Uncommon Compositing
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 12 (December 2004)

Uncommon Compositing

There was a time in digital video's relatively distant past when compositing was viewed as an exclusive craft. Compositors and editors were almost thought to be from different planets, or at least of differing artistic strengths and sensibilities. That perception was fed by the (very expensive) dedicated Unix workstations that compositing required and by the specific and detailed training it took to capably operate them. Few professional video editors would venture there. In those days, compositing was a big line item on a production budget typically reserved for premium clients and high-profile jobs.

Most of that has changed. Compositing has exploded, driven primarily by the rapid growth of computer processing power, and it has become a regular, indeed expected, part of postproduction. Today, it is just about assumed that all video projects—from wedding videos to corporate promotion to TV advertisements—will include titles and graphics with production values similar to those we've all come to know from watching television. Fancy motion graphics, flying logos, and montages are all standard fare. Much of the time, those "enhancements" are expected for free, and most video editors are automatically enlisted as compositors.

Certainly compositing is more accessible now. Video editing system timelines regularly support multiple layers, as well as keyframe control of effects, objects, text, transitions, and layers. That blurring of the lines between video editing and compositing is nothing new, of course, going back to the mid-1990s when video editing software began to include the ability to layer tracks and visual effects. The developers of the first release of Apple's Final Cut Pro started with the stated goal of matching at least 80 percent of the video editing features of Avid's industry-standard Media Composer as well as 80 percent of the features of Adobe's dominant compositing application, After Effects.
Apple's new Motion software provides a layer palette along with drag-and-drop simplicity for applying filters and motion behaviors. These features make the program feel more like a graphics editor than a video editing application.

Today, just about any serious non-linear editing (NLE) system or software supports multitrack editing and the ability to layer images, effects, filters, transparencies, and graphics in a single timeline. Applications such as Avid's Media Composer Adrenaline, Pinnacle Systems' Liquid Edition, Adobe's Premiere Pro, Leitch's Velocity, Ulead's Media Studio Pro, Canopus's Edius, and others all have significant multitrack, motion control, and effects-creation capabilities that were once the domain of compositing engines. What's more, because software alone can handle just about any basic editing function without rendering, real-time compositing visualization—functionality that once required that big Unix iron—is the carrot that now drives many digital video hardware vendors (see "Hardware-Enhanced Editing," November, pg. 14).

Yet in many ways, the transition to compositing within video editing applications has just traded one type of complex process for another. Whereas training was once needed to drive the Unix hardware of old, today one often needs to understand the most intricate levels of often very advanced and complex video editing interfaces in order to create multilayer motion animation.

For example, to create simple motion text in an NLE interface, you might have to start with a title or character-generation utility, an interface that may or may not include any motion capabilities and is even less likely to include filters and effects. Perhaps you'd create a title, save it, then open it in an effects editor, work there, then save that to the timeline to mix it with the other tracks. Dedicated compositing tools offer greater control of the elements in a unified interface.

Apple's new Motion software was designed for just that purpose. Motion is a dedicated motion-graphics tool that may not seem so special when its list of features is compared to those built-in capabilities of non-linear editing applications. But the $299 price is a bargain for the facility it offers for handling common compositing tasks.

Motion builds visual sequences in a timeline that is similar to that of a video editing application. But much of the interface feels more like a graphics tool. Most notably, Motion has a dominant layer palette, much like that of Photoshop, that offers the ability to non-destructively add objects and view groups of objects. And dozens of canned filters (including various blurs, color and brightness correction, distortion, and glow) as well as visual and particle effects (such as fire, smoke, and bouncing balls) can be applied by simply dragging and dropping.

Motion follows the same simplicity in its approach to creating movement. "Behaviors" are something like movement templates that can be added to create motion animation as easily as adding a filter. The roughly 40 supplied behaviors (including throw, gravity, grow, and spin) are stackable and can create complex movement sequences with little effort. Naturally, with both filters and behaviors, you'll always have the ability to fine-tune, edit, and alter the defaults, but they offer invaluable time-savings for both mundane text animation and creative experimentation.

Perhaps most important for professionals, Motion integrates directly with Apple's Final Cut Pro HD. It launches directly from within Final Cut Pro and includes support for real-time visualization with HD sources. Motion can even be used as a DVD motion-title and motion-menu creation tool for Apple's DVD Studio Pro authoring application.
Because detailed motion and effects parameter controls are now standard fare in just about every non-linear editing interface—including Pinnacle's Liquid Edition, shown below—they afford significant compositing possibilities.

On the surface, products like Motion—as well as the wide availability of compositing capabilities in video editing software—may seem like they will spell the death of compositing as a craft, just as the use of canned effects and stock motion animation may appear to dumb down video creativity. And in some cases, that will certainly be true.

However, the proliferation of compositing at virtually every level of production ultimately drives expectations at the highest levels of production to find creative differentiation. That offers opportunities for imaginative designers working at all levels of video production to produce uncommonly creative composites. Indeed, this is true whether they use straightforward tools, such as Motion, or more transitional compositing tools, such as Adobe's stalwart After Effects (now in Version 6.5), a wide array of tools from Discreet (ranging from Combustion all the way up to Flint, Flame, and Inferno), or Apple's increasingly robust Shake.

Jeff Sauer is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and director of the Digital Video Group, an independent research and testing organization for digital media. He can be reached at jeff@dtvgroup.com.