Gallery and case studies

More compositing… TVC cleanup and rotoscoping

Last modified on 2020-06-25 10:02:00 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Here’s another quick breakdown, it’s much easier to put these together than it is to re-edit a new showreel! These spots were produced by Rotor Studios in North Sydney. They were shot on an Arri Alexa and graded in DaVinci, the footage is gorgeous.

The interesting thing about these spots is the colour workflow that Rotor used. Colour management is a very complex subject matter, and it’s not a simple task to introduce a fully integrated, colour managed workflow to the entire post-production chain. I’ve work at loads of places where they think that colour management is simply a matter of calibrating the computer monitor. I’ve also seen places that don’t even bother with any colour management, and grade spots destined for broadcast on cheap computer monitors – without even a TV as a reference. But it’s quite a complex area, and the best advice for colour management comes from the awesome TV show ‘Monkey Magic’, which opened an episode with the quote “it is the beginning of wisdom to say ‘I know nothing’ “.

Rotor cleverly avoided colour management by reversing the usual post-production process. Normally (in my experience anyway) colour grading is the last step completed. Compositors work with ungraded footage and colour grading in After Effects is usually part of the compositing / fx process. Once the edit is locked off and all the visual-fx shots are complete, a colour grader will work through the timeline and make sure everything is consistent. Rotor reversed this process and colour graded the footage first, in a fully calibrated and broadcast specc’d DaVinci suite. All grading decisions made were made based on what they looked like on a broadcast monitor, properly setup and operated by a professional grader. The compositors then worked with the graded, output footage and didn’t adjust colour or levels at all. When the rendered composites were reassembled in Final Cut and output, the end result looked the same as when the footage was initially graded- because nothing had been altered! By using this ‘reverse’ process many of the pitfalls that go with a colour managed workflow were avoided.

A quick look at multi-pass compositing

Last modified on 2020-06-25 10:02:00 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Multi-pass compositing using Adobe After Effects.

I haven’t had time to create an updated showreel, but here’s some recent compositing work completed in After Effects. This was a fun project to work on and it was produced by a great team of guys at Digital Pulse, in Sydney.

The fun part of compositing is thinking of elements that would enhance the scene and then creating them from scratch within After Effects. For example, the opening shot required rain – that was in the script. But adding splashes on the footpath added authenticity- simple yet effective.  In the shot where the guy looks out of the window, some subtle light rays (using CC light burst) give the scene a softer atmosphere. And the ripples on the car windscreen as the wipers animate also add realism to the shot.

Most of these shots use a ‘light wrap’ to enhance the edges of objects. These are easy to make from a matte shape. You duplicate the matte layer and use it as an inverted alpha for itself. Then blur the top layer (the track matte).

In most cases I didn’t have a matte shape for every object in the scene, so I would concoct one from the depth pass using plugins like levels, curves or ‘extract’.

For stronger edge effects, and to create directional rim-lighting effects, I simply used the ‘bevel alpha’ effect on the matte layer. First I’d use the ‘fill’ effect to fill the matte with black, so you couldn’t see anything. Then the ‘bevel alpha’ effect would add a directional edge that I could easily move and adjust the thickness of. This could then be tinted and added over the colour pass. It’s a very useful technique using very basic effects!

The ambient occlusion pass is used to define shadows and edges, usually with either a ‘multiply’ or ‘linear burn’ blending mode.  I would always tint the blacks of the AO pass to be the opposite colour to the light source.  So if the light source is blue, I would tint the AO pass orange.  This adds realism and also a sense of warmth to shots that would feel colder and harsher if all of the shadows were pure black.

Finally, the Frischluft ‘Lenscare’ plugin was used to give each scene a shallow depth-of-field, and for a number of pull-focus shots.  It’s an awesome, gorgeous looking plugin.

3D in AE – The Centrica Carnivale

Last modified on 2020-06-25 10:02:00 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Way back in 2006, working with After Effects 6.5 on an 800mhz G4 PowerMac, I completed a conference opener for Centrica that attracted a lot of attention. Although the video looked as though it had been created using a 3D animation package, almost everything was done inside After Effects:

I recently completed a 3-part video tutorial on how it was all done, and you can watch the series over at the ProVideo Coalition.
To celebrate the release of my first video tutorials for the ProVideo Coalition I’ve put together a small demonstration project that you can download here. For the best result you will need a copy of the Knoll Light Factory Spectacular plugin, but even if you don’t have a copy you will still be able to see how the scenes in the Centrica animation were put together, and you’ll be able to play around with the same files that I’ve used in the tutorials.

Dr. Jekyll’s Eye

Last modified on 2020-06-25 10:02:00 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

“Jekyll” is a 2007 BBC series starring James Nesbitt and Michelle Ryan, which updates the well known tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by adding modern technology and a conspiracy theory. The DVD authouring was handled by London company ‘Cheerful Scout’ who gave me the job of designing the DVD menus. The main menu of the DVD features a close-up of Hyde’s eye which was created in After Effects – and this post will demonstrate how it was done.

One thing I liked about the series was the low-key approach to visual effects. It must have been tempting for the Director to utilise a full arsenal of CGI technicians to depict the transformation between Jekyll and Hyde, but instead it was done in a much more refined manner – a simple close-up of the main character’s eye. The ‘Jekyll’ character – renamed ‘Dr. Jackman’ for the series – has perfectly normal, clear green eyes. The ‘Hyde’ character’s eye is brown and murky with disturbing bloodshot discolourations around the pupil. When the character transforms in the series we cut to a quick close-up of the eye as it opens and we can tell by the colouring what has just happened.

Still frames from the TV series

I decided that a suitable loop for the main menu would be a close-up of the eye as it blinks and transforms between the two different states. A selection of video clips from the show, along with the text for menu options, would appear as reflections in the eye.

Although I thought this was a fine concept I had to overcome several problems. If you watch the series you will never actually see the eye blink and transform as it does in the DVD menu. The show only ever features one eye at a time – and fairly quickly too. So I had two clips of an eye opening, one for Jekyll and one for Hyde, but they were separate shots and were never used together in the series. Each shot was less than a second long – about 20 frames – but using the main theme music as the sound bed for the menu meant I had to stretch these shots out for 40 seconds.

The next thing I realised was that the two eye shots didn’t line up. When the shots are edited next to each other the two eye’s position, size, shape and even skin tones are different. Because the series never showed the eye blink and transform from one to the other they didn’t have to line up perfectly, and if you consider how they would have been filmed (possibly even on different days with different actors) then you can’t really expect them to.

I wanted the menu options to be reflected in the eye but because of the way that DVDs work the text can’t move around. This meant I would need to adjust the size and position of the two eye shots so they matched – that way when the eyes blink and transform from one to the other the DVD menu text can stay in the same position.

Although we never saw the eye during the actual transformation in the series, I was clear on the type of effect I was after. I wanted the murky, discoloured patches of the eye to swirl around and flood into the white areas. In order to create this animation in a way that I could align it with the existing footage of the clear green eye, I would have to re-create the entire eye as a graphic element.

I started by building the swirly effect for the discoloured eye. Any time I’m trying to create an organic pattern or texture I think of fractal noise. I was confident that by using fractal noise, and other plug-ins that use the same underlying principles as fractal noise, I could create a realistic and effective eyeball entirely within After Effects.

The first step was to create a swirling matte which I would use to create an organic and flowing border for my fractal noise texture.

Just a solid with the ramp effect...

This was done with nothing more than a simple ramp, followed by the turbulent displace effect. The turbulent displace effect was set to loop seamlessly.

... with some Turbulent Displace, creating a seamless looping animated matte

Then I created a strip of fractal noise, also set to loop seamlessly, using this turbulent ramp as the matte.

Looping fractal noise with the track matte

In order to wrap this texture into a circle I would be using the Polar Coordinates filter, but the source layer needs to be a square in order for the result to be circular. So the animating strip of fractal texture is dropped into a large square composition.

Square pre-composition

The fractal strip is used twice, with a copy of the layer flipped upside down so we get a swirling border on both sides. I also used the offset filter and the CC wire-removal plug-in to make the texture tileable, so there is no visible seam. You can find more information on this technique over at the Creative Cow.

At this stage I’m working with a really big composition because I know that wrapping the layer into a circle will shrink it quite a bit and also crunch out a lot of the fine detail. My initial fractal strips were 3000 pixels wide, so this square precomposition is 3000 pixels square. Even though I was doing this at the start of 2007 I was using an old G4 Mac with AE v6.5 and the render times were pretty long!

Now that I had my texture set up in a square composition I could use the Polar Coordinates filter to wrap the texture into a circle. By animating the position of the fractal strip within the square composition I could make the texture move closer or further away from the centre. This way I could make the texture look as though it was swirling into the eyeball from nowhere, or out of nothing. Again- the Creative Cow article gives more details on this technique.

Finished manky texture, using Polar Coordinates

This circular texture will be used as the murky and discoloured elements of Hyde’s eye. I had already set up the fractal noise to loop seamlessly and next I rendered out 3 different versions using different random seeds for the fractal plug-ins, so I would have some variations and flexibility at the compositing stage.

So onto the next bit…

I said earlier that any time I think of organic textures, I think of fractal noise. So in order to create the appearance of loads of tiny blood vessels and capillaries on the eyeball I immediately thought of lightning. There are two lightning effects in AE, both of which use the principles of fractal noise (Perlin Noise) to generate effects which look like lightning. And lightning – being organic and fractal – looks a lot like blood capillaries, which are also organic and fractal.


Fair enough- if you apply the Advanced Lightning effect to a black solid you do get something that looks a lot more like lightning than an eyeball, but the trick is to keep at it. It made sense to me.

Once I found the basic parameters which I thought worked well, I duplicated the effect and moved the position parameters around. Eventually I had 18 copies of the Advanced Lightning effect on one layer, radiating out from the centre of the solid – which is where the pupil will be. Then I duplicated the solid and flipped it, to double the total number of veins.

Lots of Advanced Lightning arranged in a circ

Having looked closely at a few eyes for reference (I recommend Google because people think you’re a bit weird if you stare into their eyes) I saw that I needed a mixture of dark blue and red blood veins, so once I had finished creating the blue composition I started again but changed the colour of the effect to red.

The actual eyeball would simply be created by using the CC Sphere effect which expects layers to have a ratio a 2:1. So these two blood vessel compositions (red and blue) were created at a resolution of 3000×1500, to give me flexibility and spare resolution later on. These veins don’t animate.

More Lightning, this time coloured red

Now that I had created my manky fractal texture and my red and blue blood vessels, the next step was to create the basic eyeball itself. Fractal noise was again used, along with CC toner, to create a gently mottled yellow texture that would form the base layer of the eye. Again this composition was created with a 2:1 ratio for the CC Sphere effect. The colours for the CC toner effect were just eye-droppered from the video footage of the eyes from the show.

Simple mottled yellow texture

The next thing I realised by looking closely at real-life eyes is that they’re not perfectly smooth like glass marbles- they have a watery texture that varies in thickness. So I once again used fractal noise to create a separate texture to use as a bump-map for the eye, to try and make it look less flat and fake.

Once I had the basic parameters set up for the CC Sphere plug-in I copied and pasted the effect to the other layers which would also use the CC Sphere effect – the red and blue blood vessels and the fractal texture I was using as a bump-map. All of these compositions had been created at the same size (3000×1500) so the CC Sphere effect could be cut and pasted. The manky circular texture was tinted and layered on top as well.

Building up the finished eye was a process of adding the layers, duplicating them if necessary, and then adjusting transfer-modes and colours to taste. I had my basic eyeball texture – the yellow/white base colour – and over that I had my red blood veins, my blue blood veins, and the three different variations of turbulent fractal noise that I began with, which were tinted various shades of red, brown and yellow. At the top I had an adjustment layer with the CC Glass effect, using the fractal bump-map texture as the source to create an impression of depth.

Basic mottled texture with the CC Sphere effect
'Bump map' - more Fractal Noise
Red blood veins overlaid onto the base texture

To help the textures blend into the pupil I masked out two brown solids with a raggard circle and experimented with feathers and transfer modes- these layers were flat and didn’t use the CC Sphere effect.

Simple mask as a base for the pupil

Although I was happy with the progress I was making at this stage I realised that I wouldn’t be able to generate a completely realistic pupil using only fractal noise. Fractal noise is great but it has limits… so I grabbed the company’s digital SLR and took a quick macro-photograph of the closest person’s eye. I imported the photo of the eye, roughly masked out the iris, and just used the extract filter to get the iris texture on a transparent background. I positioned the iris in a 2:1 composition so the CC Sphere effect could be applied and the iris would be in the correct position for the composite. I also added a rectangular specular reflection which adds depth and realism.

Photo of James' eye, masked and extracted

Now that I had all my bits together it was just a matter of tweaking colours and transfer modes to get the desired effect. I ended up with this:

All layers composited together

At this stage the fractal noise textures animate but in a slow and linear fashion. Using time-remapping and some keyframe-easing the circular fractal texture was adjusted to make it look like it was flooding into the eye.  I also adjusted the lighting and used a masked-solid to vignette the outer parts of the eyeball.

A sequence of shots from the series was edited together, imported and positioned in a 2:1 composition for the CC Sphere effect.

Video loop in position for the CC Sphere effect

The video footage was scaled, masked and feathered and then composited onto the eye to give the impression of a specular reflection.

The next step was to look at the two source clips I had of the eyes opening. These were both stabilised using AE’s motion tracker and time-remapped to stretch out the shots to several seconds long each- the original clips were less than 25 frames duration. Because the source footage only showed the eyes opening it was  necessary to use time-remapping to ‘ping-pong’ each shot so that it looked like the eye was opening and then closing again. Because the clips were stretched out so much they were de-grained using the ‘remove grain’ filter to stop the slow down being so obvious. Then the eyeball in the Hyde shot was masked out and the two shots were aligned, scaled and sequenced so they ‘blinked’ in a loop for the same duration as the theme music.

Eyeball is masked out, de-grained and stabilised

The animating eyeball could now be composited underneath, with levels adjustments and some shadows to help the overall effect.

Animating eyeball composite

The DVD menu options were created and given the flickering glow look used in the opening title sequence. Although they needed to be mostly flat and legible a small amount of curvature was applied by using the optics compensation effect.

Final result, with text, film grain and camera movement added

As the video footage had been de-grained and stabilised, the last step was to add a small amount of camera movement and to re-apply grain to the overall sequence. The menu was then rendered out and delivered to the DVD authours.

Here is a section of the finished menu:

When one of my co-workers described the end result as ‘mingin’ I took it as a compliment…

Prehistoric Park – meeting the deadline with a screengrab

Last modified on 2020-06-25 10:02:00 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

How easy it is to work on any given project isn’t just a matter of how well you know After Effects. All sorts of factors can combine to make one job more or less demanding than the next. Designing the DVD menus for the ITV hit “Prehistoric Park” was probably the most demanding project I have ever worked on, and the extremely tight deadline I had was a significant factor in the job’s difficulty.

I had set up the Episode and Chapter select menus to resemble the security room which appeared in the series, and had a bank of TVs set up to display the various episodes or chapters for the viewer to choose from. Incidentally, this is all done in AE. There are no 3D applications involved here, just lots of cutouts arranged in 3D space. The TVs are each comprised of 4 solids arranged in 3D space – a photo of the front of a real monitor, and grey solids for the top and sides. You never see the back or the bottom so no need for anything there. Shadows and spotlights hide a multitude of rough sins!

Prehistoric Park - Episode Select Menu
Prehistoric Park - Episode Select Menu

But I digress..

I also had 2 computer screens as part of the set and although I had planned to design some sort of fake Prehistoric Park interface to go on them, I simply ran out of time. The deadline was approaching, it was past midnight and I just wanted to finish up and go home. There was no time for me to design something that would rival ‘Minority Report’. And because I had to let the various menu compositions render overnight there wasn’t much point in me working longer anyway, or the renders wouldn’t be done in time for the morning…

So I had to improvise. I screengrabbed the Mac I was working on, with After Effects open and me in the middle of working on the Prehistoric Park menus. Then I imported the still, dropped it into the composition to fill the laptop screen, finished up and went to bed. Problem solved in 30 seconds!

So if you look really carefully at the Episode and Chapter select menus in Prehistoric Park, you can actually see a screengrab of the After Effects project for the Prehistoric Park menus…

Remember what AE version 6.5 looked like?
Remember what AE version 6.5 looked like?

This wide shot shows the two laptop screens I needed to fill – the front one denotes which disc is being played, while the rear one will be used in the Chapter Select menu to navigate back to the Episode Select menu. When there’s a transition to play you can see the screen a bit more clearly…

DVD menu recursion...