Slugline. Simple, elegant screenwriting.

Red Giant Color Suite, with Magic Bullet Looks 2.5 and Colorista II

  • Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
    Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
  • 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)
  • TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
  • The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz

Entries in Visual Effects (84)


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.


Real Men Comp With Film

Be careful having dinner with Mike Seymour.

He was sharing with me his nerd-joy over being able to interview Jon Alexander at ILM about the history of optical compositing. I offhandedly mentioned that I had once, out of pure lifelong curiosity, re-created the optical bluescreen extraction workflow using After Effects.

Oops. The next day Mike was in my office with a camera. Watch this whole video. My bit is nerdelicious, Jon’s is wonderflully insightful and grounding, and it all adds up to a great taste of what fxphd members get to enjoy heaping tons of.

Read the companion article here.


Realistic Lens Flares

When technology and art intersect, its often the case that those who know how have no idea why, and those who know why have no idea how.

I can’t stop thinking about this SIGGRAPH video. It shows realistic lens flares being computed in real time using a ray tracing technique. There are some lens artifacts shown here of a complexity and beauty that I’ve never seen faked convincingly before.

Lens flare is caused by light passing through a photographic lens system in an unintended way. Often considered a degrading artifact, it has become a crucial component for realistic imagery and an artistic means that can even lead to an increased perceived brightness.

Jesus nerds. “Increased perceived brightness?” That was the best sales pitch you could give on why being able to synthesise realistic lens flares is worthwhile?

Lens flares are awesome because they are fricking crazy. They are completely unreal. They increase the veil of unreality between the audience and the movie. They are beautiful. They are tiny imperfections magnified by orders of magnitude. They are aliens. And scary buildings. We give them sound effects and music cues. They make movies bigger than life because they have nothing to do with life.

And I want yours.

In the Vimeo comments the poster said:

Anamorphic optics are currently not supported, but this is not a principal limitation of the rendering scheme.

If they had put anamorphic examples in this video I think I’d be standing on their lawn with a boom box right now.

Physically-Based Real-Time Lens Flare Rendering — Hullin, Eisemann, Seidel, Lee


Use Dropbox to Remotely Monitor After Effects Renders

Ever since I’ve had a computer, I’ve had long render times. Whether it was ray-traced checkerboard spheres on my Amiga 1000 or The Last Birthday Card on my blue G3 tower, I’ve always managed to find ways to keep my computer busy while I’m off pursuing other hobbies, such as sleeping, long walks on the beach, or (most likely) staring at the screen chanting “faster, faster!”

On those rare occasions that I decide to leave the computer alone with its thoughts, I sometimes wish I had a way to check in on the render progress from afar. Adobe After Effects ships with a handy script called “Render and Email” that can send you a simple email to announce the completion of a render. If you have push email on your phone, or know how to send emails that arrive as text messages (here’s how), this can be a suave way to leave your render cooking with the confidence that you’ll know precisely when to return from your three martini lunch.

But that’s not quite the same as an actual visual confirmation of a successful render. In a world of iPhones, augmented reality, and non-fat yogurt that actually tastes good, we deserve more.

I recently figured out a couple of nifty ways to get remote, visual updates on my epic After Effects renders, thanks to the insanely useful and free service known as Dropbox, AKA What Apple’s iDisk Should Have Been. Dropbox is a directory on your hard drive that is constantly syncing in the background to a remote server. You can share subfolders with specific people or groups of people (whether they be on Mac, Windows, or Linux), and these folders truly are shared in the sense that anyone to whom you grant access can add, remove, or edit files therein. I use it to collaborate with other writers, with my post-production crews, and even to remotely add photos to the screen saver loop on my parent’s iMac.

Did I mention that all of this is free, for up to 2GB of storage?

Dropbox also offers a free iPhone app [iTunes link] that allows browsing your Dropbox folders and limited file viewing. Two of the file types that can be viewed on the iPhone screen are JPEG and Quicktime.

You can set up After Effects to render to your Dropbox, and view the results on your iPhone.

Of course, it’s not exactly that simple. There’s a limit to the size of file that can be viewed on the iPhone, and you wouldn’t want to be pulling 2K DPX files across AT&T’s network even if you could do something with them once you got them. So there are a couple of things you can do to streamline the process. Unfortunately it’s a bit of work to set up.

The simplest thing to do is to configure your Render Queue item to have two Output Modules: the one you were planning on rendering anyway, and a second one set up as a JPEG sequence with the “Stretch” option enabled to scale the images down to an iPhone-friendly size. It’s this second Output Module that you’ll render to your Dropbox folder. Every time a frame completes, an iPhone-optimized JPEG of it will be automatically uploaded to your secure Dropbox storage.

The result is that every time you open the Dropbox app on your iPhone, you not only see how many frames have been rendered, but you can visually flip through the frames themselves. Sweet!

Of course, what you can’t do is view the animation at speed, so that’s where the second option comes into play. You can create a third Output Module that writes out a small (not more than 480 pixels wide or 360 pixels tall) H.264 Quicktime movie.

Now you can both check your frames as they finish, and watch the end result at speed.

If you configure that Render and Email script and use it to launch your render, you’ll also have a push notification that the render is complete.

It’s not quite the same thing as full administering your render from your phone, but it’s still pretty cool.