An essential part of being a post-production specialist is knowing your tools and how to use them; that much is obvious. Lesser understood however is that it is equally important to know what else is out there and when another tool will increase your ability and efficiency.
Regardless of what software you use to create or design this process is never perfect. If you’re content, then you’re either not pushing your ability enough, or you’re spending too much time at work. Consider what could make your day more efficient, or what effect you really want to achieve. Perhaps a simple addition to your current software could help you improve your abilities. That’s where plug-ins come in. Knowing what plug-ins are out there gives you the freedom to tackle any advanced request with confidence. Knowing which ones to use and how can make an expert editor into a wizard — especially in the eyes of their clients.
What is and isn’t a Plug-in
Plug-ins are not stand-alone programs. They are designed to integrate into existing software and provide improved functionality. Plug-ins are also not templates. Templates have work half-done for you that you can customize and make your own. Plug-ins let you utilize or design something that did not previously exist. Once enabled, they are always available. You don’t need to load a specific project to make use of them. Rather they sit within your application’s interface as if they had always been there. Think of them as additional effects–only they aren’t limited to creativity. They might also be processors, or functional, or extenders.
Can you exist as an editor without plug-ins? Yes, absolutely. That’s why they’re extra bits and not built into the core programs. However, they will allow you to save your most important resource: time. Some will simply do in one or two clicks what you could do yourself in twenty, but others will allow you to create and tweak particles, light streaks and even virtual environments that you would take you hours to create by other means. They also often cost far less in both hassle and price than a standalone program that achieves the same thing.
Types of Plug-ins
The concept of a plug-in is essentially limitless. Some are tiny and may add on a simple menu option or single function that will make common operations easier. FX Factory has a vast array of add-ons for multiple platforms that range from simple to very complex. Good examples are EchoRemover, which will help get rid of that annoying large room reverb; and Rolling Credits which will create that end of the film roll that for some reason is more complicated than it should be in most editing systems.
Other plug-ins are massive and can give a program designed for one function the ability to do something entirely different. These creations are then instantly ready for use in your compositions. Element 3D for example, is a plug-in from Video Copilot that puts an entire 3D design system right into After Effects. You can also purchase light, shader and texture packs on top of that.
If your projects run the gamut from home movies to feature films, then consider suites, which are bulk packages of similar (or not so) add-ons. Packages will often provide a well-rounded assortment of transitions, filters, light and particle generators and/or processing utilities. Boris FX offers its Sapphire suite, which provides not only effects, but also advanced tracking and masking tools designed to ease the burden of animation paths. You can then combine these with particles, light streaks and more, without the need for those all but incomprehensible AE expressions.
Other packages are geared towards specific ranges. Red Giant’s Universe will throw your effects abilities into overdrive, while its Trapcode series will let you design with 3D particles, light and objects. Ignite Pro from HitFilm similarly adds effects and filters, but also provides a new group specifically for the 360 video pioneer. Anyone who has worked in 360 video knows all too well that integrated support is still limited, so plug-ins in this area help fill a niche sorely in need of attention.
Companies like CoreMelt and NewBlue offer bundles that separate FX from processing. There are bundles that provide only effects and transitions (like the former’s V2), but others for image manipulation (as in the latter’s Sytlizers bundle), advanced masking, color correction, image stabilization, and more. Perhaps you need to correct production issues. There are highly specialized plug-ins for processing. Digital Anarchy provides tools for advanced image sharpening, de-flicker, and even digital makeup for your actors. Red Giant again offers its Magic Bullet suite for color correction and more. For increased compositing and finishing abilities, add Boris FX’s Continuum package to your NLE. If you miss the days of celluloid or need to match footage from different sources, check out FilmConvert’s line of ready-to-use camera profiles, grain scans and 3D LUT profiles.
Finally, let’s not forget that visuals are only half the story. Several of the companies mentioned already (and many others) offer plenty of processors, filters and converters available for cleaning up your audio and altering the waves it is made of. Plug-ins do not exist only for NLE’s. In truth, they are everywhere.
How Plug-ins work
Most programs these days are built with the ability to accept external additions. They essentially reserve their memory registries, variables, etc. that are essential to run the host and free up everything else to be used by other programs or scripts that are added to a specific location. By allowing these scripts to be run at a specific time when the program loads, an application can add to or, in some instances, replace the current operating functions. Installation usually is as simple as running an installer file, or just moving the plugin files into a specified folder within the program’s directory. The third party vendor will always provide installation instructions along with their product. Activation is usually done through a digital code that must be entered the first time you use an effect in the package, or through linking to a remote server for verification.
Potential issues and how to avoid them
There can be pitfalls when using such products. The creator of the host program does not guarantee compatibility and functionality, even when they themselves have created the plug-in. Plug-ins may not work properly (or at all) with every version of the core program. They may introduce bugs and quirks. These issues may take weeks or months to be resolved after a host application update. Indeed, there is no promise that they will ever be fixed. Additionally, if you ever pass your project onto another computer without the plug-in installed, any work that relies on the plug-in will be disabled (sometimes without telling you). Some plug-ins will introduce “features” that you may not like, or may not be available for your operating system. On rare occasions, they may simply not agree with a piece of hardware in your specific computer.
There may also be support issues. If something goes wrong, your host applications tech support will probably blame it on the plug-in, whether it is causing the issue or not. The plug-in creator will then tell you that they are “working with the vendor to resolve the issue”, leaving you to figure out a solution on your own. Even uninstallation can be an issue if the plug-in installation process was poorly implemented.
For example, we recently had an issue in my office where a particular plug-in would not run after a host update. Contacting both vendors provided no resolution. The simple solution (which we discovered on our own) was to take the plug-in file out of the sub-folder that the plug-in installer created and place it directly into the host’s “plug-ins” folder proper. Magic!
The bottom line is that you must remember and accept the fact that plug-ins are functions not officially supported by the creator of the core application, who will never support nor guarantee the operation of such systems. They only provide the ability for third party vendors to create such devices; they do not exercise any control what is done with such access.
Don’t be deterred by all these red flags though. We’re simply being thorough. There are advantages to third party vendors as well. The plug-ins are often very inexpensive compared to what they provide. Third party vendors are often smaller, and willing to help whenever and wherever they can, and while they may respond slower than desired to core program updates, they may roll out enhancements to their plugin faster than expected. Typically, they are also very open to suggestions and take constructive criticism seriously, as they are focused on their very small niche products for revenue.
Weighing the Options
Prices for plug-ins range rather wildly. Don’t let a low price make you think the plug-in isn’t good, and don’t let a high price drive you off. A single effect can be free and can max out at about $100. Packages typically start at about $50 and can run into the several hundred dollar range. Suites may be into the thousands, or even have subscription pricing, which is great for that short-term high-profile project. When it comes to features, obviously there is plenty of overlap. You will find many similar effects from multiple companies, and people who swear by each of them in turn. When deciding which company to purchase from, you’ll simply have to compare and see which workflow you are most comfortable with, and which gives you the results you are looking for. Weigh your options. Do not buy a suite when a single plugin will do. Save your money for the next necessity. However, if you manage to work a slightly bigger package than you need into a required purchase for a project, then you will have even greater resources to draw on next time.
How to get started
If you’ve never tried using plug-ins before, our advice is to skip trial versions at first. Look for a few free plug-ins that will provide a function you might want and start with them. Look for ones that provide simple conveniences. For example, something that adds one-button export of a still image in After Effects is a great tool. Once you are comfortable with the concept, you will begin to see where your needs lie and how well they work for you.
Trial versions are better for comparing similar systems from multiple vendors because not all plug-ins are created equal. Some may provide better results or process faster. Even with similar results, one might have a user interface design that you prefer. It never hurts to compare similar products and find which works best for you. The trials are there for you to evaluate not only if you need the plug-in, but also if it produces a value and quality that is better than the source program or other similar plug-ins.
We also recommend avoiding the massive bundles when first starting, as they can be easily overwhelming and you may never end up discovering their full potential. However, when you are experienced with plug-ins, the bundles can provide the excessive flexibility that the smaller packages alone might not. You will often find you already have a tool you didn’t know you needed. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts.
When you are at the point when you are searching for plug-ins for something specific you’ll realize that you can’t live without them, and wonder how you got along in the past living with only what the host vendor provided. You’ll take your abilities to a whole new level, providing you with happier clients and more of that precious free time.
Sidebar: Plug-ins tips and best practices:
Don’t assume a plug-in works with your system or software. Always check availability and compatibility.
Keep an archive of all current and previous versions of your plug-ins. If you ever open an old project you will need them, and the developer may have since moved on.
Keep your activation keys and methods safe. If you re-install your host software, you will need to re-activate your plug-ins. When you’re on a deadline, there’s nothing more infuriating than DRM troubles.
Remember that plug-ins will have their own terms and conditions that may not align with that of the host. Read the usage and distribution rights carefully.
If you are experiencing installation issues, look for the simple solutions.
- Confirm that the plug-in you are installing is supported by the version of the host program you are using.
- Remove all other plug-ins to check for operating conflicts.
- Sometimes a subfolder can cause plug-ins to malfunction, or the host program has moved the location of its “plug-ins” folder. Look for obvious and simple solutions.
Boris FX borisfx.com
Digital Anarchy digitalanarchy.com
FX Factory fxfactory.com
FX Home fxhome.com
Red Giant redgiant.com
Video Copilot videocopilot.net
Peter Zunitch is an award-winning video editor working in New York.