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The GIF format only allows 8 bit (256) colour depth. That' the limitation of the format.
You may want to consider getting a 3rd party solution such as Debabelizer, or Fireworks if making animated gifs will be a regular part of your workflow. They have superior palette control and are more suited for creating that filetype. However, as Andrew mentioned, the color depth is a limitation of that format.
I create animated gifs all the time with AE, I just never render them from AE. I always render quicktimes or jpg sequences, then I bring these into Photoshop or Fireworks and tun them into animated gifs.
There are several advantages to this kind of workflow.
- You can make much smaller files because you can individually set the timing of each frame in either Photoshop or in Fireworks.
- The dithering is much better so that 256 colors look much better
- The best is for last you can set matte colors to the correct values so that the edges of your transparent gifs look about 1000% better.
As pointed out by the others, the limitation is in the file format. You will never exceed the 256 barrier. This is further complicated by how AE determines the color palette. This usually happens on the first few frames, 'cos naturally the other frames do not exist and AE doesn't know about them. If there is considerable change in the color palette over time, this cannot be accommodated. Therefore you'd really do a lot better by following the advise provided by the others. In addition to Rick's tips, I recommend you work with the perceptive dithering mode when saving your GIFs. This usually gives the "smoothest" result, but may shift the colors ever so slightly. I also recommend to not use transparencies with animated GIFs. They have a severe impact on file size and compression quality as well as possibly the playback performance in your browser. If you know the background color of your web page, it should be part of the file.
For information about creating animated GIF movies with After Effects, see the "Creating an animated GIF movie" section of After Effects Help on the Web.
There's some additional information about working within the limitations of the animated GIF format in the (slightly stale) "Rendering Compositions as Animated GIFs in After Effects" document in the Adobe Technical Support Knowledgebase.
There are a boatload of 3rd party Gif apps, I have a great one for the Mac called Gifmation, and like Rick, I use image sequences out of AE with great success.