After Effects for the Finish

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Many editors view Adobe After Effects as a great motion graphics tool or a reasonably powerful compositor. It’s a great “Swiss Army knife” for all things in post. I use it all the time to add or remove cadence going between 24fps and 30fps formats, as well as to perform high-quality SD-HD up/down/cross-conversions. Want a great credit roll? Create a long Photoshop document with names and titles, drop it into an After Effects composition of the desired length, add two keyframes, render and Bob’s your uncle! Needless to say After Effects is one of those indispensable Adobe tools for many editors, regardless of the editing software that they use.

As a compositor it’s powerful, as well, although the serious VFX folks tend to gravitate to Flame, Nuke, Shake, Fusion or other apps. As compositing software goes, applications tend to be split between tracks and nodes, with After Effects in the former category. In a stricter view, though, After Effects uses layers rather than tracks. It’s like Photoshop in that sense, where each new clip goes onto a new video layer – except that these layers are set against time. This gives it a cosmetic similarity to NLE tracks. Each layer can be masked, adjusted in 2D and 3D space and have filter effects applied to it. Layers can be connected in parent-child relationships. Null layers can be added, which are technically “blank” layers to which other layers are linked. By manipulating the null layer, the others are all changed accordingly. Like Photoshop, there are adjustment layers often used for filter or graphic elements, like vignettes. These affect the look of all the other layers that are underneath.

What many don’t realize is that quite a few editors use After Effects as their complete editorial finishing tool. Maybe it’s because After Effects is so versatile or maybe because these editors came from a graphics and design background, but I’ve run across quite a few cases, where the NLE was used to build a very basic timeline and then everything else was done in After Effects. This approach has also been popularized by Stu Maschwitz in his The DV Rebel’s Guide. There are several ways to get from an NLE into After Effects. Media Composer and Final Cut “legacy” editors can use Automatic Duck. If you prefer FCP X, then ClipExporter is the path into AE. Premiere Pro offers a “live” connection between the two applications using Dynamic Link, but you can also just copy-and-paste Premiere Pro timeline clips into a new AE composition. If all else fails, the easiest method is simply to export a self-contained media file and bring that into an AE comp. Use the “split layer” command to slice the single clip at the cuts, in order to place each shot onto its own layer.

Just to be clear, nearly everything that can be done this way – using After Effects for finishing – could also be done using Apple Motion or Boris RED. It’s just that I haven’t run into many folks doing the same thing with those applications, but I have run into plenty using After Effects. In any case, Motion has a lot going for it and of the alternatives to After Effects, it offers the most bang for the least bucks. Of these three, it’s probably the easiest tool for new users and is incredibly powerful, when those same users is ready for more.

Doing a complete finish in After Effects or Motion isn’t necessarily my cup-of-tea, because I’m more comfortable within an NLE. Plus, if you have a lot of shots, that means a lot of layers. A quick-cut :30 commercial, could easily mean 20-40 layers. On the other hand, you have some great tools in After Effects – or that come bundled with it. Built-in, you’ve got text, paint, masking, tracking, blend modes, color correction, distortion, a puppet tool and more. It comes bundled with Cycore plug-ins, the Keylite keyer, the Mocha tracker and Synthetic Aperture’s Color Finesse grading tool. New with After Effects CC is a live link to Cinema 4D models and a bundled version of the Cinema 4D Lite application.

Thanks to AE’s ability to nest compositions within other compositions, it makes a great tool for broadcast versioning. For example, let’s say you create a separate comp for the end tag of a commercial. That tag comp might have several layers that can be turned on or off to create different variations to the commercial. The tag composition becomes the last layer within the comp for the complete commercial. Now once you are ready to render/export each version of the commercial, simply change the active layers in the end tag composition and it will be updated within the full composition for the commercial.

In May I was freelancing at a broadcast affiliate, where nearly every promo, commercial, billboard, show open or station ID went through this process. Editors who joined that team would be completely useless without an intermediate knowledge of After Effects – if nothing else, just to dive into past projects. I’ve run into this same scenario at other broadcast shops, as well. Cut the base spot. Export a file for After Effects where all the finesse happens. Render the comp and bring it back into the NLE for final broadcast formatting. Needless to say, Autodesk’s Smoke 2013 is trying to become the tool of choice for this niche, but that’s an uphill climb. Adobe’s price is better, the learning curve is easier and there’s a larger user base.

Although I like to finish inside my NLE, I have certainly been more than happy with the results I get in After Effects and there are few applications that work better with plug-ins. If you want to add that touch of art and design to the completion or your projects, then it’s worth taking a closer look at After Effects or Motion as more than just a tool to create motion graphics.

©2013 Oliver Peters

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