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Try scaling your images down in photoshop first. It will make it easier for AE to digest. If your images in AE are scaled down to something like 10 percent in your comp thats a tonne of math for AE to work out.
If you cant scale them down in photoshop for whatever reason try building a targa stack. If and when your machine craps out you won't loose your progress on the render.
>Does this sound normal, or acceptable?
It sounds normal within the realm of AE, but how acceptable it really is, is another matter entirely. ;-) As suggested, scaling the sources in PS would be one way, another one would be to chop up the large documents into manual tiles and parent them together. Based on how AE works, only tiles visible within the comp frame will be loaded, which should make the whole process more streamlined. That's assuming they are not 3D layers that need to be fully visible at any given point, of course. Even then, rendering to an image sequence is still advisable in case of crashes... Depending on what you actually do, you may also want to find a different way of dealing with your distortion effects. They considerably expand/ dilate image buffers for processing, complicating the matter further.
Turn off multi-processing and try to isolate which layer and then which is hitting the buffer limit. Remember to turn down number of Undos and use the "Edit" -> "Purge" command to empty the buffer.
This old tip may also come in handy:
- Jonas Hummelstrand