Quadro is Dead, Long Live Stream Deck

Or How the Meta-work of Automation is the Real Work of Work

In my making-of video for TANK, I heaped praise on an iOS app called Quadro, that I’d used to create a custom iPad control surface for my common After Effects tasks.

Days after posting the video, Quadro announced that they were shutting down the app, having “not been able to build a solid business structure around it.” This saddened me on many levels — both as a dissapointed user, and also as yet another all-too-familar tale of a developer with a cool, niche product, unable to connect with a paying audience.

The Pursuit of Hardware Control

TANK_BTSstills_01_TANK_TMO_Cut_06_0001.jpg

If you look closely at that video, you’ll see my fascination with specialized input devices expressed in desktop real-estate. Above my keyboard is Loupedeck, a hardware controller made specifically for Lightroom. To my right are the Tangent Element control panels for video color grading. An Apple Magic Trackpad actually functions as a control surface for Magic Bullet Looks. And right next to my iPad is a little box with 15 backlit buttons: the Stream Deck from Elgato.

How the Stream Deck Just Got Awesome

The Stream Deck is designed for live streamers, and automates things they care about, like switching feeds and snap-tweeting their insta-fam. Ninety-nine percent of what it does makes no sense to me. But you can configure those little buttons to perform keyboard shortcuts, so that was enough for me to try it out.

Assigning a single keystroke or chord to a button is not exactly the superpowers that Quadro provided though. The After Effects palette I built for TANK had many multi-sequence macros that performed several operations in sequence. Here are a few examples:

  • Duplicate a group of layers, keeping them grouped together: ⌘D, ⌘]
  • Set the Work Area to the duration of the selected layer: I, B, O, N, I
  • Trim selected layer to match the below layer: ⌘↓, I, ⌘↑, ⌥[, ⌘↓, O, ⌘↑, ⌥]
  • Create a new Null layer and trim it to the duration of the selected layer: ⌘⌥⇧Y, ⌘↓, I, ⌘↑, ⌥[, ⌘↓, O, ⌘↑, ⌥], I

(Those are Mac modifier keys — for Windows, replace Command ⌘ with Control, and Option ⌥ with Alt.)

Without this ability, the Stream Deck was a nice-to-have, but not essential for me. But Elgato recently released Stream Deck software update 3.1, with support for Multi-actions. I have begun porting my most-used Quadro macros to Stream Deck, and the results are great so far.

With this update, Stream Deck went from being a fun bonus to, I think, a must-have (and very affordable) add-on for power-users of any desktop software.

Stream Deck is ordinarily $149.95 on Amazon, but as I write this it’s $139.95.

A Software-only Solution

Another very cool option I have explored is Keyboard Maestro from Stairways Software. A powerful general-purpose automation tool for Mac, Keyboard Maestro lets you build very sophisticated macros that go well beyond what Quadro or even Stream Deck can do.

Here’s a very simple example I created for TANK. Since I was often duplicating layers dozens if not hundreds of times to create particle effects, I created a simple macro that would ask me for a number, and then “press” ⌘D that many times.

I’ve only scratched the surface of Keyboard Maestro, but I have a feeling I’ll soon wonder how I ever lived without it.

Automation is the Work

Many years ago, in film school, I was up late with the brilliant filmmaker Jamie Caliri, helping him with an ambitious stop-motion film. We were sanding and assembling props that he had cast from resin. I asked him how many copies of something pushed him from just hand-making each one into the realm of building a jig, or making a mold, to automate the process. Without even a pause his answer was: Three.

My father in his workshop in northern Minnesota, building a temporary pine countertop to test the fit of the actual hardwood countertop he's planning on making. I'm proud to think my computer is as organized as his workshop. Unfortunately for both of us, my workshop is as organized as his computer.

I used to think that the “work” of work was the creative mouse-moving or pencil-pushing or camera-clicking. I considered my dalliances into tool-making to be a distraction, and I was impatient with tasks like balancing a gimbal or leveling dolly track. But then I started watching how professionals in other fields work.

Most of the work of painting a room in a house is prep and masking. Much of the process of fine woodworking is creating jigs and rigs. And most of the work on a film set is before “action” and after “cut.”

Notice how brilliant creatives can’t help but build and share tools, like Andrew Kramer’s indispensable FX Console for After Effects, or Nick Campbell’s amazing Cinema 4D tools at Greyscalegorilla.

Professional chefs so celebrate the meta-work of their craft that they have a term for it: mise en place. French for “to put in place,” it means to have all your tools and ingredients prepped and ready to go before you begin the part that to the rest of the world looks like cooking.

When I make stuff, I inevitably wind up making things that help me make the stuff. Tools like Keyboard Maestro for Mac, Workflow for iOS (soon to be integrated into iOS 12), Hazel for Mac (more on that soon I hope), TextExpander, and even the After Effects expressions and scripting engine itself, help us artists build the custom jigs and rigs that make our work easier and more creative. But more than that, they create our artistic mise en place — the working environment unique to our needs that helps the creativity flow.

TANK

TANK is an animated short film that I have been working on for a year and half. It's up today on Red Giant's site.

The Making of Tank

The way I made TANK is a little crazy. I made it entirely in Adobe After Effects, with equal parts animation elbow grease and nerdy expressions madness. This video is part behind-the-scenes, part After Effects tutorial, and part therapy session.

A complete list of all the tools I used to make TANK is available at Red Giant's blog:

VectorKit

Want to try making 3D vector graphics in After Effects? No? Well, if you change your mind, I packaged up the basic working of my TANK vector graphics rig into an After Effects template that you can download for free from the Prolost Store.