Which One Is Right for You?
Take a look at the differences between Fusion and After Effects, so you can decide which one is right for you. Let’s go!
Whether it’s RED vs. Blackmagic, Sennheiser vs. RØDE, or Fusion vs. After Effects, there’s rarely just one application to get the job done—whatever that job may be. Likewise, while you’ll find the process of transferring your ideas into reality the same, the execution will differ slightly from tool to tool. You may find yourself using different camera color science, accommodating for a different polar pattern with the microphone, or in the case of Fusion vs. After Effects, using layers instead of nodes.
With that, let’s look at the differences between the two software, so you can decide which is right for you.
What Exactly Is After Effects and Fusion?
Both Blackmagic Fusion and Adobe After Effects are post-production software focusing on image compositing and motion graphics. In principle, you can do 95% of everything in Fusion and vice versa. However, it may be fair to say that Fusion offers greater strength in 3D compositing, while After Effects holds a larger share of motion designer and animation components. Equally, it’s important to note that we’re not comparing vastly different software, like Photoshop vs. After Effects. For the most part, the choice you make will depend on the type of post-work you’re creating and the workflow you’re already embedded in.
Please note, throughout the article I will embed various basic tutorials that are worth watching if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology being discussed.
Fusion vs. Resolve Fusion
Before looking at core differences between Fusion and After Effects, we need to distinguish that there are two variations of Fusion. Fusion Studio, the standalone software, and the Fusion page found within DaVinci Resolve (both free and studio versions of Resolve). For the most part, both versions look and operate the same with only slight variations. Blackmagic has already created a list that compares the two software, and given the length of the list, I advise you to check out that page.
As you can see in the screenshot, for the most part, the features in the Resolve software have many of the same features found in the standalone version, but there are several omissions in Resolve.
Additionally, because Resolve houses the editing, audio, and color grading platform, you may find Resolve studio slightly slower in response time than the standalone software in bootup time. However, do note, if you own a license to the Studio version of Resolve, you can also download and use the Studio version of Fusion at no extra cost.
After Effects’ Layers-Based Compositing
It’s no secret that After Effects and Fusion share many similarities. However, there’s perhaps no more significant difference than in how you compose in each software.
After Effects works on a layer-based system. This means each image element is stacked on top of each other, and are displayed in descending order. This, in both a physical and literal space, makes the most sense to look at.
As seen in the example above, we can see that the YES.png sits at the top of the layer stack and is visible first. The background mountains layer sits at the bottom of the layer stack. To some degree, layer-based compositing can be compared to classic cel-animated movies created before animation became digital. This is where the characters were drawn on transparent film and placed on top of a painted background.
The layer structure is perfect for motion design and animation as it allows you to visually assess the graphical elements in a manner reminiscent of old-school animation. And often, because of the visual nature of layers, you’ll find it works to your advantage, like animators flipping back and forth between animation cells.
Applying Effects in After Effects
In After Effects, when you apply an effect or transform a property to a layer, it’s not visually displayed on the UI until you select the affected layer. From there, the effect can be manipulated.
This can often be confusing when you have multiple layers with various effects, as it can become challenging to find what layer is doing what. For example, in the image below, each layer has a number generator, and each generator is driven by its own individual properties. Finding the right effect in this manner can be tedious.
Fusion’s Node-Based Compositing
Fusion, however, works with a node-based compositing (NBC) system. Your first glance at a completed flow graph can easily send you back to the more primitive layers found in After Effects. It’s easy to read what’s in your timeline and where that layer is applied within the composition with layers. However, the moment you learn how to read a node flowchart, which will be in a few sentences, it’ll make it all the clearer and perhaps more favorable than After Effects.
While After Effects is visually laid out in a stacked presentation, you read an NBC horizontally from left to right—from your input node to the output node. If you were to apply nothing more than a single effect to your media, the flowchart remains relatively simple and easy to understand. But, as soon as you apply effects and transform properties, it starts looking like a mechanics diagram, which quickly loses people. However, all you have to recognize is that each node has its own processing operation.
A node could be several things. It could be a thumbnail that represents the clip on the edit page, a compositing operation, or an individual tool like a glow effect.
However, unlike After Effects, where you place each layer on top of each other, in Fusion you draw connections between the input and output of the nodes. The order in which you connect the nodes will affect processing operations.
While it looks like node-based compositing is stacked with many moving elements, it’s just each element of the composition having a specific node operation that flows through the entire composition.
This is the primary determent away from After Effects. In the Adobe software, you’d usually add each effect to the layer instead of giving the effect its own layer. So, what does this do, and is it a detriment or benefit?
Well, for example, if we were to add text to the composition, and then decide that we also needed to add a drop shadow to the text, the node graph would look something like this.
Now, you might say, “It would be just as easy to apply a single drop shadow effect to a text layer.” Well, you wouldn’t be wrong.
But, let’s say you now want to add a secondary text node and make sure it has the same shadow effect. In After Effects, unless the two text layers were precomposed (which would be a waste of a composition), you’d have to apply the shadow effect twice to the text. If you later decided to lessen the shadow, you’d have to return to each text layer to adjust the shadow properties. Whereas in Fusion, you could link the secondary text to the shadow node, so the entire shadow effect for both properties is under one operation. Now, imagine the efficiency when this needs to be done with several operations—no more switching between layers.
As Blackmagic says,
Nodes are incredibly easy to use, especially as scenes become more complex. Fusion’s nodes are small icons that represent effects, filters, and other image processing operations. Nodes can be easily connected together to build larger and more complex visual effects. Tools, images, and objects can be combined in any order to create unlimited visual effects. Simply click on a node to quickly adjust any single part of your project. That’s much faster than a timeline-based tool because you don’t need to hunt through nested stacks of confusing layers and filters!
However, while nodes may be faster, there’s a greater learning curve with an NBC.
When compositing, the individual node structure offers a far more efficient workflow, as it allows the user to individually assess each element of the composition on a step-by-step process, properly refining the composite as they go along. If this was to be done on a single layer in After Effects, you’d have to chew through the effects panel in trying to figure out which effect is causing the hiccup.
Third Party Plug-ins
Perhaps one of the more significant components that may swing folks to After Effects, and keep people firmly in their Adobe seat, is the vast array of plugins, presets, and scripts available for After Effects. There are so many third-party plugins for After Effects that there are dedicated marketplaces and support centers for the plugins and scripts. While the default installation has more than enough tools and prebuilt effects to last you a lifetime, the possibility of adding more tools with specific and advanced functions takes the software to a different level.
From advanced particle simulators, physic simulators, and 3D animation applications, the addition of third-party plugins can allow the user to morph After Effects into a potent tool capable of many different applications. Additionally, due to After Effects’ extreme popularity for so many years, the market is inundated with free templates and presets offered by many talented creators (us included).
However, Fusion doesn’t have the same marketplace abundant with plugins from the necessary to the absurd. While you can add OFX plugins to Fusion, there’s certainly not the same quantity of plugins available. Although, conversely, Fusion does have quite a significant amount of built-in tools that may devoid the need for additional tools.
User Interface Comparison
Along with the vast array of plugins and scripts you can import into After Effects, the user-interface (UI) is also heavily customizable. From being able to completely rearrange the entire workspace, installing frequently used script panels in a position to your liking, and even changing the background color, After Effects is fully customizable to the point where no two artists will share the same interface outside of the default layout.
With such a highly customizable workspace and being able to place script panels and specific tools where needed, it allows the user to adjust the workspace for their preferred use of design. A motion graphics may prefer more extensive access to design panels and the text panel. In contrast, a compositor may wish to display a great emphasis on the tracking controls or a 3D camera plugin.
In Fusion, like the other interfaces within DaVinci Resolve, there isn’t much room in the way of customizability. You can open and close panels, along with extending work areas, but you can’t undock panels or rearrange the workspace as you see fit. This isn’t always a detriment, though, as After Effects’ customizable workspace can often get cluttered.
In regards to built-in features, between both software in 2021, you’re going to find the core basics available in each software. From particle simulations to animated text, both software has fantastic pre-built engines. But, like the node vs. layer debate, there are some slight variances in the way they function. Although, Fusion does have a better handle at true 3D elements with an infinite 3D workspace.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Price. If this was 2010, you could expect to be paying through the roof for visual effects software. However, the uprise of the subscription model has forced many companies to explore different avenues. Blackmagic has taken the very gracious avenue of giving you a version of Resolve for FREE, which has Fusion Studio included with just a few redacted features. If you’re entirely new to compositing, it’s doubtful you’d need the advanced features locked behind the paywall.
Additionally, several Blackmagic tools ship with a Resolve studio license, from the Blackmagic Pocket 4K to the Resolve Keyboard. If you’re looking to make a camera investment, you could save money on the Studio license by staying within the Blackmagic ecosystem. If you needed the studio package of Fusion, it comes in at a base price of $298, and you won’t have to pay a penny more for further reiterations of the software. That’s it.
After Effects, on the other hand, comes with quite a steep price over the course of a few years. At the moment, there are three options available:
- $20.99/month – Annual plan paid monthly, at a total cost of $251.88
- $239.88/year – Annual plan paid upfront
- $31.49/month – Monthly plan that can be canceled when needed – Annual cost of $377.88
However, it’s important to note that Adobe will run frequent offers throughout the year, where you’ll be able to get annual plans at a discounted rate. These usually appear towards the latter end of the year during Black Friday and Christmas.
While this is of no direct impact on the software and its performance, it’s perhaps a critical component to consider when considering which software to choose from if you’re starting from scratch. While Fusion has technically been around longer than After Effects, the accessibility of the Adobe software at a consumer level has far more history. In the late 00s, as a rogue teen browsing piracy websites, After Effects would always sit up top. As such, many people have grown with the software over a significant period, resulting in many versed professionals sharing their knowledge along the way in the form of YouTube tutorials, articles, and books.
I’d argue that you could pretty much YouTube any form of After Effects design idea, and there would be a tutorial for it. For Fusion, not so much. Given its initial cost and the hardware needed for the basics of Fusion, early adoption wasn’t nearly as prominent from teenagers of the time. As a result, we’re only just starting to become properly inundated with tutorials that have existed for After Effects since the dawn of YouTube.
Who Is it for?
As an early adopter of editing in DaVinci Resolve and as a certified editing trainer, I often find myself at odds with the aspect that I’m strictly an After Effects guy when it comes to compositing. After Effects, perhaps more so than the initial purchase of a 550D when I was nineteen, is one of the primary reasons I’m here today in the creative industries. Following Andrew Kramer’s tutorials, most of my early videos were simply scenes filled with special effects that wowed my classmates and parents alike, and given the amount of cash I’ve sunk into third-party plugins, I don’t think I’ll ever stop using After Effects.
However, that’s not a bad thing, as I’m not entirely the intended user for Fusion. While Fusion can employ motion graphics, it’s really served best for visual effects, compositing, and keying. Additionally, node-based is what you’d find moving across to other visual effects platforms, or moving up the eco-system into advanced 3D software. Therefore, if you intended to travel down that path, you’d already be versed in the node-based workflow.
Additionally, it’d be worth evaluating your current workflow. Do you find yourself constantly switching between Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Pro Effects for your film work, and then linking to After Effects to composite? Or, are you bringing in footage from your Pocket 4K, and then editing and grading inside of DaVinci Resolve?
Both companies have become very grounded in adopting a workflow where creators can seamlessly switch between software, depending on what stage of production they are at. If you find that you’re already rooted in a specific workflow, it’s better to stick with the company you’re already familiar with.
- Motion designers, animators, and part-time VFX artists: Gun for After Effects.
- Series compositors looking to move forward with a VFX career path: Go with Fusion .
Cover image via nitin mendekar.
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