Simple, elegant screenwriting.

  • Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
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    TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
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    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz

Entries in Adobe After Effects (82)


Fast Ray Tracers

Thanks to @quarterlight for the link to this demo of Clarisse, an interactive ray-traced shading and rendering environment that uses the progressive refinement method I mention in my previous post. From the FAQ:

Clarisse is CPU-based. A basic graphics card supporting OpenGL 2.0 is more than enough.


Clarisse runs perfectly fine on lower end hardware such as laptops and remains perfectly smooth and interactive. The What is Clarisse video? was recorded on a dual-core laptop dating from 2009.

This is what I’m talking about when I say that the ray-traced 3D performance in After Effects CS6 could be better optimized for the CPU.

Still not convinced? Then I guess you didn’t click the progressive refinement link in that last post. It goes to an interactive demo of a ray-traced scene that you can interact with, live, at very high frame rates. The real time rendering, which includes secondary light bounces (AKA radiosity), is done in your browser.


Ray Tracing in After Effects CS6

The Best New Feature that You May or May Not be Able to Use

While I was busy making Canadian Lysol commercial history, Adobe released Creative Suite 6, including a major update for my favorite creative software of all time, After Effects. The new version includes some exciting new features:

  • Variable mask feathering
  • 3D camera tracker
  • Global Performance Cache (sexier than it sounds)
  • Rolling Shutter Repair tool
  • Ray-traced 3D extruded layers

Each of these features is worth its own post, so I’ll just pick one to start. The ray-traced 3D renderer is the first major update to AE’s 3D capabilities since they were first introduced in 2001–2002. AE was way ahead of most of its competition (except flame, of course) in bringing 3D capabilities to a compositing environment. At the time, adding 3D layers to a dedicated compositor was a somewhat controversial move. But now it’s hard to imagine compositing without a 3D environment, and After Effects has been lapped several times by its competition in 3D features. So I’m happy to see true 3D geometry finally spinning in my AE viewport.

I could be happier though. The After Effects 3D renderer is a powerful and feature-rich ray tracer. It supports motion blur, depth-of-field, diffused reflections, and soft shadows, all in 32-bit floating point color. The results can look amazing.

But ray-tracing can be computationally expensive. Adobe decided to accelerate their new renderer using the NVIDIA CUDA technology, where the massive parallel processing capability of a GPU is turned to general computing tasks. And indeed, on a supported system, After Effects CS6 can ray-trace pretty darn fast. The above iPhone animation rendered in 2 hours, 15 minutes on a machine with a $2,000 NVIDIA Tesla C2075 GPU. On a Quadro FX4800, it took 15 hours.

The problem is, I don’t don’t happen to own one of these supported systems. My MacBook Pro has an NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M, but that’s not beefy enough for AE6, so I’m stuck with CPU rendering. And my top-of-the-line, pimped-out iMac has an AMD GPU. So again, no dice. And by no dice, I mean you would not want to try to render something as simple as a pair of dice. On my $3,000 iMac, one frame of the iPhone animation takes 48 minutes.

I don’t begrudge Adobe the decision to accelerate the ray-tracer for CUDA, but I do regret the seeming prioritization of that optimization over any kind of CPU usability. If you have a CUDA card, you can use and enjoy the ray tracer. If you don’t, you pretty much can’t. I mean, sure, you can try, but the render times will very likely dissuade you. This binary hardware differentiation between the ray-tracing haves and have-nots is, to me, unbefitting of After Effects, which has always struck me as the “people’s choice” compositor—such a paragon of accessibility that I consider it a must-have tool for the DV Rebel. I expect Autodesk to ship something that requires esoteric hardware, but not Adobe. And yet, at the same time as the CS6 announcement, Autodesk announced a greatly updated Smoke for Mac, one of the primary features being that it works on just about any Apple hardware, including my iMac.

But surely it’s impossible that a ray-tracer could ever be as fast on a CPU as on a GPU, right? Maybe—but there are numerous well-established optimizations available to ray-tracers, including sub-sampling (where areas of sparse sampling are interpolated rather then allowed to be noisy), adaptive sampling (where the number of ray samples required for each pixel is adjusted based on scene content), and progressive refinement (where low-quality results are shown to the user rapidly, and then iteratively built-upon for higher quality). The After Effects ray-tracer has none of these. It’s a brute-force multi-sample renderer—the kind you’d write if performance in a massively-parallel computing environment (i.e. a specific GPU) was your sole concern. I wish Adobe had put their efforts toward making their renderer as fast as possible for all users.

I know it’s fashionable to hate on Adobe, but I have never felt a part of that crowd—probably because the Adobe tools I use, After Effects and Lightroom, are shining beacons of awesomeness within the company. I’m quite the opposite of an Adobe hater. So seeing After Effects sprout a feature we’ve been anticipating for a decade, only to have it tie users to specific, high-end hardware, feels a bit like seeing a good friend make a bad life decision.

As more and more of us use laptops as our primary machines, and as those laptops are getting smaller and lighter rather than necessarily more powerful, Autodesk is heading in the right direction, and Adobe is not. This, to me, was the big surprise of the post-production announcements at NAB 2012.

Want to know how I rendered these sample movies? I tried doing it on my mini-render farm of CPU-only machines, but it took days (of my laptop being too hot to touch) to produce unacceptable results. Smooth motion blur, fuzzy shadows, diffracted reflections and depth of field require a lot of samples (controlled by the anti-aliasing setting), and if I turned up the quality enough to stop seeing noise (for the iPhone, that was 14), those renders would still be going today. So I sent the project files to a friend with a CUDA GPU. A friend who happens to work at Adobe.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could do that too?

No, seriously.

Along with CS6, Adobe unveiled Creative Cloud, which includes subscription pricing for the Creative Suite applications. But is that really what After Effects power-users need from “the cloud?” What if that subscription also gave me access to a cloud-based render farm that is constantly Backblaze-syncing with my work directories and is ready to instantaneously render my 1,000-frame animation on 1,000 virtual machines at the push of a button?

Then what if Adobe removed the button?

It used to be my dream that After Effects would speculatively render my work in the background, using every ounce of my computer’s processing power. Now I want the same thing, but with Adobe supplying the processors. That would be worth a subscription fee.

The “big iron” days are over. Simplicity is the new powerful. Fast is the new good. The computer is the new hardest working guy in the room. Except it’s no longer in the room.

I can’t wait for my favorite creative software of all time to realize that.


Pimp Your After Effects

Adobe After Effects is my go-to tool for most homebrew VFX and finishing tasks. It has the perfect blend of powerful features and editorial, layer-based ease of use. Is it as fast as a dedicated color grading system, or as responsive and powerful as Nuke for VFX compositing? No, but it offers a flexible, creative environment that’s tough to beat for the kind of creative, rough-and-tumble cinematic problem-solving that comprises most of my work.

After Effects is a professional tool by any measure, but it is designed for a broad user base. So an artist who plans to push it hard will want to tune the application accordingly. Here’s what I do to a default installation of After Effects to prepare it for my special kind of abuse.


There’s a lot you can adjust within the standard After Effects Preferences window. Here’s what I set, and why:

  • I set Levels of Undo to 99, because why should I expect to have fewer problems than Jay-Z?
  • Enable Allow Scripts to Write Files and Access Network, so that you can run some very cool scripts. More on that below.
  • I turn off Use System Shortcut Keys, because on my Mac, Command + M should map to Composition > Make Movie, not “purposelessly minimize the entire application in the most annoying way possible because I never learned Command + Tab for application switching.” This setting is a must for any Mac user who prefers using After Effects to hiding it.

  • Under Previews, I set Zoom Quality and Color Management Quality to More Accurate. The latter especially matters if you use After Effects’s built-in support for a color managed linear-light workflow. You’ll see nasty banding during RAM previews at the default Faster display color management.

  • Under Display, I turn on Show Rendering Progress in Info Panel and Flowchart. Although this may slightly slow down your interactive rendering, it’s worth it to be able to see what After Effects is doing under the hood. Be sure to expand the Info Panel vertically so that you can see the text display of the render activity.

  • Under Import, you can set the default file sequence frame rate. I don’t know anyone for whom the cretaceous factory setting of 30 fps is useful. I set it to 23.976, but a PAL person might choose 25, and an NTSC nerd should probably choose 29.97.

  • The After Effects Disk Cache (under Media and Disk Cache) is a splendid feature that is rightfully switched on by default, but you may want to both increase its size and choose a location for it on your fastest volume, preferably not the one where your media is stored.

  • Appearances matter to pros, and under the Appearance section I always darken down the UI a bit,

  • Turn on Cycle Mask Colors (so that each new mask you create will be a different color),
  • And turn off Use Gradients. This UI preference was once offered to boost performance, but now is simply an aesthetic choice. I think After Effects, like almost everything, looks better without superfluous gradients. I wish Premiere had this option.

  • Under Auto-Save, I always enable Automatically Save Projects.

  • I Save Every 5 Minutes. Yep.
  • And I set Maximum Project Versions to 20.

  • Memory and Multiprocessing is one of the most critical areas for tuning your After Effects instal for the best results. Here you can make After Effects fly like a bird, or bring your machine to a crawl.

    And I have absolutely no idea what to do here. I’m not joking. The day I understand these settings is the day Adobe removes them.

    I would sooner fiddle with switches on a cockpit tour of a 747 I had just boarded for a transatlantic flight than touch this stuff.

Project Defaults

There are some settings in After Effects that are invisibly established as you use the application. After Effects will remember your choices and default to them in the future. Some I find important enough to preemptively set up.

  • I choose File > Project Settings, and select Frames as the Time Display Style, and set Frame Count to Start at 1. You’ll still see a timecode display in your timeline, but the primary expression of time will be in frames, which is much easier for me to conceptualize and type. This is very much a matter of personal preference.

  • Then I create a new Composition, and without doing anything else, I tap the Shift key. This brings up the Composition Mini-Flowchart, which is a really spiffy navigational tool that any Pro AE user should embrace. It solves the single biggest problem with After Effects—the lack of a visual way of navigating between Compositions. The problem is that, by default, it’s backwards. Find the menu button in its upper right corner and select Flow Left to Right, and never worry about this again.

Text Prefs

There is a secret world of After Effects customization. Like rigging your Nissan Skyline for NOS, this is purely an at-your-own-risk endeavor—but the rewards can be mighty.

Mac users will find the After Effects preferences file here:

/Users/[username]/Library/Preferences/Adobe/After Effects/
[version number]/Adobe After Effects 10.5-x64 Prefs

And Windows users here:

After Effects\[version number]\

In those directories you’ll find a file called something like Adobe After Effects [version] Prefs. This plaintext file is editable with any text app. Use a search to find these areas and make careful changes. But don’t worry too much—if you corrupt this file, just delete it. After Effects will create a new one with the default settings. You can also make a backup of this file right there in the same directory. And eat your vegetables.

Here are the changes I make in the text prefs:

  • "Show Tracker Apply Dimensions Dialog" = "0"

    By changing this from 1 to 0, you defeat the annoying dialog box that comes up after a 2D track asking you if you want to apply the tracker in X, Y or Both. You always choose both, because as a pimp, you know how to extract one dimension later if you need it. So save yourself the annoyance of being asked if you’re a doofus each time you track.

  • "Cone Size" = "0"

    The text above this line gives you the clue as to what it does: ["3D Light Dimensions Preference Section"]. Here you set a number of “pixels” to use for the size of the spotlight cone widget in 3D views. No matter which size you choose, it will usually be wrong for what you’re trying to do. Unless you choose zero—in which (special) case, After Effects will draw the cone all the way out to the Point Of Interest, matching the behavior of most 3D apps. Nice.

  • "Pref_TRANSPARENCY_GRID_COLOR1" = 00888888
    “Pref_TRANSPARENCY_GRID_COLOR2” = 00666666

    Photoshop has a preference for setting the brightness level of the checkerboard backdrop used to show transparent areas in your image, but After Effects lacks this control—unless you’re elbow deep in this text file with a scalpel like we are now. Make the above changes for a nice dark gray checkerboard that better matches your gradient-free, subdued AE UI.

  • "Mouse Wheel Zooms Around Pointer" = "1"

    Setting this to 1 will cause the scroll-wheel zoom to center around the mouse cursor rather than remain fixed to the center of the image. Although it can cause some disorientation at first, this mode is more like other apps with scroll-wheel zooming, and can speed your work by eliminating the need for panning around after a zoom.


Scripting in After Effects is very powerful, and luckily for we minor nerds, its power can be harnessed with little technical know-how. There is a rich community of scripting resources online; some cheap, many free.

  • An indispensable source of AE scripting awesome sauce is Here you will find Load Project or Template at Startup. Drop this script in your Scripts/Startup directory and it will run every time you launch AE. And what it does is what it says: it opens a project file that you’ve specified. The same one, every time you launch AE.

    Why is this awesome? I’ll let the script’s creator, Lloyd Alvarez, explain:

    For example, if you have a certain folder/file structure or camera rig, etc that you like to keep for your AE projects, you can setup a virgin project the way you like it and save it as a template by giving it a .aet extension. Now every time you launch AE your custom setup will be automatically loaded.

    These .aet template files are unique in that, after opening them, you’re still in an unsaved, un-named After Effects Project. So you’ll never accidentally save over your template. My template contains camera rigs, folder structures, letterbox presets, and other goodies that I always seem to need.

    Price: Name your own price.

  • I’ve written about BG Renderer before. It is just unbearably useful. Render in the background and keep working, or, better still, render in the background and go take a “walk” (an ancient Sanskrit word meaning “nap”), confident that your phone will alert you to a completed render.

    Price: $29.99 (for the version that supports alerts) and worth every penny. This is my first suggestion that costs money so let me be blunt: If this sounds expensive to you, you should have stopped reading at “pimp.”

  • The DV Rebel Tools, once only available with the DV Rebel’s Guide, now free, are a set of scripts that turn After Effects into a powerful color correction and mastering tool. Learn more and download here.

  • There are many more scripts that I use routinely, too many to list here. Be sure to peruse, and keep an eye out for the redefinery scripts. These are the after-hours work of Adobe engineer Jeff Almasol, who also helped me make the DV Rebel Tools a reality—and some of them are similarly based on humble requests by yours truly.

Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy

Settings will only get you so far. The fully-pimped AE setup will include custom hardware, third-party plug-ins, calibrated displays, special input devices, chairs with umlauts in their names, and espresso gear. But some of these simple textual tweaks will dramatically change your After Effects experience.

Now go on, brush your shoulders off.


What Adobe Should Do With IRIDAS SpeedGrade

SpeedGrade 2009

Earlier this month Adobe announced the purchase of “certain assets” from a German company called IRIDAS, including their SpeedGrade software color correction system.

In many ways, this is a lot like Apple’s purchase of a small company called Silicon Color, announced in October of 2007. Like Silicon Color’s Final Touch, which became Apple Color, SpeedGrade is a powerful, but oddly clunky, standalone application that does nothing but GPU-accelerated color correction. As was the case with Final Touch, SpeedGrade is not among the most popular systems for professional film DI, but its featureset is comparable to those that are, such as Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve and Autodesk Lustre.

Apple never sold Color (once a $25,000 purchase) on its own, instead choosing to bundle it with Final Cut Studio. Similarly, Adobe seems to view IRIDAS’s color correction technology as a value-add to its existing suite of video products. From the blog of Adobe’s Todd Kopriva:

Not only have we listened to your requests for better, faster, and more powerful color grading and finishing tools—but we’ve also looked ahead to the future needs of professional video, including HDR (high dynamic range) and raw video workflows.

Adobe, being a publicly-traded company, doesn’t talk openly about its product plans, but one could imagine possible futures for SpeedGrade under Adobe’s wing by looking at other technologies Adobe has acquired over the years. Audition, for example, was added to the video suites right away, but took many years to be truly integrated. Others, such as Curious gFx Pro, seemed to disappear entirely.

SpeedGrade’s fate at Adobe is interesting to me both as a user and a designer of color correction tools. While Magic Bullet Looks is popular because it’s powerful, unique, and fun, Colorista—especially Colorista II—has become popular for a very different reason—it fills a void. It provides professional color correction in your favorite NLE and in After Effects, apps that mysteriously lack solid, user-friendly, telecine-style color control.

When third-party software fills a notable gap in a product line, it is naturally at risk of being rendered obsolete. What happens to Colorista when the makers of its host applications finally start taking color seriously? I’ll answer that in a bit. But first, let’s get back to the two hats that I wear: “user” and “developer.”

That was sort of a trick set-up. The truth is, I only wear one hat. I’m a user. I want what’s best and easiest. The difference between me and most users is simply that when I can’t find what’s best and easiest, I become obsessed with designing it—and I have a direct line to a wonderful team of people who can help me make it. But I’m always happy to have my creations rendered obsolete by advances in technology. Magic Bullet was originally a tool for converting interlaced video to 24p. But when a team of Panasonic engineers showed me a prototype of what would become the DVX100 and asked me what features I considered “must-haves,” I said 24p before they even finished talking.

As a user, I’d be delighted to have Adobe build in class-leading utility color correction to After Effects and Premiere. As a developer, I’ll be thrilled at the challenge of continuing to build great things that you want to use, even as the shortcomings we once shored up seem to disappear. Colorista has always “competed with free,” and I enjoy that spirit of healthy competition. It’s fun for me and great for us users.

So with that complex depiction of my two-hats-that-are-really-one out of the way, here is my advice for Adobe on how to handle their new acquisition.

  • Exporting a Premiere Pro timeline into SpeedGrade is a good and natural start. My guess is that Adobe agrees, based on their recent “partnering” with Automatic Duck.

  • The biggest effort here will be some kind of translation from IRIDAS’s “unique” user experience into a human-usable interface. Seriously. You can’t know how weird this software is until you try it. It makes Color 1.0 look like Delicious Library—although it had been getting better.

  • But moving a project to a dedicated color app is simply not the way of the future for most users. Apple has the right idea by killing Color and making color correction a native property of every clip in a FCP X timeline—even if those new color controls are—how should I say this—a Colorista opportunity.

    This is important, so I’ll say it another way: Apple screwed up by making the FCP X “Color Board” less industry-standard (I mean sure, dream up a better way—but it has to actually be better), but their decision to make color controls part of the settings inherent to any clip in the timeline is spot-on.

  • It’s often desirable to move from a dedicated editing environment to a dedicated finishing app, but (again, for most projects) not to a dedicated color-with-no-other-finishing-capabilities app. So:

  • Encapsulate the SpeedGrade color correction controls into clip properties that make sense in Premiere. This should not be an “effect” any more that we should have to apply an effect to change an audio clip’s volume or stereo panning. In other words, do what Apple did in FCP X.

  • Build a workflow that allows users to begin color work in Premiere with these controls, and then fine-tune it in SpeedGrade. Very much like what Magic Bullet users are doing now with Premiere Pro and After Effects.

  • Make all of the color controls that we like in SpeedGrade work in After Effects as well. Here it’s OK to do this via effects. Give AE an NLE-style timeline and a more realtime disposition where possible. Enable AE to import both Premiere Pro projects with color settings and also SpeedGrade sessions with more advanced color adjustments.

  • Premiere becomes a place where color is ubiquitous and useful.

  • SpeedGrade becomes the place where color alone is done quickly and well.

  • After Effects becomes the place where color is only a part of the complete finishing power.

In short, it’s a three-step process:

  1. Ship it.
  2. Integrate it.
  3. Render it obsolete.

If you do that Adobe, you’ll have created the true home movie making studio for which I’ve always said you already have the ingredients.

In the meantime, I’ll be there to fill the gaps and the non-gaps alike, with filmmaking tools designed out of the day to day needs of a filmmaking nerd.

Speaking of which, Red Giant posted an update to Magic Bullet Suite today (v11.1) that includes bug fixes, Sony Vegas Pro compatibility (!), and Red Giant Link, an updater designed to make sure you don’t miss important updates hidden at the bottom of long-winded blog posts.

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