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If you aren't fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.

—Vince Lombardi

Why This Book?

After Effects 6.5 Studio Techniques has a different focus than any other After Effects book: creating realistic visual effects. Other After Effects books focus predominantly on motion graphics, touching only briefly on topics that make up the core of visual effects.

Not only is this the first After Effects book to deal specifically with visual effects, but it is one of the few to discuss the creation of visual effects in detail, period. As I wrote, I wondered why. Why, with visual effects such a mature industry, do so few books describe exactly how to do effects that appear all the time, effects that no longer comprise someone's trade secret?

I was reminded of a similar code of silence in a bygone era of magic, nearly a century ago. Not movie magic but practical magic, the kind promoted at the Magic Castle, which is headquartered, coincidentally enough, in Hollywood.

One of the great novels of the decade is Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Random House). If you enjoy stories about magic in the days of Houdini, stories about the birth of comics, or just an extremely well-written novel, I highly recommend this Pulitzer Prize winner.

The Cult of Magic

Back in the early days of magic, before you could go to your local bookstore or magic shop and buy a copy of David Pogue's Magic for Dummies (Hungry Minds), magic was a dark art practiced by masters sequestered in private clubs and learned by a handful of apprentices. The roots of the word “magic” refer to the Magi, the members of the Zoroastrian priesthood. I don't suppose it gets much more sequestered than that.

Visual effects, those skillful re-creations of reality, have been an art form since the beginning of filmmaking; just watch 1900's Trip to the Moon by George Meliés (Figure I.1). In fact, the earliest films capitalized on two phenomena above all others: the startling realism of the medium and the ability to make up scenes that were impossible to create any other way.

Figure I.1. Trip to the Moon is sometimes called the first visual effects film

But until the 1990s, special effects post-production for movies was a craft known only to a few hundred practitioners worldwide, and the dark art of its practices (often photo-chemical, sometimes crude, sometimes sophisticated, almost always labor-intensive and fraught with treacherously little room for error) was largely known only to them, passed on in a guild-like fashion to those few apprentices who found their way to this strange specialization (Figure I.3).

Figure I.3. A torture device? Only according to your point of view. An optical printer such as this one was the sole means of compositing film prior to the digital age.

The earliest public motion picture display by the Lumière brothers (Figure I.2) reputedly included footage of a train pulling into a station that had the poor naive audience diving to the floor in panic, believing a real train was headed their way. Louis Lumière evidently grew quickly tired of this spectacle, famously declaring a short time later, “The cinema is an invention without a future.”

Figure I.2. The Lumière borthers. Louis Lumière famously declared, “The cinema is an invention without a future.”

Enter the color desktop computer, then Adobe Photoshop, then After Effects, and suddenly anyone with a few thousand bucks for equipment, or access to borrow it, could have a go at creating a visual effects shot. And have a go people did, creating visionary low-budget videos (as well as hundreds of Star Wars tribute films) and growing the professional visual effects community exponentially.

A 2004 survey by an Adobe product manager turned up some 250 Hollywood features that had relied on After Effects. Stu Maschwitz, author of Chapter 15, “Learning to See,” led the Rebel Mac group at Industrial Light + Magic for several years in the 1990s; their use of After Effects on big-budget, Academy-nominated effects films was largely unpublicized, mostly due to the perception (even among film studios) that only “big iron” was up to work of that caliber.

Yet the old cultish attitudes in many ways prevailed. Sure, lots of kids proved that they could produce a convincing lightsaber battle on the family computer, but try to learn how to create an elaborate effects shot by reading up on it and you got smoke, mirrors, vagaries, and what has quickly become a cliché of Cinefex magazine (once the source for all kinds of nitty-gritty details): the use of “proprietary software.” Visual effects work might as well have been magic because it seemed to be made up of a bunch of exacting techniques crafted by super-geniuses and jealously guarded as trade secrets.

After Effects 6.5 Studio Techniques aims to demystify the realm of visual effects, focusing on the skill of re-creating reality with After Effects, of fooling viewers into thinking they are seeing a shot that was taken with a camera all at once.

Think of this book as a basic magic manual, teaching you the visual effects equivalents of hiding a card or palming a coin. If your goal is to be the David Blaine of compositing, you must master the basics that come up again and again, those effects that are often a key part of the most original and fantastic movie sequences.

Truly Challenging

Ironically, visual effects artists themselves often fail to notice how complicated it is to craft a shot; until you step back a little bit, all you notice is that you spent long days of hard work making subtle corrections to dozens of takes of a few seconds of film. The individual steps now seem almost unremarkable and trivial, but a complex shot might consist of thousands of such steps, many of which were at some point surprising and revelatory to each of us.

Also, each visual effects shot seems to be unique, and in many ways, it is. Explaining the exact steps to create one shot may be of little use when it comes time to create the next one. Some bread-and-butter effects, however, are done at every studio and are no one's trade secret. These come up all the time, sometimes as a component of a larger and more complex shot, sometimes as the main focus of a simple shot. Every compositing artist should know how to do them.

This book is about those kinds of effects; ultimately, it is about the process of building them up to create a shot that is greater than the sum of its parts and fools the eye of the viewer.

All visual effects can be broken down into comprehensible components (although, to comprehend some of the components might very well also require an understanding of wave dynamics or Fourier transforms). Moreover, very few (even simple) effects can be called complete without being broken down much further than the novice artist typically wants to go with them.

This brings us to the keys to creating the best visual effects, those that are often pretty close to invisible and call no attention to themselves whatsoever. They do not detract from the story, but enhance it, and only later on do you wonder, “How the heck did they do that?”

The Keys

You do it by following some simple guidelines—simple, yet so important in delineating your success or failure as an effects compositor. The keys are

  • Get reference. You can't re-create what you can't see clearly and in great detail. Great artists recognize many features of the world that the untrained eye fails to see.

  • Simpler is often better. Effects compositing is complicated enough without overcomplicating it with convoluted processes and needless extra steps. A robust effects pipeline is typically made up of the simplest available solutions, and it's usually worth the extra effort to simplify your workflow however you can. Occam's Razor, which states that the simplest solution or explanation is often the best one, applies in spades here.

  • Break it down. This, more than anything else, addresses the biggest error made by beginners: They try to solve problems using a single solution, applied globally to the whole shot or one of its elements. For example, beginning artists tend not to look at individual color channels when matching foreground and background colors. As Chapter 5, “Color and Light: Adjusting and Matching,” lays out, you must be willing to examine the individual red, green, and blue channels and adjust them separately to match overall color effectively. And if this advice applies to something so fundamental as color matching, you'd better believe it applies to more complex effects.

    The willingness to go beyond the one-button solution and break apart a shot into adjustable components is what will make your shots stand out. Otherwise you're just relying on luck to overcome laziness.

  • It's not good enough. This sounds discouraging, doesn't it? What you must take away is the spirit, rather than the literal truth of this statement, and always strive for the best result possible.

If you let your guard down and settle for “good enough,” someone's going to say it…

“That Looks Fake”

Can't you just hear that flat condemnation, uttered with no subtlety or restraint by the teenage kid sitting behind you at the multiplex? That kid is sometimes wrong (I've heard this label slapped on a shot that I knew had no visual effects), but you can hardly argue with the sentiment if your goal is to fool the skeptical viewer.

A little bit of that petulant teen lives in all of us. Ideally the statement will evolve to “That looks fake because…” with you able to complete the phrase using your eyes, your observations of the world and those of your colleagues, and information from a source like this book.

A somewhat more civilized version of that rude teenager shows up at dailies on a feature film effects project, but with the title of Visual Effects Supervisor. Here's how dailies generally go: At the start of a workday, a bunch of people get some coffee, go into a dark screening room, watch a shot more times in a minute or two than the average audience will watch it in a lifetime (unless of course it's a shot from Star Wars), and you are told why it doesn't look right. It sounds like a harsh way to start the day, but actually, this is absolutely where the real process of doing great work is rooted.

Relentless dissatisfaction is one of the keys to successful visual effects. Try not to confuse it with actual discouragement, no matter how harsh your own (or someone else's) criticism. If it doesn't look right to you, it doesn't mean you're a bad artist; it simply means you have the taste and discrimination to know the difference (a wise statement I first heard from my former colleague Paul Topolos, now at Pixar).

What Compositing Can (and Can't) Do

The type of full visual effects pipeline used to produce a big-budget feature film contains many roles and specializations; depending on your point of view and on the shot in question, the compositor's role can be the most crucial or the most denigrated. Typically, with the possible exception of a colorist, the compositor is the last one to touch the shot before it goes in the movie, so it's an important job if only for that reason.

To a large extent, a composite is only as good as the sum of its elements. The best compositors have a reputation for producing gold out of dross, building a great-looking shot despite poorly shot plates and slap-dash 3D elements. But compositors still need elements to do their work, and poorly shot or created elements typically lead to an equally poor result.

If you're still learning how to composite, you may be creating all of your elements yourself. That's great, because compositors benefit from understanding the disciplines that feed into the shot. For example, it's essential that you understand how the camera gathers images so you can mimic the reality created by a camera. If you're comfortable as a 3D animator, those skills will help you navigate the 3D capabilities of After Effects, and you will learn how much time you can save fine-tuning your shots in 2D rather than tweaking them endlessly in numerous 3D renders.

As a compositor, you have to know about these other disciplines, because to some extent you're re-creating their results from scratch, and you have far more room to cheat and make up your own rules. A cameraman cannot go further than the limits of what a camera can do, but you can. And one dirty secret is that sometimes you must cheat actual reality to make your shot believable.

About This Book

After Effects 6.5 Studio Techniques will help you toward more believable shots in many ways, but it is not intended to help you create your first After Effects project. It is the textbook that I didn't have when I taught the course Introduction to Visual Effects at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. My students were familiar with how to use After Effects but had not yet put it to work finishing shots.

If you're new to After Effects, first spend some time with its excellent documentation or check out one of the many books available to help beginners learn to use After Effects, such as After Effects 6.5 for Windows and Macintosh: Visual QuickPro Guide (Anthony Bolante, Peachpit Press), Adobe After Effects 6 Hands-On Training (Lynda Weinman, Peachpit Press), and Adobe After Effects 6.0 Classroom in a Book (Adobe Press).

If, however, you're moderately comfortable with After Effects, or with compositing in general, and you want to take your visual effects work to the next level, read on. This book was written for you.

After Effects 6.5 Studio Techniques is organized into three sections:

  • Section I, “Working Foundations,” reviews fundamentals of After Effects, in the context of helping you to work smarter and more efficiently. You'll explore how to make the best use of the program's core features and how to optimize your workflow. Even if you already are an experienced After Effects artist, skim this section for tips and tricks you might not have known or have forgotten.

  • Section II, “Effects Compositing Essentials,” focuses on the core techniques required for effects compositing: color matching, keying, rotoscoping, motion tracking, and emulating the camera. For example, you'll delve deeply into how the Levels effect and Keylight contribute to the essential work of visual effects. This section also tackles a couple of topics that most other books consider too complicated for average users: the use of expressions and how to work with film source and high dynamic range compositing

  • Section III, “Creative Explorations,” demonstrates actual effects and looks at the phenomena you might wish to re-create, taking observations of how these things look in the natural world. Most importantly, you'll learn how to apply that understanding to your shot.

What you won't find in these sections are menu-by-menu descriptions of the interface or step-by-step tutorials that walk you through projects with little connection to real-world visual effects needs.

Understanding Is Preferable to Knowledge

The goal of After Effects 6.5 Studio Techniques is to help you understand how the world within After Effects works and how it corresponds to the physical world you are attempting to re-create.

Your goal should be to apply what you learn here to your own shots and continue to expand your knowledge. By understanding how things work, not by mimicking prearranged steps, you will truly learn to do this work on your own. Compositing is the methodical buildup of individual component steps, steps that recur in unique combinations on each individual shot and project. This book offers advice on those steps. Putting them all together for your individual shot is up to you.

If You've Used Other Compositing Programs

After Effects 6.5 Studio Techniques partly grew from my being “The After Effects Guy” on various projects. On The Day After Tomorrow, for example, I joined a team of veteran freelance compositors at The Orphanage, few of whom had ever used After Effects. They were far more experienced with Apple's Shake, Digital Domain's Nuke, and Discreet's Flame. My role was not only to complete my own shots but also to help debug their problems using After Effects, freeing the compositing supervisor's time.

This double duty helped me gain a perspective on what is confusing about After Effects to people who otherwise understand compositing well. Believe it or not, compositing programs do not vary as much in their fundamental workflow as, say, 3D animation programs do. Although After Effects appears to operate completely differently than Shake, Nuke, Flame, and other node-based applications, the fundamental differences are relatively few. To summarize, they are

  • Render order in After Effects is established on the timeline and via pre-composing. The clearest distinction between After Effects and its node-based brethren is its lack of a tree/node interface. Open Project Flowchart view and you see that, under the hood, After Effects tracks rendering order works the same way as these other applications (Figure I.4). After Effects, however, doesn't let you interact this way. (See Chapter 2, “The Timeline,” and Chapter 4, “Optimizing the Pipeline.”)

    Figure I.4. Project Flowchart view is perhaps the most unrecognizable After Effects view.

  • Transforms, effects, and masks become part of a layer and render in a set order. In After Effects, layers have properties that belong only to them. To an After Effects user, the Shake method of applying a transform to a clip, rather than simply animating a layer's Position property, is a little hard to get used to (Figure I.5). On the other hand, as is explained in Chapter 4, After Effects sometimes enforces a specific order in which certain properties render, and you need to know what that is.

    Figure I.5. A Shake node flow re-creates the set order (masks, effects, transforms, and finally blending modes) in After Effects for a three-layer composite. (Image courtesy of Stu Maschwitz.)

  • After Effects, like other Adobe applications, tends to think in terms of four channels: red, green, blue, and alpha (or transparency). This is a subtle one, but the distinction plays out as soon as you start creating selections for layers (see Chapter 3, “Selections: The Key to Compositing”). Node-based applications tend to encourage you to think of mattes as luminance data, which they are. Like Photoshop, however, After Effects retains through its pipeline the persistent idea of a fourth color channel, the alpha channel, which controls transparency. You will have more success working with After Effects if you are willing to work on building alpha channels rather than combinations of luminance data for transparency.

  • After Effects works always in straight alpha mode, and it handles the conversion from straight to pre-multiplied alpha internally. Not only does After Effects have a persistent idea of an alpha channel, but internally, it is always working with that alpha in straight mode. Chapter 3 covers the few provisions that are given to deal explicitly with pre-multiplication inside of After Effects.

  • There is, alas, no direct equivalent in After Effects to macros. If you've never used an application like Shake, you don't know what you're missing. If you've gone far enough with the node-based application to write your own macros, however, After Effects may leave you scratching your head. It offers little in the way of direct pixel calculation and no way to batch process images via a script. The workarounds typically involve effect plug-ins and pre-composing.

  • Temporal and spatial settings tend to be more absolute in After Effects. Many differences between After Effects and the node-based applications contain both benefits and pitfalls. If you need to carefully manage timing and spatial data (animation), the After Effects timeline offers huge advantages. On the other hand, all layers contain spatial and timing information relative to their composition. In other words, if you create a cool effect on the adjustment layer of a video resolution comp, and then copy the adjustment layer to a longer film-resolution comp, the layer won't cover the whole frame, nor willit last the duration of the new comp. This is something you don't typically have to think about in a node-based application.

  • After Effects lacks support for floating-point linear calculations and high dynamic range images. It's pretty difficult to get used to, but the fact is, the world of high-end compositing has changed dramatically in the last few years around a new model. If you've never worked in a linearized floating-point pipeline with the capability of handling overbright pixels, you may not even be aware of all the compromises you end up having to make to get the light in your scenes to behave naturally. High dynamic range images and a floating-point, linearized pipeline are the waves of the future, but the future is here today for After Effects users in the form of a plug-in set known as eLin. (See Chapter 11, “Issues Specific to Film and HDR Images.”)

Of these differences, some are arbitrary, most are a mixed bag of advantages and drawbacks, and a couple of them are constantly used by the competition as a metaphorical stick with which to beat After Effects. The two that come up the most are the handling of pre-composing and the lack of macros.

This book attempts to shed light on these and other areas of After Effects that are not explicitly dealt with in its user interface or documentation. The truth is that Shake, Nuke, and others require that you understand their own issues, such as managing pre-multiplication in your pipeline, to master them. After Effects spares you details that as a casual user, you might never need to know about, but that as a professional user you should understand thoroughly. This book is here to help.

What's On the CD

If you want to find out more about some of the plug-ins and software mentioned in this book, look no further than its CD-ROM. For example, the disc includes demos of

  • Adobe After Effects 6.5

  • Andersson Technologies' SynthEyes (3D tracking software)

  • Plug-ins from Trapcode, including Particular and Lux

  • Red Giant Software's Primatte, Magic Bullet, Knoll Light Factory, Composite Wizard, and eLin

You'll also find footage from Artbeats with which you can experiment and practice your techniques. Artbeats is a great source for stock clips of all types. Finally, there are a few example files to help you deconstruct some of the more complicated techniques.

The Bottom Line

Just like the debates about which operating system is best, debates about which compositing software is tops are largely meaningless—especially when you consider the number of first-rate, big-budget, movie effects extravaganzas that were created on three or four different platforms, with half a dozen 2D and 3D programs. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the consistent quality of effects in such films as The Day After Tomorrow, which used a variety of programs and effects houses, should show that it is the artists not the tools who make the biggest difference.

I like using After Effects, because I have come to think in the same way the software lays out my shots; it's no longer work, it's instinct. The goal of this book is to help you reach that point as well.

If you have comments or questions you'd like to share with me, please e-mail them to AEStudioTechniques@gmail.com.

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