Autodesk Smoke 2013

df_smoke_1_smAutodesk attracted a lot of attention last year with the revamped version of Smoke for Mac OS X. I had originally been working on a review with the earlier version (Smoke 2012), but held off when I found out Smoke 2013 was just around the corner. Indeed, the more “Mac-like” refresh wowed NAB attendees, but it took until December to come to market. In that time, Autodesk built on the input received from users who tested it during this lengthy public beta period. Now that it’s finally out in the wild, I’ve had a chance to work with the release version, both on my own system, as well as at a client site where Smoke 2013 has been deployed. Both of these are on recent model Mac Pros. Although Smoke 2013 is a very deep application, I would offer that the learning curve for this new version is a mere 25% of what it used to be. That’s a significant improvement.

Getting set up

There are several ways to install and operate Smoke 2013. Most users will install the application in the standalone mode. The software is activated over the internet and works only on that licensed machine. Facility users can also purchase license server software, which allows them to float the Smoke license among several machines. Only one at a time is activated, but any of the machines can run the software, based on the permission assigned by the license server application over the internal LAN.

df_smoke_2_smSmoke 2013 operation is tied to the media storage, so the first thing to do after software installation is to run the Smoke set-up utility. This allocates which drives are accessible to Smoke. You can grab media files from any connected drive, but specific locations must be assigned as library locations for media caches, proxies, render files and so on. These can be internal drives, SAN volumes or externally-connected drives. The key is that when you create or launch a project, it is tied to a specific library location. If that drive is unmounted, any projects associated with it won’t show up and are not accessible (even in an offline mode) to the operator.

You should approach Smoke operation with a media strategy in mind. Smoke 2013 handles more native codecs and file formats – and in a more straightforward fashion – than Smoke 2012. If you are working with ProRes media, for instance, no conversion is necessary to get started in Smoke and files can be rendered as ProResHQ, instead of the previous default of uncompressed DPX files. This means drive performance requirements are less than in the past, but it’s still a good idea to use fast RAID arrays. Even two 7200RPM SATA drives striped as RAID-0 will give you acceptable performance with ProRes media. Naturally, a faster array is even better. Smoke will let you render intermediate proxies for even better performance, but if you want to simply drag in new media from the Mac Finder, then Smoke 2013 now performs on par with other desktop NLEs.

Smoke uses OpenGL and not CUDA or OpenCL acceleration, so performance from ATI or NVIDIA cards is on even footing. If you run a dual monitor system, like my set-up with two 20” Apple Cinema Displays, you can enable dual-screen preview. This will let you mirror the UI or display a selected viewport, which is most often the current clip, but can also be the ConnectFX schematic. You are best off with two 1920×1080 or 1920×1200 screens. The scaling function to reduce the full screen viewer to fit my 1680×1050 resolution introduced artifacts and affected the performance of the card. Smoke 2013 can work with screen resolutions starting at 1440×900, but it’s better to stick to one higher resolution screen like a single 27” or 30” Apple Cinema Display or iMac screen. It’s best to run a broadcast monitor connected to an AJA KONA, IoXT or Blackmagic Design card (in a future version). In that configuration, you can’t use a second computer display to extend the real estate of the Smoke user interface, but could display the UI from another open application, like Adobe Photoshop.

The editing experience

df_smoke_3_smThe reaction to Apple Final Cut Pro X kicked up interest in Smoke. Users who wanted a 64-bit, track-based application that didn’t stray too far from FCP 7’s operational style, felt that Smoke 2013 might be the hypothetical “FCP 8”. Autodesk indeed sports an editing workspace that is closely aligned with the look and feel of Final Cut Pro “legacy”, as well as Adobe Premiere Pro. It even defaults to FCP 7 keyboard shortcut commands. If you can edit on Final Cut (before FCP X) or Premiere Pro, then you can be productive on Smoke with little relearning.

df_smoke_6_smThe user interface is divided into three panes – a browser, a viewing area and a workspace. Across the bottom are four tabbed interface pages or modes – MediaHub, Conform, Timeline and Tools. MediaHub is where you search drive locations for files. It is analogous to Adobe’s Media Browser within Premiere Pro. Locate files and drag or import them into the editing browser window. Conform lets you reconcile imported media with edit lists and is also a place to relink media files. Timeline is the standard editing workspace and lastly, Tools holds clip tools and utilities, such as deinterlacing, pulldown, etc. Each pane changes the information displayed, based on the context of that mode. In the Timeline mode, you see viewers and a timeline, but in the MediaHub mode each pane shows completely different information.

df_smoke_4_smEditors will spend most of their day in the Timeline mode. This interface page is organized into the standard editing view with player windows at the top and a track-based timeline at the bottom. Smoke always loads at least two timelines – the edited sequence and the selected source clip. Effects can be applied to the source clip, as well as to clips on the timeline. The viewer pane can display clips on a single, toggled viewer (like FCP X) or traditional source/record windows (like FCP 7). There’s also a thumbnail and a triptych view. The latter is helpful during color correction, if you want to display previous/current/next frames for shot matching. The browser displays all imported source clips for a project. It can be placed on the left, on the right or hidden entirely. Within it, clips can be organized into folders. You may have more than one sequence in a project, but only one project can be open at a time. As you select a clip, it immediately loads into the viewer and timeline window. No double-clicking required.

df_smoke_5_smSmoke is a good, fast editor when it comes to making edits and adjusting clips on the timeline. There are some nice touches overlooked on other NLEs. For example, it uses track-based audio editing with keyframable real-time mixing. There are a set of audio filters that can be applied and the output has a built-in limiter. Formatting for deliverables is built into the export presets, so exporting a 1080p/23.976 sequence as 720p is as simple as picking a preset. The edit commands include the standard insert, overwrite and replace functions, but also some newer ones, like append and prepend. Ripple and snapping are simple on/off toggles.

While editing is solid, I would still categorize Smoke 2013 as a finishing tool. You could edit a long-form project from scratch in Smoke, but you certainly wouldn’t want to. It lacks the control needed for narrative long-form, like detailed custom bin columns, a trim tool, multi-camera editing and more. On the other hand, a scripted short-form project, like a TV commercial – especially one requiring Smoke’s visual effects tools – could be edited exclusively within Smoke.

df_smoke_7_smThe better approach is to do your rough cuts in another desktop NLE and then send it to Smoke for the remainder. You can import various edit list formats – EDL, XML, FCPXML and AAF. Cut on Final Cut Pro 7/X, Premiere Pro or Media Composer and export an edit decision list in one of these formats for the sequence. Then import and link files in Smoke and you are ready to go. In my testing, XMLs from both FCP 7 and FCP X worked really well, but AAFs from Media Composer were problematic.  Typically Smoke had difficulty in relinking media files when it was an Avid project, most likely due to issues in the AAF.

Come for the effects

The visual effects tools are the big reason most editors would use Smoke 2013 over another NLE. There are four ways to apply effects. The first and easiest is the effects “ribbon” that flies out between the viewers and the timeline. It contains eight standard effects groups – Timewarp, Resize, Text, Color Correction, Spark, Blend, Wipe and Axis. (Spark is the API for third party filters. GenArts Sapphire is the first effects package for Smoke 2013.) The “ribbon” effects are always applied in the same order and some are multiple purpose tools. For instance, the Resize effect is automatically applied for format correction, such as a ProRes4444 clip in a ProResHQ timeline. When these effects are added to a clip on the timeline, a reduced set of parameters appears in a fly-out panel at the top of the timeline. You can immediately apply and adjust effects in the timeline without the need to step deeper until you’ve mastered the simpler methods.

df_smoke_11_smThe last effect, Axis, is a “super tool”. It’s the 2.5/3D DVE effect, but you can enter its effects editor and do a whole lot more. Axis lets you add text, lighting, 3D cameras, plus adjust surface properties and surface deformations. Once you enter any of the effects editors, the mode changes and you are in a new user interface specific to the context of that effect. The controls flow left to right and change options according to the selections made. For instance, picking “object” within the Axis effect editor gives you controls to adjust the scale, position and rotation of the clip. Pick “lights” and the control parameters change to those appropriate for lighting.

The third way to build an effect is to select ConnectFX. This brings you into Smoke’s world of node-based composting, where you are presented with a flow chart schematic, a viewer and a set of filter tools. An effect like Color Correction may be applied directly to the timeline as a single filter or as a filter within a ConnectFX build. It’s entirely up to the comfort level of the editor and how many additional effects will be applied to that clip for the final look.

df_smoke_12_smOne of available tools within the set is Action, which is a separate compositing method. It forms the fourth way to build effects. You can composite multiple media clips in an Action node, such as a title over a background. Once you step into an Action node, you are presented with its own schematic. Instead of a flowchart, the Action schematic shows parent-child links between layers of the composite, such as a light that is attached to a media clip. Action is where you would make adjustments in 3D camera space. Some tools, like the 3D lens flare effect are only available in Action.

df_smoke_9_smSmoke detractors make a big deal out of the need to render everything. While this is true, I found that a single effect applied from the FX “ribbon” menu to a clip on the timeline will play in real time. If you’ve applied more than one effect to a clip, then usually the last one in this string will be displayed live during playback. When rendering is required, the processing speed is pretty quick. If you export a sequence with unrendered effects, then all effects are first processed (rendered) before the finished, flattened master file is exported.

Conclusion

df_smoke_14_smSmoke 2013 is likely to be one of the deepest, but powerful, editing applications you will ever encounter. It’s deceptively simple to start, but takes a concentrated effort to master the inner workings of its integrated, node-based compositors. Nevertheless, you can start to be productive without having to tackle those until you are ready. In an editing world that’s gravitating towards an ever-growing number of canned, one-button preset effects, Smoke 2013 unabashedly gives you the building blocks needed for that last 5% of finesse, not available from a preset effect. You can even build your own complex presets to be applied on future projects. That takes time and talent to master. Fortunately Autodesk has gone the extra mile with good tutorials available on their Area community site and the Smoke Learning Channel on YouTube.

df_smoke_10_smSmoke is ideal as a finishing tool in a multi-suite facility, the main system in a creative media shop or the go-to system for broadcast promotion production. It is designed to fulfill the “hero” role and is targeted squarely at the Adobe suite of tools. The sales pitch is to stay within Smoke’s integrated environment rather than bounce among several applications. While Smoke 2013 largely meets that objective, it still gets down to personal preferences – compositing in nodes versus a track-based tool like After Effects.

Installation is easier than it was, but I’d still like to see Autodesk improve on the activation process – especially for those interested in using more than one machine. Smoke uses a Unix-style file structure, so project files (other than media index and render files) are hidden from the user. This makes it difficult to move projects from one computer to the next. Smoke 2013 lives up to the commitment made at NAB 2012, but now that it’s a released product, Autodesk has a chance to hone the tool to be more in line with the needs of the target user.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

Noise Industries FxFactory 4

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Noise Industries was one of the first plug-in developers to leverage the power of the GPU by tapping into the core image component of Mac OS X. This approach took off when Apple added the FxPlug architecture to Final Cut Pro. From this start, Noise Industries has been able to develop its FxFactory product into both a powerful filter package and a platform to add filters from other partner companies. FxFactory 4.0.2 now supports Final Cut Pro 7 and X, Motion 4 and 5, After Effects and Premiere Pro (CS6). Although After Effects has been supported for a few versions, the upgrade to 4.0 extended support to Premiere Pro CS6. (FxFactory Pro 4.0.2 is a free upgrade for owners of FxFactory Pro 3.x versions.)

df_fxf4_7_smWhen editors install the free FxFactory application, it functions as a central control point to purchase, install, license and manage all of the filters. Most of the plug-in installers are included with the package and are available as trial versions, plus there are links to tutorials for each effect. FxFactory enables users to activate or deactivate products based on preference.

df_fxf4_5_smIf you purchase Noise Industries’ FxFactory Pro filter set, then this adds 176 filters, generators and transitions for Final Cut Pro 7, Motion, Premiere Pro and After Effects, and 160 effects for Final Cut Pro X. If you only purchased FxFactory Pro, you would have a well-rounded set of filters to tackle many creative challenges; however, the beauty of the FxFactory platform is in its extension through partner companies, whose plug-ins tie into this application.

Current partners include Yanobox, Ripple Training, Stupid Raisins, Squid FX, Tokyo Productions, Luca Visual FX, idustrial revolution, Nattress, Boinx Software, SUGARfx, PHYX, Cineflare, Dashwood, Sheffield Softworks, DV Shade, Crumplepop, Futurismo, Aquafades and nVeil. df_fxf4_4_smDepending on the company, some or all of their products are available though FxFactory and supported hosts vary with each product. Some of the newest additions that are built as Motion templates are only available within Final Cut Pro X. Purchasing FxFactory Pro and augmenting it with a number of these add-ins gives you a very powerful set of filters. On the other hand, if you only wanted to use Ripple Tools, Yanobox Moods or Luca VFX Lo-Fi Look, then simply purchase the individual filters you need and run them under the free version of FxFactory. This way you can grow your inventory of effects as budgets permit.

df_fxf4_2_smFxFactory developers have been rapidly adding to the options, due in part to the ability to create FCP X effects as Motion templates, along with an increased user demand for Premiere Pro plug-ins. Noise Industries has brought on board some of the popular plug-ins from the old FxScript days of Final Cut. These include Nattress and Sheffield with updated versions of their looks and grading tools. New developers, not previously known as plug-in creators, have joined the fold to offer FCP X-specific effects. These include Ripple, Tokyo, Squid FX, Stupid Raisins and others. Some of the long-time FxFactory partner developers, like Luca, Yanobox and idustrial revolution are bringing out new products, as well.

df_fxf4_3_smAs a whole, this group represents one of the most eclectic set of filters and transitions available anywhere. Because these products are not developed by a single team of programmers, you get different styles that don’t all look like they came from one company. It would be very difficult, within a reasonable amount of time, for a talented editor to re-create from scratch the sort of transitions you get from packages like XEffects, Slide Pop, FxTiles or Punchline -  even using a powerful NLE like Smoke or a compositor like After Effects.

df_fxf4_6_smAs a working editor who uses these products, I appreciate that Noise Industries spends a lot of time making sure their tools work with the changes Apple brings about. They are fast with fixes and I’ve found that their filters tend to be more stable than some other packages as NLE or OS updates come down the line. This is especially true with Final Cut Pro X, which is still a moving target, as Apple tweaks AV Foundations with each update. FxFactory Pro and partner filters run well within the application and provide reasonable real-time performance when left unrendered. If you are running variations of Final Cut, Motion, Premiere Pro and After Effects, then one price covers the plug-in installation for all of these hosts.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Boris Continuum Complete 8 for Final Cut Pro X

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Boris Continuum Complete 8 from Boris FX has finally made it to Apple Final Cut Pro X and Motion 5. Customers purchasing BCC 8 will receive installers for both new and old versions of Final Cut and Motion. FCP X users will install the new 64-bit version designed for the updated FxPlug architecture – bringing to FCP X one of the most comprehensive plug-in sets available.

Third-party filters, transitions, titles and generators for Final Cut Pro X are built as Motion templates. This has made it a particular challenge to create an FCP X version of BCC 8 with the same controls, plus look and feel of the Continuum set. Yet changes are inevitable. According to Boris FX founder Boris Yamnitsky, “Since FCP X is a new platform unrelated to FCP 7, there is no need to maintain compatibility with BCC 7. This frees our hand to remove older filters, re-work some of the existing filters and make new filters best suited for the FCP X host. It is a very exciting project. We plan to release more templates as we get more feedback from our early adopters. We will be posting them for free as we go. For example, we are working on Materials and Transitions now.”

df_bcc8fcpx_3_smAround 200 filters install into Motion 5, but of these, a smaller subset of 94 effects filters and 11 transitions (in the current build) show up inside of Final Cut Pro X. Last year, I highlighted the new BCC 8 package for After Effects, which introduced new effects, like film glow and particles, as well as general improvements across the board. The same is true of this newest member of the BCC 8 product line. The Continuum filters are all high quality effects, but with modifications to make them work within FCP X. Some filters don’t show up in Final Cut, such as 3D lens flares, the 3-way grade filter and artist’s posterization, but you still have a variety of flare and art effects, including water color. All are there in Motion. Some of those in Motion have been modified to fit within the parameters of the Motion user interface. For instance, the 3-way grade filter uses color wheels in After Effects, but sliders and a floating “heads up display” panel in Motion.

df_bcc8fcpx_4_smThe over 100 effects and transitions inside Final Cut Pro X work in a familiar fashion to other versions of Boris Continuum Complete. There’s a wealth of slider controls on all of the filters to fine tune each effect. Many include built-in masking (the Boris Pixel Chooser), motion tracking (a first for FCP X filters) and/or beat reactor. The latter will pulse or vary an effect based on the amplitude of a linked audio track. Certain Boris FX hallmarks, like high-quality extruded, shaded 3D text, are also part of this package.

df_bcc8fcpx_5_smAll complex effects installed in the Final Cut Pro X host are somewhat slow to react as you adjust them. They do not play smoothly without dropping frames, until they are rendered. This is true for BCC 8, but also true for packages from Magic Bullet, Digital Film Tools, Tiffen and GenArts. If I compare similar Boris FX filters within different hosts, but applied to the same footage and using the same workstation, then BCC 8 in Premiere Pro CS6 outperforms Final Cut Pro X for real-time playback (when left unrendered). In general, user interaction is faster in After Effects, but rendering is often faster in Final Cut Pro X. As with most things related to FCP X, performance on the newest iMacs and MacBook Pros will be better than older Mac Pros. Yamnitsky adds this, “Because FCP X is a very different host, all traditional assumptions about visual effects will be reconsidered. For example, where in other hosts we rely on presets to deliver new looks, in FCP X we can simply export new Motion 5 templates, exposing just enough parameters to make the new look customizable. This approach allows us to avoid complex contextual controls and long parameter stacks.”

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Boris Continuum Complete 8 for Final Cut Pro X and Motion 5 is the most complete package of effects for this combo to date. Quite a few effects, like caustics, 3D text and various distortion effects aren’t available in competing filter packages. Of particular interest is anything involving 3D rendering and shading. When you compare the quality of the BCC lens flares that are done in 3D space or the quality of shaded, extruded text, it’s clear to see that their quality exceeds similar effects available for other plug-in packages. BCC 8 isn’t cheap, but does offer a lot of value. Talk with any professional editor familiar with the BCC set and you’ll find out how important the BCC effects become to solving routine creative challenges.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Looper

One of the fun films of this year is Looper, a sci-fi/time travel adventure by director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom). In the story, the character of Joe – a mob killer – is played by both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. One as the present day version of Joe and the other as his future self. An ambitious film like this typically requires the work of numerous visual effects companies. The task of setting up the futuristic environments fell to a relatively new northern California effects shop, Atomic Fiction.

Co-founders Kevin Baillie and Ryan Tudhope started their careers as talented, enthusiastic teenagers who, through persistence, landed slots on the Star Wars, Episode I pre-visualization effects team working at Skywalker Ranch. This led to a decade of work as compositors and effects supervisors on a host of blockbusters (Hellboy, Sin City, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers) thanks to a long stint at The Orphanage and ImageMovers Digital. With the demise of those companies, Tudhope and Baillie decided to combine their talents and start a new visual effects company model that could take advantage of the latest in software and post-production concepts, like working in the cloud.

Setting the tone

I spoke with Ryan Tudhope about the work Atomic Fiction did for Looper, as well as some of his thoughts on this new business model. Tudhope explained how they landed the job, “We’ve been a fan of Rian Johnson’s films and love the gritty reality of his stories. So we were all over Looper as soon as it was announced. We also knew that Looper’s visual effects supervisor, Karen Goulekas, was a meticulous and seasoned supervisor and would be looking to pull together the best team possible. Atomic Fiction’s art director Brian Flora and I explained how we were combining our incredibly talented team with a new, lower cost business model. Karen saw an opportunity to utilize us, initially for concept design and later on approximately 80 shots. All of this encompassed the film’s digital environments, which include futuristic city aerials, building design and modifications, set extensions and so on. Everything from wide establishing shots down to street-level views of buildings and scenery.”

The crew at Atomic Fiction took many of their cues from Bladerunner. Tudhope continued, “We wanted Looper to have a classic feel and looked to Bladerunner for inspiration, with its industrial tone and signature style, the lens flares and so on. But we also wanted to find our own way, so the two cities in Looper are more grounded in reality. They are more run down. We used common elements to tie our shots together such as graffiti and shelters for squatters, tents, etc. We designed objects and technology – like generators and antennas – that would be attached onto existing building as you know them today. The story takes place in two future cities – Kansas City and Shanghai, which is shown as the more prosperous of the two. Shanghai had to be newer, shinier and far more futuristic-looking. San Francisco doubled as Shanghai in one particular shot, so we had to transform aerials of the bay into this future version of Shanghai.”

To achieve their vision, Atomic Fiction relied heavily on using elements from the film’s 35mm anamorphic plates whenever possible. Tudhope explained, “We are big believers in having something real in the shot. You get so much good stuff from the plate photography that you don’t have to create from scratch, as you would if it were all CG. For example, the water and building textures and overall atmospherics. Sometimes we were able to use existing buildings and simply modify them. You get inspired by objects that are actually in the shot, which can be used as you transform it. In one of the bay aerials, there was a real barge on the water that we were able to enhance. In Bladerunner, the effects team made extensive use of miniatures and relied on fewer shots to tell the story. I often feel that modern effects films tend to overdo it, while the classics let the audience breathe for a moment. I believe Looper will have some of that classic feel.”

“One of the coolest, but also challenging aspects of Looper, was the film format. The film was shot on anamorphic 35mm. Match moves were a real problem for us, because of extremely complex lens distortion patterns, heavy grain and extensive warping on the edge of the frame during focus pulls. On the other hand, we had a great time matching the anamorphic lens flares that were already in the footage. It was great reference.” In total, Atomic Fiction took five weeks to develop the original concept art and design and then about four months to deliver finished effects.

Tools of the trade

Like any visual effects house, Atomic Fiction taps into a wide range of 2D and 3D software to get the job done. Tudhope described their operation, “We rely heavily on off-the-shelf software, but we tie it together with custom tools and functionality. For asset builds, animation and most lighting, [Autodesk] Maya is the tool of choice, but we tend to use [Autodesk] 3DS MAX for matte painting projections and CG environments. All of the matte painting is done in [Adobe] Photoshop and the final composites are done with [The Foundry’s] Nuke. All three companies have been great partners for us and dedicate substantial resources to the professional market.”

“The combination of 3D and 2D can be very efficient, because you can take 3D building models and reuse them from different angles without the need to draw them again from scratch. We typically put together digital environment teams, pairing 2D and 3D artists based on their strengths and what’s needed for any given shot. Sometimes you have to go back and forth between 2D and 3D. The key is being able to look at a shot and know why something isn’t working and then make the necessary adjustments. That’s harder to learn than figuring out how to bend the tools to meet the task. In general, the industry’s 2D/3D pipeline could still use some improvement. For instance, matte painters using Photoshop can easily put a lot of nuance into a shot through hundreds of layers and composite modes to get haze and glows and other details just right. That’s something that combines well inside Photoshop, but gets subtly altered when you try to pass those layers out to other tools.”

A new business model

Baillie and Tudhope realized great talent would be an important ingredient to launching Atomic Fiction, but they also felt their industry was due for innovation. They wanted to leverage new technologies to allow their company to be nimble, yet produce the high quality visual effects their team was known for.

Tudhope discussed their thoughts behind establishing the new company. “From our experience at other shops, we feel that the right number in any one location is around 40 or 50 employees. We have about 40 now and that number seems to be a sweet spot for efficiency, crew morale and maintaining a sense of team and company culture. We designed the facility with the cloud in mind. When you plan to build local hardware resources like a render farm, you end up buying for peak capacity, which means many times the system is underutilized. Instead, with the help of our partners at ZYNC, we jumped head first into Amazon’s EC2 cloud services. By moving rendering to the cloud, instead of owning the hardware locally, you start to treat it like a utility, such as electricity. You only pay for what you use. This means that rendering can literally be scaled from as little as the Macs on the artists’ desks to as many cores as you need. You have a lower total operating cost, and don’t have to pass unused equipment expenses on to the next client.”

“We render both 2D and 3D in the cloud, using V-Ray for 3D renders and Nuke for comps. ZYNC provides the software to manage the process from end-to-end. In order to make it work efficiently, we have an extremely fast internet connection. We literally push terabytes of data back and forth. Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to get our shots into the cloud at first. After that, many of the revisions to a shot only require sending the changed data, which makes subsequent updates and renders just as fast as a local render farm.”

Security is always a concern when you talk about cloud-based services for the studios. Atomic Fiction has taken that issue head-on. Tudhope explained, “When we pitch a studio, we are often prepared with all sorts of data as to why the process is secure. In most cases, they are actually quite eager to exploit the cost savings and quality improvements, via more and faster artist iterations that cloud rendering provides. The reality is that many effects shops – especially smaller ones – don’t even have dedicated firewalls between them and the Internet. We take security very seriously, with high-end firewalls, a well-engineered internal network architecture, and heavy encryption of data going into and out of the cloud. Despite these intense security precautions, we are careful to only process small slices of a shot – not edited scenes with audio – with the cloud. Those micro-level components pose a much smaller security risk for our clients. We believe that the most important security measure of all is the professionalism of your staff and imparting to them how important the issue of security is.”

Looper opens across the country in September. Check it out to see how Atomic Fiction has used the cloud and off-the-shelf tools to transform the reality of today into the cities of tomorrow.

More from FxGuideWired and Movieline.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 Oliver Peters

New Plug-ins for 2012

Plug-in developers have had their hands full. Not only are they rolling out refreshed versions of their products, but they are having to adapt to a range of new hosts, including Apple Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5 and updates of Avid Media Composer and the Adobe Creative Suite applications. Here’s a look at some of the newest options.

Boris FX – Boris Continuum Complete 8

Boris Continuum Complete is truly the Swiss Army Knife of filter packages. At NAB, Boris Yamnitsky (president of Boris FX) pointed out that the focus of the BCC8 upgrade was not simply to add more filters, but to improve the quality of all the filters, such as adding 3D depth to effects like lens flares. Filter categories have also been slightly regrouped into more logical combinations. The Boris Continuum Complete package includes categories that cover a wide variety totaling over 200 filters.

New features include improvements in the particle effects, lens flares, glows, lights and image restoration tools. There’s better integration with After Effects and support for 32-bit floating calculations. Best of all, BCC8 adds eight new filters including videoscopes, film glow, a 3D particle emitter, 3D lens flares, wild cards, organic strands, stage lights and flicker fixer.

Boris FX was one of the first companies to include particle effects inside an NLE and the performance and responsiveness of all of these filters have been greatly improved. Running BCC8 in After Effects on my Mac Pro with an ATI 5870 graphics card is a joy. The effects are easy to manipulate, particularly those that are more taxing, like distortions, particles, strands, extruded 3D text and glows. The Continuum filters use a set of custom on-screen controls that make it easy to tweak parameters either in the filter control panel or using the widget overlays.

The engineers have put effort into improving such basic effects as film glows and the 3D lens flares, giving these a very organic look and maximizing the level of control. Even though there are a lot of sliders to play with, each effect comes with a set of presets to quickly test out the looks – simply step through the presets from a pulldown menu. If you can only afford to purchase one set of third-party filters, then BCC is a great choice, because it’s so versatile.

RE:Vision Effects – Twixtor

Mention time-ramping effects, a la the movie 300, and RE:Vision Effects’ Twixtor immediately comes to mind. The most sophisticated version, Twixtor Pro, is available for Adobe After Effects, but for more casual users, RE:Vision released the standard Twixtor plug-in for Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro X.

Twixtor technology is particularly effective to slow a clip down, because it interpolates new frames in-between existing frames to eliminate visible stepping in the motion. It calculates the direction of motion within a clip and predicts where pixels should be. This data is used to create new frame information for the in-between frames. Naturally, these calculations aren’t always perfect, so the plug-in provides controls to fine-tune the parameters. Twixtor Pro (available in After Effects) gives you the ability to separate objects into layers to improve the accuracy of motion tracking.

Edge detection is a key part of how Twixtor does its magic. This means chroma and contrast play a role. If you try to apply Twixtor on a “log space” flat clip from an Alexa (Log-C), RED One (RedLogFilm) or Sony F3 (S-Log), you’ll often have some image artifacts, such as smearing or unnecessary blending. Instead, first bake in a LUT to color-corrected the clip and then apply Twixtor for significantly better results.

Twixtor tends to work best on clips when the object of your attention is reasonably isolated from the background. A skateboarder doing a jump against a blue sky will yield better results than if that background is the more complex architecture of a building. In the second example, the interpolation will tend to include the structure of the objects that intersect the skateboarder, causing them to warp and morph as you advance frames. This is where Twixtor Pro in After Effects gives you more control, but nevertheless, by being selective and doing some of your own masking, you can minimize these issues when using Twixtor in FCP X or Media Composer.

Irudis – Tonalizer|VFX

Final Cut Pro X has encouraged new plug-in developers to enter the NLE effects market. One such company is Irudis with their Tonalizer|VFX color-correction filter. It’s a slider-based filter designed for the FCP X interface and comes in a PRO (paid) and LITE (free) version. It’s billed as using photographic-style color correction and, in fact, Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture users will feel right at home.

Tonalizer|VFX LITE provides a number of basic controls for contrast, brightness, chroma, etc. You need to bump up to Tonalizer|VFX PRO for the full level of control. Some of the key features are color correction based on warmth (color temp) and tint, highlight rescue, detail enhancement and noise reduction. Its strongest feature is the ability to dig out detail from seemingly overexposed skies and blocked up shadows. It also includes adaptations, which is a localized contrast control that will add more “punch” to an image. Best of all, I found it to be one of the least taxing color correction plug-ins available for X.

Noise Industries – FxFactory

Noise Industries is another company throwing full support behind FCP X. Not only are their existing FxFactory partner developers becoming X-compatible, but Noise Industries has busily been adding partners to the mix. Some, like Nattress and Sheffield Softworks, created popular FxScript filters built for the original FCP effects API. These have been newly re-written for FxPlug and are now offered as part of the FxFactory installation. In most cases, these filters are also available to all the other supported hosts, including After Effects – a first for Nattress and Sheffield.

These new additions add a number of color correction tools to the kit. For instance, Nattress curves and levels, Sheffield Softworks filters and Yanobox Moods fill a huge gap in X’s built-in color grading capabilities. You also get the same on-screen overlays in After Effects, such as Moods’ color wheels and Nattress’ curve schematics. So if you are running FCP X, Motion 5 and After Effects, a single installation of FxFactory will enable the filters for each application.

One of the newest FxFactory associations is with Ripple Training for a series of FCP X title effects branded as Callouts. These are useful templates that are a godsend for anyone doing instructional video of any type. It’s a series of animated arrows, lines, circles, thought and speech bubbles and more. As FCP X templates (based on Motion projects under the hood), these come with easy on-screen widgets for size/position adjustment, text entry and animation direction.

Another new member to the family is UK edit boutique Tokyo, who has been developing a number of FCP X-specific plug-ins, since its launch. Their first outing with FxFactory is the Tokyo Split Animator. This is a series of split-screen animation templates, which can be easily customized for interesting on-screen image collages. Design variations include shapes, sizes and angles. The user can make modifications of animation entry points, size and screen position, borders and shadows and more. The Tokyo Split Animator is a very cool way to add screen dynamism using a very simple concept.

DigiEffects – Damage and Delirium v2.5

DigiEffects has been going through a refresh of the Damage and Delirium filter sets, which I’ve tested in a few hosts, including Apple Final Cut Pro and Adobe After Effects. I wasn’t thrilled with the performance in FCP X, but they are more in their element inside After Effects, which I still regard as the best effects architecture of any of the common desktop tools. Between these two packages, you get several dozen filters in a range of categories encompassing particle effects, film and TV damage and overexposure.

These filters can be used to distress images or to add particle-based effects, like fog, fireworks, electrical arcs and more. They still don’t seem to be as responsive as other filters are in After Effects – though the 32-bit effects respond better than the 16-bit effects – but they do add some unique looks to the toolkit. For example, their skew effect is quite different from other grunge, TV interference or analog glitch effects – complete with controls for ghosting, distortion, noise, glow and vertical hold.

Digital Film Tools – Film Stocks

Digital Film Tools has developed a number of stylized image products, including Photo Copy, Tiffen Dfx and their newest – Film Stocks. All of these have just gone through a round of updates to be compatible with Final Cut Pro X and the Creative Suite 6 applications. With Film Stocks, DFT has combined the various film stock emulation and film processing categories from the other packages into a single “film looks” filter application. Like the others, it’s available for a wide range of film/video and photographic hosts.

When you apply the Film Stocks filter to a clip on the timeline in a host like Avid Media Composer or Adobe After Effects, you can access numerous sliders for direct adjustment inside the usual effects control panel. Or click the button to launch the external Film Stocks application, which uses its own custom interface. This is consistent with the other DFT products, as well. (The exception is the FCP X implementation of Photo Copy. There, you have a series of presets available with adjustable slider controls, but no link to the standalone application. )

Once you’ve launched Film Stocks, simply choose the category, like motion picture films – browse the presets within the category, such as various Fuji or Eastman stock emulations – and tweak the settings to customize the look. The film/video plug-in works on a single layer. Some parameters, like film grain, will be animated, which affects rendering performance. For example, enabling grain with animation values will take longer to render than without grain.

In Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or Apple Aperture, the plug-in sends you directly to the external application. You have the ability to create and blend layers into a composite, much as you would with Photoshop layers. This is an especially useful tool for digital photographers. Want that touch of Kodachrome 25? Simply bounce out to Film Stocks, apply the preset and you’re done. If you are looking for a convincing mimic of film, then without a doubt, Digital Film Tools’ Film Stocks is the best film emulation product on the market.

 GenArts – Sapphire Edge V2

Sapphire Edge is a preset-based set of filters and transitions running the same effects engine as the traditional Sapphire filters. It uses a preset browser application to search and preview looks and styles. When you purchase Sapphire Edge, you also get a one-year subscription to FX Central, a subscription download service to expand to your preset collection on a monthly basis. Sapphire Edge V2 plug-ins have just been released, which include updates for Final Cut Pro (7 and X), After Effects/Premiere Pro CS6 and Sony Vegas. Nine new filters (rays, glare, glint, kaleido, soft focus, etc.) and four new transitions have been added. To date, there are over 575 presets based on 31 effects and transitions.

With V2 you can now save your own presets. Each implementation of these filters includes a set of slider adjustments in the host application’s effects interface. You can launch the Edge browser, pick an existing preset from a series of thumbnails that are previewed using your source clip, and then apply it. Back in the NLE, simply adjust the sliders until the look is right for your clip. At this point you have the option to save the adjusted version as a new preset.

As part of saving the modified preset, Sapphire Edge will let you tag it with category and name information to facilitate future searches in the browser. You can only save and recall new presets within similar products. For example, presets saved in the FxPlug version of Sapphire Edge V2 will not appear in the After Effects/Premiere Pro version; however, custom presets developed in Premiere also show up in the Edge preset browser if you apply that effect in After Effects.

Sapphire Edge V2 is GPU-accelerated with NVIDIA CUDA cards, although I found performance to be close to real-time in Premiere Pro CS6 running with my ATI card. Simply put, Premiere Pro CS6’s performance with these various filters is amazing. Sapphire Edge and the Digital Film Tools products run incredibly smoothly with timeline playback set to half-resolution. Unfortunately, comparable playback in FCP X is glacial. That’s pretty much true of all complex filters in the new Final Cut, especially those using an external application to build the effect, including GenArts Sapphire Edge, Magic Bullet Looks and the various Digital Film Tools products.

Red Giant Software Magic Bullet Looks 2 and Looks Suite 11

To keep up with the various NLE changes, Red Giant Software has recently refreshed Magic Bullet Looks and some of the other applications included as part of the Looks Suite. Looks is now compatible with all of the Avid, Adobe and Apple software. The Suite package includes a collection of software designed to solve a variety of post situations. Unlike other “suite” filter packs, these are actually different tools, not a set of categorized filter groups. These include Looks 2, Colorista II, Grinder, Mojo, PhotoLooks 2, Cosmo, Denoiser II, Frames and Instant HD. The Suite offers a great bang-for-the-buck. All of these tools – especially  Colorista II – have loyal fans, but the biggest “go to” application within this suite is Looks. If that’s your main focus of interest, then the Looks 2 software is probably the better purchase over the suite.

Magic Bullet Looks 2 runs as a plug-in that – when launched – opens into its own external application. The plug-in acts are a conduit and takes care of proper color management between the two. Magic Bullet Looks isn’t simply a group of presets or a set of photo-style filters. The Looks tools include a range of color correction tools, lens-style filters and more. These are grouped according to Subject, Matte, Lens, Camera and Post. The idea is to create a series of filters, whose combination mimics the chain of real-world processes from in front of the lens through to post. The interface includes tools, presets, scopes and a viewer for an all-inclusive image adjustment environment. The change from the original Magic Bullet Looks to Looks 2.0 involved streamlining the interface, as well as the addition of Cosmo – a skin softening filter.

The most recent change has been the introduction of Magic Bullet PhotoLooks 2, which is available separately or as part of the Looks Suite. This is a photographic plug-in that works with Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture. Even after the Looks 2 interface was released, the PhotoLooks version had retained the previous style. Now, PhotoLooks 2 uses the same consistent interface and new tools, such as Cosmo.

These filters are great for creating stylized images. As with the other suites, real-time performance in Premiere Pro CS6 is vastly better than in Final Cut Pro X. You’ll definitely need to render there. Otherwise, Magic Bullet Looks 2 is a great option. If  can only make one purchase of a comprehensive “looks” filter, then Magic Bullet Looks is the one to start with.

Originally written for DV magazine / Creative Planet / NewBay Media, LLC

©2012 Oliver Peters