appearing in an .aepx file in future versions of After Effects, but these files are far from the equivalent of, say, a Shake script, in which every virtually line is easily understood and potentially editable.

Memory Management

In OS X, After Effects can see and use up to 3.5 GB of physical memory. Your machine may have more total RAM than this, but most applications on a Mac are still limited to 32-bit 4 GB address spaces.

On Windows XP, the maximum amount of memory supported for a single application is 4 GB (again, using 32-bit 4 GB address spaces). According to Microsoft, however, “The virtual address space of processes and applications is still limited to 2 GB unless the /3GB switch is used in the Boot.ini file.” Editing this file is out of the scope for this book, so check out microsoft.com for specific information.

Extra memory is most helpful for multiprocessing, because each process has the just described memory potential. With multiprocessing, you could use the maximum memory on an 8 core (or more—only rumored at this writing) system.

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