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IT'S THAT DRAT WORD AGAIN: DESKTOP. "I HATE the term, because it connotes B-quality," says Matthew Baldwin, computer graphics manager at Merkley Newman Harty in New York. "But desktop video is where desktop publishing was two years ago-right on the threshold. The age of broadcast-quality video is dawning."

Baldwin oversees a burgeoning multimedia department where homegrown animatics and storyboards are beginning to rule the day, thanks to a software program that seems to elicit unusually intense raves from its users. It's a $1,995 job called After Effects from a small Providence firm known as the Company of Science & Art, or CoSA, and it turns a Macintosh (a Quadra 950, in most cases) into a compositing, motion graphics and special effects tool that rivals the work of far more expensive equipment and software. Some say it is doing for the video world what Adobe PhotoShop did for still graphics.

Alton Christensen, a freelance broadcast designer who recently formed the Edgeworx Video Construction Co. in New York with partner Perry Lawrence, is an unabashed fan. He used to do his digital compositing in postproduction facilities, working on a Quantel Harry or Grass Valley Kadenza, which can run over $1,000 an hour. But he and Harry-and Henry too, for that matter-have parted ways. "I don't have to go to a post house to do work anymore; I do it at home," he says. "A lot of people don't realize that a Mac can do what a $250,000 to $500,000 machine does. I've literally done it."

While the Macintosh is slower than more high-powered (and more expensive) workstations such as Silicon Graphics, which is, for the most part, out of the price range of most ad agencies. CoSA's software is not only significantly less expensive, it's more intuitive and can do things that wouldn't even be attempted on other equipment because the cost would be prohibitive. Christensen cites his use of After Effects on an opening for ESPN's Talk 2 program in which type travels on a spiral. He says it took at least 123 layers to create that effect; doing the same thing on a Harry, one layer at a time, just wouldn't be feasible.

"After Effects doesn't really do any one thing in a new way; it just brings things together in a new way," says CoSA's Sara Daley. As recently as 1990, neither the product nor the idea behind it existed, she claims. At the time, the Mac didn't run fast enough to even begin to handle the time and motion demands of video. The advent of QuickTime, however, changed all that, and After Effects evolved as a 2-D animation program. It complements the functions of the more familiar editing programs, such as Macromind Director and Adobe Premier.

With its myriad waves, warps, filters and color correction controls, not to mention its own set of effects, the program "puts Harry to shame," claims Christensen. "The nicest thing it does you can't even do in a high-end editing suite," he says, "and that's put a soft shadow on something." The program is also resolution-independent, which makes it possible to import video components at various resolutions from various sources: a flatbed scanner, a Photoshop file, a soundtrack, a videotape or film. It supports frame sizes of up to 4,000 by 4,000 pixels, and the frame size of what comes in doesn't have to match the frame size of what goes out. In fact, source items-images, sound, QuickTime movies-can be mixed within a single frame, although each resides on an independent layer. The video frames can be moved, scaled, rotated or cropped inside rectangles, ellipses and polygons.

One also can work on several layers at once (Harry handles just one) and change whatever needs to be changed in a single layer without having to disturb the others. At Tape House Digital in New York, digital services director Alfie Schloss says it's not uncommon to do for $1,000 to $2,000 what used to cost $10,000 to $20,000. His staff uses the program primarily to animate type, but its image compositing capabilities are also powerful, he adds. Among the composites that Tape House Digital's graphics/effects designer Cari Chadwick has executed with the program are a 16-layer shatter effect for an AT&T commercial, in which it appears that glass shards are hurtling at the viewer; animated typography in a Volkswagen commercial; squishy animated germs in a Safeguard spot; and a Cheerios job in which the word "free" is animated on the screen and bounces into place.

And while Schloss says all it takes to master the possibilities of After Effects are "patience and imagination," those are sometimes mutually exclusive qualities, especially when working under tight agency deadlines. Sally Face, manager of computer systems at BBDO/New York, is currently testing After Effects in the shop's new computer video graphics room. She stresses that she is not looking to supplant the work of outside post houses, however; she needs the compositing and titling capabilities of After Effects mainly for animatics.

"We might do one or more animatics a week, and each one costs approximately $10,000 or more," she says. "Sometimes we don't do animatics because of what it costs to do them outside." In-house, she anticipates costs reduced to roughly half, although billing methods have not yet been determined. She fully expects costs to eventually go down even further, while the knowledge of art directors goes up. Once they understand the ease of intuitive programs such as this one, they might do more themselves, she adds. In the meantime, she'll be the one executing their compositing visions.

That's where the patience comes in. Even for expert operators, the time involved can be considerable, particularly for broadcast-quality products. Although low-resolution previews may be sufficient to gain a client's approval, a final version might require significant rendering time. Chadwick says a one-layer, b&w one- to three-second effect might take only five minutes to render. Rendering her scatter effect, which was 24 seconds (or 720 frames) long, took about two and a half hours. "You can optimize your time by knocking down the resolution, so you can get the rhythm and working things down," she says. "Then you go home and let the thing run for 12 hours. It's not inconceivable to have something rendering for a whole weekend, especially for a 30-second spot."

The learning curve itself is not particularly daunting. MNH's Baldwin figures he was using the product within about two hours of reading the manual; within a week or two, working on it sporadically, he was comfortable with it. "It was all fairly intuitive. There weren't these incredible matrices of windows and boxes," he says. Chadwick says it takes half a day or less to learn the basics. It does, however, require a fundamental understanding of the language of computer video. "I don't think the average art director will sit down and create," says Schloss. "It's not intrinsically part of their vocabulary."

At least not yet.

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