Adobe has raised the bar for motion-graphics and animation production software with its release of After Effects CS3 Professional.

Incorporating an interface that will be familiar to users of After Effects 7.0 Professional, Adobe has added impressive animation features and improved functionality to this version. It runs natively on Intel Macs and works seamlessly with other members of Adobe's new Production Premium video suite.

Adobe has obviously been listening to its users. This version adds many items that After Effects 7.0 lacked, such as the new timeline tools and true 3D animation of individual text characters.

More importantly though - at least for production professionals - is its tight integration with Adobe Photoshop CS3 Extended and Flash CS3 Professional. This version streamlines the workflow of many projects by incorporating a better import/export path, and retains more layer and effects information between After Effects and each of the other two programs.

Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional's new Brainstorm feature, which allows users to select key elements of a layer and experiment with a variety of alternative modifications and effects to it, greatly enhances the creative process. In addition, new animation features such as the vector-based Shape Layers and the Puppet tool will likely head off creative blocks for a long time.

Quite shapely

The new Shape Layers feature comes to Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional in a big way - and not just in the form of basic rectangles and ellipses - but actual scalable vector shape polygons and multipoint stars that you can modify and keyframe to create animations like never before.

Not only can you edit and animate the shapes themselves, but also the components of the shapes, including strokes, fills, roundness, dashes, gradients and more. Shape layers can contain a compound shape--a group with any number of shapes - so that animations or settings for a particular layer affect the entire group of shapes on that layer.

You can also create your own shapes using the Pen tool, which is similar to Illustrator's tool. And now, you can convert text to a Shape Layer, which means you can apply vector warping to its shape in addition to rasterised effects.

And speaking of text, you can finally move individual text characters in 3D (also called Z-space) through the animators. When Adobe released its powerful text animators in After Effects 7.0, users were ecstatic at the possibility of creating mind-blowing titles and animated text sequences - until they discovered that they could manipulate only the x and y coordinates within a text layer. With Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional that's all changed: designers now have endless new text animation possibilities.

Puppet show

Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional's new Puppet tool is intuitive and powerful, giving you the ability to take a rasterised image layer and animate it by stretching and bending character parts and limbs. This isn't just another Liquify tool on steroids, but a truly remarkable independent warp mesh that can overlap other areas of the layer, such as a hand moving in front of the body.

By using the Pin tool to mark out joints and overlays, and the Starch tool to stiffen areas of the mesh, you can animate and warp a character with either exaggerated or natural movements. Previously, the only way to do this was to create several layers and try to distort them individually. The organic motion that the Puppet tool creates with a graphic layer is truly phenomenal.

Creative smorgasbord

The new Brainstorm feature in Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional helps you avoid creative ruts. If you select various layer and effects properties and then click on the Brainstorm button, the program gives you a number of possible size, shape, colour or motion options that you can refine and change as you select new criteria.

It provides more than just a random selection of colourisation or layout options - you get a previsualisation grid of animated variations utilising all the elements of the selected layers. From that grid, you choose the option that you want to apply.

Photoshop Extended integration

Never before have Adobe After Effects and Photoshop been as closely integrated as they are in this new video production suite. With its Photoshop-like Layer Styles, editable PSD Video Layers, and Vanishing Point 3D scenes, working between the two applications is swift and efficient. Many of the features in Photoshop's effects can be animated on the After Effects timeline - a huge time-saver.

Previously, you had to animate layer style effects in ImageReady and export a QuickTime movie into After Effects. Now you can apply and animate individual effects such as light angle, bevel, and strokes on layers and text with ease, while retaining all of the layer's transparency and 3D properties.

One element of the feature remains slightly disappointing, however. The layer style effects from your PSD layers do not transfer directly into Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional's layer styles. You have the option, upon importing the file, to either commit the effects applied to the layer and render them into the layer image data or ignore the effects altogether and reapply a similar setting in After Effects. This workaround is doable, but it's not quite a 100 percent effective yet. We're hoping Adobe will resolve this in future revisions.

Rotoscoping is also much easier with the new integration of PSD Video Layers. You can seamlessly import Photoshop Extended Video Layers, allowing you to go back and forth between the two applications to fine-tune your rotoscope editing or layer animations. The cloning and paint tools are much improved as well.