Welcome! My name is Alan Shisko, and I'm a freelance motion graphics artist working out of Toronto, Canada. I've been very lucky in my career to have had many inspiring teachers, and decided to start this blog to give back to the community that has enriched me both technically and aesthetically. Perhaps my words and images will inspire you to do the same! If you wish, take a minute to view my demo reel at Shisko.com, or view a comprehensive gallery of my past work Here.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

TechTip: Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Adobe After Effects can look pretty "messy" at times. If you've got a 3d composition with plenty of layers and nulls and cameras and lights and masks, you'll find that your composition view can get pretty... uhhh... well, "dense" would be a kind way of putting it! Even a single layer with a mask can make it difficult to objectively visualize your composition.

Fortunately, there are some quick ways to cut through the trees to see the forest, none of which (alas) involve chain saws and rollicking Coureurs-de-Bois tuneage. Take a look at THIS short tutorial (QT, .MP4, h264, 6:34, 11.8 megs) to see how it's done.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

HDRI: Oh My!

I'm in the midst of my first 3d project utilizing the VRay rendering platform out of 3dsMax, including the use of HDRI textures for lighting and reflection. The preliminary results thus far are rather stunning. The big downside, of course, is that the files are rendering like it's 1992 :( Whoops! Time for that new quad-core machine :)

THIS (QT, h264, 5 sec., 3.7 megs) is a very short materials test with a simple glassy texture making use of HDRI lighting and reflections, and refractions. I was helped along by following the simple and excellent VRay tutorials at Aversis (where, incidentally, you can also download some HDRI imagery to play with). Take a gander also at vray-materials.de where you can review and freely download tons of remarkable (and system-humbling) materials.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

TechTip: Multi-layer Parameter Manipulation

Let's say you've got a bazillion 3d layers in your After Effects composition, and you want to, say, turn shadow casting 'on' for all the layers. Time to tell the boss you'll be working late, then start opening up twirly's for each and every layer. My wrist hurts just thinking about it!

Fortunately, there is a better way. Take a look at THIS little tutorial (QT .mp4, h264, 4:55, 8.8 megs) and discover a quick, flexible little workflow that not only allows you to quickly (and repetitively) change parameters on any number of layers, but that is nearly fast enough for you to 'toggle back and forth' as you work.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Marking Music

You'll often find yourself with client-supplied music tracks, and of course it's good to have your animations 'work' with the beats. But how can you 'visualize' these beats so you can make informed decisions about where to lay down the keyframes?

Take a look at THIS short tutorial (QT, h264, 3:06, 5.7 megs) explaining one way to quickly give yourself some visual clues to help you with your workflow.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Walkin' in 3d

A client brought me a nice challenge recently: create an opening based upon nothing more than the client-supplied logo. Free reign on the creative! We bounced some ideas back and forth and finally decided to make the logo speak (or rather 'walk') for itself.

The spot was to be executed in After Effects. The trick is, how does one create an entire world in the "flat" AE 3d space? And once that was solved, how then to give all of the letters some personality as they range around the set? And to compound the issues, how does one animate everything whilst keeping an eye on client-side changes that might necessitate whole-sale changes to the movements on scores of layers?

First, take a look at the finished spot HERE (QT, h264, :37, 8.4 mb) Then take a look at THIS project walk-through which gives you an overview of what I did to pull it all together.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Vectorizing Bitmaps

Sometimes you'll find that you need to vectorize a bitmap image (the differences between vector and bitmap imagery are described HERE). The reasons for this are many: perhaps you want to be able to scale it waaay up and don't want the image pixellated. Perhaps it's a "look" that you're going for, or maybe you need imagery to edit and place in a Flash scene.

You can use the 'live trace' functionality in Adobe Illustrator (overview and tut's HERE, technical white paper HERE) but what to do if you don't have Illustrator?

I stumbled across VectorMagic, a research project that came out of the Stanford University Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. It's a very effective, easy-to-use web application that does a really nice job converting imagery to vector. Compare the results of VM to Illustrator and Corel HERE. I've played around with it with a few images and have been very impressed with the results (click on the header image on this post), and you certainly can't beat the price: Free!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Max2AE Global Scale

If you use Boomerlabs' "Max2AE" plugin a lot, you've probably come across an issue where you have to scale your After Effects layers very small to get them to fit the 'world space' that was exported from your 3ds Max project. Depending on your project settings, you might find that you need to scale a 3d After Effects layer as small as 1% to get it to 'fit'.

Now the interchange will still "work" visually (things line up where they're supposed to and such), but you'll find yourself saddled with a few gotchas. For instance, dealing with layers that are so 'small' can make layer tranforms (like moving) very difficult to execute when scrubbing in After Effects. Panning around the worldspace can be painful. And most importantly, you'll find that your shadows look AWFUL.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to fix this problem, so long as you know what to look for and plan ahead a bit. Take a look at THIS tutorial (Quicktime, h.264, 9:35, 33 megs) that walks you through the process.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Alright, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, one more post on keyboard shortcuts. Paddling around the 'net the other day, I came upon KeyXL... it's the self proclaimed "largest online database of keyboard shortcuts in the world". Be still my beating heart! A quick gander seems to suggest that it is, indeed, a fairly substantial repository of cutz. Granted, many applications aren't followed too closely (kind of weak in the video editing category for instance) but they're right on top of the latest Adobe CS3 suite. Indeed, they seem to be cribbed directly from the Adobe help files.

Ok, so why wouldn't I just hit the "f1" key and check out the kb shortcuts in After Effects? Well, for one thing they're multi-paged in the app 'help', and are thus hard to 'browse' if you're just kicking around on a render looking for something geeky to do. Plus all cutz are close at hand for all apps, making it a fast reference. And you can search the page with your browser keyword 'search' function (ctrl+"F", usually) to locate a particulary pesky shortcut. Worth a look.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Key'd Up

Those who know me know that I'm mad for keyboard shortcuts when using After Effects. And not just because it impresses clients when you use a 'ninja' KB shortcut like "ctrl+alt+shift+'C'" to create a camera, but also because it's the key (so to speak) to a fast, effective After Effects workflow.

The trouble is, you're pretty much stuck with the default shortcuts that ship with After Effects, unless you have the wherewithal to track down and modify the AE KB shortcut text file. This can be a substantial problem for non-US keyboards where certain critical keys (like the '~' key for maximizing windows) may be missing.

Enter Jeff Almasol, scripter par excellence. He's written a script called "Key'd Up" that brings a GUI to modify your KB shortcuts directly from within After Effects. You can find the script (in a package with a few other awesome bits 'n pieces) HERE.

Key'd Up works very well, and at the risk of sounding ungrateful (I'm so very not!) there are a couple of things missing from the script that would make it (to my mind) perfect. First, I'd like to be able to execute a KB shortcut within the script and have the result shown. For instance, if I were to hold down "ctrl+'C'", it would tell me that that shortcut is used to "Copy" a parameter. You CAN do this by selecting a command and changing to the KB shortcut that you'd like to identify, then hit the "Show Usage" button. But this method won't work if I want to rapidly find out what certain key combinations use.

Second, I'd also like to be able to search the 'Categories' and 'Commands'. For instance, AE CS3 replaced my much-loved 'ctrl+"G"' kb shortcut ('go to time') with something else. I'd like to change this behaviour back using Key'd Up, but I couldn't find the "Go To Time" command on the left pane. You'd think it would be in the "Timeline Navigation" category, but alas it's not (it's in the 'General' category, BTW). Again, you can use the 'show usage' button to eventually figure it out, but a quick search would definitely be handy.

All that said, it's a great script that I use often to enhance my workflow. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

And 15 years later...

... I discovered a super-duper, handy-dandy right-click functionality that has probably been in the After Effects application for years but that had for some reason eluded me.

When applying an effect, I often search for what I want in the "Effects and Presets" window (especially after they re-ordered all of the effects with AE v7, like moving 'Beam' from Effects-> Render to Effects-> Generate). But when I know the effect I want (say, Fast Blur) then it's quicker for me to go to the 'Effect-> Blurs...' menu along the top of the application window and choose it from there.

And here is what I discovered... This morning, I pushed the wrong button on my Wacom pen (equivalent to a right-click) while I was hovering over the Effect Control Window, and Lo! what should appear, but all of the effects, ready for me to select! No more do I need to mouse up to the top of the application window! They're all right there! Waiting! Whoo hoooo!

Alright, I know, I know... THAT is a head-slappingly obvious, you've-got-to-be-kidding-me, you-seriously-didn't-know-that? noob discovery. Of COURSE you'll get the freakin' effects when you right-click in the ECW. What else are you going to see? But let s/he who is without blindingly-obvious discoveries in spite of years of experience throw the first raspberry... I bet there are tons of little gems waiting for YOU too. After Effects is a pretty mature app, and it sometimes pays to do something just to see what happens, especially with the right-click button, and those little triangle flyout thingies up in the corner of most palette windows. Explore!

So that's my humbling little discovery 'o th' day that reminds me I'm human after all. What super-obvious gems have YOU discovered in the last little while?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Creating Trees in After Effects

A client came to me recently with a very interesting and challenging project. They wanted to create an instructional DVD and use as source the imagery that had already been created for the print campaign.

The predominant image was a leafy fall branch superimposed over a soft, billowy background. After some consultation, it was decided that I'd make the branch into a 3d tree, and use this 'world space' as the basis for the introduction.

I contemplated tackling the project in 3dsMax, and indeed spent a good deal of time modelling trees and playing around with shaders and textures and such. But in the end, I decided that it would tie into the print campaign best if I were to use the 'actual' imagery. I decided to tackle the project using ONLY After Effects.

Now as most of you know, AE is a "2.5d" application. The worldspace is 3d, but any imagery you have (discounting 3rd party applications such as Invigorator and such) is "flat". Much head scratching ensued, until I finally hit upon a technique that really sold "the look" that I was trying to achieve.

Take a look HERE to see what the fully rendered intro ended up looking like (MPEG4, h.264, 1:04, 7 megs) and then take a gander at THIS tutorial (QT, h264, 25:27 dur, 43.7 mb) that explains the technique in detail, plus walks you through the finished project.

NOTE: at 5:16 in the tut, there is a little editing jump. Cut out accidentally was the step where I changed all of the masks to 'subtract' mode.

In the tutorial I talk about how one can interactively control camera focus distance, and here are the instructions and the necessary expressions code so you can do it too (thanks Harry and Dan for whipping this one up!)

1) Make sure you've got a camera in your composition.
2) Create either a solid or a null and name it "focusControl" (note: you can name your solid when you create it, but to change a null you have to select it in your comp window and hit the 'enter' key. You can then type a new name for it.)
3) Make the solid/null a 3d object.
4) Apply this expression to the "Focus Distance" parameter of your camera:

length(thisComp.layer("focusControl").transform.position, toWorld([0,0,0]))

The camera will now focus wherever your null or solid happens to sit. This expression is golden when you're doing a lot of Depth of Field work.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Whipping Masks

Yes, I've wanted to discipline my masks in the past, especially when I had one mask that I wanted to use on multiple layers. Copy, paste. Copy, paste. Copy, paste. And then the art director tells me that they want to change the shape.


And then AE CS3 came along. Plenty of great new features, but dig a little deeper and you'll see mention of a new capability a LONG time coming... the ability to pickwhip masks.

Whoo hoo! No more copying and pasting! Now when I need to use masks, I can create just ONE, and link it to any number of layers across any number of comps via expressions, specifically the pickwhip.

Click HERE for a very short overview of what it is and how it works (QT, h.264, 3:38, 3.8 mb).

AE shadows on Rendered 3d Clips

Take a close look at the header image. Nothing too special about it, is there? There is some AE text, and it's in a composition above a "wood textured" AE bitmap layer with some rendered 3d imagery composited over it all. Right? Wrong. There are only TWO elements in the scene: The text, and a 'flat' 3d image sequence rendered out of 3dsMax.

So how is the text throwing a shadow on a 'flat' image rendered out of a 3d application, matching the scene, AE objects and camera moves perfectly? Can't After Effects only throw shadows onto it's own layers? Maybe, or maybe not!

Thanks to the opportunities afforded artists by Boomerlabs' "Max2AE" plugin and some tricky compositing, you CAN cast shadows from your After Effects layers 'onto' imagery rendered out of3dsMax. You can also use the same technique if you use Cinema4d, Maya and other popular 3d applications that have integration with After Effects.

Click HERE to view a Quicktime tutorial walking you through the technique (QT, h.264, 16:27, 19.7 mb).

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Retro 70's and 80's Logo Treatments

Kinda brings a tear to your eye, doesn't it?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Be A Good Parent To A Camera

This post is in reply to a number of people who sent me notes asking how I did the camera animation in THIS project. At issue is "how do you do a smooth camera move down, around and in towards an object".

There are a number of ways you can animate a camera (and, indeed, any object) in After Effects. We all know about keyframes, and you can be clever and use expressions to shimmy things about. But unless you've come to motion graphics via a 3d application, you may or may not know about the benefits offered by something called 'parenting'. Nope, not as in "change that smelly nappy" parenting. Parenting as in "hook that camera up to a 'null'".

It takes a pretty big leap of logic to figure it all out. It's easy enough to say "When parented, the camera will do whatever it's attached to does". But there's more to it than that, because while the camera is parented, IT TOO can be keyframed.

Take a look at THIS tutorial (QT h.264, 14:44 duration, 19.7 mb) which explains the basics of camera parenting.

Figuring Fields

If you live in NTSC Land, you've probably got a bit of a love-hate thing going on with video fields in your footage. Yes, it can make your renders look 'smoother' (some might argue 'unnaturally smooth'), but one must admit that dealing with interlaced video footage in After Effects can be a bit of a hit 'n miss affair.

The problem lies in dealing with fields in video footage that you've digitized and imported into After Effects for further manipulation. In a general sense, you'll have to de-interlace this footage so that when you tranform it (ie. scale, move etc.) you don't end up with a - pardon the technical term- wacky strobing pile of goo.

Now it's easy enough to de-interlace in AE: just go to the 'Interpret Footage Dialog box' (Ctrl+F with a footage item selected in the Project Window). There you can change the interpretation, or verify how AE has chosen to 'auto interpret'. Yes, usually AE is right, but if you're dealing with footage of unknown provenance, you HAVE to know how to confirm the field order interpretation, or risk the messy consequences.

Fortunately, it's an easy (if somewhat obscure) thing to do in After Effects. Take a look at THIS little clip (QT h.264, 8.8 mb, 6:25 duration) to see how it all works.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

You Kern Do It!

Kerning. It may sound like the name of a German industrial town, but in fact it's an oft-overlooked aspect of graphic design that can give your work that extra bit of shine that clients are craving. And with the explosion of freeware fonts to be found underfoot everywhere, knowing how to fix a poorly-kerned typeface is a critical skill to have.

Most folks have heard tell of both Kerning and it's relative Tracking. I don't know how often I've heard people talking about letter spacing mention both- or either - interchangeably, but it must be pointed out that there is a significant difference between the two. Tracking refers to the space across a range of letters, while Kerning is the process of expanding or contracting space between specific letter pairs.

Mastering kerning in After Effects (and Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign etc.) doesn't just make your work look better. It also gives your visuality a workout at the same time by making you look at your typography in a much more critical manner.

Watch THIS video to see how kerning works in Adobe After Effects (14.5 MB, 14 minutes, Quicktime H.264) The information in this tutorial holds true for users of Photoshop and Illustrator as well.

Hot tip: you've all heard about how, when you're sitting with a client, you can raise your creative IQ a few notches by throwing in the term "Z-space" during a discussion. Watch the kerning tutorial, then ramp your cred up another notch by talking about "Pair-Kerning".

Monday, July 16, 2007

Font Resources

Joe S. on the After Effects List pointed out a Macworld article that neatly summarizes all the free and commercial font sites, plus links to font resources. Confirms my theory that DaFont is the first (and often only) place to go for typographic styles and inspiration.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Imagining AE v10

You've all probably seen the Microsoft 'Surface' demos floating around for the last little while, but a friend sent me this link that shows the system and it's workings with a bit more depth.

Now granted, this technology is- for the near future- aimed at the kiosk and POP crowd, but imagine (if you will) an environment where we can do 'our thing'... truly gestural "live" compositing, animation and presentation. I was particularly taken with the fellow working with the map at 1:35.

How might this affect our industry in the future? One might argue that in this day and age compositors and motion graphics folks create 'passive' media, owing primarily to the bandwidth and rendering requirements of our visuals. We create and publish, someone sits down and watches it.

It can, of course, be taken further: DVD authoring allows for a certain degree of interactivity, Flash offers a lot, and (ignoring immersive gaming worlds) you can find rudimentary interaction with pixel-based imagery using software such as Cult 3d. But unless you have some fancy widget like a wacom tablet, the 'gestural' interactivity (even in games) is pretty limited.

My work is very 'linear' right now. I create a show opening, it plays, the show starts and there ya go. But why should WE be the arbiters of what, when and how the viewer sees our work? I can envision a future when immersive environments (like that offered up by 'Surface') allow me to move beyond the temporal limitations of what I do and open my work up to direct interaction and exploration. The lines separating 'true' worlds like 3d games and 'my' business of motion graphics will blur, and the art of a "show opening" will certainly evolve. But it can really only be done with a hand (or two, or more) and 'Surface' is a "first" tentative step in that direction.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


I've posted before about Boomerlabs' Max2AE plugin that integrates 3dsMax cameras, lights and layers with After Effects, but they've since released the 2.0 version and it certainly warrants another close look.

This particular post takes you through the creation of an entire project, from modelling in 3dsMax to ray traced materials, rendering issues to After Effects, and how to make it all work together. Click here to view the tutorial.

One thing: I do not have the final rendered movie to refer to (I mention it in the tutorial), but you can instead see elements of this look in my demo reel.

New to this release of Max2AE is the ability to go from After Effects to Max. This capability is something new and quite exciting: to the best of my knowledge, this is the ONLY way that you can take your AE worldspace and export it TO a 3d application if you decide that you want to add some extruded elements to an existing AE project. I'm still playing around with this capability and I don't touch upon it in this particular post, but keep your eyes pointed this way for a tut covering AE2Max one day soon.

Matthew from Boomerlabs sent me a note pointing out a few changes to my tut:

1) Timestamp 22:13. You no longer need to create a layer to export a camera or use MAX2AE. MAX2AE is also available in the Utility Panel.

2) Timestamp 28:08. Maintain heirarchy will keep the existing object hierarchy when you export. If you turn this off, all objects _will_ properly move relative to each other and the world. However, their hierarchy is not maintained. For most users, keeping it on or off is no big deal. However, if you are only exporting _individual_ layers that aren't already arranged in the proper hierarchy in AE, it is best to turn this option OFF otherwise you will be importing motion that is relative to a parent that doesn't exist.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Saving

Ok, we all know how to 'save' a project. File-> Save. Some people even know a tricky little keyboard shortcut that impresses clients and girl/boyfriends: Ctrl+'S' on the PC, or Apple+'S' on the Mac. But every now and again someone posts an urgent request on a mailing list or a forum- usually using a lot of capital leters- asking for "HELP! CAN'T OPEN MY AFTER EFFECTS PROJECT!! DEADLINE!!! URGENT!!!!"

Now I love After Effects. It's my number one tool, I use it every day, all day, it puts food in my family's stomach and it's paying the bank that owns my house. But it's also not perfect. Every now and again, weird things happen and if you've drawn the short karma stick that particular day, you might end up with a corrupted project. And a corrupted AE project often means that it can't be opened. At all. Ugh time.

There are a few little tricks you can try. First off, quit AE and re-start. If that doesn't work, shut down your entire computer and re-start. If that doesn't work, shut down your computer and your network/router and re-start. At this point, if it's not opening, re-start After Effects again, and instead of opening the project, 'Import' it into a blank AE project, which oddly often works wonders. If that doesn't work, shut down AE and try removing the Open GL plugin from your 'plugins' folder: this is (sadly) often the purveyor of much woe. Then try removing ALL of the (non-standard) plugins from your plugin folder. Moving on, if you were using an older version of After Effects (say, v.7), then try opening it in v.CS3 if you have access. Don't have the most recent version? Download the trial from Adobe.com: it works for 30 days. But note that you can't open AE projects in EARLIER versions of the software at all. At this point, if things are still not opening, try gnashing your teeth, waving wands over your monitors and burning incense. Then come back to this point, re-read the following words and follow this advice on your NEXT project...

Increment And Save.

Say it again. Then do it.

Look closely under your 'File' menu and you'll see a little item called, oddly, 'Increment and Save'. Never selected it? Try it and see what happens. If you have a project named, say, "Opening.aep", it'll save it without opening a 'save-as dialog box', and automatically append a number to it, in this case, "Opening 1.aep". Select it again and it'll become 'Opening 2.aep'. And on and on. You'll never save over a previous version of a project. Now, the question is, why? Let me tell you a little story...

I was called in to work in a shop to modify a project that one of their freelancers had originally produced. I sat down, asked where the project was and they showed me the directory. And there it was: something called "Network Package.aep". One project. I opened it up and discovered that it had comps for many show openings, backgrounds, lower 3rds, intersticials, segment spots, promos transitions... and on and on and on. There was ONE After Effects project, containing EVERYTHING for the look for an entire network. And no backup. Well, I admit that I shuddered. If this project were to get corrupted, or accidentally deleted, or saved over after it got 'reduced', or... or... well, you get the idea.

First thing I did was type Ctrl+Alt+Shift+"S". And there was "Network Package 2.aep". I breathed a little easier then. Now I certainly would NOT recommend putting so many elements together in a single AE project, and certainly not having a single version of the project file. That's a disaster waiting- nay, Begging!- to happen.

So, that's the AE keyboard shortcut. You'll find it in the "File" menu too. I use it on every project I'm working on. When? Well, that depends. Usually 'when I remember', and always when I realize that if a project were to get lost/deleted/corrupted then I'd cry like a baby. I often do the keyboard shortcut when I know a client is watching me so they can see how cool it is: so many fingers, pushing so many things at once... it's like that teensy blue power light on really expensive speakers: very impressive and professional looking, but in a confident and understated way.

Yes, you'll end up with a lot of versions, but think of it as "a lot of insurance" instead. Almost free insurance. Yes, it'll take up space on your drive, but you can always buy a new drive. Getting back hours/ days/ weeks of your life is a little more expensive.

Now if you're using AE7 or later, you'll see that there is an option in Preferences to "Auto-Save" (turned off by default). I personally never use it, mostly because "you never know". Like if you do 'reduce' a project, then you may lose the rest of the project next time you open it. I like to control when, where and what I save.

That should control any damage if you should ever find your project corrupted, plus it's just smart production practice. After all, you just never know. If need be, you can go back to the earlier version, and lose minutes or hours of your life at most.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Zaxwerks Layer Tools In Production

Working in 3d space in After Effects can be a tricky business at best, and downright confounding at worst. I recently completed a project for a client and dealt with a couple of these issues in a quick, streamlined way using a new 'plugin' from Zaxwerks called "Layer Tools".

At issue was how one can quickly distribute layers in 3d z-space such that there wasn't any 'ringing' when two intersecting layers fight for the same worldspace. Kind of a 'Layer Smackdown', one might say. I also talk about how "Layer Tools" gives you creative options that were previously achievable only through persistence and much time away from family and friends.

Take a look at the finished animation here (11 megs, h.264, 1:20). Then take a look at this tutorial which describes how I used "Layer Tools" to overcome a couple of technical and creative hurdles.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Ira Glass on Getting Started

A client sent me a link to this inspirational post. If you want to view all four episodes, check them out here.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Animating 3d Pie Charts

If you spend any time working the corporate graphics side of the biz, it's only a matter of time before someone wants you to show data in an interesting manner. Bring on the pie charts!

It's a bit of a mind-bender how to even create a pie chart in After Effects, though, unless you're lucky enough to own a copy of Digital Anarchy's 'Data Animator' plugin package. So for those of us struggling without, here is one (well, three, actually) ways to make that data look great.

Each stage steps up the 'quality' quotient. The first part describes how to create a simple, flat, animating pie chart using no third party effects. If you're happy with it, then you're done! But if you want to up the production value a bit, the next section covers how you can use Zaxwerks Invigorator to extrude the chart, giving it depth. Finally, the third part shows you how you can use Zaxwerks' new Layer Warp plugin to bring the data on (and off) in an interesting manner.

Here is a link to the 'finished' clip, showing what you will be able to accomplish (QT, Pjpeg, 7 sec., 3.5 megs). Then take a look at this tutorial explaining how to do it (QT, h264, 26:25, 26 megs). Finally, you can download the project file here (AE v7, Zaxwerks Invigorator v4 (optional), Zaxwerks Layer Warp v1 (optional), 25 kb)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Zaxwerks Releases Layer/Grid Warp

Zaxwerks today officially released their Layer Warp and Grid Warp plugin pack. This is a nice little tool that I covered in this post last week, and more info can now be found at the Zaxwerks website here. It's retailing for USD$199, and is available immediately as a download.

AE CS3 Beta, Discussion and Help

You can now help build After effects by downloading and participating in the After Effects (and Premiere Pro) beta program. Go here to download the application(s).

As a long-time beta tester for various applications, I should point out that you might want to 'play' with them a bit before you start using them in a production environment. Remember: these are 'Beta' programs, which means that there are bugs to be found and squashed! You could also go to the official discussion forums and see what people are saying, and whether there is a general consensus with regards to the overall stability of the application.

Along those lines, remember that (as with all After Effects program files) you can't go 'back': any project that you create in CS3 can NOT be opened in AE7 or earlier!

And once you've got it installed, visit the online help (this link is for After Effects) to view all the new features.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Reels Resource

I get my inspiration from a lot of places, but when I'm stuck and need some motion graphics mojo to pay me a visit, my first stop is always the reels forum at mograph.net. There you'll find links to the industry powerhouses, as well as some tasty and obscure artists that the forum members have dug up.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Take Me Out to the Ball Game... again and again and again...

The Toronto Blue Jays played their first game of the season today (5-3 Jays! Whoo!), and I created the graphics package for "Your World This Week", a weekly update show on Rogers. Here's what the player intro looks like... one of 43! (Quicktime, h.264, 3.2 megs)

This brings up workflow questions. How should one organize all the various and sundry elements so that the package can be assembled quickly, accurately and effectively? There are a ton of little time-saving tips 'n tricks that you can employ, and this video here will walk you through some of the issues that you may confront in the course of the production of a multi-item package.

3d and Adobe

Whoa! Two posts in one day! Someone slow me down!

Upon finishing my previous post covering Zaxwerks' upcoming warp plugin for After Effects, I got to thinking about Adobe and 3d applications. The gist of it is this: Adobe has applications that create content for pretty much every conceivable medium, but they do not have a 3d application (After Effects notwithstanding, and Dimensions RIP). Why might this be, I wonder?

If you're a user of the Adobe Creative Suite, you've probably taken advantage of the very powerful opportunities offered by Dynamic Linking... You can create a clip in After Effects and have it linked directly to a Premiere Pro video project. Change the AE project, and it's updated in PPro. Oh, that I could have this capability between After Effects and a 3d application!

Granted, there are ways to see that the twain shall meet: Maxon Cinema 4d seems to be makingC4d/AE interoperability a priority and the most recent Max2AE release from Boomerlabs takes it even further, allowing you to go from After Effects to 3dsMax, and back again if you wish (I'll be covering this capability in a blog entry very soon). You've got 3d file formats such as RLA/RPF that contains 3d data that After Effects can (usually imperfectly) use to match up world spaces, and you can import Maya camera data in After Effects.

Is it a case of there not being a suitable 'mature' application on the market, ready to be purchased and brought into the Adobe fold? Why does Autodesk have not one, but TWO 3d apps (3dsMax and Maya)? Is Adobe waiting for Apple to create/buy an application before they decide to play catch-up? Or perhaps Google is threatening to make it all moot by releasing a web-based application as good or better than all the others?

3d Warp & Distort in After Effects

After Effects is often referred to as being a "2.5 d" program. The reasoning behind this is because the application has had a 3d workspace since AE5, but all AE layers are 'flat', like little pieces of paper floating in space. To be specific, the native application hasn't been able to extrude or deform in the 3d worldspace.

Enter Zaxwerks, one of my favourite plugin companies. Many of you are already aware of 3d Invigorator and ProAnimator from Zaxwerks, both of which effectively address the "extrusion" limitations inherent to After Effects. And now (or rather, 'soon'), you'll be able to "deform" in AE, too. Still in beta, I've had the opportunity to play around with two new plugins soon to be released by Zaxwerks, "3d Layer Warp" and "3d Grid Warp".

Now a few of you old-timers might remember a plugin for After Effects called "Freeform". It's kind of hard to determine whether it's still a viable product, but posts on the COW Freeform board seem to suggest that it does work in AE7 and is still being sold. Zaxwerks takes the concept of warping in After Effects much further.

Click HERE for a Quicktime tutorial offering a look at the basics of Layer Warp and Grid Warp.

The pluses are pretty obvious: Warp and distort directly in After Effects. Use comp cameras & lights. Use precomps as your warp sources. I've identified two areas that will hopefully be addressed soon: 1) Intersections with AE 3d space. I'm anticipating that this is not an intractable issue, and that eventually a workaround can be developed. The fact that it is possible to create third party renderers offers some hope. 2) Sliders, sliders and more sliders! The GUI elements available to plugin developers are pretty slim, so you either have to use 'em as-is, or develop your own external GUI (like Zaxwerks did for Invigorator/ ProAnimator). I'm hoping that future releases of 3d Layer Warp will include some sort of gestural/ interactive warping capabilites, much like Freeform's control points and tangents offered.

I had the chance to use Layer Warp in this project a little while ago, and one sharp-eyed reader sent me a note asking, "how did you manage to warp the photos"? Now you all know :)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Package

I got an email from a student the other day with the subject line, "How to Make A Demo Reel?". It's certainly a valid question, repeated ad nauseum in forums the world over, because the demo reel is seen as the essential calling card in our industry. My answer, as always, was... "Only put your best stuff in it. Keep it short (less than 2 minutes)." That's really about all there is to it!

I then thought a little bit more about her intention. If one is putting together a demo reel, then obviously one is in the process of seeking employment, whether it's full-time or on a freelance basis. And if that's what you're after, a good demo reel isn't all you need. You need A Package.

When you're hunting for the gigs, you'll need all of the following at a minumum: A demo reel (DVD and online versions), business cards, letterhead (with at least a cover letter template and resumé), and a website. And here's the key: You're a creative person in a creative industry, so it ALL has to look good!

So design a logo. Author your DVD Reel. Make a website. Create your letterhead and have a printing house print your business cards (avoid doing it yourself on your inkjet!), and do it all with flair and style. Package the hard-copy stuff in attention-getting folders so you'll go to the top of the pile. Use the same look consistently across all media. I noticed an online ad for an available position, and the employer had written that "... any DVD's submitted with your name written on it using a sharpie will be thrown out". So drop $149 on an HP, Canon or Epson that prints directly onto inkjet-printable DVD's.

The image at the top of this post shows the 'hard copy package' that I might drop off to clients, including cover letter, resumé, business card and DVD with reel. You might want to travel lightly, though, and so here's the 'Standalone' DVD reel with business card in a simple, catchy clamshell case. Contact your local consumables dealer to see what interesting case options they offer, and avoid the easily-breakable jewel cases like the plague!

Create some letterhead and use it on all correspondence, including your cover letter, resumé and, perhaps, a 'testimonials' sheet. I'd personally suggest designing it in a page layout app such as Quark or Indesign so that you can export as a PDF when applying for jobs electronically. Why? Because everyone has Adobe Acrobat Reader installed, but not everyone has MS Word.

And finally, tie it all together with your website. Keep the look consistent across all media, make it look great, and you're sure to get that second glance that puts you before all others.

Monday, January 08, 2007

My Favourite Expressions

Blogger doesn't seem to allow for really long, uninterrupted lines of text (ie. long expressions), so you'll find that the code below is 'cut off'. When copying the code, make sure you begin the selection at the start of the expression (first line) and drag to select everything to the end of the last line: all will then be copied. What I'm saying is, don't copy single lines: you might miss something!

Expressions are a powerful but rarely used toolset that can drastically simplify animating in After Effects. Based upon the Javascript programming language, I suspect that 'artists' tend to shy away from anything resembling the BASIC that many of us were forced to learn way back in the dark high school days of DOS, but I think you'll find it's worth it to dig a bit deeper and figure out the rudiments of expressions.

I, personally, feel that I have a moderate understanding of expressions. I use the 'pickwhip' a lot in After Effects to link parameters for layers together (general rule of thumb: if you ever copy and paste keyframes, use expressions instead) and can whip something up from scratch if need be. That said, I can't claim intellectual ownership of the two expressions that I use the most, because the math was a tad bit beyond me. Read on, however, to see how you can use these expressions in a real-world project.

The first expression we're going to look at allows you to make an After Effects layer in a 3d composition 'one-sided'. The idea is this: if you have a layer facing the camera, you'll see it. But once the camera moves 'behind' the layer, instead of seeing the same layer but backwards, it'll disappear. This one was written by Michael Natkin of Adobe and is applied to the 'opacity' parameter of a 3d-enabled layer layer in a composition with a camera...

a = toWorldVec([0,0,1]);
b = thisComp.activeCamera.position - toWorld(anchorPoint);
c = dot(a,b)/length(b);
if (c > 0) 0 else value

Orbit the camera around the layer and you'll see it appear and disappear.

The second expression is a 'bouncy' effect that is applied to the scale parameter of any layer (doesn't have to be 3d), and was created by everyone's favourite polymath and all-round helpful guy, Dan Ebberts. You can modify the final size, duration and 'stickiness' of the bounce by altering the variables in the expression, and the only caveat to this one is that you can't tell it when to start: it always begins at 0:00, so some pre-composing might be necessary to use it in your composition.

(NOTE: see tip at top of post regarding copying/pasting this expression)

bounce_duration=3; //lower number is longer
bounce_speed=10; //lower number is slower

So, there's some neat-o math for you, but how might it be used in a real-world production environment? I had a recent project that called for a 'light, hip, kinetic' look, and I ended up using both of these expressions a great deal to both lend visual appeal to the piece and to drastically simplify the project design and workflow. Take a look at the finished animation here, and then to get a visual overview of both the expressions and how they were used in the project, take a look at this video tutorial overview.

UPDATE: Regarding the necessity to pre-compose the 'bouncy' expression, Kasper sent me this note:

Hey there...
i was just watching your tutorial with the "bouncy" expression and one of the guys here at work did a little addon to the expression so that your layer don't have to be at 0:00:00 so no more pre-composing. here is the expression:

(NOTE: see tip at top of post regarding copying/pasting this expression)

bounce_duration=3; //lower number is longer
bounce_speed=10; //lower number is slower


Hope that it is useful (ed. note: sure is!)

UPDATE #2: Kasper is one clever fellow... read on and see how he and his colleagues have taken away the need to set the final scale in the expression...

So we updated the "bouncy" expression again. It was becoming a problem that you couldn't keyframe the scale of the layer because "final scale" was set in the expression. So you always had to use a null to keyframe the scale if you wanted to do some more scaling to the layer. But my buddy here at work updated the expression so that the scale is no longer defined within the expression. You now just set the scale as always within the "transform" properties. So that way you can now keyframe the scale.

(ed. note: it might not be apparent that this actually works. If you're at the start of the layer with the expression applied, the scale parameter will say "0". If you click and drag on the scale number, you can change the scale but when you release the mouse button it reverts to "0" again. No fear: it'll scale to the size you indicated when you actually run the expression.)

Here is the updated expression:

(NOTE: see tip at top of post regarding copying/pasting this expression)

bounce_duration=3; //lower number is longer
bounce_speed=10; //lower number is slower