The missing Link

Amazingly, in the recent craziness about After Effects feature requests one big gaping hole is the absence of the graph editor. That’s not entirely unexpected, as it is actually quite indicative of its state, which is most of the time one of two extremes.

  • Your projects are simple enough that animation can be handled without ever opening up the graph editor, meaning you use simple keys and at best the keyframe assistants for easing.
  • You actually would love to create complex animations (especialyl when 3D is involved), but you eventually get so frustrated, you klutz things together or give up and move on to your 3D package or use tools like Sure Target to do the work.

So where does it go wrong? A major part of the problem is After Effects rigid property stream model and the resulting mess it ensues in the application interface. Over the years, the timeline has gotten crowded and squeezing in the graph editor doesn’t make things better, either. This is compounded by the program’s equally rigid interface and navigation which in itself is a result of the user having no control over keyboard shortcuts and mouse behavior plus no way of having multiple instances of the same panel. Another problem is that the program does not persistently deal with properties/channels and their selection states. It’s too easy to accidentally select and deselect things and there is no way to create selection groups. So what needs to be done to make things better?

  • The graph editor and timeline need to become instancaeable panels that can each have their own view. This is a common thing in most 3D programs like Cinema 4D or Maya these days and it hugely helps when you need to animate multiple items in teh same scene.
  • We need to be able to store complex selections as named selection sets, so we can restore the pertinent graphs without manually having to select 500 properties on 100 layers.
  • The user must be able to configure shortcut keys more flexibly and, which is the actual point, they must obey the context of the current panel. Wouldn’t it be great to just use the arrow keys to nudge the keyframes rather than hving them always tied to nudging position? Also having dedicated keys for framing the selected keyframes zooming quickly the entire timeline as opposed to just having them as icons would greatly speed up navigation.

In addition to the above points, there are a few other things that could/ should be done to enhance the experience.

  • The user should be able to define custom colors. Many times when dealing with multiple single value properties you end up with just a pink or brown blob of curves, so it’s not much use.
  • The graphs look just "fat" and they probably are. The user should be able to control their width and turn off antialiasing, which is what I’ve always preferred.
  • Reference graphs should be drawn ghosted or in another line style to distinguish them from the currently active graph. It would also be nice to have persistent snapshots that are permanently shown even when nothing is selected.
  • Graphs need to be cached to improve performance. When you exceed a certain number of keys, it just gets slow. That’s especialyl true when data has been generated with tracking, keyframing plug-ins like Trapcode Soundkeys, keyframe assistants, scripts or expressions baked to keyframes. In the latter case it also means that the results of expressions themselves need to be cached or expressions get 20 times faster in their evaluation to draw the graphs more speedily.

Anything else? I’m sure there’s several things I forgot to mention, but as anyone can see, there’s quite a few things that can be done. Many of them touch of course on other parts of the program, so one should not expect easy solutions overnight, but in the greater view, it’s the sum of all these tiny changes that would considerably improve the experience…

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