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Is After Effects used in movies?

September 1, 2020

Everyone using Adobe AE regularily knows that it is a great tool in its fields of animation, visual effects, and motion picture compositing. But have any Hollywood movies ever used After Effects? I have heard people calling AE being at the “low end” of video production. Meaning that it is only being used to fancy up wedding videos or to blend in lower thirds at you local TV station. (For those that don’t know: a lower third is the text in the bottom part of your screen, that explains to you, that John and Mary are professional hamster groomers and have a combined budget of $17.4 Million for their new house). On the other hand, people that have been working with AE for many years and dove deep into it’s many features will continualy amaze you with its stunning visual abilities. So the question is, does Hollywood use After Effects for VFX at all?

I had to dig deep into the world wide web and search for answers to this question. My first stop was the official Adobe forum where former Adobe employee Todd Kopriva had this to say:

After Effects is used in many feature films. It’s used together with other tools to create and/or composite elements in a lot of visual-effects-heavy movies.

I took a look at the examples he mentions, found a lot more myself and also sources that added details about the usage of AE in all these projects. But first I researched about two other topics Todd mentioned in the Forum: that there is an Emmy winning miniseries and even an Oscar winning movie that both used AE for their VFX. So let’s have a look at these two outstanding examples of productions that have used After Effects first.

Are major productions using AE?

While technicaly not a movie, the HBO miniseries John Adams is an example of a big budget project, where After Effects was used for special effects. The show even won an Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects For A Miniseries, Movie Or A Special in 2008.

For those of you interested in more information about the creation of the VFX in John Adams, go visit this article about it on fxguide.com.

I also found a podcast for you, where “Mike Seymour and John Flowers discuss the visual effects in the Emmy-winning TV Miniseries John Adams“.

Finally there is this in-depth discussion with VFX artist Jeff Foster about the HBO production of John Adams as part of the LinkedIn Learning course: After Effects: Advanced Compositing Tracking and Roto Techniques. At the time I’m writing this, they’re offering a free month trial, so you can sign up for that for more information on the topic.

The TV Series John Adams has used After Effects to edit its Backgrounds

Has a film that used After Effects ever won an Oscar?

An Oscar-winning example of a movie that has used After Effetcs is the animated short Tsumiki no ie (The house of small cubes or also known as La maison en petits cubes). It managed to win the Academy Award in 2009.

Tsumiki no ie is a beautiful film, with beautiful illustrations by director Kunio Kato and a lovely score by Kenji Kondo. All of the artwork, including the backgrounds, is hand-drawn, and the animation was assembled very simply, using Photoshop and After Effects.

Andrew Farago
Tsumiki no ie is a movie that used After Effects and won an Oscar

The whole movie is only 12 minutes long and can be found entierly on YouTube (although not from a source affiliated with the original production and therefore probably not actually a “legal upload”). While Tsumiki no ie is probably not a houshold name, our next movie is something most of you have heard of, or know at least the big names in it.

The Aviator (2004)

Martin Scorsese’s movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio is another Oscar winning example of films that used Adobe After Effects. This is what director Ron Ames had to say:

… the real ‘Rosetta stone’ for us was Adobe After Effects. Everything went through that at some point.

Here’s an interview with The Aviator’s VFX Supervisor Rob Legato about the use of Adobe AE:

Oscar-winning VFX Supervisor Rob Legato talks about the use of AE in the film The Aviator

Hollywood movies, that used After Effects

A first search only revealed fractions of the movies that actually used Adobe After Effects for their VFX. I had a big breakthrough when I discovered that Hollywood visual effects specialist Todd Vaziri has worked on A LOT of movies everybody knows. He has talked about his usage of After Effects on many occasions. He probably has used AE on most, if not all his projects. I will list all movies he worked on where I could find a confirmation that he had, in fact, used Adobe After Effects.

Doctor Dolittle (1998)

After Effects was used in this project for cleaning up the animal shots by removing leashes, marks and waving trainers. Then they used AE to fill in the bluescreen mattes and to create the illusion that Eddie Murphy is actuelly near a tiger. Here are two Articles with details about the process.

American Pie (1999)

After Effects was mainly used to edit the scenes where Jim uses his computer to spy on naked Nadja. Articles about the production and the scenes that were edited with AE can be found here and here.

Driven (2001)

Racing movie featuring Sylvester Stallone and Burt Reynolds. Composition supervisor Todd Vaziri confirms he used After Effects here.

Hulk (2003)

Todd Vaziri talks about “the blackout shoot” from 2003’s Hulk, done in AE.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2003)

According to Wikipedia, “most of the post-production work was done on Mac workstations using After Effects for compositing”.

Van Helsing (2004)

Van Helsing is one major movie that is known to have used Adobe After Effects. Starring Hugh Jackmann and Kate Beckinsale, the film follows the adventures of the monster hunter Van Helsing and features Vampires, Werewolfs and Frankensteins’s Monster. Lead Compositor Todd Vaziri said that “several hundreds of shots have been created for the movie in After Effects.” He also has an encouraging message for everybody new to learning AE:

It’s relativly easy to learn. (…) If you know Photoshop, you’re more than half-way there. It’s basicly Photoshop with keyframes.

Since Van Helsing was released in 2004, he was probably using AE 6.0 (not CS6 – which was released in 2012) which is long before I started using After Effects and therefore it probably looks quite different from todays AE – but that’s a story for different article.

Todd Vaziri about using After Effects in the 2004 Movie Van Helsing

Transformers (2003)

Todd Vaziri had this to say about the usage of After Effects in the production of the 2003 Blockbuster Transformers:

There were a couple all-2D shots that I did almost entirely in AE, which is something I like to do at least once on every ILM show I work on.

Todd Vaziri

Avatar (2009)

Casey Schatz, Dan Neufeldt and Stephen Lawes talk about the usage of AE in the production of James Cameron’s Avatar.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

In this production After Effects was used to “… create the animated projection map that included the actors, as well as lots of background mist and general atmosphere”.

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

You can find more details about After Effects being used in this film in an Interview with Andrew Kramer about the VFX in the 2013 film Star Trek: Into Darkness here.

Tomorrowland (2013)

Jorge Almeida shows the UIs he created with Photoshop and After Effects for the movie with George Clooney here. Rudy Vessup shows the Holographic Kiosks he created for the film with the help of AE here.

List of Movies that used After Effects

The website shotonwhat.com gives you 108 search results for Adobe After Effects. Sadly I recogniced only 19 of those movies. The rest seemed either low budget (which brings us back to the claim from the start, about AE being “low end”) or foreign films. I composed a list of all those recognisable titles and the confirmed movies from above and sorted them by release date:

Titanic1997
Doctor Dolittle1998
American Pie1999
O Brother, Where Art Thou?2000
Driven2001
Hulk2003
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow2003
Van Helsing2004
The Aviator2004
Sin City2005
Rush Hour 32007
Public Enemies2009
X-Men Origins: Wolverine2009
The Social Network2010
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader2010
The Fighter2010
Black Swan2010
Iron Man 22010
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time2010
Captain America: The First Avenger2011
Source Code2011
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo2011
Limitless2011
Prometheus2012
The Bourne Legacy2012
Battleship2012
List of movies, that used Adobe After Effects

So, is After Effects used in movies?

Adobe After Effects is definetly used in movies and moreso, it is commonly used in Hollywood big budget productions for VFX. The examples I found are surely not all movies, that used AE in their post-production. Unfortunately it is not easy finding the titles that used After Effects, so these are only the few examples I could find in three days of research. Surely there are many more, that I didn’t find. A lot of opening & title sequences are composed with After Effects without its explicit mentioning.

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