Adobe gratiously invited me to speak at their IBC 2019 booth about visual effects compositing in After Effects — something I’ve been doing againts all advice for many (many!) years. You can watch the entire talk here:
There are nine plug-ins in the suite. You can learn about all of them at Red Giant’ but here I’ll focus on the five I created tutorials for.
Supercomp is possibly the most ambitious effect Red Giant has ever created. It’s a complete compositing engine that runs in a panel in After Effects. It makes realistic, integrated composites easier and more intuitive to create, thanks to its unique render engine that understands how layers need to interact in a VFX composite. Light Wraps react to every layer below them, glows wrap around the layers in front of them. Everything is gamma-managed and works in 32-bit linear light, and grain is handled automatically.
This is basically every trick I’ve learned in my 24 years (sweet lord) of visual effects work, packed up in a gorgeous user interface and a lightning-fast GPU render engine.
Set aside a brisk 52 minutes to watch my tutorial:
King Pin Tracker
Corner pinning is an essential part of any VFX workflow, but the tools in After Effects are missing some important features. Years ago I helped design Red Giant’s Corner Pin effect to allow more flexible corner pinning, with “from” pins, perspective transforms, and tons of professional control. King Pin Tracker builds on this foundation and adds amazing new render quality and a blazing-fast, super-accurate planar tracker.
Spot Clone Tracker
Spot Clone Tracker is like a clone brush for video. It has its own amazing tracker built-in, making it super easy to remove small and large blemishes, or even entire objects, from your video. Lighting and texture are matched automatically, with tons of control.
This is another one that I’ve been dreaming about forever. Why is it so hard to make a beautiful glow that glows like a glow should? We dug deep into the physics of light and created a glow that is gorgeous and realistic, but also offers a ton of artistic control.
A displacement effect with a beautiful prismatic light-refraction look. Easy to use, blazing fast, tons of control. Detecting a theme here?
Note: The original title of this post was “Quadro is Dead, Long Live Stream Deck.”
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.