The true power of software like Adobe After Effects and most NLEs are in the third party plug-ins.
In today's post-production, customizing footage requires more than the vast settings and filters that are included with your editing or compositing software. Programs like Adobe After Effects have built-in filters that might seem vast, but Adobe allowed other companies to develop plug-ins and filters to add near limitless functionality to their software. Whether you want more in-depth color grading, turning your footage into a cartoon, or creating particles, plug-ins can help customize your projects.
After Effects is probably the most common program for adding effects and filters, but many plug-ins can be added directly into Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer, Sony Vegas Pro, among other editing software programs. Even though all of these programs have a number of effects and transitions, the third-party plug-ins add customization that enhance your video well beyond the program's presets.
32-bit vs. 64-bit Plug-ins
One thing to be wary of today is that most plug-ins in the past were written for the 32-bit versions of the software and many have not yet been updated for the 64-bit editing and effects software. So those of you with Premiere Pro CS5 or above, Media Composer 6 or Final Cut Pro X, make sure that the plug-ins are 64-bit compatible, otherwise they will not work.
Plug-ins are also affected by your RAM and CPU speed. If the plug-in is complex or requires a lot of calculation, it will take more computer power to render it faster. The new 64-bit operating systems and multithreading CPUs with matching software will render a lot quicker than the older 32-bit systems. As with most processes relating to video, you can never have too much memory, so buy as much RAM as your machine can handle.
Color correction is a bit of a misnomer since color grading exists inside most editing and effects programs. Plug-ins for color correction/grading add so much more potent and specific controls. Red Giant's Magic Bullet Suite software offers presets as well as much more in-depth control over the image. Being able to control the highlights, the blacks, and the mid tones individually offers a precision you don't get from the built-in filters. Presets of commonly used "looks", like the blue tint of TV commercials to the green hues of movies like The Matrix, automate color correction by having easy to apply effects. Usually presets are still just a starting point as everyone's footage is different. Red Giant also develops the Trapcode plug-ins collection. The Trapcode suite can generate particles with Particular, which is where the plug-in creates objects, sometimes a series of objects that react to settings, like rain or snow, or anything you can imagine. Particles can be simple sprites or you can attach text or video to them for interesting effects. Trapcode also has lighting effects, stroke effects, and other plug-ins that can jazz up your projects.
Also in Red Giant's arsenal are tools that can make your footage look like a cartoon or a sketch, create automated text animations, and so on. Red Giant has been buying up several smaller companies' plug-ins and updating them.
Boris has been providing one of the most versatile collections of plug-ins with the Continuum Complete set. From film scratches and damage to keying to color, Continuum Complete is an all-in-one package of effects. There are more than 50 individual plug-ins with this set.
GenArts has an incredible collection of plug-ins that deal with light, color, and stylizing. The lighting plug-ins have some amazing light streak effects, and a variety of glows that you can overlay on footage to emulate different filters or apply to various layers. The render plug-ins create some interesting patterns of their own.
Tiffen, the maker of filters for the actual lenses on cameras, has dabbled into some really in-depth color grading filters as plug-ins. The Dfx v3 plug-in allows you to emulate the looks of thousands of Tiffen's lens filters. It also includes grain emulation and even video distortion clean up tools. Of particular note is the Key Light filter which subtly takes the select parts of the frame and brightens them up to accent.
Digieffects has updated its Delirium plug-in set to operate with 64-bit processing and included a "best of" collection of plug-ins. Of note, the Newsprint plug-in takes footage and transforms the frames to that of newspaper, meaning simple dots or lines in monotone. Specular Lighting takes your footage and makes it look like it is a reflective, watery surface with depth, which can make an interesting background for a title. An automated muzzle flash plug-in can create amazing and random gunfire, complete with angle controls and several types of weapons like pistol, rifle, or shotgun. Additional compositing tools add even more power to this set.
The Foundry has a series of plug-ins that fill a void that many of the other companies don't. The CAMERATRACKER plug-in for After Effects tracks your footage in 3D space, allowing for amazing graphics being placed inside handheld shots or other clips. Given how common these effects are becoming in commercial work, learning the basics and using a plug-in like this that automates so much of the process, is very handy.
Another plug-in from The Foundry of note is ROLLINGSHUTTER. For those shooters using DSLRs like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, you must have noticed the rolling shutter effect, in which walls and other vertical lines look like jelly when panning left or right. This is because the DSLR's image sensors scan from top to bottom. The ROLLINGSHUTTER plug-in will analyze the footage and auto-correct for this.
The final plug-in from The Foundry I looked at was OCULA, a stereoscopic workflow plug-in, meaning for helping with effects in stereo 3D. The OCULA plug-in makes effects work from one frame intended for one eye to easily translate to the same frame for the other eye, so it maximizes your efforts.
Video Copilot has entered the plug-in arena with a few, but incredibly handy plug-ins like Twitch, a plug-in that can be used as either a transition or an effect. Twitch, as the name implies, can shake the footage like an earthquake, split the RGB channels, and create lens blur or make brightness flashes, and all of that randomly. The set also includes bonus royalty free sound FX and tutorials. Their other plug-in set is the Optical Flares sets that you have probably been seeing quite a bit in recent movies like Transformers and Star Trek. Optical Flares are very realistic lens flares that work in 3D space within After Effects. Again, the tutorials by Andrew Kramer of Video Copilot on how to use the Optical Flares add so much more value to these plug-ins.
Most of these are available as downloads nowadays, since fewer and fewer companies are offering these products on CDs or DVDs. The file size of most plug-ins are surprisingly small, so the downloads are fast and easy.
With virtually all of these plug-ins, the installation can be either automatic or allow you to drag them into the plug-ins folder for your software. Then, in most programs, all you have to do is open the program and the new plug-ins appear automatically in the effects windows in their own folder. Drag and drop the effect onto your footage and you can begin to experiment with the effects.
Every piece of footage is different and requires some degree of tweaking when applying effects. Making adjustments from the preset settings is always a good idea. Some plug-ins have three to four controls, others can have more than 40, depending on the complexity of the plug-in itself. Most plug-ins work with sliders and numerical controls. I usually start by making radical changes to see how it changes the effect and then make a subtle change to match what I want.
Plug-ins add variety and extend the power of your NLE and effects software, give 'em a try!
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Plug-ins Buyer's Guide
Peter John Ross is an award-winning filmmaker and author of Tales from the Front Line of Indie Filmmaking.