NAB’s Greatest Kicks

This year was my 10th consecutive NAB, and for the first time I didn’t get to take a vacation immediately thereafter (therefore protecting my sanity – meaning I no longer have my sanity as I went directly from NAB to the AsiaPac Creative Suite 3 Launch Tour). There are so many things that went on at NAB that are just starting to emerge from the crevices of my brain.

One of those things I’d like to share with y’all today, a gem of a tutorial created by Steve Holmes who took the new Shape Layers feature in After Effects CS3 to a new level. If you saw any of his presentations in our NAB Theater, then this’ll be a step-by-step reminder, if not, then you’ll want to try this out yourself in the AE CS3 Public Beta (which you can download now for free if you’re an owner of AE7 or Production Studio).

You’ll need to start with a piece of video that has an alpha channel (like, for example, the footage I’m using which is an actor we shot on greenscreen then chroma-keyed to create the alpha).

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Then, you need to create a path (i.e. outline) of the alpha for each frame, which AE can do automatically with the Auto-trace feature. The general idea is that you can create a Shape Layer by copying and pasting a path from things like a piece of Illustrator artwork or the traced alpha of a piece of video.

Make sure the layer containing your video is selected in your timeline, then select Layer > Auto-trace and the Auto-trace dialog appears.

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Make sure you have Work Area selected at the top of the dialog, and check the Preview button at the bottom. You’ll see a preview of the outline – if it looks good to you then accept the default settings and click OK. If not, you can modify the settings until the outline looks the way you want (the settings let you make the outline more or less refined – I’m using the default settings myself but do feel free to experiment here).

It may take awhile for Auto-trace to think if you have lots of frames (it is going frame-by-frame and creating a mask based on the alpha for each frame). Once it’s done, you’ll see your first frame with its brand new mask. Drag the Current Time Indicator to the right in your Timeline and you’ll see that you now have an “animated mask” of the alpha of your video.

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Making sure your layer is still selected in your timeline, hit the letter M key on your keyboard to reveal its Masks properties. Twirl down Mask 1 to reveal the Mask Path and its keyframes.

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This is what you will need to copy and paste into your shape layer. Click the words Mask Path to select all its keyframes and copy to your clipboard. Go ahead and delete this layer, you don’t need it anymore.

Now, create a new shape layer by right-mouse-clicking (or ctrl-clicking) in any empty space in your timeline. Twirl down its controls, and from the “Add” flyout menu that appears on the right, select Path.

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This creates a path for your shape layer which is what you will be pasting the copied keyframes into. Twirl down the controls for Path 1 to reveal its Path parameter. Click the word Path to select, and paste in your keyframes (note, you must have “Path” selected, otherwise you will be pasting the keyframes into the Mask of the layer, which will make this whole thing not work).

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Now you need to add a Fill and/or Stroke to your layer, which you can also do from the Add flyout menu. The swatches for Stroke and Fill will appear at the top of the UI — in addition to selecting solid colors you can apply gradients by opt-clicking (mac) or alt-clicking (win) the swatches to cycle through different gradient types. Here’s what I chose:

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RAM preview and see what you’ve got.

Then, for added dimension, add a Repeater from the Add flyout menu. Twirl down its controls, then the controls for Transform: Repeater 1.

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Manipulate the Scale property (start by scrubbing the X value – i.e. the first number – to the left) to stack the copies closer together. Then, add more Copies.

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At this point, it’s up to you to experiment. Try playing with the other controls in Transform: Repeater 1 to see how you can make the copies fade off into the distance, twist around, and animate in an uniimited number of geometric patterns. I keyframed my Anchor Point, Rotation, and Offset to get this:

Thanks again to Señor Steve Homes for coming up with another great gem.