When I first started out with After Effects, I tried following several online tutorials and referring to Adobe's online help and guides. I was able to create some impressive effects, but only by basically copying the tutorials, step by step. When I tried to go back and duplicate or modify those effects, it was quickly apparent I was in over my head. I could follow a precise recipe, but had no ability to improvise in the kitchen. What I really needed was a guide that could help me understand the tools in a step-by-step fashion. After Effects Apprentice is exactly what I was looking for.
Lots of software guides are dry and technical. This one isn't. Trish and Chris Meyer write clearly, and the tone of the guide is encouraging and warm, and sometimes quite funny. What I really like is that they have you do things in different ways each time, so that by the end of each lesson you've learned a number of keyboard shortcuts and different ways to accomplish each objective. More importantly you've learned what difference it makes how you do it and why you'd want to do it various ways. The authors' commitment to the idea that you learn best when things are repeated, in various different ways and in different contexts (so it doesn't ever just feel like more of the same) also means that you can work on the chapters out of order if you really want to - while some of the skills build upon what is learned in previous chapters, there's usually enough review to let you get at least what you need to have known in order to focus on the new topic. The authors have clearly worked closely with students, seen what works and what doesn't and really have thought carefully about how to help their readers become independent learners of After Effects.
Each lesson has accompanying project files on the attached CD (I found it to be useful just to copy everything on the CD to my desktop; for convenience all the files for each lesson are captured in clearly labelled folders so that they are easy to find). For everything they ask you to try, there are files to get you started, and a finished project to show you what it should end up looking like. In many cases they also have exercises they encourage you to try ("quizzlers") to go beyond and build creatively on the skills you have just learned. Overall, this is much more than a book -- it is a comprehensive, hands-on, learning system.
Minor omission: After Effects really isn't designed for doing much with music or sound, but it can do some things with them and the treatment of the topic in the book is pretty spare (it's almost an afterthought in a chapter that's focused on working with text, and there are a couple of other mentions of how to apply other topics to working with sound in a few other places). I would have liked a bit more coverage of what you can do with music and or sound in After Effects, even if it just amounted to explaining how to coordinate the use of After Effects with other Adobe Creative Suite programs that do better with Sound such as Soundbooth and Premiere.
Note that even though I'm learning After Effects on CS5 and the current edition of Apprentice is focused on CS3 and CS4, it's all still relevant, and everything covered here works perfectly. Most of what is new in CS5, in fact, has to do with rotoscoping and tracking, topics that are best dealt with when you have the basics down. This is a book dealing with the basics, and there's a lot to learn there before you can take full advantage of this sophisticated software package. After Effects Apprentice is a great place to start. Highly recommended for those who are coming to After Effects for the first time, and for those who never really sat down to learn the nuts and bolts of the program before trying out the more advanced features in a piecemeal fashion. I can't wait now to go on and work through Creating Motion Graphics with After Effects, by the same authors.