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Adobe After Effects CS6 Studio Techniques for Editors: Approachable VFX for Non-Specialists

Too often, editors are afraid of using After Effects, because they don't aim for the more manageable and appropriate things you can do in AE. Mark Christiansen, author of Adobe After Effects CS6 Visual Effects and Compositing Studio Techniques, shows how powerful After Effects can be when you use it to handle even commonplace tasks.
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Adobe After Effects can enable you to create anything you can imagine. It can also be used to solve common problems with moving footage. But, let's face it, that awesome level of creative and technical power can be downright intimidating. If I had to pick one group that most wants to do more in After Effects, yet avoids even opening the application, it would be film and video editors.

There's no better job security for editors these days than to add complementary skills outside the non-linear editing system (NLE). Whether you choose Avid, Final Cut, or Premiere Pro, it adds special linking capabilities with After Effects to the mix. If you can comp a shot with a short turnaround, you add value and cost savings to the production—the magic combo that gets you rehired. But when you're an editor who cares more about story and aesthetic than layers, keyframes, and selections, where are you supposed to start?

Adobe After Effects CS6 Visual Effects and Compositing Studio Techniques (try to say that title five times fast) is explicitly not a book for beginners, but editors are not beginners when it comes to video. Recent editions of the book have included material and pointers to help the first-timer to get started. In this article, I'll call out a few specific shot types that come up all the time and don't require advanced skills or days of turnaround to complete.

Let's take a look at the three types of composited shots that come up most often for editors, assuming a typical Hollywood (or Hollywood-quality) production with an aggressive budget and schedule:

  • Motion graphics—title design, backgrounds, even character animation
  • Simple "greenscreen" composites—with some kind of foreground to be placed over some kind of background
  • Fixes and cleanup using masks and split-screens
  • Extra credit: Color correction with secondaries

Before we focus on After Effects as a visual effects (VFX) application and problem-solving tool, let's look at where editors often think of After Effects being used—motion graphics.

After Effects, the Motion Graphics Application

There's no clear definition of "motion graphics," other than that it involves design and animation working together. After Effects people often call the eye candy of an attractive title sequence motion graphics, and the realism of a VFX shot visual effects. But at the high end, there's an awful lot of motion design in a visionary VFX shot, and plenty of VFX in a cool-looking graphics sequence.

Motion graphics is the primary area where After Effects is considered the go-to application. Usage ranges from simple credit rolls and lower thirds all the way to full 3D composites with intricately choreographed type, dynamic layer effects, elaborate camera moves, integrated 3D elements—you name it. After Effects delivers results with these latter types of shots that are hard to get in any other application, thanks to its layer-and-keyframe–based UI that permits complex choreography of elements.

This is precisely where I do not recommend most editors get started, despite the number of job postings asking for motion graphics skills. Mastery of motion graphics requires mastery of multiple complex skills:

  • Design. You can create a still frame that looks amazing on its own.
  • Animation. You would happily spend hours perfecting a few seconds of motion.
  • Technical acumen. Because motion graphics often means showing us the world in some new way, your technical skills often must be outside the box—and even outside After Effects. (A more-than-passing acquaintance with Cinema 4D doesn't hurt, either.)

If you're awesome at all three of these core skills, you can probably stop reading right here. If not, pick easier targets like lower-third animations and stay with me while I focus instead on approachable VFX composites. In case it's not already clear, Adobe After Effects CS6 Visual Effects and Compositing Studio Techniques is a book that focuses on VFX compositing. For example, the type tool gets almost zero coverage, so that precious page space can be devoted to going deeper into the skill of making a composited shot look natural and believable, as if it were never manipulated (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Shown is what I would call a "visual effect" created with the type tool, along with new ray tracing and 3D extrusion features in After Effects CS6. I generally consider type animation to be motion graphics, but some of the most satisfying results from After Effects bleed the line between the realism of VFX and the stylized look, movement, and point of view of motion graphics.

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