There is occasionally some confusion among animators about the benefits/ differences between using After Effects and Flash. Some prefer one over the other and tend to dismiss the other outright. Today, I’ll try to clear up some of the confusion.
Let’s start with After Effects. This is a very powerful program that I consider to be “Photoshop for Video”. You can import video clips and graphics, put them into layers, then apply effects and filters to these layers. The interface is in some ways similar to Photoshop with one major difference: After Effects has a timeline. You can animate the layers, filters, effects etc., over time. When you are done, you export your project as a Quicktime movie. After Effects was built primarily for television, and supports export to both traditional NTSC resolution as well as HDTV. Just be sure you know your target resolution before you start your project! As anyone familiar with Photoshop knows, you can always scale something down but never up. One of my favorite things about After Effects is it’s 3D engine. It is fairly basic but also powerful. It allows you to manipulate layers or a composition camera along the Z axis in 3D space. This can lead to very exciting animations that I’m sure you’ve seen in countless television commercials. There are also some incredible third party plugins that take advantage of the 3D engine, such as Trapcode’s Particular, a particle generation system whose somewhat intimidating interface allows you to control every aspect of the particle, from shape to lifespan. Here is an example of this. So basically if you have video footage that you need to add titles or effects to, and your output is television, After Effects is probably your best bet.
Now on to Flash. Flash was developed specifically for the web, and all of it’s attributes work towards that goal. While you can import bitmapped images, stream video etc., Flash really shines when dealing with vector graphics. These kinds of graphics load quickly and can scale up without losing any quality. The compiled SWF file is optimized and compressed in order to load quickly in someone’s browser. This was especially critical in the days of dial-up, when waiting for a Flash movie to load could be painfully slow. Flash, like After Effects, also has a timeline that allows you to animate objects over time. Flash is actually preferred by a lot of character animators, even those working for television, because of the ease of it’s animation tools as well as another reason: Actionscript. Actionscript allows animators to control many facets of animation via code. This can be a huge timesaver especially when your talking about animating several objects at once. While After Effects does allow for some rudimentary scripting, it’s nowhere near as robust as Actionscript.
Ok, so this pretty much sums it up; After Effects for TV and Flash for the web, right? Not so fast. Flash is nipping at the heels of After Effects and here’s why. First, Flash is getting much better at displaying streaming video, and the latest version of Flash player even supports HD quality. As more and more people watch television programs on the internet, using a program that can provide the best quality at the smallest file size will be the winner. Instead of going from video to After Effects to Flash, why not go straight from video to Flash? you might be saying hey, what about those fancy 3D animations and filters that After Effects has going for it? Flash can’t do that. The short answer to this is : not yet, but it’s coming. People right now are working on incredible 3D engines for Flash, such as Papervison 3D. You can check out their demo reel here. While these engines are still in the pre-alpha stages, they show some of the possibilities of 3D within Flash. A recent example of a demo Andy Zupko did of an rotating cube with animated Filters is truly astounding, and looks like it was done in After Effects. So for now, the conventional wisdom of AE for TV and Flash for the Web holds true. But as television and the web continue to converge, that could not hold true for much longer.