Stocking Stuffers 2013

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With an eye towards Black Friday, it seemed like a good time to put up this post. There’s been so much development in tools for FCP X this year that I decided to focus my year-end post of small items strictly around some of the offerings related to FxFactory. Although there are plenty of other developers focusing on Final Cut Pro X, Noise Industries has done a good job of aggregating a divergent set of developers under one roof. Many of the items listed are for FCP X, but quite a few also work inside Adobe Premiere Pro CC.

Apple’s Final Cut Pro X uses an effects architecture based on templates tied to the underpinnings of Motion 5. Even if the user didn’t buy the Motion application, that’s the engine that drives FCP X effects. End users and developers can create innovative effects, transitions and titles simply by building an effect inside Motion and publishing it as an FCP X effect. This capability has enabled the Final Cut ecosystem to blossom with many new and useful effects that would be very complicated to replicate in most other editing or compositing applications.

df_fcpxplugs0713_1Some of the newest tools are even free, such as the Andy Mees filters. Mees is well-known in FCP circles for his older FxScript plug-ins and now he’s developed a handful of useful effects for FCP X. Of particular interest is Better 3D – a 2.5/3D DVE – as well as his Elastic Aspect filter. The latter stretches 4:3 content to fit a 16:9 frame. It is designed to stretch the outer portions of the frame more than the center, in order to leave talent (usually in the center of the frame) less distorted.

df_fcpxplugs0713_10The folks are Ripple Training are known for software training, but of late have also become plug-in developers with products that include Callouts, Optics, Timelines and Tools. All but the last are design themes with graphic overlays. Timelines is a set of templates for animated timeline charts. Tools is a mix of useful effects to augment FCP X. These include masks, 3D text, guides, color balance and certain stylized looks.

df_fcpxplugs0713_4A similar offering is Tim Dashwood’s Editor Essentials. Dashwood develops Stereo3D tools for Final Cut, but like Ripple’s Tools, this group is an editor’s toolkit designed to make life easier. Included are letterbox/pillarbox masks, color correction adjustments, camera horizon leveling, a quick slate template, a dead pixel fixer filter and more.df_fcpxplugs0713_3

Tokyo Productions developer Simon Ubsdell got into the effects game with FCP X. Some of his newest effects include Chrominator and PIPinator. The first filter turns flat titles into shiny, metallic, extruded text, complete with sheens and glows. PIPinator (as in “picture-in-picture”) is a set of preset DVE moves to fly images in, out and through the frame. Other effects include ReAnimator for dead pixels and Split Animator for various split screen effects.

df_fcpxplugs0713_5I’ve mentioned Luca Visual FX a few times in my past reviews. Luca VFX is a great resource for grunge and distress looks. Some new filters and transitions include Impackt and Lo-Fi Looks. The latest – XOverlays – deviates from grunge, by using a set of patterns and graphics as effects overlays. These plug-ins also include image wells within the filter, so you can alter the look by dropping in your own images. Luca has further extended XOverlays, by releasing a set of bonus motion graphics, which may be used in these image wells. Design styles include bands, grids, high tech elements, ripples and visualizers.df_fcpxplugs0713_15

Another new Luca offering is Hi-Tech, which is a collection of lower-thirds, simulated displays and animations. It’s a perfect package for a show, spot or film that needs a lot of sci-fi style monitors, HUD overlays and digital elements. Each of these can be customized with image drop wells, color changes and the ability to reposition items within the frame.

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Stupid Raisins has focused on transitions using blocks, panels, shapes and slide effects. Their latest release is a series of title generators with built-in motion graphics, reminiscent of Apple’s LiveType. Although these animations have been integrated into Motion, it’s nice to have them easily accessible within FCP X as an effect. There are 50 titles with a variety of text animation effects. Apply the clip to the timeline and then you can easily modify fonts, text information and style.

df_fcpxplugs0713_7I’ve only touched the surface of the available tools, but I’ll wrap up with PHYX’s new Flarelight filter. This package includes three glare, lens flare and glow filters, plus noise and star field generators. The lens flare in particular is very nice. It has a ton of parameters to customize the flare and keyframe its movement. Actual adjustment felt a little slow as I was doing it, but it played reasonably well in real-time without having to render – just to see the effect.

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idustrial revolution – one of the original FxFactory development partners – has added the XEffects Toolkit to their product family. The Toolkit is a set of 53 filters, titles and generators that cover a wide range of needs from the stylish to the utilitarian. For example, where can you find a tilt-shift filter, a telestrator overlay line and a slate/countdown clock all in the same set of effects? Also included are filters that treat standard editing effects – like a zoom – in much the same way as a Behavior in Motion.

df_fcpxplugs0713_17The last plug-in I’ll mention here is Swoosh from SUGARfx. Swoosh is a set of light brush transitions, titles and generators. The transitions especially show off the power of image manipulation in FCP X. Not only are these a graphic color overlay that wipes from one image to the next, but the path of the light brush effect actually refracts the image underneath. This results in visual ripple or distortion of the incoming and outgoing shots. The transitions run in real-time on a good machine and you have control over a number of parameters, including the gradient colors and the refraction amount.

df_fcpxplugs0713_18I’ve avoided mentioning color correction filters of various types, since these were covered earlier. If you missed those posts, check here and here for a refresher.  I’ve mentioned these in the context of Final Cut Pro, but many of these filters will also show up and work in Motion, After Effects and Premiere Pro with the same installation. It’s a growing ecosystem of tools that makes FCP X a very interesting environment to work in.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

© 2013 Oliver Peters

Rampant Design Tools

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Editors love to play with effects and filters. It’s one of the things that has driven the FCP X market. No matter what NLE you use, filters and transitions are almost always proprietary to that application. You can’t use a Motion template in any other application than Final Cut or Motion. Often the best solution is to use effects elements in the form of media rather than plug-ins. This way your effects are transportable between offline and online editors, different editing applications and different computing platforms. They are also correctly translated as part of a sequence sent out as an EDL, XML or AAF file. This is something to think about for Adobe Creative Cloud subscribers, who might be reticent to buy a lot of plug-ins that are locked to a host application that they now don’t own.

df_rdt_2_smOne company leading the way in new effects and design elements is Rampant Design Tools. The designer behind the company is visual effects wiz Sean Mullen. For the sake of full disclosure, Sean and I have worked together in the past and so I’ve been able to test and play with a lot of his products. The Rampant Design Tools products cover a wide range of styles, but coming from a VFX background, Sean has included a lot of elements that are useful for effects compositing, including flares, light flashes, dust, gunfire, smoke, fog, dirt, scratches and more. All elements are QuickTime-based, using common codecs. Typically these are Photo-JPEG or PNG, depending on whether or not they need to be keyable.

df_rdt_3_smNew products include animated backgrounds, matte transitions, textures and optical effects. I’m particularly fond of his Bokeh elements, which make really tasteful backgrounds. Rampant has also added stock music and After Effects templates for a more rounded product offering. It’s important to note, that while these are drag-and-drop effects, they do come from a compositor’s sensibility. By this I mean, they are there to play with, combine and modify to taste. For example, changing blend modes or filling a keyable transition clip with other “fill” media will completely change the look of the effect in a way that makes it more unique. Yes, you can use them “as is”, but you also have the latitude to get out of the “cookie cutter” mindset. To help users expand their creativity, the Rampant Design Tools website includes tutorials, a blog and a community section.

df_rdt_4_smThis post doesn’t need an in-depth review. The products are self-explanatory and work in any editing and compositing application that can read QuickTime files. The quality of the tools are fine – designed by an experienced compositor for other artists. If you don’t want to be locked into plug-ins that might not work with the next version or OS change, then Rampant Design Tools could just fit the bill.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Hawaiki Color

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Color correction using graphical color wheels was introduced to the editing world in the Avid Symphony over a decade ago and adopted by nearly every NLE after that.  Final Cut Pro “legacy” had a two nice color correctors using the color wheel model, so adopters of Final Cut Pro X were disappointed to see the Color Board as the replacement. Although the additive/subtractive color math works about the same way to change tonality of lows, mids and highlights, many users still pine for wheels instead of pucks and sliders. A pair of developers (Tokyo Productions and Lawn Road) set out to rectify that situation with Hawaiki Color. It’s the color correction tool that many Final Cut Pro X editors wish Apple had built. (Click any images in this post for an enlarged view.)

Both developers offer several different types of grading filters, which all perform similar tasks. Each has its own twists, but only Hawaiki Color includes on-screen sliders and color wheel controls. Based on how Apple designed FCP X, developers simply cannot create custom interfaces within the Inspector effects panel. They are limited to sliders and a few extras. One of these extras is to the ability to tap into the Mac OS color pickers to use color swatches as tonal controls for low/mid/hi color balance. A number of grading filters use this method quite successfully.

If a developer wants to introduce more custom interface elements, then there are two routes – linking to a separate external application (Magic Bullet Looks, Digital Film Tools Film Stocks, Tiffen Dfx3, GenArts Sapphire Edge) – or placing an overlay onto the Viewer. Thanks to the latter option, a number of developers have created special overlays that become “heads up display” (HUD) controls for their plug-ins. To date, only Hawaiki Color and Yanobox Moods have used a HUD overlay to reproduce color wheels for grading.

df_hawaiki_2_smThe Hawaiki Color grading controls can be adjusted either from the Inspector effects pane or from the on-screen HUD controls placed over the main Viewer output. Set-ups, like a reference split screen, must be done from the Inspector. The grading controls are built into three of the four frame corners with low/mid/hi/global sliders for exposure, temperature and saturation. The sliders in the fourth corner let you adjust overall hue, contrast, sharpening and blur. At the center bottom of the frame are three color wheels (low/mid/hi) for balance offsets. Once the Hawaiki Color filter is applied to the desired clips in your timeline – and you have set the filter to be displayed in a window or full screen with overlaid controls – it becomes very easy to move from clip-to-clip in a very fast grading session.

df_hawaiki_3_smI ran a test using Philip Bloom’s Hiding Place short film, which he shot as part of his review of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. He was gracious enough to offer an ungraded ProResHQ version for download, which is what I used as my test footage. The camera settings include a flat gamma profile (BMD Film), which is similar to RED’s RedLogFilm or ARRI’s Log-C and is ideal for grading. I edited this into an FCP X timeline, bladed the clip at all the cuts and then applied the Hawaiki Color filter to each segment.

df_hawaiki_4_smBy running my Viewer on the secondary screen, setting the filter to full screen with the interface controls overlaid and placing the FCP X scopes below, I ended up with a very nice color grading environment and workflow.  The unique aspect, compared to most other grading filters, is that all adjustments occur right on the image. This means your attention always stays on the image, without needing to shift between the Inspector and the Viewer or an external monitor. I did my grading using a single instance of the filter, but it is possible to stack more than one application of Hawaiki Color onto a clip or within adjustment layers. You can also use it in conjunction with any other filter. In fact, in my final version, I added just a touch of the FilmConvert Pro film emulsion filter, as well as an FCP X Color Board shape mask for a vignette effect.

df_hawaiki_5_smThere are a few things to be mindful of. Because of the limitations developers face in creating HUDs for an FCP X effect, Hawaiki Color includes a “commit grade” button, which turns off the on-screen interface. If you don’t “commit” the grade, then the interface is baked into your rendered file and/or your exported master. Like all third-party filters, Hawaiki Color does not have the same unrendered performance as FCP X’s own Color Board. There’s “secret sauce” that Apple uses, which developers are not privy to. Frankly, there isn’t a single third-party FCP X filter that performs as well as Apple’s built-in effects. Nevertheless, Hawaiki Color performed reasonably well in real-time and didn’t get sluggish until I stacked FilmConvert and a vignette on top of it.

df_hawaiki_6_smI ran into an issue with Bloom’s source file, which he exports at a cropped 1920 x 816 size for a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. FCP X will fit this into a 1920 x 1080 sequence with letterboxed black pad on the top and bottom. However, by doing this, I found out that it affected the HUD controls, once I added more filters. It also caused the color wheel controls to change possible in the frame, as they are locked to the source size. The solution to avoid such issues is to place the non-standard-sized clip into a 1080p sequence and then create a Compound Clip. Now edit your Compound Clip to a new sequence where you will apply the filters. None of this is an issue with Hawaiki Color or any other filter, but rather a function of working with non-standard (for video) frame sizes within an FCP X sequence.

df_hawaiki_7_smAs far as grading Hiding Place, my intent was to go for a slight retro look, like 1970s era film. The footage lent itself to that and with the BMD Film gamma profile was easy to grade. I stretched exposure/contrast, increased saturation and swung the hue offsets as follows – shadows towards green, midrange towards red/orange and highlights towards blue. The FilmConvert Pro filter was set to a Canon Mark II/Standard camera profile and the KD5207 Vis3 film stock selection. This is a preset that mimics a modern Kodak negative stock with relatively neutral color. I dialed it back to 30% of its color effect, but with grain at 100% (35mm size). The effect of this was to slightly change gamma and brightness and to add grain. Finally, the Color Board vignette darkens the edges of the frame.

Click here to see my version of Hiding Place graded using Hawaiki Color. In my clip, you’ll see the final result (first half), followed by a split screen output with the interface baked in. Although I’ve been a fan of the Color Board, I really like the results I got from Hawaiki Color. Control granularity is better than the Color Board and working the wheels is simply second nature. Absolutely a bargain if it fits your grading comfort zone!

©2013 Oliver Peters / Source images @2013 PhilipBloom.net

CoreMelt SliceX powered by Mocha

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The structure of Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has brought many new and innovative plug-ins to market that extent the power of the application. One such plug-in is SliceX from CoreMelt. Developer Roger Bolton is a visual effects compositor who has been making FCP, Motion and After Effects plug-ins that fill the needs he sees coming from a VFX background. SliceX was originally developed as a mask-creation filter designed for FCP X, which has no built-in, custom masking tools. The latest version of SliceX has been improved to add keyframes to the effects parameters. It now also sports a built-in 2D planar tracker using Mocha technology licensed from Imagineer Systems.

SliceX is a set of six effects filters for Final Cut Pro X. These include shape masks for blurs, color correction, depth-of-field, object removal (cloning), vignettes and layer shapes. Each has a different set of parameters depending on the design of that filter – blur settings versus color correction sliders, for example. You can apply the filter on a single clip; or you can stack clips vertically and apply a filter to a higher clip in order to composite these clips together, enabled by the masks you have created. Each filter includes a common set of on-screen drawing tools for the mask shapes, as well as the Mocha tracking controls. Masks can be adjusted using control points with Bezier handles and can be moved, scaled and rotated along with the adjustment of edge softness.

Having built-in tracking is unique in a filter (except for the Boris Continuum Complete effects) and by adding the Mocha tracker, elevates the level of effects work you can do inside FCP X. Most trackers are point trackers, where you have to identify one to four consistent high contrast points within an image for the tracker to follow. The Mocha tracker is a planer tracker, which means it automatically calculates tracking points based on a wider surface area of flat planes detected in the image. When you use Mocha tracking in Adobe After Effects, for instance, the clip is sent out to the separate Mocha tracking application, which creates the tracking data. This data is then used to adjust scale, position and rotation information within After Effects’ transform tab.

df_slicex_2All of these extra steps are eliminated with SliceX. In keeping to the general FCP X philosophy of hiding the advanced technology under the hood, SliceX features a simple floating heads-up panel for Mocha and the drawing tools. Click the track arrow in the Mocha control panel to track forward or backward from the point you are parked and the mask is adjusted based on that track. Tracks can be set for either translate (position)/scale/rotation or for perspective. The tracker runs slower than real-time while it analyzes the shot, though this pass is relatively speedy as trackers go. Once the tracking analysis is complete, FCP X will apply and run the effect in real-time without rendering. In addition to the Mocha control panel, there’s also a new mask keyframe control panel. If you change the mask points within a clip, this automatically adds keyframes at every point where you have made adjustments. You can now step through or delete these keyframes, which is a separate function from the standard FCP X keyframe controls available within the effects Inspector window.

CoreMelt’s SliceX adds tremendous functionality to FCP X. You can use the effects to track and blur faces or act like tracked color correction nodes in DaVinci Resolve. The tracking is as simple and foolproof as it comes. Object removal is a great fix-it tool. Have an actress with a skin blemish on her cheek? Simply add the mask and offset the skin area. Track it and voila – the blemish is gone.

It’s easy to say good things about many filters. They are fun to use and give your videos unique stylized looks, but it’s rare that filters significantly improve the core function of your NLE. SliceX is one of those. It’s a must-have filter if you are serious about professional results with Final Cut Pro X. Use it on a few shots and you’ll instantly ask why every NLE doesn’t do the same – and do it so painlessly.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

Autodesk Smoke 2013

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

Getting set up

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

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

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

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

The editing experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come for the effects

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

Noise Industries FxFactory 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Boris Continuum Complete 8 for Final Cut Pro X

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2013 Oliver Peters