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High-End Plug-Ins Hit the Desktop

A Bigger Bang For Your VFX Buck

For visual effects artists, a software plug-in – a small piece of code that adds new, often spectacular, capabilities to your editing or compositing application – can be the trick that pushes a show up to a Spinal Tap 11. Not so long ago, it was only Flame and Paintbox artists who harnessed high-powered VFX plug-ins for their systems- and the cost of power plug-in effects often kept pace with the price of their host system. Yet prevailing trends have brought high-end software to the desktop, where they’re finding their way into feature films, commercials and TV series. In fact, Adobe After Effects and Discreet Combustion have both amassed a legion of software plug-ins that address everything from particle effects to high-end keying- at a fraction of the cost of the big-iron systems that held sway just a few years ago.
The downhill march of the plug-ins from the high end started decades ago, when Mac programming wunderkind and Photoshop creator John Knoll wrote a plug-in to create the photon-torpedo effects in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The plug-in was originally created for use at Industrial Light and Magic, but Knoll turned around and made his software a commercial product with the Knoll Light Factory, which brought the same effects to the masses via After Effects.
Similar mini-programs have steadily evolved, and today they are a staple in high-resolution production. All the major plug-in packages, from Gen Arts’ Sapphire plug-in sets to Red Giant’s Image Lounge, can support 16-bit color, so you can now safely apply a multitude of effects to HD, 2K, or even 4K image files.
Turn On, Plug In
When it comes to moving down to the desktop, plug-in developers say it’s not just the software, but a combination of processor power, lower storage costs and even improvements in video-camera technology that make it possible. "One-third of all high-end sitcoms are shot in HD, which has opened up the market for us tremendously," notes Andrew Little, one of the partners in Red Giant Software. Red Giant provides a variety of plug-in packages, including the popular Primatte keying software and Magic Bullet, which gives video a film-like look.
In an industry still rife with format wars, today’s plug-ins are consolidating into just a few different formats. Adobe is actually the instigator- After Effects pioneered the use of an open SDK format for third-party developers, who jumped onboard with a plethora of plug-in apps. While maintaining this relationship with third-party developers can hamper development speed, it also puts Adobe in the enviable position of having a consistent plug-in format that other vendors work from. So when Motion, Apple’s new real-time compositing program, was released, it provided both its own set of plug-ins and supported most After Effects plug-ins. Even competitor Discreet now supports After Effects plug-ins under Mac OS X in Combustion 2. (The other main plug-in formats are Avid’s AVX and Discreet’s Sparks, both of which are proprietary.)
Another major evolution is the ability to use not just the CPU, but also the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) on advanced graphics cards to power plug-in effects. This takes some of the burden off of the CPU, and allows for near-real-time results. For example, Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Editor’s version 2.0, shipping in September, uses Nvidia’s 7800GTX card to render video to film effects in real time.
Apple’s Motion is the first of the desktop compositing tools to heavily rely on the GPU of the Mac’s video card. However, it will be some time before you’ll see the same level of capabilities in After Effects and Combustion, mainly because adapting the core programs to take advantage of GPUs is a convoluted task. Apple was able to do it with Motion because Apple built the whole program, as well as the systems it runs on, from the ground up.
Reel World Plug-ins
Giving a VFX artist a new plug-in can be like handing a tabby a suitcase full of catnip, but using plug-ins on the desktop can add several issues to your production, especially in terms of time, cost and complexity.
For Darius Fisher, the founder of Digital Neural Axis (DNA) in Santa Monica, CA, finding the right plug-in affords you a lot of flexibility in your approach to different problems. Currently working on Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Departed, DNA has implemented dozens of different plug-ins on other feature film and broadcast projects. One danger of plug-ins, notes Fisher, is that too often they are used with their default settings, which can look good but a bit repetitive. "For example, [Trapcode's] Shine plug-in is both incredibly fast and a good looking effect," said Fisher. "Yet too often artists won’t tweak and tailor the effect to fit their production." Fisher used Shine on The Aviator "to add some volumetric lighting on an extra during the XF-11 aircraft crash sequence."
The Golden Rule of Production holds sway with plug-in software as much as with anything in post: you can have your effect quick, slick or cheap- pick two. This is especially true with plug-ins, as they add a processor burden. Add a plug-in to each layer of a composite, and you’ll dramatically slow down your render times.
In Culver City, California, Zoic Studios used Discreet’s Combustion, as well as Gen-Arts Sapphire, DFT Composite Suite, Knoll Light Factory, and RE:Vision plug-ins to composite 245 final images for Joss Whedon’s new feature, Serenity. "[Gen Arts] Sapphire and [RE:Vision] ReelSmart Motion Blur were used the most," said Matt Smith, one of the compositors at Zoic Studios. "For most FX shots we used Sapphire, and for many CG shots we wrote out motion vectors and did the motion blur in 2D."
One of the disadvantages in using plug-ins, Smith notes, is that you often need to purchase enough licenses for every plug-in on every one of your render nodes. "This meant we could only submit scripts with certain plug-ins to certain render nodes," he explains. "When the render queue was backed up, I would usually opt to create an effect manually without plug-ins so that I could use the entire render farm."
Ultimately, plug-ins are like any other visual effects tool – they are only as good as the creative artist using them. For visual-effects designers, plug-ins are an ever-changing spice that they can add to their visual effects masterpieces. Yet as with all spices, only the true masters know when to use them. "Plug-ins plus After Effects does not equal brilliance," cautions Fisher. "Yet with a mix of imagination, skill, and restraint, you can go a very long way."
Finding True Plug-in Love
There are literally hundreds of different plugins available for Discreet Combustion and Adobe After Effects, far more than can be listed in a short phone book. However, plug-in vendor ToolFarm (www.toolfarm.com) has a new tool to help find the right plugin for your production. According to ToolFarm, their new online database, the Plug-in Finder, has a comprehensive listing of the various plug-ins for each program. ToolFarm also has an online forum where you can seek production tips and recommendations and download software from their online store.

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