FxFactory adds diversity to your toolkit

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For the past few posts I’ve been looking at a number of new plug-ins and applications designed to augment an editor’s toolset. I’m going to round off this “Plug-in Summer” with a fresh look at FxFactory. Noise Industries was one of the first developers to leverage the power of Apple’s Core Image technology for real-time filter application – first with Factory Tools for Avid (AVX) and then FxFactory for Apple’s FxPlug architecture. They found the most success with FCP editors and have focused primarily on FxFactory, but current versions of Factory Tools can still be purchased for Avid systems.

 

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FxFactory operates with the three primary FxPlug hosts (Final Cut Express, Final Cut Pro and Motion), as well as Adobe After Effects CS3 and CS4. It actually installs as two components – the FxFactory filter management application and a package of plug-ins. The FxFactory application isn’t used to apply filters. Instead, this is where you control license registrations, hide filters you don’t want to use and disable trial versions. It also provides one place to get a quick visual overview and access to user instructions for all the effects. Last but not least, adventurous editors can use this as a portal for Apple’s Quartz Composer in order to develop their own custom plug-ins. That’s a unique part of FxFactory not offered by any other plug-in developer.

 

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Noise Industries has developed their business through a partnership with various plug-in developers, who design specific filters to work with the FxFaxtory engine. These developers currently include idustrial revolution, yanobox, Boinx Software, SUGARfx, Futurismo Zugakousaku, DVShade and, of course, Noise Industries itself. In its most basic form, FxFactory is a free download. This means that you get the FxFactory application, a few free plug-ins and 15-day trial versions of the other filter packages. This is a great way to get started, because if you only care to buy the yanobox Motype title animation generator or the DVShade color correction EasyLooks filter, then that’s all you have to pay for. If you want a more comprehensive package, then get FxFactory Pro, which includes over 140 filters, generators and transitions, as well as the other trial packages. You also get a free 15-day trial period with the Pro package.

 

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ParticleMetrix example

 

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Boinx example

 

This partnership arrangement is an interesting aspect of the Noise Industries approach. Most plug-in vendors develop their filters with an in-house programming staff, resulting in a similar style and focus to the plug-ins that are developed. Since FxFactory plug-ins come from a variety of different programmers – each with a different vision of what they’d like to create – the total sum of filters provides more diverse choices than the competition. For instance, there are lots of glow filters on the market, but I’ve rarely seen anything as organic as idustrial revolution’s Volumetrix 2 package. FxFaxtory didn’t include particle effects until idustrial revolution came out with ParticleMetrix and Boinx Software was added as a partner. Now there are two of the most gorgeous particle packages under the same umbrella.

 

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Much of this expansion has happened in the past year, giving you a lot to choose from in 2009. For instance, Final Cut Pro 7 will introduce alpha transitions, but idustrial revolution has been there for at least a year or more with SupaWipe. The new Final Cut Studio package will drop LiveType, so if you don’t want to do the effects in Motion 4 (or an older version of LiveType), yanobox Motype is a good alternative. Motype offers a wealth of presets with tons of customization so you can create very graceful title animations, all within a single track and single application of an effects generator. Remember, all of this installs into the Final Cut Studio apps, as well as After Effects, so editors who like to do their heavy lifting in After Effects can maintain filter compatibility.

 

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It’s hard to cover the whole breadth of what’s possible with these effects in one single post. A relative newcomer is DVShade, whose EasyLooks provides FxFactory with a color corrector. This filter is deceptively simple, because it shows up as a single filter in the palette. Nevertheless, it includes a slider-based 3-way corrector, diffusion, gradient and vignette tools and a ton of preset looks. Unlike other 3-ways, target colors selected for the low/gamma/high color wells are used to tint those color ranges in an additive or subtractive fashion. This approach yields some interesting results. Like all the Noise Industries filters, if you are confused about its use, simply click on the logo at the top of the filter control pane to launch a PDF help guide. In the past year, Noise Industries has added a number of video tutorials to its website to further improve the customer experience.

 

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As you look through the many options for filters, generators and transitions, it’s hard to decide which product is the best, if you assume that you only can purchase one package. Noise Industries offers some diverse and powerful options, but remember that it’s not “all or nothing”. Many companies are breaking down their comprehensive packages into smaller sets of filters. That’s great for the user – allowing you to get color correction filters from Company A, titling tools from Company B, keyers from Company C and so on. It’s a model that Noise Industries helped to start and one that let users customize their ideal working environment.

 

©2009 Oliver Peters

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A little mocha in your video?

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Tracking is the key to believable visual effects and one of the leaders in this technology is Imagineer Systems. Mocha, a 2D standalone tracker, is one of their better known products. If you purchased one of Adobe’s Creative Suite 4 bundles that included After Effects, then you already own mocha for After Effects, whether you know it or not. This year Imagineer released mocha for Final Cut Pro, bringing the same tracking power to FCP editors.

 

Many software packages already include tracking technology. Avid Media Composer, Apple Motion and Adobe After Effects all include built-in trackers. So, why buy another? All of these trackers are “point” trackers. You isolate one or more obvious targets on an image and position a tracker over it. Usually this is an area of a few pixels with a high contrast difference, like a clear logo or sign in the frame that moves with the object you are tracking. As the object moves through the frame, the tracker hopefully stays “locked” onto this target area while the software does an analysis pass of the video clip. If the tracked point moves off screen or out of focus, most point trackers will have trouble following and new tracker targets have to be picked where the first track leaves off. Often tracks have to be manually adjusted.

 

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The information generated by tracking results in keyframe data that can be applied to stabilize shots, corner pin objects or to moving masks for filters and other effects. More accurate tracking is achieved by adding more point trackers. Corner pinning – used to replace one logo with another – generally requires four trackers. Mocha differs from these other tracking systems because it is a planar tracker. Instead of tracking isolated points, you draw a spline shape around an object and mocha will analyze all the pixels within that shape. This results in a more accurate track, even when part of the tracked area moves off screen, goes out of focus or when a foreground object briefly cuts across part of the tracked area.

 

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Mocha for After Effects and for Final Cut are not true plug-ins, but are separate applications. The difference between them is the export module. To work in either version, simply import the clip to be tracked. At this point you are in mocha, which is basically the same as the full-blown, standalone version. Once you have completed the track, made adjustments and are satisfied with the results, you are ready to export the data. This last stage is where the plug-in versions differ. Both generate either basic motion information (translate, scale, rotate) or distort (corner pinning) values. The After Effects version generates text files that can be copied-and-pasted into AE as keyframes. The Final Cut version exports XML files that can be imported into FCP.

 

The data can also be inverted during the export. For example, if you are using the tracking data to stabilize an image, you’ll want to invert the data, so that the image is stable and stationary, but the frame around it appears to be moving. If you intend to use this tracking data in Apple Motion, then you first have to import the XML into FCP and “Send to a Motion project” from FCP.

 

When you import the XML file, the clip is imported along with motion tab data applied to it. Depending on which data you exported, this will either consist of scaling/position/rotation keyframes or distort keyframes for each corner. The keyframe data can be copied-and-pasted (paste attributes) onto a logo or mask. To place a new logo into a shot, cut the clip onto V1. Highlight the clip and copy. Cut the logo onto V2 and paste attributes (which came from the V1 clip). Now remove attributes from the clip on V1. If you used corner pinning, you can still adjust scale/position/rotation of the V2 logo for a better fit – or – if you applied basic motion, then you can still adjust the corner positions (distort).

 

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I recently used both versions of mocha (AE and FCP) on a commercial for several shot repairs. The clips were of a large stadium video screen and above the screen was an LED sign with the words “Kansas City”. Unfortunately on the day of the shoot, the panel containing the middle “S” was not completely working. The production couldn’t be held up, so the decision was made to fix it in post. When I first saw the shots, I thought the fix was going to be a piece of cake inside FCP. Simply duplicate the clip so the same clip is on V1 and V2. Offset and crop the V2 clip so that the second “S” overlapped and hid the first “S” and all would be fine. Both clips would be moving in sync and the two letters would match perfectly. So much for theory! The shots were Steadicam shots with a right-to-left movement throughout the shot. These were also low angle shots resulting in enough optical difference between the positions of the two letters to make a simple fix impossible.

 

The next approach was tracking. Let me point out that mocha is a 2.5D planar tracker. In the real world it does a good job with objects that stay on the same plane relative to the lens, including with perspective changes. You won’t be immune from problems created by arcing or trucking 3D camera moves. All of the nice demos and tutorials are often done using moving subjects that are within static camera shots. Rarely are both moving.

 

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Another consideration is film and 3:2 pulldown. These spots were shot on 35mm film and transferred to Digital Betacam. As with most NTSC footage, I had to contend with the whole-frame/split-field-frame cadence of film transfers. Although mocha can track across these split-field frames, the resulting data doesn’t necessarily composite well back in Motion or Final Cut. My solution was to first remove the pulldown in After Effects – one of the best tools for that. Then simply render out a 24fps progressive-frame file.

 

( Note: Most video apps express the video-friendly version of 24p as 23.98. That’s a rounded-up value. After Effects uses the 3-digit version of 23.976. Most apps make no distinction and use the same math, but in the case of AE, there is a difference between 23.976 and 23.98. So, use 23.976 in AE and you’ll still be OK as 23.98 back in FCP. )

 

Step one done. My clips were now progressive frame media at 24fps (23.976). Now for the fun. I pulled a single frame into Photoshop, fixed the “S” and cut out the sign to form the new foreground element. I would track this onto the clip to replace the original sign. In order to get the most rock solid lock, I ended up using a whole slew of tracking solutions, including Motion, After Effects and both versions of mocha. I exported both motion data and corner pinning data to try it either way.

 

In all cases, I found the track from mocha to be more precise than After Effects or Motion, but that didn’t always translate to the best compositing results. Corner pinning data sometimes results in information that is too precise and the object appears to jitter in a composite, because of the minute changes in each corner at each of the many keyframes. On the other hand, motion data results in an objects that appear to float too much and don’t look as locked as you’d like. As I said, mocha provided a great track, but this doesn’t mean that the keyframe values are precisely interpreted in the host compositor.

 

The last shot gave me the most fits, even though it looked the easiest. The sign was large in the frame and tracking points stayed in frame. Any of the trackers should have done well, but they didn’t. As the camera moved, someone in the foreground crowd was clapping and his hand intersected one of the corners for a few frames. I couldn’t get a good track with any of the point trackers. In this situation mocha shined. The analysis ignored the hand, since the larger spline area covered the entire shape of the sign. Instead of corner pinning, I used basic motion data and composited the shot in FCP.

 

( Note: After I was done tracking these shots, I stumbled upon this quick tutorial by Mathias Mohl, which combines his After Effects MochaImport script and Red Giant Software’s Warp to better deal with such perspective distortion issues. )

 

Once I had fixed all of the shots and had new 24p media, I brought these files back into After Effects. There I rendered new 29.97 clips with new 3:2 pulldown, so that the clips could be cleanly cut back into the spots.

 

Although no single solution provides the silver bullet to fix some of these issues, Imagineer Systems’ mocha goes much farther than the built-in solutions. If tracking is something you need to do often, then mocha for FCP is a pretty cost-effective answer.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Boris FX – Rockin’ with BCC6

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Boris FX is one of the most prolific producers of plug-in filters and compositing applications. Factor in all the host applications covered by the Boris products – like Boris Continuum Complete, plus the hosted and standalone versions of Boris Red, Blue, FX and Graffiti – and you can easily see how so much video is touched by this talented team of developers.

 

With so many products to offer, the company tends to concentrate on updating all the versions of one product over the course of a year. 2009 has been the time to refresh many of the filters and all of the NLE host versions of Boris Continuum Complete, now at version 6. Continuum is probably the most wide-ranging set of filter packages available, consisting of keyers, effects, generators, color-correction, 3D text and more.

 

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If you purchase the retail version of Avid Media Composer, this will include the BCC filters as a bundled third-party product in the suite. After Effects and Final Cut users don’t get such a bundling deal from Adobe or Apple, but if you are going to shell out cash for a single comprehensive set of filters, then BCC is one of the best choices.

 

Naturally many editors don’t use all of the filters on a regular basis, so Boris FX has started to break out some of the individual filters into Boris Continuum Units. These are smaller sets of complementary filters that focus on one task. At this point, these include the Chromakey Studio and the 3D Objects unit. BC Units don’t cost as much as the full BCC package and let users purchase only the one or two filter sets that they feel might be the most useful to their workflow.

 

Each host application uses a different plug-in API, so BCC6 comes in versions that are specific to individual NLE and compositing application. This lets Boris FX customize the features according to the API and allows them the ability to add some functions, like geometry controls and deep color rendering that might not be part of the host’s internal effects controls. I work with BCC6 is various flavors: AVX, FxPlug and After Effects. Each of these filter packs is generally the same, though there are variations particular to one host or the other. The big new features in BCC6 include 3D objects, like extruded splines and text, more chroma-keying tools, more real-time and OpenGL acceleration, support for After Effects’ camera and lighting system and keyframe animation exchange between the AE and AVX versions of BCC6.

 

Overall, BCC6 filters work well in all of these hosts (FCP, Media Composer, Motion and After Effects CS4). You can quickly see how certain filters, like 3D animated and shaded text, particles and layer deformation, can be used in very creative ways to greatly enhance your favorite application. This is especially true in Avid Media Composer, which has one of the weakest and oldest effects modules of any of these applications.

 

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The most updated approach can be found in the FxPlug version. This API offers a number of options to the developer, but of course, it’s Mac only. For example, BCC6 FxPlug includes several filter categories labeled BCS filters for Boris Continuum Shaders. According to Boris Yamnitsky (yes, the Boris of Boris FX), “The name Shaders stems from the implementation method for all filters in that subset of Boris Continuum. The software algorithms have been re-written in a special shader language for the GPU under FxPlug architecture. For example, the Chroma Key algorithm is roughly the same, but the new filter is dramatically faster than the software counterpart. In addition, the choke and light-wrap stages are added at no render cost. The three software filters stacked up on a clip will certainly require longer rendering while the GPU version easily plays back in RT mode. Same for Film Look and all other BCS filters. What’s even more interesting is that multiple BCS filters can be stacked up without the multi-filter penalty so common with software based filters.”

 

These specific filters enable a new, interactive preset browser that previews your video clip – not a default dummy clip – with the presets applied. You can interactively select and refine the choices simply by clicking through the presets in the browser window. Right now this feels like a bit of a work-in-progress to me. For example, only the filters that apply a visual effect – like the Film Effect – actually have presets that show up on the browser. It won’t display any presets from the Chromakey or 3D Perspective filter. The browser’s custom UI also acted flakey inside Motion, which doesn’t come as a surprise to me. Motion can be very powerful, but often disappoints and acts like a toy and not a robust software tool.

 

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BCS Chromakey Studio is an example of a BC Units pack that’s part of BCC6 FxPlug. This combines the Chromakey, Matte Choker and Light Wrap filters into one module. The quality of the key was pretty good, but I couldn’t get Matte Choker to work correctly in either FCP or Motion. No matter where I adjusted the Choke slider, it was simply at one extreme or the other. By comparison, when I applied each of these filters individually, things worked as I would expect.

 

Light wrap is interesting, as it uses a color or the background image and blends it into the edge of the foreground object. It’s trying to simulate how light in a real shot tends to diffuse edges and “bend around” an object in a camera lens. Boris FX’s chromakeying is on par with other better keyers and gives very good results on clips that are easy to key. I wasn’t as happy with it on a more difficult-to-key test clip that I use. In general, the BCC keying filters gave me results close to Avid’s Spectramatte, but not as good as Keylight, which is included with After Effects CS4.

 

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3D text is a big deal in the BCC6 update and something that’s not often found in competing filter packages. You can import EPS files or generate text using the familiar Boris text tool. Next, apply presets for style and animation. This filter is built on the Boris Blue 3D engine, so text stays vector-based, complete with material and lighting attributes.

 

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These same 3D object characteristics are also applied in the Layer Deformation tool. If you’re old enough to recall Sony’s VERY expensive System G hardware DVE that could ripple and warp video in real-time in 3D space, then you get some idea of the power this single filter is delivering to the desktop.

 

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Another BCS filter offered in the FxPlug version is 3D Perspective. This filter combines a number of Boris’ 3D filters and Apple Core Image technology to composite several elements using a single filter. In this particular effect, live video – complete with lighting and reflections – is placed on a floor surface. Preset animation moves control the camera move towards the video. You can change many of the attributes including the floor surface. The default is a checkerboard pattern, but simply drop other moving video or a still image into an image well for two layers of moving video – all within the same filter.

 

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I feel that the BCC6 filters typically behave best in After Effects. The application feels snappier than any of the others, especially when scrubbing through a clip once filters are applied to it. After Effects momentarily degrades the video during scrubbing and then pops back to full quality (or the setting you’ve selected) as you stop. This delivers a more responsive experience. After Effects simply blows away Motion, Final Cut or Media Composer for serious compositing. Equipped with BCC6, it’s one kicking desktop compositing tool!

 

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Unfortunately the After Effects implementation lacks an FxPlug-style preset browser and the BCS effects. Nearly all of the filters are actually there in the various categories – just no interactive browser. Nevertheless, if you want to know how an effect works, simply click the “help” button to open a PDF user guide for instructions.

 

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Since I’m wrapping up by talking about After Effects, lets not forget Final Effects Complete. This vintage filter set introduced advanced image effects, like 3D shatters, cylinders and spheres, to the desktop world during the early days of After Effects. It’s bounced around a bit, but has been firmly in the Boris FX product family for several years, who has kept it current. FEC works with a number of hosts, including Final Cut Pro and After Effects CS4. When you want to pull out some funky effects for the client, it’s hard to beat filters like Hair or Mr. Mercury! Modern desktop machines and even laptops plough through these effects with ease, so there isn’t the performance burden we’ve known in the past. If you’re interested in both BCC and FEC, remember that Boris offers a number of bundling deals that make this combo quite attractive.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters

nVeil – the origami of video

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If you are looking for a plug-in to give you a unique and different look for striking visual effects, then Storek Studio’s nVeil filter fits the bill. nVeil is an FxPlug filter for Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express and Motion and provides yet another tool that leverages the power of OpenGL and the FxPlug architecture.

 

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The creative description of what it does is a bit harder to explain than what is happening technically. That’s because the results you can achieve are more like video artwork, than simply stylizing video clips with various effects filters. In short, nVeil uses scalable vector graphics (SVG file) to slice the image into polygons, which are then rendered using OpenGL and powered by the computer’s GPU. These SVG files are considered “veils” (as in a curtain) that become “cells” onto which portions of the image are “projected”. The company has tested nVeil on a range of graphics cards and Macs. I’m on a 15” MacBook Pro with the nVidia GeForce 8600M GT card. It was fine up to 720p projects, but I did receive a render warning when I tried applying nVeil on a 1080i timeline. Nevertheless, unrendered real-time effects played smoothly on this unit.

 

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nVeil ships with a library of about 60 SVG files. These can also be created or modified using Adobe Illustrator, so feel free to create your own. The user guide and tutorials on the nVeil website provide concise descriptions about how to generate new vector files. SVG images can include line art as well as text.

 

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In FCP, simply drop the filter onto a clip and access an SVG file from the filter tab. The stock SVG files will be installed in Applications / nVeil / SVG Veil Library. You won’t see any affect at first, so adjust Source Scale as a starting point. Sliding the Source Scale slider to one extreme blurs the image, so that your vector graphic is filled with fuzzy colors, much like a kaleidoscope or a stained glass window. Slide it in the opposite direction and the image becomes a serious of crisp multiple images, like an insect-eye effect.

 

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From there it’s a matter of adjusting the Source and Veil Transform sliders to get the look you want. Since the nVeil filter is being applied to moving video, the natural changes of objects and color in the video create a vibrant effect.

 

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You can set keyframes for each slider value, so nVeil filters can change over the length of the clip and may be used for interesting transition effects. Furthermore, as with any other FCP or Motion filter, you can stack filters for other effects. For example, place a blur, glow or vignette filter upstream of the nVeil filter and the adjustments are visible inside the segments of the veil graphic.

 

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The are a few key settings that control how the veil and source clip are composited. The Add SVG Bounds toggle (Veil Generation) determines whether the outer shape is a rectangle or the drawn edges of the graphic. With Add SVG Bounds unchecked, a dragon graphic holds the shape of the dragon. With it checked, the dragon graphic appears inside the edges of the rectangular file boundary.

 

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At the bottom of the filter pane is the Background Mode: Pass Through, Projected or Matte. Pass Through leaves the original clip untouched in the background with the veil effect on top. Projected applies Source Transforms, but no veil parsing, to the source clip to create the background. Matte leaves a black background. As yet, there are no provisions to change the matte color or for multi-layer effects. You can’t place a clip with a veil effect on V2 and see a clip on V1 as the background.

 

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Storek’s nVeil is yet another example of how innovative designers have taken the groundwork created by Apple’s FxPlug to give you new tools that can enrich your productions. Check out the site for motion examples of what can be done with nVeil.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters