Entries in Visual Effects (83)
Ron Small of Sway Productions invited me onto his new podcast called SpotCast, which focuses on the craft of commercial directing. I’m in wonderfully good company there—he’s also interviewed Jason Wingrove, Adam Lisagor, and Vincent Laforet.
You can listen to the show at the SpotCast site, but really you should just subscribe in iTunes.
I very much enjoyed my chat with Ron and love that he’s taken on the task of this show. I like the way our episode turned out, and I hope you do too.
I’m hard to shop for. If I want something, I tend to buy it. This annoys and distresses those around me. But there is an opportunity lurking in that situation—every once in a while, I get the delightful surprise of a gift I didn’t even know I wanted.
Looking for gifts for the DV Rebel in your life? Or for an easy link to send those flummoxed by your bizarre filmmaking nerd lifestyle? Here are some ideas.
Another in the must-have series of big-ass ILM books. Enough said.
It’s rare that a photographer is even consciously aware of the specifics of their style and technique. Rarer still that a world-class photographer with such an awareness has any interest in sharing these insights with the world. And then there’s the rarest of all cases: A world-class photographer who can inspire and educate us with truly revelatory words about some jaw-dropping pictures.
Rare as in, just this one book. Vincent slam dunked this one.
Images on the screen start as words on a page. A blank, terrifying, soul-crushing page. I’ve been following and enjoying Xander Bennett’s Screenwriting Tips You Hack blog, and now he’s compiled the best of it into a book. If had just been a collection of his pithy and insightful blog posts, that would have been great, Instead its, like, an actual book type book that expands on the blog’s best bits. Even better.
Animation studios use something called “color scripts” to plan out the color palette of a story. These long, filmstrip-like pieces of artwork are loose in detail but rich in storytelling color.
In other words, they are my favorite thing in the world. There’s so much beauty and inspiration in this book that it’s a bit overwhelming. That’s why I keep it in the bathroom.
Strap this little gumdrop to your iPhone 4 or 4S, download the companion app, and capture 360º panoramic video.
On your telephone.
I need to sit down.
Is it possible that you still know someone who doesn’t have this book? Heck, maybe the thing to do is buy the friend who already has it the Kindle edition. Speaking of which…
This might be the Kindle year for me. I love my iPad, but I also love the imaginary notion that I’ll someday be somewhere sunny and the iPad will suck for reading there. I’ve also recently become infatuated with the indie author phenomenon, and I feel like simply owning a Kindle helps that movement grow.
I changed by mind since the last Kindle post. I think the simplest, cheapest one is the one to get. But I’d splurge and grab the one without ads.
Please stop with all this “roughly what the human eye sees” baloney. The reason 50mm lenses are great is that they are fast and cheap. On anything but a full-frame DSLR, a 50 is a portrait lens. You know, for taking pictures of people. Which are the only pictures anyone cares about.
If you have a friend who has a DSLR with the crappy kit glass, get them the thrifty fifty for Canon or Nikon, show the the Aperture-priority mode on their camera, and transform their photography overnight from information gathering to emotion preserving.
Another photography life-changer. Whatever you’re using for your photography, if it’s not Lightroom, you’re doing it wrong.
I’m writing this blog post using my iPad 2 (a great gift idea as well of course, if you are a Super Pimp Monster of Giving), Elements, and Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard. When I travel for less than three days (a carefully-tested and validated threshold), I don’t bring my laptop. The reason this works is that if it’s more than one day, I bring the Bluetooth keyboard. But the keyboard is a bit awkward to pack and lug around. In fact, mine has gotten a bit beat up, with some keys held on by tape and school prayer.
Enter the Origami Workstation. It’s a case for your keyboard, not your iPad. But when you open it, it becomes a stand for the iPad. It’s simple, brilliant, and best of all, non-commital. Your iPad never gets connected to the thing, it just rests on top, in whichever orientation you like. It even works with iPads in cases (mine is in the Apple SmartCover, which is so wonderful that there are days I don’t even think about how overpriced it is).
Speaking of Apple stuff, everyone’s favorite evil company makes it easy to gift apps for both iOS and Mac. This is a really cool thing to do, and it’s often cheap as bad coffee.
Similarly, giving Plastic Bullet for Mac to your friend is a gentle but firm way of saying “You have no idea what to do with five dollars, do you?”
On the Mac side, Byword is a simply lovely app for writing. Both it and Elements work beautifully with Markdown. Life is good in textopia.
The gift of a Kindle is an invitation to read more. But maybe you don’t really care, like $100 care, that your friend reads more. Maybe you more like $5 care. In which case, buy her Instapaper. It’s the best app for reading web articles on your iOS device, and it’s integrated with Twitter. The next time someone posts a link to a cool article that you don’t have time to read right now, you’ll tap “Read Later” and it gets saved to your Instapaper library. Or you do it from your web browser using an easy-to-install toolbar bookmark. Later, you can read the day’s articles in a lovely book-like presentation, even when away from your internet connection. This is a home-pager for me on both my iPad and iPhone.
Either this or a smack in the head would be a perfect gift for your friend who types “TLDR” a lot. Your choice.
Inspiration. It’s a strange thing. Sometimes a great movie inspires me, other times, a festival of back-to-back terrible films is what it takes to get me writing like the wind. But the film that has kicked my ass up and down the block with shameful, abusive inspiration lately is Monsters by Gareth Edwards. He flew to Mexico and shot this movie himself with a crew of fewer than ten, including his two lead actors. He had a loose plan and a ton of faith in his ability to make something out of nearly nothing. In his own words:
I guess creativity is just being stupid enough not to realize you can’t do something.
The Blu-ray is gorgeous, and packed with supplemental features. I keep the slipcase tacked to my office wall.
Happy holiday shopping from Prolost!
Oh, wait—one more:
The man’s a myth.
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.
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.
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:
\Users\[username]\AppData\Roaming\Adobe\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 aescripts.com. Here you will find Load Project or Template at Startup. Drop this script in your
Scripts/Startupdirectory 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 aescripts.com, 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.