I was first introduced to digital video editing my junior year of high school. I had enrolled in a video productions class where we used Adobe Premiere 6.0 to edit our spots for a weekly news show. For some reason, I picked up on it pretty quick. It was also during this time that I started teaching myself 3D animation with a program called Blender. My senior year, we used Premiere 6.5 and I started learning about chromakey. We had a “blue room” and I spent a lot of time filming different hollywood shots and compositing them in Premiere using it’s built in keyer. I tried flying, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and even a Matrix spoof that was shot entirely on the bluescreen. By April my senior year, I realized that if I put a green or blue background behind my 3D animations, I could key them out too allowing me to use 3D with live action. Of course, all these effects looked terrible and amateurish by today’s standards, but I was learning how to work a shot backwards and accomplish it using the tools I had.
After high school, I set up my own editing rig and opted to go with Sony Vegas 4.0 A year later, version 5 was released and with it were some new compositing capabilities. It had some masking tools that allowed me to roto a shot and it’s built keyer seemed pretty good too. It was around this time that I learned about Robert Rodriguez and first saw Once Upon A Time In Mexico. On that DVD was a BTS feature that showed how he accomplished his effects using digital technology. I figured he must have just been using his editing software so I set out to do the same. I followed tutorials about using Vegas to make someone get hit by a car, walk through a wall, and more. Before long, I developed a mentality that all I needed was Vegas and Blender and I could do anything I wanted. And I carried this attitude with me up until three years ago.
In December 2009, I finished my second feature film, “Leap”. It only had one sequence with effects, a driving scene that was shot greenscreen. But that’s okay, I had Vegas. I keyed it and comped it right there in my timeline. Even added virtual glass too. The effects didn’t come out great, but it was okay. In February 2010, I finished the script for “Leap: Rise of the Beast”. I had hoped to get a budget for this film, so I didn’t bother to hold myself back with what I wrote. March and April passed. I started to realize that no one was going to give me the money I thought I needed to make that film. I realized that with my current skillset, much of the film would be impossible and if I wanted to shoot that film, I needed some new tools and a new mindset. Enter Adobe After Effects.
A few years before, during my first feature, “Wulf”, I had downloaded a demo of AE 7 to see what all the fuss was about. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the software and soon gave up. Now, I encountered a similar scenario with my newly acquired AE CS4. In playing with the software myself, I was able to figure out how to add rain and snow and that was it. I needed help, so I turned to the internet.
It didn’t take long for me to find the two best sources of knowledge for AE. Videocopilot.net and The DV Rebel’s Guide. I purchased The Guide and read it in a day. Wow. It was like a whole new world opened up before me. With a bit of planning, I was literally going to be able to do anything I wanted, which would allow me to shoot Leap 2. Now I just had to learn the software. I started following Andrew Kramer’s tut’s at VC. Rather than starting simple and working my way through, I just picked ones that caught my eye. You know, the stuff that says “Disintegration”. “Demon Face”. ”Explosion”. That kind of stuff.
Following the tutorials did two things for me. First, I realized that if I saved the projects when I was done, I had templates I could use in the future. Cool. Second, I started to learn how the software works and how it responds to certain actions. After one week, I had a little effects reel that far surpassed anything I could have ever dreamed of doing with Vegas. I didn’t much care for the interface at this point, “it wasn’t Vegas”, but I was happy with my results. I kept noodling around and following more tutorials. I started learning how to use the Curves tool to grade my images. I learned how to get my Vegas timeline into AE without rendering using an EDL. After a month, I felt pretty comfortable. I knew that I would be able to do Leap 2 without any problems.
By this point, I knew where things were in the software, but I didn’t yet know how to use it creatively I would know what I want, search how to do it, and I could follow written instructions since I was familiar with the program. It took me three months before I was able to start using the software creatively which can only happen once you start to understand how it works. You reach this point where you go, “I need to do this. I know that tool does that, but if I use it like so, I should get the result I want”. Then you try it and it works.
So what are my thoughts now? I love After Effects! It is the most versatile software I’ve ever used. Titles, motion graphics, visual effects, color grading, mastering-it does it all and does it well. I actually onlined and mastered the entire film (Leap 2) completely in AE! All my visual effects, everything from computer and cell screen replacements to an explosion were created in AE. In some cases, entire shots were completely CGI, using nothing but AE!
If there’s any other filmmakers like me reading this, those that like to be a one man band, After Effects is an essential tool to have in your arsenal. I kick myself for not taking the time to learn it before, but what can you do? If you’re already dabbling with vfx in your NLE, that’s okay. The mindset of working backwards will carry over to AE just fine. I’m happy to say that I’ve now completely embraced the Adobe line and will be using AE and Premiere CS6 on my next feature that I’m shooting this summer. Thank you Adobe for giving us such a useful product!
My work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=a_BFIKy2OUA