After Effects 4.1 is light-years ahead of the venerable 3.1. For those unfamiliar with the tool, here's what there is to know: there are few feature films, TV show title sequences, broadcast and cable shows, and TV commercials that make it through production without being touched by After Effects. It is the animation and compositing tool of choice among the majority of working professionals, and with good reason.
After Effects is a different program to different people. For some, it is a tool for creating motion graphics for film titles. For others, it is a tool for compositing layers of animation on top of live action. And, for still others, it is ideal for creating animated textures for backgrounds, or for use as decals in a 3-D application. It can import and export almost any type of graphic format, including QuickTime movies, AVI movies, TGA sequences, TIFF sequences, and animated GIFs.
There are numerous new features with 4.1, including a project flowchart view, where one can see diagrammatically how compositions and layers are being used and which ones are nested in other comps. Also, RAM previews can now be saved to disk after previewing as QuickTime movies, and the values of effects sliders can be customized, allowing for very fine control of any effect property.
An important new feature is Collect Files. Save a copy of the project file and all imported elements into a specified folder, and you're ready for archiving or transporting to another site for rendering. Be careful with this action, though: if your project uses any large video clips, make sure you have enough free space on the destination drive to accommodate everything.
All these features (and the flexibility) come at a price: After Effects is reasonably easy to use for very simple work, but it requires some effort to master for professional-level output. Although the tutorials in the manual are enough to get one started, a good companion book for deeper learning is Classroom in a Book: Adobe After Effects from Adobe Press.
After being idle for literally years (referred to as the "3.1 years"), After Effects has rocketed through a growth spurt and is maturing into a deep and respected program. For any serious film or video animator, motion graphics artist, or compositor, this upgrade to After Effects 4.1 is must-have. --Mike Caputo--This text refers to the Mac version of this software.