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Desktop Compositing’s Next Revolution: How $1,500 Programs Are Leading the Way

The post industry changed in 1993 when desktop compositing made its debut.At the time, the introduction of a $700 program called After Effects bytiny Providence, Rhode Island-based CoSA didn’t seem like a revolution inthe making. But the idea of deploying inexpensive compositing software onunremarkable workstations soon started to make sense. Good-qualitycompositing was no longer the sole realm of film-based optical-effectshouses or those with expensive black-box workstations.

Simple in its basics, 2D compositing underlies much of the work done ingraphics, pulling together disparate graphics and effects elements. Forfilm, the programs deliver matte cleaning, rotoscoping, and wire removal.Today, though, even with more powerful computers and HDTV’s slow but steadymarch, the question is: Are these inexpensive compositing programs theright tools to use?

While HD compositing might be post’s next hurdle, the technique itself issomething of a dead issue to many in the post community. “Compositing isnot a big deal anymore; it’s just about getting lots of RAM and diskspace,” says Tim Sassoon, president/creative director at Sassoon FilmDesign, Santa Monica. “Compositing’s a dead issue,” says S.D. Katz,partner/director at New York-based Pitch, Inc. “It’s an easy skill tolearn, and the tools are cheap.”

So what’s left to learn? Plenty. While still generically referred to as”compositing” programs, the software now includes tracking, rotoscoping,wire removal, matte generation, and cleanup as integral parts of theprogram. Now, code writers are adding sophisticated tools such as colorcorrection and defocus (emulating a 35mm lens trick) to deliver morecontrol over HD and film resolutions up to IMAX levels.

In the desktop-compositing world, Adobe After Effects reigns. The userpool, with an estimated 30,000 seats, significantly exceeds that of anyother compositing program. Reasons? After Effects was the first to market,for one. Other reasons might include an easy-to-grasp timeline layout, anever-growing list of tools (including audio effects, 3D effects creation,and free, unlimited network rendering), delivery of near crash-proofoperation, and a plug-in list that runs into the hundreds. Meanwhile, coreoperations such as tracking, wire removal, and matte creation areconstantly improved.

Another development has also proven important. Adobe integrated AfterEffects more tightly with its other products, delivering seamless access toPremiere, PhotoShop, and Illustrator. Individual layers of an imagedeveloped in PhotoShop, for example, are still active and changeable inAfter Effects. The AE-generated QuickTime file can then be sent to Premiere(or Media 100 or Apple’s Final Cut) for editing.

However, even with After Effects’ continued dominance, there are now morecompositing-program choices, each offering a different tool set andapproach. Johnathan Banta, senior animator and compositor at Sassoon FilmDesign, works with Puffin’s Commotion regularly. For the 3D IMAX filmSiegfried & Roy: The Magic Box, Banta decided to use both Commotion andAfter Effects. “A lot of people saw the two programs as mutually exclusive,but now I can’t deal without having both,” says Banta. “Just as high-endhouses have multiple machines and tools available, there’s no one packagethat does absolutely everything.” Commotion’s painting, accurate tracking,and wire-removal abilities made him a fan, and its sheer speed convincedhim.

Commotion’s facility in tracking and then exporting 3D camera data helpedto solve a last-minute problem on a composite for the 3D Siegfried & Royproject. A bounding tiger, shot with a high-speed, pin-registered cameraagainst a blue screen, looked smooth when the original dailies were viewed.However, after pulling mattes and compositing them into a lower-resolutionproxy for a test, Banta found the tiger jittered around. Since it wasstereo, the problem was compounded because the right-eye and left-eyefootage each jittered differently. One correction couldn’t fix both, andworse, their deadline was fast approaching.

“I took a small section with high enough detail to track, brought it intoCommotion, and tracked the overall motion for both left and right eyes,”says Banta. “After exporting that information to After Effects, I was ableto extract the high-frequency jitter from that motion curve, invert it, anduse that to stabilize the background plate.”

Commotion speeds the process of working with higher resolutions such as HDby loading subregions of 1920 x 1080 frames. The software thenre-integrates the corrected subregion into the original frame. Anothertrick: By using scaled-down versions of full frames (proxies), an artistcan perform faster rotoscoping and matte creation. Frames are then scaledup to full resolution to yield the final matte or spline.

Visual designer Dave Tecsun of New York-based Edgeworx also thinksCommotion and After Effects work together just fine. “Typically, we startin After Effects and then go to Commotion if there’s an advantage to it,such as wire removal, matte cleanup, or extra painting,” says Tecsun, whoworked on the original After Effects design team.

Tecsun spots Commotion mainly for cleanup and rotoscope work. The softwarewins his okay for its speed, too. (Commotion was among the first programsto offer RAM preview.) Part of that speed comes from its simpler principleof working with only two layers at a time, say, painting a garbage matteover a frame.

For more involved projects such as animation and complex graphics, though,Tecsun prefers After Effects. “I can go 300 layers deep if I need. Thetools are powerful, and I have more choices.”

It might not be apparent at first, but one useful technology in compositingcomes from a third party, Apple’s QuickTime. As an independent standard,its metadata capability helps After Effects and Commotion users bysimplifying file sharing among other QuickTime-based software, includingPremiere, Media 100, and Final Cut. “What’s nice about (using) QuickTimeinstead of a sequence of frames,” says Tecsun, “is that it knows the nativeframe rate and bit depth of whatever is imported. This is important whenyou get projects where you don’t know what the frame rate is supposed tobe, such as commercials with a lot of different elements. It’s good to relyon software to reduce the opportunity to screw up.”

Nothing Real’s Shake, created by a team of feature-film visual-effectsdesigners, brings even greater image control to the desktop market.Optimized from the ground up for speed at film resolutions (an SGI box or adual or quad NT processor is recommended), it allows jobs to be sent toLinux render farms for final output. However, Shake prices just under$10,000, making it more the domain of top houses such as Centropolis,Cinesite LA, Click3X, Dream Quest Images, DreamWorks, and Santa BarbaraStudios.

A shareware tool project, currently under way at Nothing Real with theblessings of Adobe, might seem contradictory: Shake and After Effects, twocompeting compositing programs, will be able to share projects, with eachprogram working to its own strength. A Shake plug-in for After Effects willconvert After Effects projects into Shake scripts. This will allow AfterEffects users to employ Shake’s greatly expanded color space for colorcorrection and other film tasks. It also means effects houses can have ajunior artist rough out the major parts of a composite. Once the script isin Shake, a more experienced artist can work on the higher-resolutionimages.

Here’s how this works. After Effects uses 8-bits of color depth per RGBchannel, which is fine for most video work. But there can be noticeablebanding when a background color ramps to another value. Meanwhile, Shake,with 16-bits per channel, offers more subtle color manipulation and otherbenefits.

To deliver work in the more flexible, color-correctable 16-bit/channel modefor film effects, artists first build 8-bit proxies of the composites inAfter Effects. When ported to Shake via the new software, the proxies canbe swapped out for the higher-resolution original. Final color correctionand touch-up makes the composition ready for output and rendering.

“It’s always better to use oversampling when you’re working on a project,”says Sassoon, who compares working with higher-resolution images to acurrent trend in audio production: recording and mixing at 24-bit and96-kHz sampling. The end result still sounds better even when played off aCD with its 16-bit, 44.1-kHz limits.

Working with larger numbers, whether in film images or audio files, yieldsan expanded workspace with improved processing choices. A further benefit:You’ve future-proofed your original against new standards. For finaloutput, the 16-bit files can be dithered to 10-bit Cineon format and thentransferred out to film or HD.

Improved bit-depth for film output also comes via a plug-in for Kodak’sCineon format. Tim Sassoon’s design of a Cineon plug-in (eventually sold toAdobe) creates a pathway to Cineon’s 10-bit color space. After Effectsusers can now work with film-resolution material that comes in via Kodak’sformat.

Silicon Grail’s Chalice, a highly tweakable 2D compositing system for SGIand Windows NT, notches its belt with big films such as The Prince of Egyptand End of Days, and with well-known clients such as Blue Sky and ILM.Oriented to large-format film production, the software comes with a uniqueusage-based fee. While Rhythm & Hues can afford 90 seats, small operationsneed pay only a modest $1,000 per quarter. This enables users to charge therental toward the production budget rather than absorbing the cost incapital budget.

While Chalice is powerful, the software simplifies things by employing aprocedural dataflow interface. Users graphically interconnectimage-processing or compositing nodes. The Hollywood-based company toutsits sophisticated memory-management system that allows large data sets tobe processed efficiently, even on modest desktop systems.

After Effects users can turn to ICE for speedier processing. The Waltham,Massachusetts-based company, well-known for its graphics acceleratingboards, released AE “On ICE” Version 2.0 this past summer. “The new boardsare fabulous,” says Edgeworx’s Dave Tecsun. “They’ve accelerated all ofAfter Effects, which has a lot of benefits. The D1 output makes a greatmatch for the new Apple G4s. The combination makes it feel a lot likeworking on a high-end system.”

While desktop systems now tackle HD compositing, one basic difficultyremains: taking that HD signal back out. At the moment there are very fewHD I/O cards to choose from. On the high end, SGI’s HD I/O card only begandeliveries this past summer. Over the past year, Avid demonstratedengineering versions of its card, with Intergraph set to deliver by NAB.One of the other players, Viewgraphics, now sells an HD input-only card forits $75,000 turnkey workstation.

Currently, creating a data tape via a DLT or Exabyte drive remains onecommon output scheme. Taking that tape to a suitably equipped broadcast orpost facility yields a Panasonic D5 or Sony HDCam cassette.

But that routine points up the difficult path ahead for any burgeoning HDboutique scene. Even when technology enables PCI cards to spit out HDsignals, what’s available to record to besides data tape? Right now, HDVTRs can price from $75,000. Next, how do you view the result? CRT-typemonitors are preferred over less expensive CDs like SGI’s (CRTs offerbetter color representation), but tube-type monitors can cost over $20,000.

Just as print designers aren’t expected to own their own Linotronicprinters, Sassoon thinks it is inevitable that post houses will act asservice bureaus for some time. “The technical ability is no longer aquestion; it can be done on the desktop. The question now is more about theeconomics of the small studio. It will be a few years before that changes.”

The irony here, of course, is that the desktop revolution was to be thedeath knell for the mid-range post facility. While it’s true that a rangeof editing and graphics work now gets done by the desktop brigades, asresolution demands increase, it’s back to the post house for output,mastering, screening, and other aspects of HD and film that demand thelatest gear.

Users will rent a room, like at a hotel, with the management taking care ofall the client desires, including desks, monitors, and a run of the machineroom, complete with engineers. “Why be afraid of it?” says Sassoon. “Sellto them, they’re your customers.” The problem, he’s finding, is that mostfacilities he has discussed his ideas with are “noticeably cool” to thisversion of post’s future.