Red Giant Trapcode Suite 13

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After Effects artists who are called upon to design a lot of shots that involve sci-fi effects, particles, user interface overlays, as well as shots with sparks, light rays, and sparkles have come to rely on Trapcode as their go-to plug-in set. The newest version, available from Red Giant, is Trapcode Suite 13. This package includes 11 different effects, which encompass a range of particle and volumetric lighting effects.

If you install the suite, all 11 Trapcode effects will show up in After Effects CC. These include Particular, Form, Tao, Mir, Shine, Lux, 3D Stroke, Echospace, Starglow, Sound Keys and Horizon. Of these, 3D Stroke, Shine and Starglow will also be available within Premiere Pro CC. Together these effects form a comprehensive toolkit for After Effects designers who really do have to create magic from scratch.

df2816_trapcode_01Trapcode Particular is typically the effect that most folks associate with Trapcode effects. In this new version, you can use its built-in Effects Builder to select from certain presets and design custom effects. Although other Trapcode models include presets for certain styles, only Particular includes this separate Effects Builder to browse, preview and apply effects. Particular now includes certain organic 3D effects, like smoke, fire, water and more.

df2816_trapcode_05Trapcode Form lets you design particle grids, spheres and objects that evolve over time. Trapcode Tao lets you build 3D geometries with fractal math for shapes, facets, etc. Tao is a simplified 3D object design tool, that enables metallic textures and the ability to incorporate the image maps from lower After Effects layers as surface textures. You can create animated objects, shapes and ribbons and all are GPU-accelerated. Trapcode Mir is designed to create 3D surfaces, terrains and wireframes. These can be used for tunnel effects and land topographies. Both Tao and Mir can display these designs as wireframes, shaded polygons or rendered surfaces.

df2816_trapcode_02Trapcode Sound Keys links to an imported audio file. It analyzes the file and creates animation keyframes, which can drive a colorized volume bar display to that sound. These keyframes can also be used to drive other effects, such as scaling to the beat. Trapcode 3D Stroke enables 3D lines, paths and overlays. Trapcode Lux turns After Effects lights into visible sources with volumetric properties. Trapcode Horizon is there to create infinite backgrounds in After Effects. Trapcode Echospace enables repeated effects like trails and 3D offsets.

Last but not least, there’s Trapcode Shine and Trapcode Starglow. Both are lighting effects. Shine generates 3D light rays that you can use with text or to mimic real-world lighting, like shafts of light through the forest. Shine can be linked to After Effects 3D lights for volumetric-aware effects. Starglow is more stylized with glints and glimmers, similar to adding a star filter to your lens.

Working with the suite

The suite as a whole is intended for serious After Effects artists who have to create shots, not merely enhance them. As such, it’s not like suites from other plug-in developers that offer a whole toolkit of image manipulation effects, color correction, titling and more. If that’s what you want, then the Trapcode Suite isn’t for you. However, each of these plug-ins is available separately, so if you only want Trapcode Particular or Shine, for example, then it’s best to buy just the one effect that you really need.

df2816_trapcode_06Each of these effects is quite deep. I have never seen any other plug-in with as many modifier controls as those from Trapcode. Unfortunately, these tools are very sparse on presets compared to competing plug-ins. Nevertheless, Particular has over 180 presets, while Shine, 3D Stroke and Starglow have 30, 40 and 49 presets respectively. Some, like Shine, Starglow and Sound Keys are pretty easy to figure out. Others, like Mir or Tao, really do require that you spend some time with tutorials. The investment in time is certainly worth it, if these are the type of effects that you need to do on a regular basis.

Although I use After Effects, I’m a novice at building such particle effects and find myself more comfortable with tools like Shine. Building a flying title with rays that emanate from the text was a piece of cake with Shine. Trapcode has worked hard to take advantage of GPU and CPU power. Mir and Tao are GPU-accelerated and others, like Particular, were optimized for better CPU performance in this release. Adding and adjusting these effects was pretty quick on a 2009 Mac Pro 8-core tower with a Sapphire 7950 card. No slouch, but certainly pretty average by today’s standards. I’m sure these effects would really scream on a top-of-the-line HP with a smokin’ NVIDIA card.

df2816_trapcode_03Trapcode Particular was also fun, because of the Effects Builder. Essentially it’s a presets browser, with different effects options. When you select an option, it becomes part of your effects chain in the Builder window. This lets you design a custom effect, starting with the emitter type and then adding modifiers within the chain, such as turbulence, gravity and so on. Each of the segments of this chain have parameters that can be tweaked. Once done, you apply the effect that you’ve built to the clip on the timeline and close the Builder window. Then make timing and other adjustments in the standard After Effects control panel.

df2816_trapcode_04There are many similar effects to Trapcode Shine offered by other plug-in developers. One unique attribute of Shine is the feature of adding fractal noise. So, in addition to light rays you can add the appearance of haze or smoke to the effect. Depending on how you set the controls, it can also look like a water reflection shimmering onto the objective in the image or other similar styles. All of this can be internally masked from within the plug-in. Applying the mask means that if you want the light rays to just emanate from a window in the corner of the set, you can adjust the mask accordingly. Light rays would only appear to come from the window and not other bright objects within the rest of the shot. Another unique aspect to Shine is that its light rays are 3D camera-aware, based on After Effects light and camera positions.

Overall, the Trapcode  Suite tools are a wonderful addition to any visual effects artist’s collection of plug-ins. The quality is outstanding, the visual appearance quite organic, and performance with a moderately powerful GPU is fast. Editors will likely want to limit themselves to Shine and Starglow to make the best investment for how they use plug-ins. But if you are a power After Effects user who also cuts in Premiere Pro CC, then the suite has you covered either way.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2016 Oliver Peters

NLE as Post Production Hub

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As 2009 closed, I wrote a post about Final Cut Studio as the center of a boutique post production workflow. A lot has changed since then, but that approach is still valid and a number of companies can fill those shoes. In each case, rather than be the complete, self-contained tool, the editing application becomes the hub of the operation. Other applications surround it and the workflow tends to go from NLE to support tool and back for delivery. Here are a few solutions.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC

df2316_prproNo current editing package comes as close to the role of the old Final Cut Studio as does Adobe’s Creative Cloud. You get nearly all of the creative tools under a single subscription and facilities with a team account can equip every room with the full complement of applications. When designed correctly, workflows in any room can shift from edit to effects to sound to color correction – according to the load. In a shared storage operation, projects can stay in a single bay for everything or shift from bay to bay based on operator speciality and talent.

While there are many tools in the Creative Cloud kit, the primary editor-specific applications are Premiere Pro CC, After Effects CC and Audition CC. It goes without saying that for most, Photoshop CC and Adobe Media Encoder are also givens. On the other hand, I don’t know too many folks using Prelude CC, so I can’t say what the future for this tool will be. Especially since the next version of Premiere Pro includes built-in proxy transcoding. Also, as more of SpeedGrade CC’s color correction tools make it into Premiere Pro, it’s clear to see that SpeedGrade itself is getting very little love. The low-cost market for outboard color correction software has largely been lost to DaVinci Resolve (free). For now, SpeedGrade is really “dead man walking”. I’d be surprised if it’s still around by mid-2017. That might also be the case for Prelude.

Many editors I know that are heavy into graphics and visual effects do most of that work in After Effects. With CC and Dynamic Link, there’s a natural connection between the Premiere Pro timeline and After Effects. A similar tie can exist between Premiere Pro and Audition. I find the latter to be a superb audio post application and, from my experience, provides the best transfer of a Premiere Pro timeline into any audio application. This connection is being further enhanced by the updates coming from Adobe this year.

Rounding out the package is Photoshop CC, of course. While most editors are not big Photoshop artists, it’s worth noting that this application also enables animated motion graphics. For example, if you want to create an animated lower third banner, it can be done completely inside of Photoshop without ever needing to step into After Effects. Drop the file onto a Premiere Pro timeline and it’s complete with animation and proper transparency values. Update the text in Photoshop and hit “save” – voila the graphic is instantly updated within Premiere Pro.

Given the breadth and quality of tools in the Creative Cloud kit, it’s possible to stay entirely within these options for all of a facility’s post needs. Of course, roundtrips to Resolve, Baselight, ProTools, etc. are still possible, but not required. Nevertheless, in this scenario I typically see everything starting and ending in Premiere Pro (with exports via AME), making the Adobe solution my first vote for the modern hub concept.

Apple Final Cut Pro X

df2316_fcpxApple walked away from the market for an all-inclusive studio package. Instead, it opted to offer more self-contained solutions that don’t have the same interoperability as before, nor that of the comparable Adobe solutions. To build up a similar toolkit, you would need Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor and Logic Pro X. An individual editor/owner would purchase these once and install these on as many machines as he or she owned. A business would have to buy each application for each separate machine. So a boutique facility would need a full set for each room or they would have to build rooms by specialty – edit, audio, graphics, etc.

Even with this combination, there are missing links when going from one application to another. These gaps have to be plugged by the various third-party productivity solutions, such as Clip Exporter, XtoCC, 7toX, Xsend Motion, X2Pro, EDL-X and others. These provide better conduits between Apple applications than Apple itself provides. For example, only through Automatic Duck Xsend Motion can you get an FCPX project (timeline) into Motion. Marquis Broadcast’s X2Pro Audio Convert provides a better path into Logic than the native route.

If you want the sort of color correction power available in Premiere Pro’s Lumetri Color panel, you’ll need more advanced color correction plug-ins, like Hawaiki Color or Color Finale. Since Apple doesn’t produce an equivalent to Photoshop, look to Pixelmator or Affinity Photo for a viable substitute. Although powerful, you still won’t get quite the same level of interoperability as between Photoshop and Premiere Pro.

Naturally, if your desire is to use non-Apple solutions for graphics and color correction, then similar rules apply as with Premiere Pro. For instance, roundtripping to Resolve for color correction is pretty solid using the FCPXML import/export function within Resolve. Prefer to use After Effects for your motion graphics instead of Motion? Then Automatic Duck Ximport AE on the After Effects side has your back.

Most of the tools are there for those users wishing to stay in an Apple-centric world, provided you add a lot of glue to patch over the missing elements. Since many of the plug-ins for FCPX (Motion templates) are superior to a lot of what’s out there, I do think that an FCPX-centric shop will likely choose to start and end in X (possibly with a Compressor export). Even when Resolve is used for color correction, I suspect the final touches will happen inside of Final Cut. It’s more of the Lego approach to the toolkit than the Adobe solution, yet I still see it functioning in much the same way.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

df2316_resolveIt’s hard to say what Blackmagic’s end goal is with Resolve. Clearly the world of color correction is changing. Every NLE developer is integrating quality color correction modules right inside of their editing application. So it seems only natural that Blackmagic is making Resolve into an all-in-one tool for no other reason than self-preservation. And by golly, they are doing a darn good job of it! Each version is better than the last. If you want a highly functional editor with world-class color correction tools for free, look no further than Resolve. Ingest, transcoded and/or native media editing, color correction, mastering and delivery – all there in Resolve.

There are two weak links – graphics and audio. On the latter front, the internal audio tools are good enough for many editors. However, Blackmagic realizes that specialty audio post is still the domain of the sound engineering world, which is made up predominantly of Avid Pro Tools shops. To make this easy, Resolve has built-in audio export functions to send the timeline to Pro Tools via AAF. There’s no roundtrip back, but you’d typically get composite mixed tracks back from the engineer to lay into the timeline.

To build on the momentum it started, Blackmagic Design acquired the assets of EyeOn’s Fusion software, which gives then a node-based compositor, suitable for visual effects and some motion graphics. This requires a different mindset than After Effects with Premiere Pro or Motion with Final Cut Pro X (when using Xsend Motion). You aren’t going to send a full sequence from Resolve to Fusion. Instead, the Connect plug-in links a single shot to Fusion, where it can be effected through series of nodes. The Connect plug-in provides a similar “conduit” function to that of Adobe’s Dynamic Link between Premiere Pro and After Effects, except that the return is a rendered clip instead of a live project file. To take advantage of this interoperability between Resolve and Fusion, you need the paid versions.

Just as in Apple’s case, there really is no Blackmagic-owned substitute for Photoshop or an equivalent application. You’ll just have to buy what matches your need. While it’s quite possible to build a shop around Resolve and Fusion (plus maybe Pro Tools and Photoshop), it’s more likely that Resolve’s integrated approach will appeal mainly to those folks looking for free tools. I don’t see too many advanced pros doing their creative cutting on Resolve (at least not yet). However, that being said, it’s pretty close, so I don’t want to slight the capabilities.

Where I see it shine is as a finishing or “online” NLE. Let’s say you perform the creative or “offline” edit in Premiere Pro, FCPX or Media Composer. This could even be three editors working on separate segments of a larger show – each on a different NLE. Each’s sequence goes to Resolve, where the timelines are imported, combined and relinked to the high-res media. The audio has gone via a parallel path to a Pro Tools mixer and graphics come in as individual clips, shots or files. Then all is combined inside Resolve, color corrected and delivered straight from Resolve. For many shops, that scenario is starting to look like the best of all worlds.

I tend to see Resolve as less of a hub than either Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro X. Instead, I think it may take several possible positions: a) color correction and transcoding at the front end, b) color correction in the middle – i.e. the standard roundtrip, and/or c) the new “online editor” for final assembly, color correction, mastering and delivery.

Avid Media Composer

df2316_avidmcThis brings me to Avid Media Composer, the least integrated of the bunch. You can certainly build an operation based on Media Composer as the hub – as so many shops have. But there simply isn’t the silky smooth interoperability among tools like there is with Adobe or the dearly departed Final Cut Pro “classic”. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. You can add advanced color correction through the Symphony option, plus Avid Pro Tools in your mixing rooms. In an Avid-centric facility, rooms will definitely be task-oriented, rather than provide the ease of switching functions in the same suite based on load, as you can with Creative Cloud.

The best path right now is Media Composer to Pro Tools. Unfortunately it ends there. Like Blackmagic, Avid only offers two hero applications in the post space – Media Composer/Symphony and Pro Tools. They have graphics products, but those are designed and configured for news on-air operations. This means that effects and graphics are typically handled through After Effects, Boris RED or Fusion.

Boris RED runs as an integrated tool, which augments the Media Composer timeline. However, RED uses its own user interface. That operation is relatively seamless, since any “roundtrip” happens invisibly within Media Composer. Fusion can be integrated using the Connect plug-in, just like between Fusion and Resolve. Automatic Duck’s AAF import functions have been integrated directly into After Effects by Adobe. It’s easy to send a Media Composer timeline into After Effects as a one-way trip. In fact, that’s where this all started in the first place. Finally, there’s also a direct connection with Baselight Editions for Avid, if you add that as a “plug-in” within Media Composer. As with Boris RED, clips open up in the Baselight interface, which has now been enhanced with a smoother shot-to-shot workflow inside of Media Composer.

While a lot of shops still use Media Composer as the hub, this seems like a very old-school approach. Many editors still love this NLE for its creative editing prowess, but in today’s mixed-format, mixed-codec, file-based post world, Avid has struggled to keep Media Composer competitive with the other options. There’s certainly no reason Media Composer can’t be the center – with audio in Pro Tools, color correction in Resolve, and effects in After Effects. However, most newer editors simply don’t view it the same way as they do with Adobe or even Apple. Generally, it seems the best Avid path is to “offline” edit in Media Composer and then move to other tools for everything else.

So that’s post in 2016. Four good options with pros and cons to each. Sorry to slight the Lightworks, Vegas Pro, Smoke/Flame and Edius crowds, but I just don’t encounter them too often in my neck of the woods. In any case, there are plenty of options, even starting at free, which makes the editing world pretty exciting right now.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Greater LUT Control with Koji Advance

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For folks who like to use film emulsion LUTs (look up tables), Koji Color has recently updated its product line with Koji Advance. Koji Color is a collaboration between Dale Grahnthe highly regarded film lab timer (the film equivalent of a colorist) behind many blockbusters – and plug-in developer Crumplepop. Other products have included an iPad application and an earlier version of the Koji Color plug-in. (Click on any image in this post for an expanded view.)

Typically LUT packages require camera patch LUT files (to correct for each manufacturer’s log encoding scheme) and the “look” file. Some LUT developers split these into two sets of LUTs, while others combine both into a single 3D LUT file. Koji combines their LUTs, so each file is specific to a camera manufacturer and film stock type. The original version of the Koji Color plug-in was designed for Apple Final Cut Pro X and came in the form of two products – Koji DSLR and Koji Log. The lower cost DSLR package used emulation presets designed for Rec709 video signals. The Log package cost a bit more and added files and presets to be used with log gamma encoding, like ARRI Log-C. The FCP X plug-in itself also allowed for control over shadow, mid, and highlight exposure, plus saturation and a Film Stock Mix slider. The Mix slider controlled the amount of the LUT plug-in that was mixed into the image.

df3715_ka_10_smKoji Advance has replaced both the DSLR and Log plug-ins and added more controls and film grain. It is now also compatible with Motion, Premiere Pro CC, and After Effects CC, along with Final Cut Pro X. Koji Color also sells Koji Studio, which is a package of technical versions of these same LUTs intended for facilities outputting to DCI-P3 colorspace. It includes all of the Advance features as part of the package.

df3715_ka_2_smAll packages include presets built around one black-and-white and five color print film stocks. These presets were based on research intended to faithfully reproduce the look of specific Fuji and Kodak print stocks as a medium. 2302 is a black-and-white stock. 2393 is considered by Grahn to be the best print film made. 2383 is similar, but warmer. The other three options are on the cooler side. S versions are more saturation, N versions are more neutral, and LC is low contrast. There is also a 2302 HC (high contract) black-and-white stock.

At this point, it’s important to understand that these LUTs are not designed as creative looks like you’ll find in many other LUT products on the market. The application of any of the LUTs adds the color character of that medium and forms a starting point for your color grade.

When you install Koji Advance, you can opt to install it into any or all of the available host applications. A folder of the Koji 3D LUT files in the .cube format is also installed to your desktop. These are available to be used with other applications that allow LUT files to be imported, like DaVinci Resolve, Avid Media Composer, or Autodesk Smoke. You can move or copy this folder to any location you like.

Fine-tuning the look

df3715_ka_3_smTo use Koji Advance, drop the plug-in effect onto your clip. The first two choices you need to make are the camera preset and film stock. Pick these from the pulldown menus at the top of the control panel. If your footage is from a specific camera encoding scheme, such as ARRI Log-C or RedLogFilm, select the matching choice. If it is already a Rec709 color profile, then select the generic Rec709 choice. Various DSLR camera types also have available options. The film stock selector lets you choose from a number of presets based on the six film stocks and their variants. The LC preset is a brighter version that is more conducive to downstream color correction, which may be added on top of the LUT filter. As before, there’s a Film Stock Mix slider to control how much of this look is being applied to the image.

df3715_ka_4_smThe next series of sliders in the panel turns Koji Advance into a full-on color correction plug-in. You can opt for automatic white balance or manual control. If you pick auto, the controls still let you adjust the image further. There’s a Kelvin-based color temperature slider to warm up or cool off the image. Next are the three lift/gamma/gain controls, which are similar to the exposure sliders in the previous version. These act much like level controls in other applications and plug-ins. Lift adjusts shadow/black levels. Gamma for midrange. Gain for highlights.

df3715_ka_6_smDensity is a film-style control that’s probably unfamiliar to most video operators. It effectively works like an offset control that moves the whole signal higher or lower as you look at the videoscope. Using the density control doesn’t affect saturation in the same way as changing a lift/shadow control. Something to keep in mind is that Lift and Gain will clip the image at 0% and 100% on the scope. Density can move the image into the overshoot and undershoot areas below 0 and above 100. This is actually a good thing, because it preserves the full dynamic range of the image during the processing pipeline; however, it needs be corrected before any broadcast output. Therefore, when you make extreme adjustments, it’s a good idea to use a broadcast safe filter on the final output.

df3715_ka_8_smSaturation controls the chroma level, but this is only true for the color of the image, not including the coloration caused by the LUT file itself. In other words, if a film stock preset is designed to increase blue in the image and is thus a cooler tone, cranking the saturation all the way down will not result in a true black-and-white image. It will still have a slight blue cast. Only the black-and-white presets will be truly black-and-white.

df3715_ka_7_smThe last three color controls are printer point sliders. Again, this is for film-style “color timing” (color correction). The controls work globally for the whole image, so there are no separate color controls for shadows, midtones, and highlights. It works a lot like a single-wheel color corrector. Colors are grouped according to their opposites with sliders for red/cyan, green/magenta, and blue/yellow. To use these controls effectively, it’s best to understand how they work by viewing a vectorscope. If you slide the red/cyan slider all the way to red, it doesn’t increase the intensity of only reds within the image. It shifts the balance of the whole image towards red. Look at the vectorscope and you’ll see the entire chroma signal slide towards the red vector. Same for the other colors.

I’ve seen a few online comments questioning why not put a color wheel here instead of sliders. Apart from the UI issue (especially with design limitations in FCP X), it’s effectively the same thing. Let’s say on a system with color wheels you want to shift the balance towards orange. That’s halfway between red and yellow on the vectorscope. In Koji Advance, you would simply adjust the sliders for more red and more yellow, which results in a combined orange look. Two different methods to achieve the same goal, but sliders offer the advantage of a numerical value, which is easier to repeat for consistent results.

df3715_ka_5_smThe last section, which is new for Koji Advance, is film grain. They’ve picked five stock choices ranging from finer to coarser grain. Since adding grain contaminates the image, the grain section includes three adjustment controls – Film Grain Contrast, Film Grain Saturation, and Film Grain Mix. These let you dial in how subtle the presence of grain is within your shot.

In use

I’ve used the Koji film emulsion looks on previous jobs and they add a nice touch when it’s appropriate. You have to view this as the equivalent to audio engineers working with digital and analog recording systems. Analog tape is said to sound warmer, but that’s because the medium adds its own sonic character to the recording. Many engineers will record digitally, but then use analog somewhere in the final stages. Or, they’ll use a plug-in that emulates the attributes and coloration that analog tape recording gives to the sound. Using a film stock emulation for the purpose of adding character is exactly the same thing. The Koji LUTs are subtle enough that you’ll use them more frequently than some of the other choices. The controls offered by the plug-in enable you to do the work all within Koji’s panel, if you choose.

That being said, LUTs should be used as part of the grading process, not to be the process by itself. Typically I use the Koji plug-in together with other color correction tools, so it’s important to see how it affects the signal when it is part of a stack of several plug-ins. In FCP X, Hawaiki Color is still one of my favorite color correction tools. I like the on-screen controls, the tools are comprehensive, and the results are very pleasing. As a test, I stacked the two filters – Hawaiki Color, then Koji Advance. This let me grade upstream of Koji and use the two filters interactively.

df3715_ka_9_smAn issue I ran into was one of signal clipping. Hawaiki Color also permits overshoot and undershoot, meaning that dark areas can be pushed below zero on the scope. Video can be crushed for extreme contrast. This caused some sparkling color artifacts once those extreme levels hit the Koji plug-in. However, this was easily solved, by selecting Legalize in the Hawaiki Color controls. If you do this with another filter that doesn’t have a “clip” or “legalize” option and you encounter the same issue, then use any filter that does level clipping, such as the Broadcast Safe filter. Place it between your color correction filter and the Koji Advance plug-in and these artifacts will disappear.

The Koji Advance plug-in performance seems fine on most systems and shots I’ve tested. It’s an easy plug-in to understand and use, and will quickly become a tool you’ll use on every production.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Stocking Stuffers 2014

df_stuff14_1_smAs we head toward the end of the year, it’s time to look again at a few items you can use to spruce up your edit bay.

Let’s start at the computer. The “tube” Mac Pro has been out for nearly a year, but many will still be trying to get the most life out of their existing Mac Pro “tower”. I wrote about this awhile back, so this is a bit of a recap. More RAM, an internal SSD and an upgraded GPU card are the best starting points. OWC and Crucial are your best choices for RAM and solid state drives. If you want to bump up your GPU, then the Sapphire 7950 (Note: I have run into issues with some of these cards, where the spacer screws are too tall, requiring you to install the card in slot 2) and/or Nvidia GTX 680 Mac Edition cards are popular choices. However, these will only give you an incremental boost if you’ve already been running an ATI 5870 or Nvidia Quadro 4000 display card. df_stuff14_2_smIf you have the dough and want some solid horsepower, then go for the Nvidia Quadro K5000 card for the Mac. To expand your audio monitoring, look at Mackie mixers, KRK speakers and the PreSonus Audiobox USB interface. Naturally there are many video monitor options, but assuming you have an AJA or Blackmagic Design interface, FSI would be my choice. HP Dreamcolor is also a good option when connecting directly to the computer.

The video plug-in market is prolific, with plenty of packages and/or individual filters from FxFactory, Boris, GenArts, FCP Effects, Crumplepop, Red Giant and others. I like the Universe package from df_stuff14_3_smRed Giant, because it supports FCP X, Motion, Premiere Pro and After Effects. Red Giant continues to expand the package, including some very nice new premium effects. If you are a Media Composer user, then you might want to look into the upgrade from Avid FX to Boris Red. Naturally, you can’t go wrong with FxFactory, especially if you use FCP X. There’s a wide range of options with the ability to purchase single filters – all centrally managed through the FxFactory application.

df_stuff14_4_smFor audio, the go-to filter companies are iZotope, Waves and Focusrite to name a few. iZotope released some nice tools in its RX4 package – a state-of-the-art repair and restoration suite. If you just want a suite of EQ and compression tools, then Nectar Elements or Nectar 2 are the best all-in-one collections of audio filters. While most editors do their audio editing/mastering within their NLE, some need a bit more. Along with a 2.0 bump for Sound Forge Pro Mac, Sony Creative Software also released a standard version of Sound Forge through the Mac App Store.

df_stuff14_5_smIn the color correction world, there’s been a lot of development in film emulation look-up tables (LUTs). These can be used in most NLEs and grading applications. If that’s for you, check out ImpulZ and Osiris from Color Grading Central (LUT Utility required with FCP X), Koji Color or the new SpeedLooks 4 (from LookLabs). Each package offers a selection of Fuji and Kodak emulations, as well as other stylized looks. These packages feature LUT files in the .cube and/or .look (Adobe) LUT file formats and, thus, are compatible with most applications. If you want film emulation that also includes 3-way grading tools and adjustable film grain, your best choice is FilmConvert 2.0.

df_stuff14_6_smAnother category that is expanding covers the range of tools used to prep media from the camera prior to the edit. This had been something only for DITs and on-set “data wranglers”, but many videographers are increasingly using such tools on everyday productions. These now offer on-set features that benefit all file-based recordings. Pomfort Silverstack, ShotPut Pro, Redcine-X Pro and Adobe Prelude have been joined by new tools. To start, there’s Offload and EditReady, which are two very specific tools. Offload simply copies and verifies camera-card media to two target drives. EditReady is a simple drag-and-drop batch convertor to transcode media files. These join QtChange (a utility to batch-add timecode and reel IDs to media files) and Better Rename (a Finder renaming utility) in my book, as the best single-purpose production applications.

df_stuff14_7_smIf you want more in one tool, then there’s Bulletproof, which has now been joined in the market by Sony Creative Software’s Catalyst Browse and Prepare. Bulletproof features media offload, organization, color correction and transcoding. I like it, but my only beef is that it doesn’t properly handle timecode data, when present. Catalyst Browse is free and similar to Canon’s camera utility. It’s designed to read and work with media from any Sony camera. Catalyst Prepare is the paid version with an expanded feature set. It supports media from other camera manufacturers, including Canon and GoPro.

df_stuff14_8_smFinally, many folks are looking for alternative to Adobe Photoshop. I’m a fan of Pixelmator, but this has been joined by Pixlr and Mischief. All three are available from the Mac App Store. Pixlr is free, but can be expanded through subscription. In its basic form, Pixlr is a stylizing application that is like a very, very “lite” version of Photoshop; however, it includes some very nice image processing filters. Mischief is a drawing application designed to work with drawing tablets, although a mouse will work, too.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Using FCP X with Adobe CC

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While the “battle” rages on between the proponents of using either Apple Final Cut Pro X or Adobe Premiere Pro CC as the main edit axe, there is less disagreement about the other Adobe applications. Certainly many users like Motion, Aperture and Logic, but it’s pretty clear that most editors favor Adobe solutions over others. I have encountered very few power users of Motion, as compared with After Effects wizards – nor graphic designers who can get by without touching Illustrator or Photoshop. This post isn’t intended to change anyone’s opinion, but rather to offer a few pointers on how to productively use some of the Adobe Creative Cloud (or CS6) applications to complement your FCP X workflows. (Click images below for an expanded view.)

Photoshop

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For many editors, Adobe Photoshop is the title tool of choice. FCP X has some nice text tools, but Photoshop is significantly better – especially for logo creation. When you import a layered Photoshop file into FCP X, it comes in as a special layered graphics file. Layers can be adjusted, animated or disabled when you “open in timeline”. Photoshop layer effects, like a drop shadow, glow or emboss, do not show up correctly inside FCP X. If you drop the imported Photoshop file onto the timeline, it becomes a self-contained title clip. Although you cannot “open in editor” to modify the file, there is a workaround.

To re-edit the Photoshop file in Adobe Photoshop, select the clip in FCP X and “reveal in Finder”. From the Finder window open the file in Photoshop. Now you can make any changes you like. Once saved, the changes are updated in FCP X. There is one caveat that I’ve noticed. All changes that you make have to be made within the existing layers. New, additional layers do not update back inside FCP X. However, if you created layer effects and then merge that layer to bake in the effects, the update is successful in FCP X and the effects become visible.

This process is very imperfect because of FCP X’s interpretation of the Photoshop files. For example, layer alignment that matches in Photoshop may be misaligned in FCP X. All layers must have some content. You cannot create blank layers and later add content into them. When you do this, the updates will not be recognized in FCP X.

Audition

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Sound mixing is still a weak link in Final Cut Pro X. All mixing is clip-based without a proper mixing pane, like most other NLEs have. There are methods (X2Pro Audio Convert) to send the timeline audio to Pro Tools, but many editors don’t use Pro Tools. Likewise sending an FCPXML to Logic X works better than before, but why buy an extra application if you already own Adobe Audition? I tested a few options, like using X2Pro to get an AAF into Premiere Pro and then into Audition, but none of this worked. What does work is using XML.

First, duplicate the sequence and work from the copy for safety. Review your edited sequence in FCP X and detach/delete any unused audio elements, such as muted audio associated with connected clips that are used as video-only B-roll. Next, break apart any compound clips. I recommend detaching the desired audio, but that’s optional. Now export an FCPXML for that sequence. Open the FCPXML in the Xto7 application and save the audio tracks as a new XML file.

Launch Audition and import the new XML file. This will populate your multitrack mixing window with the sequence and clips. At this stage, all clips that were inside FCP X Libraries will be offline. Select these clips and use the “link media” command. The good news is that the dialogue window will allow you to see inside the Library file and let you navigate to the correct file. Unfortunately, the correct name match will not be bolded. Since these files are typically date/time-stamped, make sure to read the names carefully when you select the first clip. The rest will relink automatically. Note that level changes and fades that were made in FCP X do not come across into Audition.

Now you can mix the session. When done, export a stereo (or other) mixed master file. Import that into FCP X and attach as a connected clip to the head of your sequence. Make sure to delete, disable (make “invisible”) or mute all previous audio.

After Effects

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For many editors, Adobe After Effects is the finishing tool of choice – not just for graphics and effects, but also color correction and other embellishments. Thanks to the ClipExporter application, it’s easy to go from FCP X to After Effects.

Similar to the Audition step, I recommend detaching/deleting all audio. Some folks like to have audio inside After Effects, but most of the time it’s in the way for me. Break part all compound clips. You might as well remove any FCP X titles and effects filters/transitions, since these don’t translate into After Effects. Lastly, I recommend selecting all connected clips and using the “overwrite to storyline” command. This will place everything onto the primary storyline and result in a straightforward cascade of layers once inside After Effects.

Export an FCPXML file for the sequence. Open ClipExporter and select the AE conversion tab. Import the FCPXML file. An important feature is that ClipExporter supports FCP X’s retiming function, but only for AE exports. Now run ClipExporter and save the resultant After Effects script file.

Launch Adobe After Effects and from the File/Script pulldown menu, select the saved script file created by ClipExporter. The script will run and load the clips and a your sequence as a new composition. Each individual shot is stashed into its own mini-composition and these are then placed into a stack of layers for the timeline of the main AE composition. Should you need to trim/slip the media for a shot, all available media can be accessed and adjusted within the shot’s individual mini-comp. If a shot has been retimed in FCP X, those adjustments also appear in the mini-comp and not in the main composition.

Build your effects and render a flattened file with everything baked in. Import that file into FCP X and add it as a connected clip to the top of your sequence. Disable all other video clips.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Typemonkey

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One of the ways to extend functions in Adobe After Effects is through scripting. These are automated macros to quickly perform tasks you could do yourself. By using scripts the results can be built more quickly without manually performing tedious, repetitive commands. Developers can create advanced scripts to automate complex creative treatments. These are installed like plug-ins, but show up as a module under the Window pulldown menu. One such script unit is Typemonkey – a kinetic text generator.

Kinetic Text

df_typemonkey_5We’ve all seen this current design trend for TV spots and marketing videos. The copy is presented via animated words, which move into position on screen. The view shifts from one word to the next in sync with the announcer at the reading pace of the viewer. Creating a kinetic text layout is relatively straightforward and can easily be created by an editor using After Effects or Motion.

The starting point for kinetic text is a large layout of stacked words. These are arranged horizontally and vertically in a bigger-than-raster field. It’s like taking a variety of building blocks and stacking them like a building. This word design can be created as a layered Photoshop document or as a series of layers in After Effects or Motion – one word per layer. To add energy and pace, you would next offset the timing of each layer and add an entry animation to the word on that layer, so that it flys, fades, rotates or types into visibility.

df_typemonkey_4Once this layout is created, the entire stack of layers is viewed with a 3D camera, which in turn is animated to create the moves from one word to the next as they appear inside the raster of your composition. This brings them full screen for a moment as the reader follows the context of this text. While this process is very easy once you understand it, the time it takes to build it can be quite long. In addition, a paragraph of words will result in a lengthy series of After Effects layers in your timeline pane.

Automating the process

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Where Typemonkey enters the picture is to streamline the process and reduce or even eliminate the manual steps. Once installed, you open the Typemonkey interface module from the Window menu. Set the starting font from After Effects’ normal text control pane, paste or type your text into the Typemonkey window and press the “Do it!” button. At this point Typemonkey operates as a macro to automatically build the layers, the moves and the 3D camera animation. The final result is a timeline that shows the 3D camera layer with all word layers shied. Moves from word to word are evenly space for the length of the composition or selected work area with markers at each change. This builds a very nice composition with kinetic text in a matter of seconds.

df_typemonkey_7Naturally, most editors and designers will want to customize the defaults, so that every composition isn’t identical. This can be achieved through both the Typemonkey pane and AE’s standard layer effects. Sliding the markers in the composition timeline will change the animation pacing of the 3D camera’s move from word to word. This lets you hold longer on some words and move more quickly through others.

df_typemonkey_3The controls within the Typemonkey pane let you adjust some of the move styles and interpolations. You can also set up a series of colors, so that each word changes color as it cycles through the five palette choices. Through adjustments at both locations, designers can get quite a large range of variations from this single tool. The actual effects are performed using After Effects expressions, rather than keyframes, so you cannot easily make individual changes to the internal moves. However, you can certainly add your own keyframed transform effects on top of what Typemonkey creates.

Typemonkey is a low cost tool that will pay for itself in the time saved on a single job. Obviously its use is specific to kinetic text creative treatments, but used sparingly and with taste, it’s a look that will bring your motion graphics up a notch.

©2013 Oliver Peters

After Effects for the Finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2013 Oliver Peters