Autodesk Flares Up

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All manufacturers are looking for the best way to deal with these challenging economic times. The Autodesk Media & Entertainment division has managed to hold up well at the high end, with signature products like Smoke, Flame, Inferno and Lustre; but its customers, like everyone else, are certainly clamoring for cost-effective solutions. Autodesk has offered software-based effects products, like Toxik and Combustion, but what’s the best way to offer a lower cost version of the high end system products? That answer came at NAB 2009 in the form of Autodesk Flare 2010.

Autodesk Flare differs from Toxik and Combustion in several ways. Toxik is a complete visual effects pipeline designed for the type of collaborative workflow used at motion picture visual effects houses. It doesn’t really replace the “hero” finishing and compositing suite that a system like Inferno or Flame is known for.  Combustion was a desktop software application acquired from another company. Although it gained a number of features from Flame, Combustion could never be used to take a share of the work off of a heavily-booked Flame room.

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Creative companion

In looking for ways to satisfy demanding Inferno and Flame owners, Autodesk realized that it couldn’t release anything short of the full Flame toolset. Flare is really envisioned as a “creative companion” to Flame or Inferno. It can fit into the same Flame workflow, because it uses the same tools – mainly Flame’s Action (part of Flame’s node-based, Batch procedural compositing environment). All the effects tools are the same as a full-blown Flame system.

Flare is sold as a software-based system to existing Flame and Inferno customers who are willing to handle their own hardware integration on a qualified system. Autodesk doesn’t quote prices and customizes system solutions to the needs of the purchaser, so in loose numbers, Flare is positioned as costing approximately one-fifth the cost of a Flame. Since Flare uses a floating license, customers can install the software onto a number of machines and then authorize any one of these machines to be the active Flare system when needed. This includes laptops, which means that for the first time, a visual effects supervisor can bring the Flame toolset on location to test composites. When those shots are brought back to the facility, the same project can be opened in Flame and the work continued without changing compositing tools.

Autodesk Flare 2010 differs from Inferno and Flame in several ways. The flagship system products are built as turnkey workstations designed for speed and performance in client-supervised sessions. They use an AJA hardware card for SD and HD video capture and a high-end NVIDIA graphics card for broadcast-quality display and video output. In contrast, Flare is a Linux application and it’s up to the customer to configure the workstation and storage according to their performance and budget requirements. There is file i/o, but no video i/o through hardware. There is no broadcast monitor support and Flare doesn’t use the desktop module portion of the Flame GUI. You can see full-screen images, of course, but that’s on a standard computer monitor using the monitor’s color space. Essentially Autodesk took the complete Batch compositing environment from Flame, added file i/o with GigE and Infiniband support and turned that into a separate product – Flare.

Autodesk Flare 2010 solves several customer issues, which are mainly cost and efficiency. A customer who has shied away from purchasing an additional turnkey Flame system, because of the higher cost, can now build up the throughput in his facility by adding seats of Flare. There’s an obvious savings, but more importantly, the owner has increased the capacity to turn out billable work in a timely manner. Most Flame suites are well-booked at successful facilities, so it’s hard for owners to make systems available to junior artists for more mundane tasks. By installing Flare, up-and-coming Flame artists can be assigned to tasks that don’t necessarily require client supervision, but still use the same toolset. Thus more work gets down and at the same time, the staff becomes more experienced on the tools that bring in clients.

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Flare in the real-world

I recently spoke with Jeff Beckerman, President/Creative Director of BOND, a New York creative post house, about their decision to purchase Flare. “Our shop uses a mixture of tools, including Avid Symphony Nitris DX for editorial finishing and Adobe After Effects for design work. The Flame suite is where we tackle complex visual effects. It simply has the best toolset when you need to create seamless effects shots with a high degree of finesse. We were bidding on two effects-heavy projects around the time of NAB. These jobs would have put us in a situation of having to run two Flames to meet the schedule. Renting a second Flame in New York would have cost us about 10-15 grand a month in rental expenses. When we saw the demo of Flare, we knew we had the solution, since the projected rental costs would have been a large chunk towards owning Flare.”

Beckerman continued, “As part of this whole purchase, we upgraded the HP workstation for our existing Flame and installed the Flare software on the older HP model that had been part of the Flame system. This has really boosted the high-def performance of the Flame. Our new Flare station is currently being used for a lot of rig removal, rotoscoping and clean-up work on a standard-def project and all the interaction is in real-time. On an SD job like this one, Flare is giving us the same speed as we previously had on the Flame.”

I asked Beckerman if BOND had taken advantage of the floating license aspect of Flare. He replied, “Not really. I see where that might have advantages in the future, but in our shop we have configured it so the Flame is the ‘host’ system, handling video i/o and media storage. The Flare is networked to the Flame and its storage, so media is moved between the systems in a push-pull approach. We couldn’t have justified the purchase of a second Flame right now, so adding Flare is like having one-and-a-half Flames. BOND’s selling point is creativity. Our strength is in our talented people, so it’s important to us that the technology lets our editors and artists turn out great work for the clients. Flare uses the powerful Flame Batch toolset and we are running it with experienced Flame artists. Now we can respond more quickly when schedules are accelerated or when additional visual effects shots are added to a job at the last minute. There’s no compromise in the quality of the work or the efficiency in getting it done.”

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New Flame and Flare 2010 Tools

If you take a look at the many ways that a Flame system is used, it’s easy to see how such tasks as basic compositing, rig removal, mask creation and more can be prepped or even finished on a Flare. For example, the lead Flame artist can assign several shots to other artists. They would work collaboratively with the lead Flame artist to complete these shots on Flares. Time and resources are maximized without a compromise in the tools. Flare also allows a Flame artist to take a project on the road or home when there’s a need to do so. Flare can handle the same file formats as Flame, which now includes support for REDCODE raw, multichannel OpenEXR and Avid DNxHD with Apple QuickTime.

Flare and Flame share the same tools, so new Flame 2010 features are also included in Flare 2010. It’s already a rich toolset that includes particles, paint, tracking, keying, color correction, morphing and warping tools. Flare, like Flame, processes all content in 4:4:4 RGB and all compositing operates in 3D space. The applications both utilize a 64-bit architecture for fluid interaction. Some of the new creative tools include Normal Mapping, an enhanced 3D text tool and a 3D Blur tool.

Normal Mapping lets the artist access multiple render passes typically generated by 3D animation programs, such as Maya. This is made possible by the OpenEXR format. By controlling these layers, the Flare artist can relight rendered scenes without going back to the 3D application. The enhanced 3D text tool permits the designer to create extruded text within Flare and create expression-based animated text. For example, individual characters can be controlled and text can be animated along a 3D path.

It’s worth noting that Flare and Flame also share the same Sparks filter plug-in architecture. Plug-ins designed for Flame will also work with Flare, but they don’t use a floating license and third party Sparks vendors have yet to produce special versions for Flare. This creates a bit of a dilemma since Autodesk can restrict the functionality of Flame in producing Flare, but plug-ins are different. You can’t really limit the functionality. You get 100% of the benefit of the filter, even if the host application costs less money. I spoke with the marketing folks at GenArts, makers of the popular Sapphire plug-ins. GenArts is presently trying to develop a pricing strategy for Flare customers. They expressed an interest in talking with Flare customers who also wanted to purchase Sapphire for Sparks. This will help them evaluate how to address the situation in the future. Naturally Flare owners are hoping that the third party Sparks vendors will offer a reduced price on Flare Sparks, but for now the product is young enough that any such strategies are still being worked out.

Along with Flare, Autodesk has added another way for users to increase productivity and that is the launch of the new Area website (area.autodesk.com). This is a new user community site for content showcases, blogs, tutorials, tips and discussion forums. All of these moves provide opportunities to move the Autodesk brand into new markets, such as smaller creative shops and broadcast graphics and promotion. Flare now makes this more approachable than ever.

©2009 Oliver Peters

Written for NewBay Media, LLC and Videography magazine

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FxFactory adds diversity to your toolkit

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

 

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

 

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

 

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ParticleMetrix example

 

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Boinx example

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

©2009 Oliver Peters

Boris FX – Rockin’ with BCC6

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters

nVeil – the origami of video

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters

More Grunt with CoreMelt

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In the world of plug-in effects filters, CoreMelt might seem like the new kid but that would be incorrect. CoreMelt is the brainchild of Roger Bolton, an accomplished Flame artist and visual effects veteran with numerous film credits, including Kingdom of Heaven and The Lords of the Rings trilogy. Bolton started out as one of the principal developing partners with Noise Industries, originally designing the Organoptics FX package for Factory Tools (Avid) and later ImageFlow and PolyChrome for FxFactory (FCP).

 

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Earlier this year CoreMelt broke out on its own to release the V2 products, based on CoreMelt’s V-Twin effects engine. It no longer ties into the FxFactory filter management engine; however, it’s perfectly fine to have both the FxFactory version of the CoreMelt products, as well as the V2 filters, installed on the same system. In fact, both CoreMelt and Noise Industries recommend that you might need to do that for compatibility with legacy projects. Previous versions installed under FxFactory show up with a CM prefix in the effects palette, whereas the new filters have a C2 prefix.

 

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As in the case of the previous versions, CoreMelt V2 filters install into five hosts: Apple Final Cut Pro, Motion, Final Cut Express plus Adobe After Effects CS3 and CS4. These effect packs include filters, transitions and generators, which match FCP’s filter organization. Be sure to look for the installed effects in those three folders. Motion and After Effects don’t use this exact same structure, so for instance, all C2 (CoreMelt V2) selections will appears under the single After Effects pulldown menu for effects. Transition effects will have an asterisk after the name to indicate a two-layer transition effect.

 

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I’ve been testing the filters in FCP, Motion and After Effects and they generally seem pretty solid in each, however, it seems to me that they are most responsive inside FCP. That difference is pretty subtle, so don’t let that deter you from considering it for After Effects as a primary host. I’m testing these on a MacBook Pro, so obviously a Mac Pro tower with a fast graphics card would make a big difference. Even so, these filters run fast on the laptop and adjustments are responsive. Plus, these filters are just plain fun to work with.

 

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The CoreMelt V2 product line groups filters into packs with similar functions. These include transitions (PolyChrome), editor tools (Gadget), glows & blurs (Luminous), color correction (Pigment) and distortion & grunge effects (Shatter). There’s also the image montage package (ImageFlow Fx) and VeeYou – plug-ins that generate VU and EQ animations from audio files in your project.

 

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There have been some solid improvements to ImageFlow Fx V2. Now you have a lot more control, including such things as adding frames around the stills from a selection of preset graphic frames.

 

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I do a lot of the color grading, so the Pigment and Luminous filters had the most appeal to me. Like many of the newer advanced filters, CoreMelt departs from the standard FCP slider parameters to add its own custom GUI in the filter control pane. If you get lost in how an effect should work, click on the CoreMelt logo and a PDF manual opens in Preview to walk you through the steps. You can pick between the standard or custom interface. Custom uses certain range-based sliders that are helpful in some of the color correction adjustments.

 

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In addition, there’s a heads-up graphic that overlays on top of the picture when you are making color adjustments. You may have this up the entire time or only when dragging a slider. This seems particularly helpful when making S-curve adjustments. Curve functions are missing in Final Cut’s built-in color grading tools and would normally require a trip to Apple Color without such a plug-in.

 

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CoreMelt breaks their products down into a number of attractive bundling options ranging from CoreMelt Complete V2 to individual filter packs. For instance, if you are only interested in the color correction tools, than all you have to do is purchase the CoreMelt Pigment pack for just those 22 plug-ins. In addition, the ImageFlow Fx V2 and PolyChrome Transitions V2 trial versions include several free plug-ins, plus there’s a free download of the 12 VeeYou filters.

 

I won’t go into depth on the whole set, because it’s something that’s easy enough to check out for yourself. These filters seem to have a low system impact – in other words, safe to try. On the whole, CoreMelt V2 is a great addition to the editor’s toolkit at a really low price.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Loader

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The last 6 – 12 months have seen a bumper crop of new Final Cut plug-ins and utilities that extend its power and functionality. Quite a few have come to light since this year’s NAB. I’m going to spend the summer highlighting a number of these throughout the next series of posts.

 

The first isn’t really a plug-in at all. Digital Heaven’s Loader is an utility that launches whenever FCP is started and is designed as a “helper application” to manage media files that you import into a Final Cut project. The cardinal mistake that I see many editors make is in how they handle file organization. Setting your scratch disk locations in FCP takes care of ingested tape-based or tapeless media, but it doesn’t do anything to help you organize music, announcer tracks, photos and graphics, which make up a large part of a project.

 

I occasionally inherit projects from other editors and am confronted with missing media. The majority of the camera media relinks just fine from an external drive, but then I find a handful of clips that are offline. Digging a bit deeper, it turns out that these aren’t on the drive at all. These images or tracks had been imported from the editor’s local Pictures folder or iTunes music folder and never copied to the external project drive in the first place.

 

Another problem is sample rate conversion of audio. FCP does an poor job of dealing with 44.1kHz audio and MP3 files. You should ALWAYS convert to 48kHz AIF files BEFORE bringing these into your FCP project, but most editors never do. Issues like these, which are automatically handled for Avid editors by their application, require extra thought on the part of the FCP editor.

 

Enter Loader, which helps to resolve this dilemma. Loader is designed to deal with still images, sound files and QuickTime movies that are not ingested from tape, P2, XDCAM or other professional camera format. The application does three very simple functions:

 

1) Loader automatically copies the imported files into a central location that is independent of their original folders. The original images, tracks and movies are preserved and untouched. More importantly, the media that is used in the edit stays with the rest of the project files.

 

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2) Loader organizes this non-timecode-based media into three neat folders – Movies, Audio and Graphics. You get to choose where these files are to be placed at the time of the first import into the project. After that, Loader will remember where to send the files. In my case, I typically create a Project Files media folder at the same location as my Capture Scratch folder. Inside the Project Files folder, I’ll create folders for each FCP project in this manner: Drive Name/FCP Media/Project Files/Project Name. That last folder is where I will direct Loader to send the imported files. Loader will automatically create a Movies, Audio and Graphics folder inside, thus keeping everything neatly organized.

 

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3) The last and most important function is automatic sample rate conversion of imported audio tracks. Simply drag an MP3 track or a song from iTunes to Loader and it automatically copies the file and converts it to a 48kHz/16-bit AIF file, retaining its original file name. It will also handle Apple’s CAF files.

 

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Loader’s own interface is pretty minimal. There are preferences where you can chose whether or not to launch Loader with FCP. You can also add or remove file extensions from the 3 primary media types. Loader appears in FCP as a small clapstick icon on top of the left or right edge of the FCP interface. Hold down the Command key and slide the clapstick bar up or down to keep it from obscuring part of the interface.

 

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Don’t use the FCP’s import menu command to bring in a new file. Instead, simply drag the file that’s to be imported towards the clapstick icon. As you hover over the bar, Loader’s full interface slides out – looking like the rest of a film slate. Drop the file onto the “slate” and Loader takes care of the rest.

 

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Any files handled by Loader appear in the FCP browser inside a new date/time-stamped “imports” bin. Of course, you can move or change this bin or the master clip in the FCP browser, just like any other clip.

 

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If you edit with multiple FCP projects open at once, Loader will also keep track of these. Simply drag-and-drop the file to the correct FCP project name on the slate icon and Loader takes care of placing the media into the correct folders and into the right project pane. Once you get used to Loader, you’ll quickly see how this can save you time and hassles on many future FCP projects.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Compositing with Avid Media Composer

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Most editors do a lot of compositing. Not eye-popping visual effects, but the day-to-day motion graphics work typical of promos, show opens, corporate videos and local market TV spots. There are many apps to use, but I feel that most editors would prefer to stay within the environment of their favorite NLE.

 

I know that many editors think that Final Cut Pro is a great compositing tool, because it includes Photoshop-style blend modes and uses an After Effects model for effects parameters. I might be in the minority, but I happen to think FCP isn’t really that great for motion graphics work. In fact, Apple might even secretly agree with me or they wouldn’t have developed Motion. On the other hand, I’ve done a lot of very nice compositing inside Avid Media Composer with timelines surpassing 50 layers at times.

 

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Of the various NLEs available as software-only products, I feel that Avid Media Composer has the best built-in motion graphics and compositing tools. No need to bounce your tracks to another app, like After Effects or Motion, but if you want more, there’s AvidFX. It’s essentially an OEM version of Boris Red that runs from within the Media Composer interface. The best part of staying inside the application is that you don’t have to waste a lot of effort keeping track of additional project types and media assets. It’s all right there inside the one Avid project.

 

Aside from a solid toolkit for effects, several key software design components expedite work in Media Composer. For example, rendering can be done on intermediate tracks within the timeline and Avid does a superb job of retaining these renders as changes are made. One simple change won’t cause the whole timeline to have to be re-rendered. Secondly, you can replace the “fill” media of any real-time graphic with an alpha channel – whether imported or internally generated – with moving video. This can be a direct replacement or even a blend of moving video and the original graphic “fill” and it retains real-time performance. It also appears as a single timeline video clip that can be easily moved or trimmed.

 

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The third powerful feature is Collapse. This lets you exceed the nominal track limits of Media Composer. For instance, a timeline might consist of 10 video tracks that each hold collapsed clips. A collapsed clip is a “container” with additional tracks inside it. Each can hold many tracks, so if the clips in this example each consisted of 10 internal tracks, the entire timeline would actually be 100 tracks deep! It’s important to understand that Avid’s Collapse is NOT like FCP’s Nesting. The latter is really a reference clip that is tied to a separate timeline and changes ripple between the two timelines. In Media Composer, Collapsing is simply a way to non-destructively combine a group of clips so you can treat and display them as a single unit.

 

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The sample frames I’m showing are from a fake extreme sports promo that I use to present Media Composer compositing and effects concepts. There’s a base layer of stock sports images with grunge and color effects. Next is a top and bottom layer of colorized checkered flags followed by layers of crawling text. These are collapsed clips containing several tracks for the words, which are being moved horizontally using simple DVE position changes. The last layer is the word SPORTS spelled in oversized letters. Each letter is a set of full screen elements that take up several tracks for the shadow, beveled edge and letter interior. The inside of the letter is cut by a matte, which is filled by the metallic texture blended with moving video.

 

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I use Photoshop as the graphics companion to any NLE. In this case, I created the SPORTS graphic elements in Photoshop, with layer sets for each letter’s shadow, full color image and interior matte.

 

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The metallic texture of the letters was also created in Photoshop by using the gradient and liquefy tools. First, organize and position the layers in the Media Composer timeline. Then it’s a simple matter of using DVE moves to create the traveling effect of the word moving through the frame (combined with video inside the letters).

 

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This 25th anniversary graphic uses the same concept. The Avid timeline combines stock footage and Artbeats water elements with versions of the graphic built in Photoshop. Once inside Media Composer, you can play with layers and opacity values to get just the right look, including the watery “25” reflection in the foreground.

 

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Upfront I praised Media Composer’s toolset. To start with, there’s a much better DVE than either FCP or Premiere Pro. You can actually do decent “2.5D” DVE moves with ease. Another tool that’s simply better in Media Composer is the Spectramatte keyer for blue and green screen keys.

 

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To me, it’s far better than the built in tools in FCP, Premiere Pro or even Motion’s “lite” version of Primatte. I’m sure you can top it with various plug-ins and the built-in After Affects keyers, but again this discussion is about NLEs. So without spending more bucks on an extra chromakey plug-in, Spectramatte does a really good job on common keying situations.

 

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Most software NLEs have keyers, but they don’t all have matte and paint tools and built-in tracking. This is a big plus for Avid. There’s a built in tracker that comes in handing for locking composited elements together, as well as stabilizing shots. Even more handy is Animatte – a built-in paint tool for creating traveling mattes. Some apps refer to this as rotosplining, but the point of Animatte is to isolate a portion of the image. In my example, I’ve isolated the motocross rider in order to make the surrounding black-and-white. With enough patience, I can create a very tight matte and adjust that frame-by-frame throughout the shot so that it stays with the rider and completely isolates his action for the duration of the clip. This can also be used in conjunction with color correction tools to create shapes and vignettes for secondary color correction.

 

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It’s nice to have these tools, but even better that system response if very good when you are working with them. For example, when you apply a 4-point or 8-point matte in Final Cut, the system can be very slow to respond. The performance difference is very striking when you compare the same Mac using an FCP matte versus Avid’s Animatte. In the end, you should use the tools you are comfortable with, but sometimes we overlook what’s right at our fingertips. I wanted to take this space to point out some of the tools that give Avid editors a reason to stick with the product.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters