Plug-ins to Enhance Your Creativity

Effects filters and plug-ins are a way to enhance your creativity and expand the toolset that you can offer your clients. Effects packages are the way to “pimp your NLE”. Here’s a look at three useful options.


A. Noise Industries FxFactory 2


Final Cut Pro introduced the ability for editors to create and modify effects using Apple’s FxBuilder, which can be found under the Tools menu. Most of the free or low cost FCP plug-ins available on the web were created using this method. When Apple changed to Mac OS X and in particular Tiger (Mac OS 10.4), they added a powerful built-in technology called Core Image, which could be used to benefit video applications. Core Image uses the OpenGL power of modern graphics cards to manipulate screen images in interesting ways and in real-time. A simple example of this in daily use is the small screen ripple that occurs when you add or remove a Widget on the desktop. That’s a Core Image effect. This type of built-in functionality has been expanded in Leopard (Mac OS 10.5) with the addition of Core Animation effects.


Factory Tools


Noise Industries decided to leverage Apple’s Core Image technology in 2004 as the architecture behind a new AVX effects plug-in package for Avid systems. When Avid made the move to Tiger the following year with the Mac versions of Avid Media Composer and Xpress Pro, Noise Industries was ready with its first product, Factory Tools – a unique set of sophisticated real-time effects built around Core Image. Until then, these types of complex effects (blurs, color effects, convolutions, distortions, etc.) would have required extensive rendering time.


More interesting though, than a new set of plug-ins, was that for the first time, Noise Industries was offering Avid editors a way to modify and even create new, custom effects using the tools available from Noise Industries and Apple. This is made possible by a free Apple developer application called Quartz Composer, which is a tool for creating custom screen effects, like the Widget ripple example. Quartz Composer is a simple, node-based application – not unlike a vastly simplified version of Shake or Combustion – that may be used to link together a series of effects nodes to create a new end result. Noise Industries used this existing mechanism and wrote additional code to turn these new Quartz Compositions into AVX-compliant Avid effects. Factory Tools is actually two elements: 1) Factory Floor – the overall software application, which is used to organize, create and control various plug-in packages; and 2) the effects filters themselves. Factory Floor is also the conduit to Quartz Composer. You can own or create all the effects you like, but without Factory Floor, they won’t run as AVX effects.





As Apple advanced and improved its professional applications within the Final Cut Studio bundle, it added the new FxPlug API. This came first to Motion and was later integrated into Final Cut Pro. FxPlug, like Core Image, takes advantage of the OpenGL graphics card performance to accelerate effects – often running up to real-time. When FxPlug made the move to Final Cut Pro, Noise Industries made the move as well, with the release of FxFactory – making them at the time the first plug-in developer to take advantage of this new, native architecture. A single installation of FxFactory installs the same set of filters into both Motion and Final Cut Pro, since both Apple applications integrate this common plug-in architecture. These run as native filters, transitions and generators in FCP and filters and generators in Motion.


Furthermore, in the latest builds, FxFactory now also installs these plug-ins into Adobe After Effects, so a single installation places a matching set of filters into three powerful applications. The apps share these plug-ins, so there is consistency between the three and the customer benefits by not having to purchase three sets of plug-ins. Noise Industries is up to the FxFactory 2.0.5 version. It is fully compatible with Tiger and Leopard, but a few of the plug-ins depend on additional Leopard-based technologies, so a small handful of effects will not be enabled on Macs running Tiger.


Like the Factory Tools AVX version, FxFactory is both an application to control and organize effects packages, as well as a series of effects. Since the AVX and FxPlug architectures are not compatible, you need both Factory Tools and FxFactory and their associated effects packs if you intend to run both Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Studio on the same computer. Effects packages are different between AVX and Apple FxPlug, because the AVX filters require more sophistication. Programmers have the option of adding ingredients to the effect that are missing inside the application itself. For example, Factory Tool AVX effects include Photoshop-style composite (blend) modes and geometry parameters (scale, position, rotation). FxFactory effects don’t require these, because composite modes and clip geometry already exist within Final Cut’s built-in tools.


Virtual Corporation


The model behind Factory Tools and FxFactory has encouraged outside designers to create new effects, which are made available for purchase through the Noise Industries website. If you search their site, you’ll even find quite a few free effects, like a plug-in to create 3D animations of planets. These require one of the Noise Industries products to run, but are otherwise self-contained. As a result, Noise Industries fits the definition of a virtual corporation, with key contributors from all over the world, including experienced visual effects artist Roger Bolton and noted Final Cut Pro editor Peter Wiggins. Bolton’s Organoptics FX pack is now included as part of Factory Tools Pro 2 and his CoreMelt effects are used in FxFactory 2.


Peter Wiggins launched iDustrial Revolution and first introduced Volumetrix, a light spill effect. This was quickly followed up with a set of four free effects: MultiSpace, iSight Live, Rack Focus and Opposites. MultiSpace acts much like an old two-channel Ampex ADO 3D digital video effects device. Two video planes can be moved and even intersected in 3D space. In the linear editing days, ADO hardware to achieve effects like these cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now you can do it on a laptop! A new free filter is CoverFlux – a multi-mage effect similar to the iTunes Coverflow transitions. Wiggins also introduced SupaWipe, which is a Final Cut transition package that lets you use a full screen graphic to wipe the screen from one piece of video to another.


New from CoreMelt is Bolton’s PolyChrome package. This includes 40 transition effects including particle dissolves, film blow-out wipes, page curl strips, exposure flashes and much more. The newest member of this collective is SUGARfx, which offers several effect generators targeted at TV promo-style production. These use a moving graphic theme into which you can drop your own images. For example, one motif is a moving filmstrip. Select the appropriate SUGARfx generator from the Final Cut pulldown menu and it appears as a single clip on your timeline. Simply open the effects editor and assign a picture folder from your hard drives as a source. Now the template is filled with your own images.



Taking the Spin


I’ve been using the various Noise Industry effects since the Avid introduction and find them to be some of the best effects on the market. They are clean, high-quality effects that are easy to use and ran quickly on even my older PowerBook G4. FxFactory effects have become a staple when I run Final Cut on my current MacBook Pro. If you can only get one package for your NLE, this is a pretty good one to have. It’s not just the quality, but new effects keep coming out that extend the value of your investment in the software.


Since I had yet to try my hand at creating new ones, I felt it was time to “walk the walk” and build my own custom filters. It couldn’t have been simpler. All you have to do is launch FxFactory or Factory Floor and choose the option to Create FxPack or Create plug-in Library. From the application’s top menu, select Actions / Open Quartz Composer to enter Apple’s nodal development application. In Quartz Composer, you are offered a series of building blocks to create effects. All you have to do is drag-and-drop these blocks onto the canvas, link them together and decide which parameters to publish. Publishing makes it available to the operator so that the filter setting can be adjusted during actual use. The rest is just a matter of giving it a name and saving it inside FxFactory or Factory Tools. The simple effect I created combined Zoom Blur, Gamma Correction and Posterization into a single filter.



B. Boris Continuum Complete 5


Boris FX has a long history of supplying a spectrum of motion graphics products that support the widest range of editing and compositing hosts. They are on top of the latest technology trends, so you are likely to find a Boris FX product that not only works with your NLE, but is also current with its newest features. Boris Continuum Complete is a plug-in filter package designed to integrate with a variety of host architectures, including Adobe After Effects (and compatible products), Avid AVX, Apple FxPlug (Final Cut Pro and Motion) and Autodesk Sparks (Flint, Flame, Smoke, Fire and Inferno). More than a year ago, Boris FX introduced BCC 4.0, which added tracking and optical flow technology to its filters.


This year Boris Continuum Complete was updated to BCC 5.0, adding support for FxPlug and Avid AVX 2. This change allowed for a cleaner user interface within these hosts and the ability to process effects in 16-bit “deep color”, for improved image quality during YUV rendering. Two key new technologies in BCC 5.0 are the advanced BCC UpRez Filter to scale SD clips to HD and the BCC MatchMove Filter, which locks one clip to another via motion tracking. Other competing filters to BCC UpRez are often sold as standalone products and not included as part of a package like this.


BCC 5.0 ships with over 180 filters and many use mature motion tracking and optical flow technologies in non-obvious ways to improve the overall quality of the effect. The UI enhancements allow on-screen controls, also called “heads up displays” (HUD), in certain effects. For example, the new BCC Pan and Zoom Filter is used to add camera-style moves to still images (the so called “Ken Burns” effect). BCC Pan and Zoom gives you HUD graphics for start and end positions to easily preview the effect. Other BCC filters add HUD graphics for tracking points and geometry information. One handy aspect of most BCC filters is that they have built-in geometry controls (for scaling and positioning) and Boris FX’s Pixel Chooser. The latter lets you define the portion of the image to which the filter will be applied. In essence, each filter includes sophisticated DVE and masking controls.


No effects package upgrade would be complete without a set of cool new filters and BCC 5.0 doesn’t disappoint. In addition to those I’ve mentioned, you get such new filters as LED, Prism, Scanline, Damaged TV, Turbulence, Noise Map 2 and Color Choker. These offer advanced effects that would otherwise require serious compositing and are based on the use of OpenGL technology and the new engine developed for Noise Map 2. In fact, BCC 5.0 effects run faster and smoother than ever on modern computers and display cards. There is a filter group specifically designed as OpenGL effects, which run in real-time on most machines; but, nearly all of the standard filters display quickly and preview at a fast enough frame rate to see what result the filter is having.



C. 12 Inch Design LiveType Expansion Packs


Most Final Cut Pro users have had at least a fleeting exposure to LiveType, the motion graphics application acquired by Apple and included with versions of Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Studio and Final Cut Express. Editors generally use it for quick, flashy text animations, even if they haven’t made full use of its compositing abilities. Once Apple introduced Motion, corporate attention to LiveType waned, leaving its potential under-developed. Nevertheless, LiveType is still one of my favorites. I’ve used it to create fully animated DVD menus, as well as text animations for not only Final Cut Pro, but also other NLEs like Avid Media Composer.


FCP editors are familiar with the canned animation effects that can be applied to text and the custom LiveFonts, which feature preset 3D, 2D and cell-animated fonts. Originally LiveFonts were raster-based, but now, nearly all LiveType effects and LiveFonts are vector-based, which means you can blow them up to a larger size without degradation. LiveType projects can be dropped directly onto a Final Cut timeline and rendered along with other effects or they may be exported as self-contained QuickTime movies (with or without alpha channels) in any of the codecs available on your computer. The early plan was to nurture a development community that expanded the offerings of LiveType through the LiveType Central website. This is now part of the product line offered by 12 Inch Design, a company dedicated to producing and marketing template-driven, customizable motion graphics elements for editors and designers. 12 Inch Design offers a set of five LiveType Expansion Packs through LiveType Central.


Installing the LiveType Expansion Pack DVD-ROMs is simple. The first pack is installed to a user-defined drive location. Subsequent packs will be installed to the same location by pointing the installer to that same drive. The location of these new Expansion Packs is selected within the LiveType preferences, so once set, LiveType will find this new content each time it is launched. LiveType content is divided into LiveFonts, Fonts, Objects, Textures and Effects. Fonts come from the standard set available on your system drive, but the other four groups are comprised of content installed by LiveType or an Expansion Pack.


Most of the five 12 Inch Design Expansion Packs include some of each group, though one expansion pack might include more LiveFonts while another has more Textures. If you’ve never used LiveType beyond text animations, it’s helpful to know that it can be used as a full-fledged multi-track compositor. This includes full-screen background files along with other composited elements. To access such files, LiveType uses the Place command instead of more common interface terminology. When you Place an object, a dialogue box opens to let you find the file on your hard drive and then it is inserted onto a track of your compositing timeline. If you are unsure of how to start, there’s a wealth of templates for all types of content, from lower thirds to full-screen animations useful for opens, DVD menus and so on.


The 12 Inch Design LiveType Central Expansion Packs include a wide range of standard and unique items, such as swirling backgrounds, globes and even stock footage of people. There are also static and animated mattes which can be used in LiveType or exported as elements useful in other compositors, like After Effects or even Photoshop. Each element can be previewed in LiveType’s small media browser window. Some of the new and existing effects are particle-based pyro effects, like sparkles, magic wand pixie dust, fire and more. I do a lot of Central Florida theme park work and these preset effects became instantly productive once I installed my expansion packs. LiveType and the Expansion Packs can be used for NTSC, PAL and HD formats. Although some content, like the stock footage of people is not vector information, it is saved at a large enough size that it may still work inside an HD composition. Many other design elements are stored at larger sizes than NTSC, so scaling isn’t a big issue.


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine and NewBay Media, LLC