Animation and motion graphics software are packages that can create visual assets from scratch, can composite those assets with other visual assets from outside sources together on screen, and change parameters of those assets over time to create a final animated video product.
These packages come in all varieties of feature sets, price points and levels of complexity. Here we will attempt to clarify some of the complexity of animation and motion graphics to help you distill what your real needs are and help you make a more informed decision when shopping for a new software graphics package to fulfill those needs. We'll look at what to expect from the different types of software packages and feature sets. This is not a comprehensive guide to everything on the market, simply a brief educational guide to help you be a more informed consumer.
The higher the level of software package you delve in to, the steeper the learning curve, and usually the more money you'll spend. One problem is between mid-level and high-level applications, there are a few that overlap features, and may be more difficult to categorize easily. But the basic rule of thumb is the more it does, the more it costs, the longer and harder it will be to learn, but in the end you will have expanded your studio's capabilities, and thus its final products and income potential.
If all you need to do is manipulate basic text and shapes, most editing applications such as Final Cut Pro, Avid, Premiere Pro, and Vegas can do this type of basic keyframing work. In this article we're focusing on what you need to look at if those basic tools aren't enough.
Tools You May Already Own
Some of the popular video editing software comes in suites that include other applications that can do great motion graphics at a pretty sophisticated level. The good news is that if you have an editing software suite, you probably already have software that will fulfill your motion graphics needs and there's no need to spend extra money. The other side of that coin is that learning motion graphics applications can be a steeper learning curve than simple video editing. If you do spend the time and effort to learn the software included with a suite, you'll be able to produce more complex products for your clients, and charge a premium for those extras.
The most popular motion graphics software in editing suites are After Effects from Adobe, and Motion from Apple. These two applications are pretty equivalent in capability, yet take two different approaches to their user interfaces, and how they handle complex tasks. Today, many tutorials for either can very easily be applied to the other. After Effects has been out for quite a few years giving it a large user base with online tutorials and forum threads. Motion has recently begun to catch up, and has a slightly smaller, growing user base willing to help out with online video tutorials and forum threads. Again, learning these takes a bit more than learning still graphics applications such as Adobe Photoshop, Corel Paint It!, or Studio Artist.
The creation and manipulation of graphic elements, as well as the use of imported graphic and video elements, is easily done. Text can be animated in very complex ways. Compositing assets together in order to create a single complex visual effect are what these applications do best. These are both considered motion graphics packages, not animation or modeling applications, as neither can generate true 3D objects nor support the native files from higher end software such as Maya or Cinema 4D. Yet they do a great job with text; keying and compositing green screens, and complex graphic animations. These are used for things like the opening to the Cobert Report, backgrounds and bumpers for CNN and FOX news shows, and the like. Motion is only included with Final Cut Studio from Apple, and only runs on the Macintosh platform. After Effects can be purchased in one of Adobe's CS5 bundles, or alone, for Windows or Macintosh platforms. Autodesk provides Flame FX tools with Smoke. This is a finishing package that differs from the more traditional editors and adds the ability to work with 3D shapes and integrates with Final Cut Pro and Avid Media Composer via XML and AAF.
3D Text and Logos and Plug-ins
There are software packages that specifically do only 3D text and 3D logo elements. This may be all you need in some cases. Check your video editing software as some come with a plug-in to handle 3D text on a basic level . For example, Final Cut Pro is compatible with Boris 3D text plug-ins. There is a variety of third party plug-ins and stand-alone applications that can take this type of work to a whole new level. Zaxwerks has a line of for After Effects on both Windows and Mac platforms, as well as for Final Cut Pro and Motion. These plug-ins do 3D text, 3D logos, and helps you to animate them. It's the higher end of these types of plug-ins and stand-alone applications. Others to look at are Boris Graffiti, Xara 3D Maker, Reallusion Effect3D Studio and at the higher end, you'll find the GenArts collection of special effects and plug-ins. Although some of these can come with a hefty price tag, some are relatively inexpensive. They all can give you powerful tools with a small learning curve. If all you need is 3D text and logos then save the money and learning time, and go this route.
If you're looking to do some animating, there are software packages available that do this in a variety of ways. These can enhance your toolbox, when used with the other previously mentioned applications. Not to mention very nice to have for creating storyboard artwork. Studio Artist, Pencil and Toon Boom's Animate Pro are three really nice places to start shopping for this type of software. Each has unique tools and uses, and if you're a real hand-drawing artist, you may want more than just one of these in your toolbox. The point of these are to translate your hand-drawings from a device such as a Wacom tablet, to a canvas on your computer screen, giving you the best of both worlds. You can hand draw, then tweak with the software tools, and animate over time, without having to draw every individual frame. These combined with the previous mentioned software can give you unique effects and looks that After Effects or Cinema 4D won't do alone. These types of applications can run from freeware to very expensive, depending on the tool set you want from them. So again, shop around, weigh learning curves and features with price and platform compatibility. This route is not for everyone.
With higher end software like Autodesk Maya, MAXON Cinema 4D, or the others on the market today, you can create shapes in true 3D space that have not only height (x-axis) and width (y-axis), but also depth (z-axis). These shapes can get very complex and be covered with textures, or skins, to become very realistic. These will have the steepest learning curve, and take the longest to gain even basic mastery of. If you need to create virtual 3D objects, that you can move around in 3D space, these are the types of applications you'd shop for. They are mostly reserved for film effects, or high-end broadcasting. 3D shapes created in theses types of applications can also be purchased from commercial libraries, brought in to these applications and a virtual camera moved around it. The result of that camera's view and movement can then be exported to a 2D asset such as WMV or MOV files, then used in Adobe After Effects or Apple Motion, and animated to interact with other 2D assets. Be aware you're looking at spending several thousand dollars for one of these applications.
These types of applications are becoming more readily available for Windows, Macintosh, and a few for the Linux platforms. There are quite a few to choose from, so carefully review their feature sets compared to the price you're paying, and the available training.
Evaluating Your Needs
Not everyone wants to draw by hand. Not everyone needs a 3D realistic model of his or her SUV. Most of us do need some form of motion graphics software, mostly for animating text and other visual assets. If your need is the most basic, look first to your video editing software and see if it includes an application that will suit your needs. What exactly are your specific needs? What sort of effects and looks are you desiring to be able to produce? What are the examples you see in broadcast, video, and the Internet that your clients are asking for? Start by putting those needs and desires in writing. Then go to several folks already doing this type of work and talk to them. Motion graphics and animation professionals are always eager to talk about their work and tools. Be aware what works for one editor may not work for another. If there was only one perfect application, we'd all be using it now. Different packages have different tool sets and approaches to creating work. This is the personal decision you'll have to mull over a bit after talking to others and doing your research. Get it all down on paper to help you really evaluate your purchase decision properly.
The other major factors in choosing a motion graphic software package will be hardware and software requirements. Be sure you know and understand what those are. Many software companies only publish what the bare minimum is for their package to launch and run. You may need a bit more than those minimums depending on how heavy your projects will get. Talking to seasoned professionals who know not only the software, but have a solid professional IT background will help out a great deal. The operating system you run the software on will also be very important. Which version of the OS will you need? Will that require an update or upgrade to what you currently have? Will that upgrade adversely effect any other software on your system? All very important questions to have answered before spending money on these heavy duty and often expensive motion graphics and animation software packages.
Motion graphics and animation can get complicated, there's no question about that. Learning and using a good software package can give you more flexibility and creativity with the products you sell your clients. But not all software is created equal; not all post-production situations are the same. Match what you need with what you purchase, take the time to professionally learn it, and you'll be glad you did.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Animation & Motion Graphics Buyer's Guide
Ben Balser is a freelance Apple Certified Master Trainer, producer, and consultant.