This is a good-guys-finish-first story. It’s also a tonic for anyone steamed by the free-flowing dollars thrown at so many wobbly business plans in the late nineties. Our tale begins:
A decade before the tech bubble burst, several graduates of the computer sciences department at Brown University decided to form the Company of Science and Art, aka CoSA, to develop software. The few million lines of code they eventually came up with transformed an industry and placed the artist, not a facility or a studio, on center stage in the field of broadcast graphics. That’s why today, when I finish this article, I can launch an art project in After Effects and not waste a nanosecond of time looking for backers.
Rewind to Providence, R.I., in 1992 where CoSA was hunkered down in an refurbished factory. While waiting for the BIG idea, they accepted a contract job to write PACo, a PICS Animation Compiler that was bundled with Paracomp products like Swivel 3D and ModelShop (under the name QuickPICS). At around that time I was finishing a 3D test to show Spielberg and Gerry Molen at Amblin, having aroused early interest in full-motion visualization for movies. Back then I had generally offended most of Millimeter‘s traditional advertising base by championing desktop-production tools at a time when multimedia was still described as the “zero-billion-dollar-a-year” industry. My first introduction to the CoSA team came while speaking to PACo tech support, and they quickly discovered they had a kindred spirit in production and the press.
In 1992, CoSA contacted me about something called “Project Egg” but refused to divulge what it was they were cooking up. All would be explained at MacWorld in Boston, they promised. I couldn’t resist and met Dave Simmons, Dave Herbstram, and Dan Wilk in a hotel room near the convention center. I thought Dan was someone’s younger brother. They looked like they were in high school. The presentation was bare bones, but I didn’t care that I had lost an hour on the show floor when I finally grasped what they were doing. Egg was something new — a true compositing program that took advantage of the near magical alpha channel. Here was the application that was missing from the desktop, and while it had a long way to go (they didn’t know about interlace), something about the way they asked questions convinced me that Egg was in the right hands. During the next several months, I spoke with Dave Herbstram frequently, amped by the independent spirit of CoSA and eager to get my hands on the software.
Which brings us back to the reason for After Effects’ success: the engineering team. While it’s true that AE was at the right place at the right time, so were all the other less-successful desktop products that have come and gone in the 90s, including Video Fusion, AE’s first competitor (excluding certain Amiga software, that is). In the more than 10 years that I have covered digital production, I can honestly say that the AE team is the most humble and intellectually engaged of the dozens of software development teams I have known.
Dave S., Dave H., Dan, and the rest of the team were always more interested in a dialogue with sophisticated users than in pushing an agenda. As the product has grown in complexity, the spirit of exploration and collaboration remains in the alpha list, which is a gas to monitor, if only to watch as the most minute details are hashed out by some of the best desktop artists around.
I remember speaking with Dave H. before After Effects was launched at a time when the financial pressures were severe. The discussion was whether to introduce After Effects sooner with fewer high-end features just to get some revenue in the door or to tough it out and release a more complete version. Quality won. Now that I have known the team for more than a decade, I also know they are constitutionally incapable of compromise. CoSA — the name had it right, science and art. The vision has never needed an upgrade.
Millimeter wishes a happy 10th anniversary to Dave, Dave, Dan, and the legion of Adobe After Effects users who have filled the last decade with great images.