I think I may have found the answer. Proxies. Something I have no experience with, but will figure them out with the use of Trish and Chris Meyer's book. Or if you know of another way, let me know.
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For an Illustrator file to be 80MB it must have a gazillion paths or some high rez embedded rasterized images. I'd make sure that the .ai files are not overkill in terms of embedded images or complexity. The pixel dimensions of embedded images only need to be the same size as your composition if the layer is to be used at 100% scale or, in the case of a 3D layer, at a distance from the camera equal to or greater than the zoom value. If your layer is to be viewed at 200% or the distance from the camera is half the zoom factor then the pixel dimensions need to be 4 x the comp settings. If the layer is all vector art and does not contain certain rasterized effects you can enable continuous rasterization and ignore these restrictions.
I hope this makes sense to you. AE is a resolution independent app but the bigger the image or the more complex the paths the more memory and system resources are required for processing.
The files are pages of a graphic novel that I am putting together to build a promo trailer. Zooms, pans, rotations and such, no rasterized effects. Yes, there are a gazillion paths making up a single page of images. I am not working 3D. So we can elimate that possibility from the conversation. Most of the images (550 x 800px) have been enlarged anywhere from 200 to 600% within a 1280 x 720 comp. So anyway, I do not know what you were trying to say with pixel dimensions and what I can do to solve the issue?
If there are no rasterized images - like embedded jpgs or psd files, and your files are huge because of the huge number of paths, then the problem becomes harder to solve.
Is it just the import that is dragging or are you having problems with the UI and responsiveness once you start building the comps?
Are you importing the files as comps? If each of the .ai files ends up as a single layer and the huge number of paths is chocking AE you might be better off exporting the ai files as png files. If the .ai files are 600 x 800 points then an export at 72 dpi would give you an image that's 600 X 800 pixels. An export at 300 ppi would give you an image that's 2500 pixels wide. An export at 600 ppi would be 5000 pixels wide. Either of these images would be easier for AE to handle than an 80GB file full or paths fills and gradients.
If you are importing these images as compositions then it's going to require a little more work to. It may be worth the time. I once had a project involving some very large ai files of detailed topographic maps. I solved the sluggishness problem by picking layers with the most complex paths and rasterizing them, then importing as a comp. The files also had to be resized because they were originally drawn for output on a 60" printer. Once I had the files prepped for motion graphics the AE work went fairly well.
All AI files are single layer images imported as footage. It seems to be the import that is dragging down the UI responsiveness. After importing 20 or so files, that is when it really starts. That is why I tried dividing the project into multiple files, but when opening any of these files for revisions it takes at least 10 minutes to load the footage. I see the cursor arrow with the what I would call a looping wipe of white to black going on while the UI is processing the load.
At this point, I am just about finished after struggling for a few days with these files making revisions for the client. So, I do not want to start over resaving all files as PNGs. But, I know now that for future projects dealing with similar content to start there.
Thanks, I really appreciate the help.