Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Manual Duck

Ahhh the age old struggle between Final Cut Pro and After Effects. For what seems like centuries now us Final Cut Pro editors have been struggling with finding an efficient and, moreover, convenient workflow between FCP and After Effects. Sure, products like Livetype and Motion have come along and made life easier for some tasks but when it comes down to real motion graphics work and serious compositing nothing beats After Effects. Have you ever put Motion’s Primatte RT side by side with a key pulled from After Effects Keylight? To me there’s no comparison.

Coming from an editor’s chair, not a designer’s, it took me a while to really get up to speed with After Effects. In the past I was using AE infrequently for several reasons: 1. I didn’t know the interface and key commands well, 2. I didn’t know the software’s capabilities well, 3. I was intimidated by the rigid workflow between FCP and AE. All these factors equaled inefficent workflow and so I just usually opted not to use AE in favor of a faster and more flexible option like Livetype or Motion.

However, in the past year the work we have been doing has called more and more for serious graphics design and compositing, Livetype and Motion were simply not going to cut it. So I buckled down and really learned the After Effects interface, key commands and it’s capabilities. Through that hard work I quickly became much more efficent with AE and started creating some really cool stuff. But all this new-found efficency with AE itself still did nothing to help with a round-trip workflow to and from FCP. And if we can assume anything about Apple and Adobe there will probably never be an intergrated roundtrip solution between the two.

Now of course there are 3rd party solutions out there that help with this problem (at least half of the problem anyway). Automatic Duck is a great 3rd party solution that exports Final Cut Pro projects and timelines in a format that After Effects understands and converts to compositions. Bam, you’ve got half of the roundtrip issue solved right there, prepare a timline in FCP and export with Automatic Duck into AE and take care of your graphics and compositing. The problems? Output is still the same, you must render your comps out of AE and import them into FCP just like always. Then later if changes are needed you must go back to AE, make your changes, and re-render the revised comp and import back into FCP. The other problem, Automatic Duck is expensive. If you’re a home business or just struggling like everyone else in this economy buying the plug-in may not be an option.

I call this solution The Manual Duck. It doesn’t involve any special plug-ins or any other software, it’s just a few simple steps to add to the workflow that can make the trip to and from AE much easier, and more importantly, leave less room for errors requiring revisions in After Effects later.

I had a job recently where I knew that I was probably going to need to do almost entirely in After Effects. It was an image piece that involved nothing but text builds and a few stock images. The producers instructions were simply to take the “boring” corporate message and make it just “look cool.” Ahhh, is there anything better then the old “Just make it look cool…” line? And what’s more, from listening to the music that was selected, it was going to be a music driven edit.

In my opinion After Effects is not a good audio editor from a workflow perspective and have to cut to music in After Effects can be a big hassle being that there’s no “real” real-time playback or scrubbing of audio. All this added up to a perfect candidate for The Manual Duck workflow.

It’s simple really, start in Final Cut Pro. I laid down the music track in an empty timeline and made the audio edit (the track did need to be cut down and mixed a bit). Once I was happy with the audio I started to block out what I wanted the shots to be using the built-in text tool. I had the script and knew what order the text build had to go in. With the text tool I was able to very quickly block out where the individual sentences would go. I went along through the song and timed out all the text builds adding no style or animation of any sort. The key to this step is the speed at which you can work, just copy-paste the text clips from one edit to the next and copy-paste the next sentence from the script into the text tool. Format just a bit so the lines can be read and that’s all you need to do. Of course, if your project is more complex you can get as complex as you’d like during this step, adding images, transitions, etc. The point is that you lay everything down and time everything out in Final Cut Pro where you have quick real-time editing available with no significant render or RAM preview time.

The project blocked out in a FCP timeline
The project blocked out in a FCP timeline

From there export the timeline to a codec that After Effects will play well with. Import that QT into AE and drop it into your Comp. From here you can proceed in the manner you prefer best. You can scrub through the Comp and add markers at the edit points or do split-track edits. Either way you can quickly scrub the Comp and see where you made edits in FCP with no need for audio playback or scrubbing. Also you now have a base layer that acts as a virtual storyboard. As you build your effects and composite you can easily solo the base QT layer to see what you blocked out next.

The FCP QT imported into an AE Comp
The FCP QT imported into an AE Comp

As a side note I after I have made my markers or split tracks I turn off the visibility and lock this layer to ease RAM preview time and avoid offsetting the layer with a stray drag.

The final composite
The final composite

Now there’s nothing automated about the process and it doesn’t add any sort of round-tripping between the two but I’ve found that it helps a great deal with being efficient once in After Effects and leaves far less room for errors and mis-timimg. If you can build your graphics and composite and get it right the first time that is far more valuable than the extra time it took to block the project in Final Cut Pro.
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