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Motion Graphics & Animation Software Buyer's Guide

Motion Graphics & Animation Software Buyer's Guide

Computer animation has come a long way. Today, 3D animation software & 2D animation software are being combined to create complex title sequences.

Motion graphics aren't limited to lizards selling car insurance. Be it an energetic logo where text flies across a screen to a complex title sequence replete with 2D and 3D elements, viewers have come to expect the visual smorgasbord provided by today's leading graphics packages.

Fortunately, the power to produce visually stunning video sequences has never been more accessible. Just as non-linear editors and affordable cameras brought the dream of small studios to the desktop, applications like Adobe After Effects and AutoDesk Maya provide access to the power of a full visual effects studio in a box. All that's required from the average videographer is some time, some patience and some practice. (Okay, lots and lots of practice.) After that, the sky is literally the limit.

We Play Both Kinds Here

There are two basic types of motion graphics software. The first consists of video manipulation packages like Adobe After Effects or AutoDesk's Combustion. These applications are used for many things, including sweetening existing videos, creating compelling title sequences and compositing different elements into (and, if necessary, out of) a shot.

3D modeling and animation applications like Newtek's LightWave or AutoDesk's Maya make up the second kind of software. These packages are more specialized, but no less powerful. Animators use them to model, texture, animate and finally render out elements for a shot. Whether it's a virtual set, a rampaging dinosaur or even a rather gassy squirrel, these tools can create anything a producer wants.

Though 3D packages can create wonderful results by themselves, you can greatly enhance their work with additional tweaking in a motion graphics application. Conversely, even the best 2D motion graphics package lacks the ability to create a dramatic CNN-style flying logo. Each package enhances the other, so we recommend that you use them together in any studio.

Bodies in Motion

Though After Effects hasn't achieved the verb cred of its Photoshop sibling, its place as one of the most recognized motion graphics applications in the field is still solid. With a history dating back to 1993, artists have used After Effects in everything from television productions to the recent Watchmen motion comics.

For Premiere, Photoshop and other users who understand the tao of Adobe, the After Effects interface is nothing to fear. Effects are layered onto a video element to produce the desired result. If After Effects has a weakness, it's that its layer system can become messy and cumbersome in more complex shots. Following the flow of logic to create or tweak an effect can be a daunting task indeed. Fortunately, the layer system isn't the only way to go.

Right on the Nodes

Eyeon's Fusion software, while similar to Adobe After Effects in function, eschews the layer system for a node-based effects layout. Users can see the flow of effects used in the scene in a completely graphical format. No more guessing where a layer really fits in: it's right up there on the screen. Add in a feature set that has been used in Hollywood for years on films as varied as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Master and Commander, and there is almost nothing that Fusion can't do.

Unfortunately, Fusion's professional pedigree comes at a price. With a price more than five times that of After Effects, it's one of the more expensive graphics packages currently on the market. Additionally, though there are Windows and Linux versions available, no OS X version exists. That leaves Mac users who don't care to use Boot Camp out in the cold.

Of course, After Effects, Fusion and many other packages assume that the person working with the software is a fully-trained artist. What about the videographer who doesn't have much time and just wants to throw together something quickly and inexpensively?

Fortunately, there is a solution for that, too.

"I Need Something Star Wars-y"

At first, FX Home's Vision Lab Studios seems too good to be true. Not only does it offer the same visual and video manipulation system as its more well-known brethren, but it also includes presets for nearly every situation.

Need to make a video look like something from the recent War of the Worlds? Just drop the preset on the clip, and you're finished.

Oops! You meant you needed it to look like something from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica? No problem. Just drop in that preset as well. Add in a full visual effects suite, and FX Home's package provides professional-level output at a price even small studios can afford.

Of course, it's not all hugs and kittens. FXHome utilizes a layer-based system like After Effects, which results in many of the same management issues. Regardless, it's a fantastic package for the price.

Of course, all of this software is just used to manipulate pre-existing images. What happens, then, if you need to create something out of whole cloth?

Riding the Wave

Newtek's LightWave is another oldie-but-goodie application. With roots that run back to Amiga's venerable Video Toaster, LightWave has seen use in TV shows as varied as Babylon 5 to Jericho.

LightWave includes the software to model and animate anything a producer desires. Additionally, Newtek includes unlimited render nodes with the purchase of one LightWave license. This means that users can literally connect every computer in their studio to create a render farm to speed up their work. Add in an enormous library of free tutorials available on the web plus a mature support base, and it's a great package for the price.

Unfortunately, LightWave's interface is starting to show its age. Add its cumbersome texture-mapping tools and its steep learning curve, and it's a package that is not for the faint of heart.

My, Oh Maya

If there is an eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the 3D world, it is Autodesk's Maya. Used in everything from games to major motion pictures, it is by far the most utilized package in the 3D world.

Maya sports many of the same modeling and animation features as LightWave. Add in a slick, customizable interface and an enormous - and still growing - installed user base, and it seems that Maya is a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, there are a few sizeable disadvantages to the package. First, a single license does not include unlimited render nodes. Second, at more than four times the cost of LightWave, Maya is not a cheap investment. Last, with a tiered purchase system, Maya can be a confusing package for users to purchase.

Taking the Plunge

Regardless of what software you choose, the world of motion graphics awaits. Whether to spice up the opening of the wedding video with a stunning title sequence or even a fleet of marauding UFOs, motion graphics packages are there to make it happen. All it takes is some time, some practice and some patience.

Why wait? The future beckons.

Tony Bruno is a newly-minted 3D VFX artist. He's been making independent films for six years and has paid the bills for some time as a professional technical writer.

Side Bar: Get Blended

In an era of tightening belts, how can a small studio enter the motion graphics world? Fortunately, there are a couple of alternatives that are both powerful and free. Yes, free.

Blender www.blender.org
Blender is a fully capable, feature-rich 3D modeling and animation package. Though its user interface is far from friendly, its supporters have provided free training videos. Definitely worth a look.

Jahshaka http://jahshaka.org
Less feature-rich than Blender, Jahshaka is an open-source equivalent to After Effects. Perfect for the studio that wants to give motion graphics a try at no cost. Tutorials can be found here.

Manufacturer's List

Click here to download a PDF Manufacturer's list of Videomaker's Motion Graphics & Animation Software Buyer's Guide.

Tags:  April 2009
Tony
Bruno
Wed, 04/01/2009 - 12:00am