After Effects: revisiting feature requests from 2008

I asked Adobe for lots of things about 10 years ago. What’s happened since then?

June 2008 seems like a long time ago now. Adobe had only just released After Effects CS3 and I was mostly working on a G5 PowerMac. Four gigabytes of RAM seemed like an awful lot. George W Bush was the US President and the Apple iPhone was only 1 year old – a month later in July Apple would release the iPhone 3G, but that was still a secret.

Just a quick reminder about June 2008… After Effects came in a box, the iPhone was at version 1, and the US President was George W Bush.

What Apple did announce in June 2008 was the name of their next operating system – “Snow Leopard”. At the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference a few details trickled out – most significantly, the announcement that Snow Leopard wouldn’t introduce any major new features, but rather focus on performance and “under the hood” improvements.

When I read the various Apple news reports I started to wonder – what if Adobe took the same approach with After Effects? What if the next release skipped any major new features and instead focused on performance and small improvements? I thought it was worth daydreaming about.

Just for fun, I posted the idea on the After Effects email list, and asked for suggestions for minor feature requests that would make everyday work faster and easier. I remember finding the responses interesting, as there were several things I had never thought of. It was a good reminder that After Effects is used by lots of different people in lots of different situations. After a week or two, I compiled the suggestions together and emailed the list to Adobe, and received a thank-you email from Michael Coleman, the After Effects product manager at the time.

It’s not quite 10 years later, but last week Adobe announced the latest releases of their major CC apps, including After Effects. As usual with such a major update, it takes time to go through all the new features and work out what’s new and what’s changed. There are videos to watch, blogs to read, twitter posts to examine and so on. Right now, I’m not even sure what it’s called. Is it After Effects CC 2018? The update appeared on my Windows machine as just After Effects CC…

Whatever the name, how does the latest version of After Effects stack up against the list of feature requests I sent to Adobe almost 10 years ago? Let’s go through the list and see. Bear in mind that this is a list of suggestions from a range of different people, so there’s some overlap and a little ambiguity. I’ve loosely grouped them together according to the part of After Effects they apply to.



Moving/dragging interface tabs around can be “undone”
I used to think this looked better than the current After Effects interface. I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

It’s hard to remember, but After Effects didn’t always look the way it did. Adobe gave AE a major interface revamp with version 7, but many users – myself included – initially hated the radical change and resisted the upgrade.

Eventually After Effects CS3 was released which prompted us to upgrade and grapple with the new look and feel, and it really was a big leap from the old floating-windows of After Effects 6.5. But while it now seems 2nd nature, dragging those tabs and palettes around took a bit of getting used to. It was easy to accidentally drag something to a new place, or close a panel you didn’t mean to, or basically just click in the wrong spot and find your workspace layout had become all messed up. Unlike changes to the timeline, these changes to the interface layout couldn’t be fixed with an “undo”.

Nearly ten years later it’s still easy to accidentally mess up your favourite workspace with an errant click, but can you “undo” workspace layout changes in the latest version of After Effects? Still no.

Verdict: Still waiting…

a colour swatch palette
It’s fair to say that we got more than we asked for! The Photoshop swatches palette is on the left, the Kuler panel in After Effects on the right also includes tools to create colour schemes.

In 2008, the majority of the work I was doing involved motion graphics for large corporate clients with strict brand guidelines. Clients generally had a small, rigidly defined colour palette to work from, but After Effects had no way of saving colours for easy and repeated selection, in the way that Photoshop and Illustrator did. With CC 2014, Adobe introduced the Kuler panel, which finally gave users a color swatch panel but also much, much more. While the Kuler panel is above and beyond the expectations of any AE user who just wanted the same swatch panel that Photoshop had, it’s unfortunate that Adobe hid this awesome new feature away in the “Extensions” sub-menu, so many users are probably unaware it’s there.

Verdict: We got it, but they’ve done their best to hide it from us…


colour labels for composition tabs…
After Effects used to be monochrome, but colour – and colour labels – slowly crept in over time. The lower image is from a time where layers could be given a colour label, but not the actual composition.

Using colour labels has become an essential part of my workflow, but if you go back far enough there was a time when the entire AE interface was monochrome. At some point, After Effects included colour labels for layers in a composition, but presumably there was a period where you couldn’t assign a colour label to the composition itself. But AFAIK, compositions have been able to have colour labels for some time now…

Verdict: Yes thanks!


colour labels for effects

…but there’s no way to assign a colour label to an effect. If you don’t use colour labels to organize your projects then this is probably pretty meaningless to you – but to those of us who do, they are an essential organizational tool. The “Select label group” function is one of those powerful workflow features that isn’t immediately obvious but can save an enormous amount of time and frustration. Perhaps a future version of AE will allow individual effects to have colour labels – but so far it’s a no go.

Verdict: No, not yet.


Plugins & Effects:

 a list of favourite effects

While After Effects has allowed you to save your own presets for many years, the plugins themselves are always listed in same groups in the “Effects” menu. In the same way that many applications keep a track of recent documents opened, and After Effects keeps a track of recently imported footage, it would be nice to have a list of recently used effects. So far, however, that’s yet to appear.

Verdict: Still waiting…

Make obsolete plugins (eg Basic 3D) an optional install. Weed out older, redundant and inferior plugins.  For example- why is there a CC Toner AND a Tritone?  Do we still need a fast blur AND a Gaussian blur?  The CC Power Pin is much better than the older Corner Pin, the “Hue/Saturation” effect is miles better than the “Colour Balance (HLS)” effect etc

Over the years, Adobe has bought software from other companies (or just bought the company) and also licensed existing plugins from 3rd parties so they come included with the basic install. Along the way, some older plugins have been superseded and others have duplicate functionality. In recent years, Adobe HAVE started to address this issue, by introducing the “Obsolete” menu. And while there is the potential to do more with the way duplicate functions are handled – and they confused a lot of people by changing the Gaussian Blur and Fast Blur effects recently – they seem to at least be aware of the problem.
Verdict: Well I guess they’ve made a start.

a histogram in the “curves” effect

A lot of After Effects users – myself included – complained about the “old” curves effect. It wasn’t that great, and when benchmarked against the “levels” effect it was incredibly slow. In a rare move, Adobe publically announced they were going to completely overhaul the Curves effect and even asked for suggestions as to how it could be better. The “new” curves effect is fast, has a great scalable interface, and is generally much easier to use. While it doesn’t have all of the features everyone may have asked for, it’s vastly improved over the old one. I use it every day. But does it have a histogram? No, no it doesn’t…

Verdict: Still waiting… if they haven’t done it now, they’ll probably never do it. I’ll just keep on using the levels effect after the curves effect just for the histogram…

give all plugins a consistent edge crop and blend-with-original option (like the way all Tinderbox plugins do)

Tinderbox was one of the first 3rd party plugins I owned, but they were sadly bought by GenArts and then discontinued (I assume some of the technology made its way into Sapphire, GenArts existing plugin range). One feature that helped make the Tinderbox plugins feel professional was the way every plugin had identical controls to crop edges, resize the layer if needed, and to blend with the original image. While some After Effects plugins have some of these features, it was the consistency across all Tinderbox plugins which helped them feel like a high-end tool.

Compositing options – I love them!

Adobe addressed this with the CC 2014 release – which gave all effects a “compositing option” to fade the strength of the effect, and also the ability to use masks to isolate where an effect was applied to an image.

In CC 2017, Adobe went one step further and now every plugin that references another layer can now be controlled to see the layer either before or after effects have been applied.

Verdict: Yes thank you! The “compositing options” are very powerful and the improvements to compound effects in CC 2017 were an unexpected bonus.

a depth shadow effect (not sure what this means, maybe an extruded shadow, not a drop shadow?)

Remembering that this list is a bunch of suggestions from several people, I’m not actually sure what the person who suggested “depth shadow” really meant. But since After Effects introduced Layer Styles from Photoshop, which offer more options for shadows (as well as bevels and all the other layer style goodness) I’m going to assume that’s what they meant.

Verdict: Well we got layer styles, which are pretty cool. I guess that’s what you meant?


Fonts & Type:

a reset button on the character palette (but please don’t reset the font, it’s annoying)

If you’re jumping between different motion graphics projects, it’s common to be working with many different fonts, and many different character settings.   Font size, leading, tracking and so on can be radically different between projects and when changing to another project it can be easy to miss settings in the character palette that should have been adjusted. Maybe (just hypothetically… it happened to a friend of mine) you’ve spent hours working on an awesome typography layout only to realize that all the text is superscript… or faux bold… or set to 110% wide. A quick button to reset the character palette would help avoid these sorts of issues.

While there isn’t a clickable button to reset all of the parameters in the character panel, you can choose reset from the character palette’s contextual menu. I’m not sure if this has always been there, but it’s good to know. The fact that the person who requested this specifically asked for the reset button not to reset the font suggests they knew about the menu option but really, really wanted a button to press.

Verdict: There’s a reset option in the contextual menu, but whoever suggested this really wanted a button.

keyframable text palette parameters

Animating text is one of the core uses for After Effects, and so it stands to reason that the text animation tools are incredibly powerful. The problem is that they are SO powerful that even basic text animation can be complicated, or just plain overwhelming. Common text treatments such as animated tracking require the user to manually add a text animator and potentially deal with selecting ranges and so on. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to animate simple parameters like font size, leading and tracking without having to dive into the world of text animators? To date, Adobe hasn’t agreed.

Verdict: Still waiting…

make the default kerning optical (PLEASE! At least an option in preferences…)

In my experience, optical kerning nearly always looks better.

Verdict: Still waiting…

include fonts with the “collect files” function

Such a common and obvious request, and I can only assume that the reason it hasn’t been done is to do with legal issues surrounding the distribution of fonts. It’s also possible that Adobe’s push to the Creative Cloud TypeKit means they see that as a solution for font problems.

Verdict: Still waiting…

put all fonts used in a project at the top of the font list (as well as in alphabetical order)
Seriously Adobe, frickin’ accountants using frickin’ spreadsheets had it better than us for years!

This is something that Microsoft Office products have done for years, and it’s great. Especially for those of us who spend weeks at a time working with the same font, or sets of fonts, it’s amazing that an application that is used so heavily for text animation has lacked an easy way to identify which fonts are being used in the current project.  Really, how come accountants have had features in their spreadsheets that people who animate text for a living didn’t?  It’s just embarrassing.

Verdict: Hooray! Thanks Adobe, they’ve overhauled fonts and the font menu with the latest release.



keyframable/ trackable mask axis

While Adobe have continued to add features to masks since it was released, it’s been up to 3rd party scripts to fill various voids and enable new ways to manipulate or work with masks. While there was a time when you could only have one mask per layer, the most recent release of After Effects now provides access to individual path points on a mask through expressions.

Verdict: Yes thanks Adobe! Christmas came early this year.

per-vertex mask feather

This powerful feature was added in CS 6. My own personal observation, however, is that lots of people asked for it but when it finally arrived not so many people actually used it. When you need it, though, it’s invaluable.

Verdict: Yes thanks Adobe! It’s there for when we need it.



separate X,Y & Z position keyframes

While useful in so many situations, it’s especially useful when animating a camera.  Separating out the X,Y & Z helps take the WTF out of 3D keyframing.

Verdict: Yes thanks Adobe!

adjust and save your own “ease” settings as keyframe assistants

The velocity of keyframes is what gives animation its personality. You could say that the “design” in motion graphics design comes down to velocity curves. While the default “easy ease” helps make animations smoother with the press of a button (I press F9 many time a day…) the default values can make your animations feel a bit generic. Being able to set and save presets for your own favourite “ease” settings would be a huge bonus, and if you have a project where the overall “feel” comes from using specific velocity curve values, it would save lots of tedious clicking and typing.

Verdict: Still waiting…

solids have their colour keyframable without using the fill effect

At first glance this might seem like a flippant request, but remember that this list was made in 2008 and After Effects CS3 was a lot more restrictive than it is now in terms of rendering order and the way compound effects worked (and see above for the compositing options now available). But in 2008 there would have been cases where changing the colour of a solid without having to use an effect would have been very useful. So while it’s clear that this feature hasn’t been implemented, other more significant features to the After Effects rendering pipeline have possibly made this request redundant.

Verdict: Still waiting, but we’ll give Adobe a pass on this one

a button to move a layer to the centre of the composition

While After Effects has had an “align” panel for a long time, it was overhauled with CS 5 and gained the ability to align layers relative to the composition. Technically, to centre a layer you have to click twice – once for the horizontal and once for the vertical axis – but we’ll give Adobe a tick for this one.

Verdict: Yes thanks Adobe!

a button to reset the anchor point of a layer to the centre
a button to add a keyframe from within the effects palette

These requests are perfect examples of the types of workflow enhancements I was looking for, when I made the analogy between Apple’s approach to Snow Leopard and what I thought Adobe could do with After Effects. They sound so simple yet so useful – but so far neither of these features has been added.

Verdict: No, not yet. But check AEscripts…



user-defined keyboard shortcuts

With so many apps offering this feature there’s little to add except to note how long it’s taken to arrive. The very latest release, CC 2018, finally brings keyboard mapping to After Effects.

Verdict: Yes thanks Adobe! Christmas came early this year.

adding a preference for the level of detail used by pixelmotion, so you can adjust the quality of time-remapped footage without resorting to using Timewarp.

 This is an interesting suggestion, but it will need some explanation. When Adobe licensed the technology behind The Foundry’s “Kronos” plugin and introduced it to After Effects, they also introduced a level of ambiguity and misunderstanding with their terminology. Firstly, there’s the “timewarp” effect, applied to a layer from the effects menu. But there’s also the term “pixelmotion”, which is enabled by cycling through the frame-blending options in the timeline window. Behind the scenes, they’re doing the same thing – you can think of “pixelmotion” as the timewarp effect, but instead of being applied as an effect and being controlled by the parameters in the effects palette, it’s automatically and invisibly enabled by setting the frame-blending button to the appropriate setting.

But as anyone who has ever used pixelmotion/timewarp can tell you – the results aren’t always perfect. But if a layer isn’t rendering quite right with pixelmotion, the next step is to jump into the full-blown timewarp effect and play around with all the parameters.  Wouldn’t it be nice and easy if there was a simple way of adjusting some of the pixelmotion settings globally, in the preferences panel, so that the user has a basic level of control over pixel motion.  That way, minor artefacts can be fixed without having to change to the timewarp effect.

Verdict: Still waiting…



3D reflections

Difficult to comment on this one. On one hand, obviously Adobe hasn’t given us 3D reflections inside the After Effects timeline. As After Effects is basically a 2D transformation engine, it’s unlikely they ever will. But they have given us increasingly powerful Cinema 4D integration, and bundled the lite version with the basic AE install. So if you think of Cinema 4D as the solution to this feature request, then Adobe have delivered it with bells on.

Verdict: I’ll just say a big thank you for the Cinema 4D integration.

re-ordering queued items in the render queue when the current render is paused

Once you hit that “render” button, After Effects effectively locks you out of doing anything else until it’s finished. If you have lots of long, intensive compositions queued up then this can mean leaving your machine running for hours, or even overnight. Unfortunately, if your priorities change after you’ve started rendering and you want to change the order that compositions are rendered, you have to stop the whole process in order to be able to move items in the queue. It would save a lot of frustration if you could change the order of queued up renders without having to stop the current one.

Verdict: Still waiting…

saving or locking old render queue information

The render queue isn’t just a blue bar that shows how long you’ve got to watch cats on YouTube before you can get back to work. It’s also a record of what you’ve rendered, where you’ve rendered it to, and when you did it. Looking through the render queue panel can solve the mystery of how to fill in your timesheets, where to find that file you’ve lost, or whether “final final” came before or after “final master fixed”. Being able to save the render queue information or even lock it (locking in file paths for compositions would be very useful) allows this valuable data to be saved for future reference.

Verdict: Still waiting…


…and more!

overhaul the “Pre-compose” function, at the very least to include options for the behaviors which are currently only available through scripts
If it wasn’t for AEscripts, I would be insane by now…

Pre-composing can be a necessary evil in After Effects, but for such a fundamental workflow tool the options were always limited. With many 3rd party scripts available to add more power and functionality to After Effects’ basic functionality, Adobe added a trim feature to CC 2014, but nothing more. Luckily, there are all sorts of 3rd party scripts out there to help you pre-compose exactly as you want to.

Verdict: Still waiting… best to head over to AEscripts.

an integrated scripting/ expressions environment

Expressions – love them or hate them, they’re essential to many people. But despite their power, you’re still stuck with a simple text box that’s not even easy to resize. If you move up to scripting, at least you have the Adobe ExtendScript toolkit app to help things feel more professional – but it’s hardly integrated with After Effects itself. Many users find expressions and scripting hard enough without being restricted to a tiny text box that has basic problems with copying & pasting text. It could be better…

Verdict: Still waiting for it to be easier to write expressions. The ExtendScript Toolkit is OK for scripters, but not exactly integrated.


real time scopes in Synthetic Aperture

Color Finesse is awesome but its integration with After Effects has never felt completely seamless.  But the real problem with this request is that it depends on what you mean by “real time”.  After Effects isn’t a real-time app, although there’s RAM previews.  I do use Colour Finesse a bit and from what I can see, the scopes do update when you play clips within the colour finesse interface – but the playback itself is hardly what you would call real-time.  But maybe that in itself is an improvement from 2008.  I just don’t know.

However when Adobe released CC 2017 they included Lumetri, a new colour correction tool ported over from Premiere that brings scopes to the regular AE interface.  Hooray! I’m going to guess that Lumetri is the future…

Verdict: I don’t know about Colour Finesse, but we got Lumetri. Close enough?

dynamic project structure system, with project folders linked to the file system

This is one of those power-features that makes perfect sense to one group of users, but probably has others scratching their head. Basically, this request means that instead of each user manually organizing their After Effects project by creating and naming folders, importing assets etc etc, After Effects would do this all automatically by copying the folder structure and files from somewhere on your computer. If you’re working on a network drive and someone adds a new folder or a new render on the network, everyone’s After Effects project would automatically (dynamically) update and maintain sync with the master folder. If this sounds useful then let Adobe know, because they haven’t implemented this yet.

Verdict: Still waiting…


And finally…


Yeah. Ha. Well somehow I’ve written 3,000 words on all these feature requests to date, and I could easily write another 3,000 just on layer groups alone. But let’s just say – they’re still not here. Let’s hope it’s not another 8 years before we finally get them.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

So it’s approaching ten years since that list was emailed to Adobe and much has changed since then. The integration with Premiere has created entire new workflows for some users, and the integration with Cinema 4D has had – and will continue to have – a major impact on the motion graphics industry. And in 2008 who thought VR would become a thing?

But there’s still plenty of room for improvement.  Sometimes, those of us who rely on After Effects every working day don’t need or even want the next big headline feature.  We just want a few little tweaks to the sorts of inefficient things that we continue to do every day, to help make our lives easier. And layer groups.  We really want them.

I’ll dive into CC 2018 over the next few weeks and no doubt I’ll notice many improvements and new features.  But there’s always room to go back to the very basics of how After Effects works and make those little tweaks.  Are you listening, Adobe?


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Chris was born a geek, and was lucky enough to own a Commodore 64 at a time when the number of students at his primary school who owned a computer could be counted on one…
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