As a cinematographer, but also an occasional editor who either hires talented motion graphics artists or, in the cases where there isn’t enough budget to do so, does it himself, it recently occurred to me we’re living in a brave new world of automation. For a variety of reasons, such as I shoot a lot of small crew and even some one-man band production, I have come to count on such convenient innovations as dual-pixel autofocus and variable internal NDs on production cameras.
But what about automation in editing and, most significantly, in visual effects and motion graphics? After recently interviewing a couple of motion graphics designers who I call friends and writing reviews and content about innovative new software like Red Giants’ new Trapcode 15 and Blackmagic Design’s Fusion, it appears that many functions that used to be really difficult and time-consuming and had to be done by hand, often frame by frame, have become semi or even fully automated, especially in VFX and motion graphic software.
Functions like scripts, automated plug-ins, cut out and intelligent rotoscoping have made certain types of visual effects and motion graphics easier to execute than they used to be. But does this reliance on intelligent software make editors, visual effects and motion graphics artists better or just lazier?
Case in point, since I’m not really much of a motion graphics designer myself, I’ll utilize a plug-in that I recently bought for a particular hot deadline job as an example. The plug-in is called Auto White Balance from Crumple Pop. One of the best things I like about the latest version of FCP X 10.4.3 is that Apple finally added back Color Correction Wheels instead of just the much-hated (by me) Color Board. Final Cut Pro 7, which I used for some years before switching to FCP X, had intuitive, easy-to-use color wheels, and up until now, FCP X just had the Color Board, which I found not nearly as intuitive as the wheels, so now in FCP X, you can use either tool.
If you didn’t shoot a white card, though, especially under mixed lighting as I often have been shooting under for a documentary, you sometimes are editing on a deadline and run into scenes where you try to manually color correct for skin tones, but you may not be happy with the end results or, more often, you may just not have the time necessary to devote to color correcting each shot where skin tones may look a bit too warm or cool. I thought $59 wasn’t an outrageous amount to save some time, and my deadline on this particular project was looming.
The location I shot in had a mixture of some ambient daylight creeping in from a partially rolled down door, dirty skylights, LED replacement bulbs in 48-inch fluorescent banks and some tungsten. Basically, a full spectrum of different color temperatures. My skin tones weren’t great; I had set my camera’s white balance to daylight since that was the predominant light source, but the weird, 4500k LEDs and a small amount of handheld tungsten from work lights. I bought the Auto White Balance plug-in, loaded it into FCP X and applied it to all of these mixed color temp clips. My main challenge was that most of my skin tones were too yellow/greenish and the plug-in brought them back into the neighborhood of looking correct. Later, after I had delivered a rough cut to a waiting client, I went back into the timeline and applied the three-way color corrector in FCP to each clip, turned off the Auto White Balance plug-in and tweaked the Color Wheels by eye. In clicking both the Auto White Balance CC and the Color Wheel CC on and off and comparing them, I had to conclude that my hand-adjusted clips looked better with more accurate, flattering skin tones. But it took me close to an hour to apply, then hand-tweak each clip with the color wheels since the camera had been moving around and the balance of different light color temps changed from shot to shot.
In this case, using a one-shot, automated white balance was the right call; it saved me a precious hour with a client standing by—easily worth $59. The results, though not perfect, were more than acceptable to the client. In my little world of editing, having the plug-in quickly do the heavy lifting, in this case, proved to be a good decision. In this situation, showing the client a rough cut, on time, on their schedule was much more important to the success of the project than tweaking each clip in the timeline by hand to adjust color correction to make it perfect. It was a rough cut, not a final delivery.
Switching to VFX and motion graphics, I’m struck by the plethora of new-ish tools and plug-ins that seem to be able to perform functions that used to be much more involved and time-consuming.
These are all recent plug-ins I’ve used or have been used by AE artists I’ve hired:
Trapcode 15 Particular – Designer
Trapcode 15 Form – Designer
Trapcode Mir – Import 3D OBJ
Trapcode Starglow – 49 Presets
Trapcode 3D Stroke – Preset Shapes
Yanobox Nodes – 300 Animated Presets and Templates
Yanobox Mosaic – 32 Expandable Effects
BorisFX Mocha Pro – GPU Accelerated Object Removal, Planar Tracking
PQ FUI Toys 2 – Pre-made Comps
Duik – Automated and Assisted Rigging
Frischluft Lenscare – DOF emulation
Superluminal Stardust – Smart Presets
Of course, this barely scratches the surface of available VFX and motion graphics plug-ins available; there are literally hundreds, and this is just a few of them. But notice the trend in functionality and how many have presets or automated functionality? My question for you is do these newer shortcuts where the software automates certain functions make you a better designer/animator/motion graphics artist or are these new functions being utilized merely for timesaving and not for reallocating hours and resources toward making the project better? I know for myself, it’s a combination of both.
I usually utilize the plug-ins as an editor, and typically, I buy a plug-in to give me an effect, look or feel that I might be able to achieve on my own but rarely have time to create. I think my workflow and interaction with plug-ins is different than how a lot of visual effects and motion graphics users utilize plug-ins. I know of at least two higher-end motion graphics designers who have adopted certain plug-ins as part of their look and style. They utilize the look and function of specific plug-ins and then expand those automated functions and presets into their own customized automated functions and presets that they’ve created.
In the end, it seems that the visual effects and motion graphics tools have evolved to a level of sophistication where designers can utilize existing tools and functionality to create their own style. And that’s cool—that’s how we reach new plateaus of visual style. Does being able to frame-by-frame rotoscope make you a “better” visual effects artist when we now have software that can automate and keyframe those formerly mind-melting tasks? Since I’m not much of a designer or motion graphics artist, I leave this one up to who you are. What do you think? Do the newer automated tools, functions and decent quality presets make your job easier and free you up to be more creative or are they merely crutches designed to save you time?