Automatic Duck Redux

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Automatic Duck invented timeline translations between applications. Necessity is the mother of invention, leading Wes Plate, an Avid Media Composer editor who tackled compositing in Adobe After Effects, to team with his programmer father, Harry. The goal was to design a tool to get Avid timelines into After Effects compositions. Automatic Duck grew from this beginning to create a series of translation products that let editors seamlessly move timelines between a number of different hosts, including Media Composer, Pro Tools, After Effects, and Apple Final Cut Pro “classic”.

Four years ago Adobe licensed the IP for the original Automatic Duck Pro Import products, as well as brought the father/son team on board to develop tools for Adobe. Now they are back on their own and have decided to reboot Automatic Duck, which has been mothballed for the past four years. Seeing an opportunity in Apple’s Final Cut Pro X, the company has developed Ximport AE, a timeline translation tool to bring Final Cut Pro X projects (edited sequences) into After Effects. The team is no stranger to Final Cut Pro X’s new FCPXML format, since it was the first developer to create a companion utility that translated Final Cut Pro X 10.0 projects into Pro Tools sessions.

Knowing the market

df3915_ad_2First, let’s define the market. Who is Automatic Duck Ximport AE for? Editors who do most of their heavy lifting in Media Composer, Final Cut, or Premiere Pro might not see the attraction. On the flip side, though, there are quite a few editors for whom After Effects is the tool of choice for all effects and even finishing. For this group, the NLE is where they spend the least amount of time. They use an editing application for shot selection and assembly and then go straight to After Effects for everything else.

If you are a motion graphics designer who relies on After Effects, then your occasional need for an NLE might be best served by FCP X. The interface is fast and easy to master, compared with more traditional track-based edit software. Finally, if you are a dedicated FCP X editor, you no longer have a “send to Motion” function as in the old Final Cut Studio. This means you can’t send more than a single shot to Motion for treatment. Besides, After Effects may still be your preferred motion graphics application. Take all of these points into consideration and you’ll see that there’s a clear need to get a project from FCP X into After Effects – the industry’s dominant motion graphics application.

How it works

df3915_ad_4Automatic Duck Ximport AE is designed as a plug-in that’s installed into After Effects, including CS6 up through the current CC2015 version (and beyond). There are several other competing translation tools on the market, which convert between flavors of XML or from FCPXML into AE Scripts. Automatic Duck is the only one that integrates directly into the After Effects import menu. Ximport AE cuts out one middle step in the process and should provide for a more complete translation from FCP X into After Effects.

I’ve been beta testing the product for a few months and it certainly hits the mark for serious users. The steps are simple. Just cut your sequence in Final Cut Pro X and then export an FCPXML for that project (sequence). When you open After Effects, select File > Import > Automatic Duck Ximport AE. This opens a dialogue box with a few settings and it’s where you navigate to the correct FCPXML file. Settings include whether to let your clips cascade up or down in the After Effects timeline, as well as an option to create pre-comps from Final Cut’s secondary storylines. The question mark icon also launches the user guide.

In the timelines I’ve tested, the translation is quite good. Compound clips are packaged as pre-comps. The active angle of Multicam clips and the selected pick of Audition clips are translated. Alternate angles aren’t.  Generally transform, crop, opacity, and blend functions are supported, as are audio and video keyframes. A number of third party filters are accurately translated between applications, assuming that the same filter is installed into each host. At launch, these include selected plug-ins from Boris FX, Digital Anarchy, Noise Industries/FxFactory, PHYX, Red Giant, and Yanobox. Check the user guide for a detailed list with specific filters.

Some caveats

df3915_ad_3It’s worth noting, however, that just about all of the built-in FCP X filters are not translated into an equivalent filter in After Effects. For example, the color board metadata is included in the FCPXML, but there’s no way to read that info on the After Effects side. This is true even when there are filters that appear to be the same. For example, both hosts include a native Gaussian blur filter, yet that doesn’t get translated. On the other hand, if you apply a Flipped filter in FCP X, it will be correctly translated into the -100 transform scale value in After Effects. So again, read the user guide and do a little experimentation to see what works and what doesn’t in your projects. Whenever an effect is not supported, a note is made in the companion HTML file created at import. A marker is also placed on that clip in the After Effects timeline, naming the missing plug-in.

df3915_ad_6I tested a number of supported third-party products, staying mainly within the Red Giant family. Translation was good between the Magic Bullet tools, but not without issue. For example, Universe ToonIt Expressionist Noise was available in both hosts, yet the effect was not applied in the After Effect composition. That’s because at the time I tested this using a beta build, that specific Universe filter had not been included. This has since been corrected. Other effects, like Looks, Colorista III, Mojo, Universe Glow, and others worked flawlessly. According to Wes Plate, the plug-in has been architected in a way to easily add support for new effects plug-ins. The bottom line is that if you stay within the supported features, you will get the richest translation experience from FCP X into After Effects that’s currently available in the market.

Automatic Duck Media Copy 4.0

df3915_ad_5Along with Ximport AE, the company will also introduce Automatic Duck Media Copy 4.0. The original Media Copy grew out the need to collect, copy, and move sequences and their associated media. The original version worked for Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro “classic” sequences. It would read either the AAF or XML file and copy all associated media, plus the timeline edit info. This new folder could then be moved to another system for more editing or used as a back-up archive. Media Copy 4.0 has been updated to add FCPXML support. As before, it collects media and timeline files for use elsewhere. It does not trim or transcode the media, but you have the choice to copy media all into a single folder or to maintain a folder hierarchy matching the original paths within the newly created location. Media Copy works well as a standalone application or as a companion to Ximport AE. It supports Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro X, and Final Cut Pro 6/7.

With the reboot of Automatic Duck, they’ve decided to partner with Red Giant Software to provide marketing, sales, and customer support. Red Giant will offer Automatic Duck Ximport AE for $199 and Media Copy 4.0 for $99. If you still have need for Automatic Duck’s legacy products, the company is posting them again on their own website for free, with an optional “donate” button. These include Pro Import FCP, Pro Export FCP (for FCP 7 users), and Pro Import AE (for importing AAF and XML into AE CS 5.5 or earlier).

Regardless of which NLE you use, I’ve found Media Copy to be an essential tool, whether or not you work with effects or motion graphics. It’s great to see Automatic Duck update it, as well as launch their next great product, Ximport AE. Adobe After Effects will continue to be the ubiquitous compositing and motion graphics choice for most editors, so this marriage between Final Cut Pro X and After Effects make great sense.

For more, here’s a good interview with Wes Plate at Red Shark News.

©2015 Oliver Peters