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
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
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
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.