Look at the news, sports or most any commercial and you’re seeing them: flying logos, animated shapes and eye-catching lower thirds appearing and vanishing. They convey information, beef up production value and create professional presentations. So why not put them to work for you?
Motion graphics and animation software is widely available and comes in many different packages and styles to suit almost any video producing need. But which one is right for you?
Get With the Programs
Three general divisions in animation and motion graphics solutions are: the programs, the plug-ins and the libraries. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages and often those lines are blurry due to widely varying features. Let’s begin with the first group.
Programs include software such as After Effects, Apple’s Motion, eyeon’s Fusion and The Foundry’s Nuke, just to name a few. They function as stand-alone software, meaning they install and run by themselves without needing another program to function. They may also integrate into a larger suite as in the cases of After Effects working with Adobe Premiere Pro, or Motion alongside Final Cut Pro with a great degree of freedom to share assets among their fellow programs.
These programs excel at a wide variety of tasks but require the user to supply the creative drive and climb the learning curve to achieve his or her goals. Typically, there aren’t a lot of wizard tools and big colorful explanation bubbles popping up over each button. For the hard-core video producer looking to create new looks, graphics and animations from scratch, this is the place to be. Hardware requirements tend to be demanding as multi-layered compositing and particle systems can slow project previews to a crawl on computers with outdated graphics cards or a paltry supply of RAM.
Common features in this set include advanced layer compositing, particle creation and manipulation, filters, time control and the ability to create shapes, lines, text and paths. Many cross the line into the 3D world with X, Y, and Z axes on the canvas as well as lights, camera controls and animations. Masking, cropping and motion tracking open up many more creative options. Animations can be keyframed, and the program will fill in the blanks in between keyframes (called tweening) so everything moves exactly on time.
Layer vs Node Editing
A major difference found in software of this type is the “layer” versus “node” controls. Some programs like After Effects use layers to organize their canvas area. A layer panel sorts the assets in descending order to determine which one is above the other. A uniquely different approach to the same task is the node system, such as used in Nuke and Fusion. An asset exists as a node and interactions between assets are defined by how the node is “wired” or connects to another node. There are several benefits to this system where nodes can affect multiple sources at once and, overall, the node system frees up resources often tied up checking multiple layers for filters and such.
Prices vary widely from $50 for Motion 5 to subscription plans starting at $20 for After Effects CC.
Plugging in the Plug-ins
Plug-ins take much of the heavy lifting out of the creative process and brings it closer to point-and-click ease. Generally, plug-ins rely on another program such as Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro or Sony Vegas Pro to add special looks, filters or particles. While some plug-ins are available as stand-alone programs, the majority depend on a separate motion graphics program or editing software.
Plug-ins can quickly deliver a film look, a shower of glimmering particles, a flame blast or smoke effect. The Sapphire lineup from GenArts and a multitude of options from Boris FX offer transitions, filters, visual effects, title animations and more. Video Copilot sells sophisticated After Effects plug-ins and maintains a consistently creative stream of free tutorials.
One of the biggest advantages of plug-ins is that they are customizable, meaning you can change the color, size, direction and text to suit your project needs. The prices vary as some sell in smaller packages of content, and some as whole sets. You may see plug-ins for a few hundred dollars and typically no more than $2,000 for the larger packs. A wise option is to try a demo or trial version to ensure you’ll be happy.
Let’s Visit the Libraries
For those looking for something simple and easy, it’s hard to beat the library option. Essentially, these are pre-made, pre-rendered and royalty free backgrounds, lower thirds and effects ready to place in a project. TriLab Production’s Digital Hotcakes series, Pond5 and Digital Juice each have many offerings that showcase an ever-expanding selection of themes and styles for practically any project. They don’t rely on animation or motion graphics software to work either. Import the media files into most any editing program and you’re set.
Library media has a few limitations when comparing with other options. You have to select from the options that are available and you can only make limited changes. A saturation filter can easily change that red satin lower third into a blue one, but there’s no way to change the dancing squares in the animated background into circles instead.
Enthusiasts and advanced users alike often find solutions in libraries. And once you buy them, they’re free to use as many times in as many different projects as you like without additional costs or royalties. For beginners, libraries offer an easy way to add a professional look without a learning curve or taking the time required to design them. They make you look good by adding extra production value to your project and don’t require a lot of fuss.
Creative burnout in the midst of any project is a very frustrating experience. Struggling with the wrong program for your needs can make creating and animating motion graphics seem like a punishment. One of the best things you can do is try it before you buy it. Most companies offer a demo or trial version of their software or plug-ins. A lot of content library websites showcase a good deal of their content. Trying a demo will also help you determine if your computer can handle your chosen software or if you need to upgrade some hardware first.
Creative communities often spring up around animation and motion graphics software, showcasing their projects and posting tutorials. If you’d like a peek inside a program and its capabilities, check those out.
Keep the Dream Alive
Most motion graphics and animation software websites showcase an astounding sizzle reel for prospective buyers. Silver reflective text slams on screen, a 3D F/A-18 Hornet flies through it smashing it to burning bits while an epic movie score thunders in the background. All very impressive and all very do-able, but keep in mind that what’s easy to see in your head takes time to translate onto your computer. Time, skill and most of all patience factor heavily into such dazzling displays. Unless you’re using library content, you likely won’t be producing breathtaking effects a few minutes after you install your new software. But don’t get disappointed! Every professional started as a beginner at some point and your journey may yet earn you awards, prestige and perhaps the fame you’ve always desired. Just give yourself the chance!
Chasing the Magic
Motion graphics and animation aren’t going away. They shine, spin, splatter and dissolve. Learning to master these tricky little bits of production value can help catapult your video from home video to studio quality. All you have to do is find how you’ll achieve it, and then chase your dreams!
Mike Houghton is a freelance videographer, motion graphics editor and an independent filmmaker.
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