Alternate workflows

Most editors tend to finish their projects completely within a given NLE application. They may use software like Boris Red or Apple Motion for segments, but in the end, all the final assembly, color correction and finishing is done inside Final Cut Pro, Media Composer or another NLE. Some, however, utilize alternate workflows and one of these is to employ Adobe After Effects as the finishing tool. This is a route advocated by Stu Maschwitz in his DV Rebel philosophy, but it makes a lot of sense for many projects.

Why?

The first and biggest reason to use After Effects is because it’s often the best tool for the job. Although you can get into After Effects from most leading NLEs, one popular approach is to do a basic rough cut edit using Final Cut Pro “classic” and then send everything to After Effects for finishing. This approach mimics traditional offline-online editing workflows, but instead of using an expensive online edit system or software, you would use After Effects. Final Cut is a really good offline editing tool for making creative editorial decisions, but it can be a challenge to use when finesse and top quality effects are essential. In addition, the more you load it up with effects filters and plug-ins, the more sluggish it tends to be – often becoming unstable.

Adobe After Effects is ideal for compositing. It includes a great set of built-in and bundled filters, effects and plug-ins and the architecture is well-suited for a wide range of third-party effects. The application uses a nice performance/quality throttle, that gracefully degrades the images for fast scrubbing, but then locks in best quality when the image is parked. It does this very responsively. Plus there are batch rendering features when working with multiple timelines.

If you like to buy plug-ins, then standardizing on After Effects as your advanced tool of choice, means you only need to deal with buying, installing and updating plug-ins for one host, rather than many. There are plenty of good plug-in options for After Effects, but my preferred choices are Boris Continuum Complete, GenArts Sapphire and Monsters GT, followed by the various Magic Bullet filters (Looks, Colorista II, Mojo), Noise Industries FxFactory and CoreMelt solutions.

How?

You can use any application you like for editing, but I’m going to discuss Final Cut Pro 7’s use with After Effects. With the release of FCP X, it’s pretty obvious that FCP “classic” is still a far better editor for many creative editing jobs, especially when a ton of footage is involved. I feel the offline-editing phase is better served by the FCP 7 than the FCP X toolset. Not to mention, right now it’s tough to get from FCP X into After Effects.

You can use Automatic Duck’s Pro Export FCP 5.0, which will generate AAF files readable by Premiere Pro, but in my experience, the Adobe applications write a small amount of metadata into the media files, which will subsequently cause the files to appear offline in FCP X. I believe this can be fixed by turning off the XMP function in the Premiere Pro preferences, but I really haven’t spent much time testing it. Right now, I suggest limiting Pro Export 5.0 to getting FCP X audio to Pro Tools – its intended use. Lets stick with FCP 7, mainly because I doubt that most facilities are going to ditch FCP 7 for FCP X any time soon.

There are several ways to get from FCP 7 into the Adobe world. The first step is to export an XML file of your edited FCP 7 sequence. From there you have a variety of options. The most popular to date has been Automatic Duck’s Pro Import AE 5.0. Since this is an After Effects import plug-in, you can import not only FCP XML files, but also Apple Motion projects and Avid Media Composer AAF files. Another option is Boris Transfer AE from Boris FX, which will import FCP XML and Avid AAF files into After Effects.

Although the point of this exercise is to limit the amount of effects work you do inside the editing software, Boris Transfer AE offers the added bonus of translating the effects parameters of most of the BCC filters when they are installed into both the editing host and After Effects. If you used BCC filters in FCP, then most will be correctly translated within the AE composition. Both Automatic Duck and Boris solutions provides slightly different functions and each may be better with certain media types than the other. For instance, Automatic Duck provides a like translation for native RED files, when FCP Log and Transfer was used.

The Boris and Automatic Duck filters provide a direct path into After Effects, but involve an additional investment. If you have the Adobe Production Premium or Master Collection bundles, then you also own Premiere Pro. Adobe has been enhancing timeline import features in successive versions of the Creative Suite, so if you have Premiere Pro CS 5.0 or CS 5.5, then you can import FCP XML and Avid AAF files. I’ve had the most success with XML, since on a Mac, both Final Cut and the Adobe apps will link to the same QuickTime media. In the case of Avid files, Adobe doesn’t read the Avid MXF media, so this import has been hit-or-miss, depending on media format or whether I used AMA versus traditional Avid ingest methods.

The Adobe workflow

Continuing with FCP 7, you would start by exporting an XML file, which is then imported into Premiere Pro. This generally works best if you have first stripped out all effects and filters from the FCP sequence before the export. In Premiere Pro, you can get into After Effects by sending your complete Premiere Pro timeline to After Effects via Adobe Dynamic Link or you can copy all of your video tracks and clips and paste those into a new After Effects composition. Dynamic Link creates a “nested” clip for the After Effects composition on the Premiere Pro timeline. Any changes made in After Effects are updated in Premiere Pro. Rendering uses the After Effects engine and you don’t need to have the same After Effects filters installed into Premiere Pro.

Of course, the obvious question is, “Why not simply edit in Premiere Pro to begin with?” True – that makes a lot of sense – but people are comfortable with what they know. Premiere Pro has been getting steadily better and certainly turning heads since the FCP X launch. CS 5.0 and CS 5.5 have definitely been making points as viable alternatives, but for now, many editors are still going to be more comfortable with FCP 7 and will seek to maximize its usefulness for as long as possible.

If you copy-and-paste from Premiere Pro into After Effects, instead of using Dynamic Link, then the two applications and sequences are independent of each other. You might choose to use Dynamic Link if you intend to do more editing in Premiere Pro – or stick to the copy-and-paste method, if Premiere Pro is simply serving as a conduit between Final Cut and After Effects. As a side note, the CS 5.5 bundles include Audition, Adobe’s powerful audio editing/mixing application. You can also use Premiere Pro to send your audio tracks to Audition for audio finishing.

Once inside After Effects, then you are in familiar territory if you are a frequent user. I find After Effects to be pretty logical and easy to learn once you know a few of the basics. Naturally, there’s a wealth of training materials for it. The downside of After Effects is its track structure. All video clips appear in cascading, ascending or descending tracks with only one clip per track. A :60 commercial with 50 shots in the edit will appear as 50 ascending tracks in an After Effects composition.

The track structure isn’t really a problem once you get used to navigating it, but I would find this workflow a challenge for a fast-paced, long-form project. Yet, I know people who do this and are quite comfortable with it. In that situation, you’d probably want to break your edit sequence up into several segments.

Media is accessible outside of the boundaries for the clip on the track, so you can still split, trim, slip or slide clips if needed. Although this is possible, I recommend not doing this. Treat After Effects strictly as a finishing tool – NOT an editorial tool. Make sure the picture cut is “locked”, the same as any other similar situation – offline to online video projects or film rough cuts to DI.

Once the After Effects work is done, render your composition and then combine it with the mixed audio in any tool that’s right for the workflow. Typically this would mean rendering a flattened QuickTime movie from After Effects – plus a stereo AIFF audio track from Audition – and then combining these back into a final mixed, master sequence using Premiere Pro, Final Cut or Media Composer.

Advantages

Aside from the wealth of plug-ins available via After Effects, using this method has some other benefits. The first is that if your project is very effects-intensive, requiring visual effects, fancy animation or creative text treatments, After Effects quite simply blows away any NLE, excluding Avid DS or Autodesk Smoke. For instance, the keying tools alone surpass anything inside FCP or Media Composer. Second, there are plenty of talented motion graphics designers who excel at After Effects. This makes it an easy hand-off from editor to designer, if you intend to split roles and let each person contribute at their best skill level. I’ve done this a lot where a commercial was graphics-heavy. I first edit a “base layer” of images for the commercial and then pass it over to a designer/compositor/animator who is an After Effects whizz for the finishing touches.

After Effects is resolution independent. In the case of 4K RED projects, you could offline edit at HD sizes in FCP or Media Composer and then use After Effects to conform and grade a 4K master. Finally, After Effects is a great place to stylize the look of a project, whether that’s just standard color grading or something more exotic. Again – plenty of integrated tools and a wealth of third-party options. Add to this masking, composite modes and more.

You get the picture. After Effects provides the desktop video pro with many of the same types of tools found on more expensive DI and VFX systems, like Flame. It may take a bit more patience and fiddling, but it provides users with an affordable and powerful toolset that’s hard to beat.

©2011 Oliver Peters

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