After Effects vs. Nuke: What should you learn?!
It's the age-old battle ever since Nuke made its presence known with an Academy Award for Technical Achievement in 2002. Even though its origins date back to Digital Domain in 1993. After Effects also draws its origins back to 1993, but at Company of Science and Art (COSA). After Effects is designed for use as a limited creative tool for motion design, on-screen graphics, and simple 2D compositing. Oh yeah, it was originally only available on Mac! With that said, let's tackle the topic: Nuke vs. After Effects which one is better?
As a new artist passionate about creating visual effects, whether having your young child play floor is lava, or having your grandma dance an otherwise impossible dance move, you may find it daunting to select a path. With its down to earth pricing, After Effects is usually the entry point for many young ambitious artists. However, with its recent price point at just $499/yr with Nuke Indie, Nuke has made inroads, and rightly so! In this article, I intend to break down where you should start, and the answer isn't easy. My suggestion... Learn what you can learn both if you can.
What should you Actually Be Learning, Nuke or After Effects?!
What a pointed question. Well, the answer is simple, you should be learning "WHY?". Why does this tool work? Why is this effect done this way? And then you can start answering "How." The biggest mistake I see students make in the classroom isn't accidentally forgetting to save (Although it's a pretty big mistake!), or piping their nodes the wrong way, or creating havoc with their pre comps. No, in fact from what I see the most, it is not being able to think on their feet and solve the problems at hand. Often times it means being able to do research and figure out the why's behind what needs to be done.
I consistently tell my students, "Break it till you make it." I encourage them as they learn software, to really get their hands dirty. Learn the intricacies and the fundamentals. Concepts are far more important than understanding what the tool does. At the end of the day, it's the artist wielding the tools not the other way around!
I do think that we need to have a closer look at both packages. To do this I have identified criteria that my students tend to bring up.
It's not as wide of a gap as you think! Check this out.
Adobe After Effects: $35.99/Mo ($431.88). 
Nuke Indie: $499/yr as of 2023! 
Pick your poison. For currently $50.00 more you can use what is currently industry standard for Film and Television. This is game changing! There is still public perception in the VFX industry that Nuke is wildly more expensive than After Effects. Whereas that was true a decade ago, that isn't necessarily true anymore as can be seen!
Which is Easier to Learn?
In my own opinion, the learning curve for both is still quite steep as you get in the industry. The only advantage I believe After Effects currently has is the amount of content there is out there from Film Riot, Video Copilot, ActionVFX, and the thousands of others sources out there.
Oh yeah, my channel is in that mix, too!
However, if you are starting from scratch they are just 2 different workflows that work around the same concepts. All you need to learn are the basics such as rotoscope, channels, mattes, keyframes, and so on. You can do that in both packages. Talk to most artists and they would quickly say After Effects is easier, but as of lately, I have to say Nuke's curve isn't as intense as people perceive it to be.
"I think Nuke is easier now," said Robert Rowles, the Program Director here at The Los Angeles Film School. "Especially if you can understand basic signal flow." Rob, one of my mentors, continued on to explain that he agrees with my sentiment that Nuke is likely easier to learn now, and the workflow is similar to the direction many other packages are utilizing such as Unreal Engine and Houdini.
In the end, it's not about what is easier, but what is more suitable for your approach. If your goal line is television and commercial production, you are going to see more work utilizing After Effects (For now but more on that later!). If you are going into feature, you may want to venture into Nuke out of the gate!
Does Nuke out slug After Effects?
Nuke probably takes the cake in terms of quality out of the gate. It just has more, and the tools are built for high-end production. Again, if your endgame is simply to work in Television, on-screen graphics, or commercial production, you will likely see a lot of success using After Effects.
My first few jobs were solely After Effects compositing gigs, and those were honestly some of the most fun experiences I had as I got started in the industry. To be fair, early on it was mostly clean-up work, with rotoscope and paint jobs. However, that quickly turned into some very creative experiences. Take a look at this shot, for example, done entirely in After Effects on a dime.
But one cannot deny the power that Nuke brings. Whereas After Effects can keep up with plugins and third-party presets, Nuke has much of that already built in. On top of that, Nuke also brings its own ability to bring powerful plugins in the form of gizmos and scripts. It's really a powerhouse when it comes to Visual Effects.
Nuke vs. After Effects Which Native Tools Are Better?
I think the best way to evaluate this is to look at the individual disciplines of digital compositing.
If you are looking for ease of use in terms of traditional masked rotoscoping to create mattes, Nuke has the edge. However, with the advent of rotobrush toolsets, efficiency definitely rests in the arms of After Effects. You can accomplish similar effects with Nuke however as a beginner these techniques aren't as easy to wrap your head around.
Nuke vs. After Effects Verdict: Ease of efficiency rests with After Effects here with their rotobrush toolset. However, using Bezier curves and masks is much easier to manage in Nuke.
Both packages have the ability to pull mattes from simple keys. In fact, Foundry's Keylight plugin for After Effects is pretty stellar and gets the job done outright. With some prowess you can pull very clean mattes in After Effects. However, for more complex keying operations that involve a fine tuned comb, Nuke wins by a mile. Nuke brings in Keylight, along with Primatte (NukeX), IBK Color Keyer, Color Key, Luma Key, Ultimatte, and several more tools to use to pull out clean mattes that can fool the best eyes out there. Granted, many of these tools such as Primatte can be included through plugins but they are not native.
Nuke vs. After Effects Verdict: Better keys in Nuke, however quick and easy keys in After Effects.
For your YouTube intros, title sequences, and on-screen graphics. Look no further than After Effects. With After Effects design that focuses on layer based effects, it is well-built for advanced on screen effects. It just happens to be decent at 2D Visual Effects compositing. Whereas Nuke can accomplish these tasks, it isn't a timeline based editor.
Nuke vs. After Effects Verdict: If you are doing motion graphics, heavily lean towards After Effects, you will have a better time.
The ability to integrate assets into your live action footage is essential for the workflow of any digital compositor. Personally, both have the ability to accomplish the task. After Effects does an excellent job with its built in EXtractoR plugin that gives you the ability to extra Arbitrary Output Variables (AoVs) or render passes and integrate cleanly. Nuke on the other hand, is just built for it. With its node based compositing system, it is intuitive and doesn't require endless duplicating, tracking of pre comps.
Nuke vs. After Effects Verdict: I would rather composite digital assets in Nuke, but that doesn't mean it can't be done in After Effects. Nuke is just better.
There is so many more items to discuss, but I want to talk about one last thing that often comes up, rendering.
Writing frames out is different for both packages. Whereas Nuke gives you the ability to write out in nearly every format available for your hearts desire, After Effects has a much more simpler and easier approach. Paired with Adobe Media Encoder, you can also write out efficiently and continue working. With Nuke, when you move to write out frames its a bit of a commitment. This makes sense however, with Nuke's focus leaning heavily more on the high end production Visual Effects and After Effects being an all-around package for on-screen effects.
Verdict: After Effects has an easier time rendering easy projects, but heavier projects that demand quality over time, Nuke wins.
This likely won't be the last time I bring up this discussion, but I feel this is a good starter to how I approach the discussion in the classroom. Look, if you want to get started in VFX today, don't get hung up on the software, the tools, or what you have access to. Just get started, grab what you can, shoot with what you have and just start creating cool effects. Yes your phone works, too! I'll probably have more on that in the future. But until next time, always be creating!
P.S. I prefer Nuke. But I also use After Effects.
Robert Rowles, Program Director for Computer Animation at The Los Angeles Film School
Ken Dackermann, Course Instructor for Compositing at The Los Angeles Film School