In the early 2000s, I spent my days in a windowless pentagonal room on the fifth floor of the Mechanical Engineering building at the University of Texas at Austin. Despite the humming fluorescent lights, dust-ridden air and generally depressing nature of the place, I was elated to be working there. I had, after all, graduated with a fairly useless degree in English. Landing a gig as an interactive designer and building websites and applications for professors was a dream come true. (Plus, we had amazing Unreal Tournament sessions in the evenings.)
Everything was rolling along smoothly until sometime in late 2002.
A co-worker sent me an email: “Have you seen this?” There was a link, so naturally I clicked it.
Before I knew it, I was watching the most amazing thing I’d ever seen, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it. There was a ninja. And there was typography. And there were illustrations and photographic elements. And, perhaps most importantly, all of it was moving. It was so frenetic and fluid and — well, just bad ass. After scooping up bits of my mind that had blown up all over the floor, I did some research.
The thing I had just witnessed was an in-house short called “Ultralove Ninja.” It was created by a studio called MK12, headquartered in the unlikely locale of Kansas City, Missouri. After lurking on a forum called Mograph.net, I learned they’d made the project with something called After Effects.
And that, my friends, was that. It was as though I’d had an ampule of the world’s greatest drug pumped right into my heart. I wanted more. I needed more.
I convinced our department head that we needed to purchase a license of After Effects as soon as possible. Days later, I was plunging into timeline after timeline, devouring books by Chris and Trish Meyer, learning everything I could about this mysterious and seemingly limitless application.
At lunches, I remember trying to describe it to my designer friends, poor uninitiated souls who hadn’t had a taste of the ultimate gateway drug.
“It’s like Photoshop, but with a timeline,” I’d say.
Blinks and blank stares.
This was before Flash could do a lot of what it can do today, so I tried a different approach. “Okay, it’s like Flash, but it can do all this crazy stuff with video. It has something called motion blur and it can do, like, 3D with cameras and stuff and you can make basically anything you want with it and…”
It was hopeless.
So I started cataloguing visual evidence of After Effects’ awesomeness. I collected more works from MK12 and started building a list of other studios and individuals working with After Effects: Lobo, Nando Costa, Bradley “Gmunk” Munkowitz, Psyop, Belief, Imaginary Forces — the list grew every day. I set up a blog (back when blogging was new) and posted everything I found.
I didn’t realize it then, but I was documenting a revolution. Prior to the early 2000s, most post houses relied on incredibly expensive, specialized machines to do the majority of their work. But in the 21st century, the power of the desktop computer exponentially grew. Software like After Effects unlocked this raw power and gave people the means to create nearly anything they could imagine from the comfort of their basements and dorm rooms. Seemingly overnight, an industry that had hitherto required hefty loans for startup costs was blown wide open. The barriers to entry crumbled.
After Effects, for me, was the first page in a new chapter of my life. I got deeper and deeper into motion design, eventually going back to school for an MFA. In my free time, I set up Motionographer.com, which put me in touch with all the rock stars I’d be idolizing for the past few years. This lead me from one interesting opportunity to another, and now I’m working for one of the very companies responsible for my initial interest in the field.
I’ll never forget that it all started with a ninja, though. A ninja and a massive pile of keyframes forged in an application that still challenges its users to dream bigger and do more with every project.