Adding Noise & Grain back into your VFX

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So you’ve just spent hours, days, possibly even weeks arduously creating a visual effect. It might be a CG animation, matter painting, or a simply cell phone screen – and you’re ready to comp that bad boy into your final scene. So you color correct, motion track, and everything else you think necessary. But wait. Something looks a bit off. It doesn’t quite gel with the rest of your scene. The solution? Add Noise and Grain!

Noise is an artifacting seen when shooting on video, whereas Grain is an artifacting seen when shooting on film. In either case, when you comp your VFX, you will want to be sure to add this artifacting back into your work in order for it to appear more naturally as a part of your scene. It may appear to be subtle, but the eye picks up on these things, even subconsciously, and as you perfect your craft, it’s a good habit to get into to add grain back into your VFX before exporting.

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I’m going to show you my technique for adding grain quickly. To my surprise, after working professionally in the field close to five years, I couldn’t find any samples of adding grain when I searched for this technique online. So, for sake of variety after my effect break down, I will supply some alternative methods I also found online that more or less achieve the same goal.

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For my technique I’m using After Effects CC. With your layer selected go to Effects > Noise & Grain > Add Grain

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This will bring up a set of tools and controls for you in the Effect Control Panel

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For my magic recipe, after changing the view mode to FINAL OUTPUT, I adjust the intensity down to .1 >, the size to .08 >, and the softness to 1.5

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From there you can tweak as needed. For most general purposes, that is all you will need to get the job done. As I zoom into my comp I can see there is a nice grain running in through the grays and blacks that help blend the whole image together nicely.

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Now, beyond the technique I just described, there are a few other methods out there. For instance, there are some basic grain overlays that you can download for FREE here that will allow you to simply add above your layer, change the blend mode to OVERLAY, and adjust the opacity to your taste. Here is a video giving you the steps as well:

Otherwise, another method within After Effects is Match Grain (versus Add Grain which is the method I use). In my opinion, Match Grain doesn’t work well with a heavily compressed image or video. But if you are working in RAW, then this might be the best method for you! Check out the tutorial here that breaks down the effortless process of using a Grain Card in your composite to create the end result you are looking for.

Finally, if you would like to read more into the science of why noise and grain looks and performs the way it does, you can check this article here.

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Creating Fire Heat Waves in AE CC

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Fire is a common element VFX artists need to work with in television, film, commercial, and web content. In a previous lesson, we looked at where to find fire elements and how to quickly composite them into your scene. In this lesson we are going to take the fire composite one step further and add heat waves into our scene. Adding heat waves is more of a judgement call made by the compositor if he feels the element is necessary. But in the case of a larger, hotter fire, the area above and surrounding the flame becomes slightly distorted from heat rippling in gas form.

To create this heat rippling effect, we first want to create a new solid in our composition (I named mine DISPLACEMENT) and then go to EFFECT > SIMULATION > PARTICLE PLAYGROUND.

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That red funnel is called the CANON. Move the canon to the core of your heat source (in my comp I am using the fire element as my source).

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First thing you will want to do is increase the BARREL RADIUS so that the particles stretch horizontally with the width of the heat source. Increasing the barrel radius will stretch the particles in both X & Y directions. Using the POSITION controls, adjust the particles to begin at the base of the of the heat source (not below it).

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Now we need the particles to increase and match the speed of the heat source (in my case the fire). To do that, increase the velocity in the particle playground settings (aka speed) of the particles. For me, somewhere around 150 did the trick. The particle speed now looks good, but towards the end of the particle’s life it begins to slow and dip back down. I want the particle to continue a smooth trend upward. To fix this, I can reduce the particles GRAVITY FORCE to 0. With the gravity set to 0, there is no source to pull the particle back down to earth.

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The last thing you will want to do with the particle playground itself would be to increase the PARTICLE RADIUS to around seven or so. The size of the particle will determine the size of the wave. Keep this in mind as you decide how subtle or obvious you want this heat wave to appear.

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With our particle system running the way we want it, let’s duplicate it!  We will want to change the duplicate particle from RED to GREEN and adjust the velocity setting slightly so that it doesn’t follow the exact same path as the first particle system.

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We now need to pre-compose these two particle systems together by highlighting both in the timeline and hitting COMMAND+SHIFT+C on the keyboard. Be sure to move all attributes and name this as WAVES COMP.

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To finish, select the WAVES COMP and go to EFFECTS > DISTORT > DISPLACEMENT MAP. Under the effect controls, go to DISPLACEMENT MAP LAYER and change it to WAVES COMP. This will use the WAVES COMP as its reading source for the displacement; thus creating the heat waves. To control the amount of displacement, you can increase and decrease the vertical and horizontal displacement controls to your liking. There you go! Heat Waves!

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Finding & Compositing Fire Elements in AE CC

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Digitally composited fire is a common element that comes up regularly in television, film, commercial advertising, and web content. For obvious reasons, it is much safer than dealing with real fire, and generally it is significantly cheaper than dealing with practical live flames, which always includ additional expensive permits and safety staff on set. That is why it’s a must for VFX artists to understand where to get fire elements for use, how to composite them, and how to add that extra lively touch of heat waves coming off the flames.

WHERE TO FIND FIRE ELEMENTS?

Digital fire elements are easy to find. One of the most common fire element packages comes from VideoCopilot.net’s Action Essentials 2. The package additionally comes with other action elements including: smoke, muzzle flashes, bullet casings, explosions, and more. The 720p version is available for only $99.95, and the 2k version is only $249.95.

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MotionElements.com is another good resource for purchasing royalty free digital elements a la carte style. A quick search for fire video elements brought up hundreds of results ranging in price and quality. What I like particularly about this site is they also offer 30 FREE elements weekly via email, and occasionally fire elements come at no cost to you whatsoever. Check it out and sign up!

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ArtBeats.com operates similar to Motion Elements pay-per-item service. The footage here is generally better, but it also comes with a price. The old adage of “You get what you pay for” is true in this case, and with Art Beats you get the absolute best.

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HOW TO COMPOSITE FIRE

To composite a fire element, we first start out with our scene in After Effects CC. Here, I am using a personal stock photo of a pumpkin farm.

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From there, I am going to navigate to my Action Essentials Fire element on my computer’s hard drive and drag and drop it into my scene.

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To start compositing the fire into the scene, we obviously need to get rid of all the black. To do so, simply right click on the element in your timeline and change the BLENDING MODE to ADD.

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From there we want to adjust the SCALE and POSITION to line up the fire where we want it to go. For me, the fire element is a big too long for what I need so I am also going to use the PEN TOOL and create a MASK only around what I need and FEATHER the edge.

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Right now the fire still seems a bit flat, so to give it some pop I am going to add a glow. To do that, with your fire element selected in the timeline, go to EFFECT > STYLIZE > GLOW. Increase the GLOW RADIUS to your preference (I went around 150).

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In future lessons we will look at adding heat waves and smoke. As they are released, I will also add links to those tutorials here.

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Wrinkle & Basic Blemish Removal with Mocha AE and After Effects CC

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Beauty retouching has evolved throughout the ages. First, we had make up artists who would do their best to mask and cover various blemishes. Over time, it became possible to retouch photographs by hand to cover any blemishes the makeup artist was not able to clear. Now, we are not only able to retouch images, but high resolution video itself. Right now there is a growing niche market of beauty retouchers and artists taking on the role of a “digital make up artist,” retouching and removing various wrinkles, blemishes, shine, and more. I will show you how to remove wrinkles and basic blemishes using a combination of Mocha AE and After Effects CC in three easy steps:

– Create a Main Track in Mocha

– Create cover layers in Mocha

– Export and Composite in After Effects

 CREATE A MAIN TRACK IN MOCHA

With your footage in Mocha, first look at your subject and decide where exactly your will be focusing.

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Looking at my subject, I can see she has some general light blemish marks along her left cheek. Additionally, as she scrunches up her mouth she creates a dimple in the corner of her mouth which will act as a good “wrinkle” example for us, as well to show the range of this techniques use.

The goal here is to smooth out that dimple in the corner of her mouth while also blending away those light blemishes along her cheek. In the footage, she keeps her head in that general direction. This allows certain features of the face to be ideal for motion tracking, such as the eyebrows, chin, and nose (the ear and hairline is also good, however, in this sample the hair is covered by the ear and the wind is blowing her hair around her forehead, making these options not possible). Using the X spline tool, create a generic shape around the eyebrows, chin, and nose and TRACK FORWARD.

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You can label that layer in your LAYERS PANEL as MAIN TRACKER to help stay organized. We will not create an additional layer that we can animate over the course of the clip while linking it to the Main tracker for general motion.

CREATE COVER LAYER IN MOCHA

The Main track is to capture the overall movement of the camera and of subject’s head and face. Throughout the clip, the subject moves their mouth slightly with a few other facial muscles contorting. We need to create a cover layer that will focus on the wrinkle and blemish area while also remaining flexible as the subject contorts their face and mouth. From here, I am going to create a cover layer focusing on the areas mentioned.

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The mask at first seems a bit jagged, so highlight all the points, right click, and go to POINT > SMOOTH

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Now, make sure you have that new cover layer highlighted and go to LINK TO TRACK > MAIN TRACKER. This will now link the cover layer to the main tracker allowing it to follow along with the camera and facial movement. For the fine tuning of the face contorting throughout the clip, scrub through the footage. As you see the mask intersecting with areas of the mouth and her movement, grab the points and adjust accordingly. This will create a keyframe on the timeline indicating that the mask will be in that form at that exact point on the timeline. Continue to scrub through the footage adjusting all remaining points as needed.

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Once you think you are finished, let the footage playback a few times and watch the facial movements against your keyframed layer to make sure everything meets your expectations.

EXPORT AND COMPOSITE IN AFTER EFFECTS

Once you are ready to export the cover layer, go to EXPORT SHAPE DATA located in the lower right of the program window. At the pop up window choose COPY TO CLIPBOARD.

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Back in After Effects, create a new Adjustment Layer (CMD + OPT + Y) and then paste the mocha mask shape onto the adjustment layer by going to EDIT > PASTE MOCHA MASK.

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With the cover layer now composited on top of your source clip in After Effects, go ahead and add a BOX BLUR to the Adjustment Layer. Increase the BLUR RADIUS to 10 and open the mask settings and feather the edges to about 15.

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And now take a look at with the cover layer on and off

ON

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OFF

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You can see the blemishes have been removed and there is a general smoothness to the dimple around her mouth as well. As you increase the BLUR RADIUS, you can further smooth out the wrinkle. Be warned that increasing this too much will distort the image and will not look realistic whatsoever. You’ll need to use finesse. In another lesson, I will go into more detail on how to eliminate glaring blemishes, scars, and birth marks.

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Scar Blemish and Birthmark Removal in Mocha and After Effects CC

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In this day and age of digital revolution, it should be no surprise that make up artists are not the only coverage actors and actresses receive these days for blemishes, scars, shine, wrinkles, and more. Digital beauty retouching is a growing niche market where VFX artists are now able to accurately track the motion of their subjects face throughout the course of the video clip, and then isolate the blemished areas and clean them up further and more accurate than any makeup can cover. In a previous tutorial, I showed how to create a basic cover that can eliminate wrinkles and basic textured blemishes. In this tutorial, I wanted to focus on the harsher blemishes, scars, and birth marks that tend to stand out more prominently, and need some more direct care to treat.

I will break the technique down into three steps:

– Creating an isolated primary track

– Creating a Linked Mask of a Clear Area

– Exporting and Final Composite in After Effects

CREATING AN ISOLATED PRIMARY MASK

With your footage in Mocha, we are first going to create an isolated mask around the prominent blemish, scar, or birthmark. In my sample footage I am going to focus on two areas – one blemish and one mole as an example.

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In the previous, I had you create a general track mask around the whole face. This time, since the blemish area is so prominent, you can zoom in and create a mask just around the problem area itself using the X spline.

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Below the timeline you will find a set of arrows with a letter T by them indicating Track forward and backward. Go ahead and track forward to the end of the clip.

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In your layers panel you can rename the layers to BLEMISH 1 & BLEMISH 2 just to keep things organized.

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CREATING A LINKED MASK OF A CLEAR AREA

Using this tracked data, we are now going to create new layer masks just slightly next to the source blemishes in order to capture a blemish-free and clear reference area to composite over the blemish itself. With the X spline tool, go ahead and create a new layer mask just next to each isolated blemish.

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I also went ahead and changed the color of the cover mask to a blue and renamed the layers to COVER 1 & COVER 2 to keep things organized.

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At this point, LINK both COVER 1 and COVER 2 with their partnering BLEMISH 1 and BLEMISH 2. That way, both covers follow along perfectly with their blemish counterparts.

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Scrub through the footage or simply let it playback and make sure both covers follow perfectly.

EXPORTING AND FINAL COMPOSITE

In this situation you will want to export each cover layer one at a time because you will be compositing each potentially slightly different from one another and will need individual control. With the first cover layer selected, go to EXPORT SHAPE DATA in the lower right of the program window, select it, and choose COPY TO CLIPBOARD on the pop up window.

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Back in after effects we are going to DUPLICATE the source video (CMD + D). With the duplicate video selected go to EDIT > PASTE MOCHA MASK.

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Zoom in on the cover mask and now click and drag the mask over the blemish.

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Open up the Mask controls under the duplicate layer and increase the feather and slightly decrease the expansion. You can also SOLO the layer to see how much feather you are applying.

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You can now play back the video and make sure the feather and expansion amount is adjusted appropriately so that it looks natural and properly covers the blemish. Repeat the process for Blem 2 and for any other scar or birth mark you need to digitally remove.

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Linking Mocha Track Masks

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Mocha is a great program for tracking. That data can then be applied and used in other software programs such as After Effects for various reasons and uses. Such examples include beauty retouching, set extensions, and rotoscoping among others. In Mocha you can use a tool to create a tracking area. The program then goes frame by frame and tracks the area designated. You are then able to use the data from that one tracking area, or, what I will be showing today, is using that track to act as a PARENT track and link other mocha objects to it. In this tutorial, I will show how you can track a portion of the rear end of a car that’s moving, and then use that track as the parent while highlighting other portions of the car rear (license plate, logos, emblems, etc.) and linking them to that parent track. This is a great technique to use to save time. Instead of tracking two or more objects independently, you only need to track one item and parent the rest using the same data.

I will break down this technique in the following steps:

– Creating a Parent Track

– Linking Tracks

– Exporting linked tracks and example uses in After Effects

CREATING A PARENT TRACK

At the start, I already have my footage open and ready in Mocha AE. To create a parent track I am going to use the X spline tool to create an object around the large concave marking in the rear of the vehicle.

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Below the timeline there is the Track forward and Track backward buttons as marked by arrow icons with the letter T. Go ahead and select the Track Forward button and allow Mocha to track the object we just created.

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Once the tracking has finished, in the LAYERS PANEL rename Layer 1 to Main TRACKER as this will help identify what you are linking to.

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LINKING TRACKS

Now that you have your main tracker, you can create new layers using the X spline tool again and link them to this main tracker to use the same set of tracked data. In this example of the car driving down the street, I am creating new layers around the license plate, Cooper title, and emblem that are all the on the rear of the vehicle and look to follow the same path as the main track layer I have created.

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In order to link these new layers to the main tracker, navigate back to the layers panel, select the layer you want linked to the main tracker, and then about halfway down the window on the left you will see a option for LINK TO TRACK. Open that drop down menu and select Main Tracker to create that link.

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Now these new layers you have created and linked to the main tracker follow along the same path! Congratulations!

EXPORTING LINKED TRACKS AND EXAMPLE USES IN AFTER EFFECTS

To get this tracked data out of Mocha and into After Effects where we can continue our compositing needs, simply go to EXPORT SHAPE DATA located in the lower right of the program window, a new window will open, and then choose ALL VISIBLE LAYERS and COPY TO CLIPBOARD.

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Back in After Effects, create a new Adjustment Layer and then go to EDIT > PASTE MOCHA MASKS. This will apply the shape data to the adjustment layer and create its own set of masks using the main tracker tracking data. At this point, you can composite as needed. In this example, I added a BOX BLUR to the layer, increased and feathered as needed, and now I have a tracked censor on the car.

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Another thing I can do is create a new solid and paste the Mocha Mask to the solid. This technique can always be used with JPEGs or other images if you wanted to track a new image onto the car or license plate.

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Using Mocha Masks in After Effects CC

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Mocha AE is the version of Mocha that comes with After Effects CC. It has a great number of tools to access with tracking and rotoscoping, however, it’s not nearly as robust as the stand alone Mocha Pro program. Today we will take a look on how to take footage from After Effects CC, bring it into Mocha AE, track the footage, and then create a mocha mask from the tracking data to apply back into After Effects. To clarify, a Mocha Mask is a no different from any Mask created in After Effects using the pen tool or marquee tool; it just uses the tracking data created in Mocha to move the mask instead of going frame by frame by hand and moving anchor points. Mocha Masks are great to use when you are handling beauty retouching, censoring a section of video, or isolating a specific part of video for color correction.

The steps are as follows:

– Sending footage from After Effects to Mocha AE

– Tracking with Mocha AE

– Exporting Shape Data and Importing Mocha Mask into After Effects

– Example use of Mocha Mask

SENDING FOOTAGE FROM AFTER EFFECTS TO MOCHA AE

Once you create a new comp with your video footage, select the footage from the TIMELINE and go to ANIMATION > TRACK IN MOCHA AE.

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TRACKING WITH MOCHA AE

With your footage now in Mocha AE, first select the X SPLINE tool along the top tool bar.

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Using the X spline tool, create a shape around the item you want to mask. In this piece of footage I decided to track an unwanted logo on the side of a car.

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If you want to smooth the edges of your x spline and not have such jagged corners, RIGHT CLICK on the mask and go to  POINT > SMOOTH.

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With your shape created you have the ability to name the shape in the LAYER PANEL along with changing the masks color. This is helpful when creating a series of masks you need to keep track of.

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In order to track the mask you’ve created, look at the tools below the timeline. You will see a RIGHT ARROW with the letter T. This is for track forward (the broken arrow with a T next to it is for only tracking one frame forward). Click the Track Forward button and let Mocha analyze the footage as needed.

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EXPORTING SHAPE DATA AND IMPORTING MOCHA MASK INTO AFTER EFFECTS

With your mask now tracked the way you want it, you’ll need to export the data in such a way that you can import a mocha mask into After Effects. To export your Mocha Track data, select EXPORT SHAPE DATA located in the lower right of the program. From here, a message window will appear. Select COPY TO CLIPBOARD.

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Back in After Effects, create a new Adjustment Layer CMD + OPTION + Y. With this new layer selected go to EDIT > PASTE MOCHA MASK.

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EXAMPLE USE OF MOCHA MASK

As an example, I will quickly show you how to censor your tracked item now that you have a functioning Mocha Mask in After Effects. In After Effects, go to EFFECTS & PRESETS and type in BOX BLUR. Then click & drag the box blur effect and drop it onto the adjustment layer. With the blur effect added to the adjustment layer, you have the ability to go into the EFFECT controls and increase the RADIUS and ITERATIONS until the desired effect is reached. With the Mask tracked to the footage, the effect with follow along perfectly!

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Using Adobe Hue CC

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Adobe recently released their Creative Cloud 2015 update, and it came with a whole new bunch of apps for your smart device that partner up with your full applications. One new and powerful app is Adobe Hue CC, which allows you to take a photo using your smart device, select a color swatch from the photo, and apply it as a color hue to your video footage via applications such as Premier Pro CC and Adobe After Effects CC. In this tutorial, I will show you how to operate the app and then apply a hue to your footage in After Effects in three simple steps:

– Understanding Adobe Hue

– Capturing an image with Adobe Hue

– Applying the look to your footage

UNDERSTANDING ADOBE HUE

Adobe Hue CC is a recently released app in conjunction with the 2015 application updates to Creative Cloud. The app works with your smart devices (currently only Apple products) and allows you to capture an image with the device’s camera, and then allow you to take the color data and apply it to your video footage.

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Here is a quick overview of how the app performs.

CAPTURING AN IMAGE WITH ADOBE HUE

The app itself is very intuitive. Simply open the app and give it permission to use your smart device’s camera. Once the camera is opened just point and shoot.

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You will notice as you point the camera there are a series of color orbs floating in the image. These are the swatches that are sampling the color data from the image you are providing. Once you snap the photo, you will be taken to a page with a stock sample image and the same color data swatches. Here, you can test and choose which color hue is best suited for your needs. In addition, you are able to increase and decrease the amount of the applied effect with the slider control, and even upload additional reference photos or videos to preview with your look.

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When you are happy with the look, simply select the CHECKMARK icon at the bottom of the screen and you will be taken to your LIBRARIES page. Here, you are able to review your looks, edit them with alternative color data swatches, and create and categorize new libraries as needed.

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APPLYING THE LOOK TO YOUR FOOTAGE

Back in Adobe After Effects CC, you are now able to load up and work with your footage as usual. However, next to the EFFECTS & PRESETS tab you will now notice a new tab for LIBRARIES.

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Here you will find all the looks you have created on your Adobe Hue CC app. To apply the look to your footage, simply drag and drop the look directly onto the footage, or first create an adjustment, and apply the look to the adjustment layer.

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If you twirl open the layer you can go through EFFECTS and see what options you have. You can adjust the opacity of the look – which simply means you are able to fade off the look and blend it more with the original footage if the look is too intense or needed to be keyed on or off over time. You also can create a mask around a section of your footage and set the MASK REFERENCE to use the mask you create to apply the look only to the masked region on the footage.

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Overall, I find the app extremely intuitive and provides the ability to apply the looks I find in everyday life to a project I am working on. This is most definitely a welcomed addition to the already very powerful Creative Cloud line up.

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Understanding the Roto Node in NUKE 9

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The Foundry’s NUKE is at the forefront for leading compositing programs in visual effects for television and film. Great news for those of you who want to learn NUKE and be ready for professional studio work. There is a FREE, non-commercial version to download. Once installed, you are ready to take on this tutorial and learn the functions of the roto node in a node based compositing program.

PLEASE NOTE* I have covered the topic of rotoscoping in basic and advanced tutorials previously in other compositing programs – Adobe After Effects & Silhouette FX. This tutorial is for those coming in with the knowledge of what rotoscoping is, but need or want to learn the interface of NUKE, since it is a node based compositing program. If you want to learn more of what rotoscoping is, please refer to my older lessons where I spend more time explaining the concept of rotoscoping.

I will break this tutorial down into three parts:

–       Adding the Roto Node

–       Shapes and Splines

–       Keyframing Shapes Over Time

ADDING THE ROTO NODE

Go to the DRAW NODES on the left hand side node bar > CLICK > and select ROTO. In your Node Graph, a roto node will appear. Simply hook up the viewer to the roto node in order to proceed.

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For those of you who are used to stacking layers in other compositing programs, such as After Effects, this might take some getting used to. Though the concepts remain the same, with node tree you are essentially mind mapping your ideas that are connected. I will go into more detail on Node Trees in another lesson.

SHAPES AND SPLINES

In your viewer, you can CLICK and create an anchor point. Continue to click around and you will start creating a shape. You can close the shape by either clicking back onto the first anchor point you created, or by simply hitting the ENTER key at any time.

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With the roto node active, on the left side of your viewer you will see your curves selections. The most commonly used are Bezier and B spline, but feel free to experiment with them all.

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Above the curves selection you will find your selection tools. These will control how and what you select of your splines in the viewer. For example, SELECT POINTS will allow you to select anchor points without selecting the splines themselves. Again, I encourage you to explore and tinker with all the tools to become familiar.

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In your properties window to the right, you will notice a list of shapes you have drawn in your viewer which will help you keep organized and remember which spline was used. Additionally, next to the shape name you have the EYE ICON which turns the shapes visibility on or off. Next to that is the LOCK ICON, allowing you to lock individuals shapes. That way they cannot receive or remove any keyframe data that has been established to that point. Next to that is the COLOR ICON which allows you to double click and choose a new color for that shape. The rest we will explore in a later lesson.

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KEYFRAMING SHAPES OVER TIME

Now let’s take a look at how we can start to animate these shapes across a timeline. By default the AUTO KEY feature is enabled. This is the skeleton key icon you see in the upper left hand corner near your selection tools.

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With this feature enabled, you can look at your frame on the timeline and see there is already a blue keyframe placed there.

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You can take your mouse and move the playhead further down the timeline, and then make adjustments to your shapes. You will notice another keyframe is automatically added (notice at frame one, and then again at frame 20, there is a blue dash representing the keyframe).

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Using your selection tools, you can move each control point individually, or you can highlight some or all of the control points on the shape and move those as needed. Additionally, you can go to your PROPERTIES window on the right and open the TRANSFORM tab to bring up the transform controls on your shapes. This will allow you to create separate transform keyframes on the timeline that handle transform, scale, and rotation.

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Understanding Z Spheres in ZBrush

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Z Brush is a digital 3D sculpting, texturing, and painting tool. The most basic shape used for sculpting in Zbrush is called a Zsphere. A Zsphere is the quickest way for an artist to map and sketch out a base mesh. Once the Zsphere is roughed into the artist’s likeness they must then convert the Zsphere into a 3D Poly Mesh in order to continue to refine their model. In this tutorial, I will show you the basics of Zsphere manipulation along with the basic navigation tools for getting around Zbrush. The steps include:

–       Creating the Initial Zsphere

–       Navigating around the Zsphere

–       Developing the Zsphere

CREATING THE INITIAL ZSPHERE

When you open Zbrush, navigate to the TOOL palette in the upper right corner of the program.

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From here, click on the larger golden “S” icon that reads “SimpleBrush” beneath it in order to view all of the tools to choose from.

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Locate the tool that is called Zsphere (third row down on the far right side) and click on it in order to select the tool to make it active. Please note that in Zbrush, a “model” refers to a tool. This tutorial will remain using that same terminology.

In the canvas you will CLICK AND DRAG with the mouse, and as you do so you will see a Zsphere appear and grow larger or smaller as you continue to drag the mouse. Once the ZSphere is a suitable size release the mouse and you will have created your Zsphere.

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NAVIGATING AROUND THE ZSPHERE

The Zsphere may appear to be lop sided or not centered on your canvas, so let’s quickly go over how to navigate within your canvas window. Along the top tool bar you will want to select EDIT & MOVE which will in turn to DRAW.

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To move your tool, the first option is using the MOVE SCALE & ROTATE buttons located on the right vertical tool bar. Simply CLICK & DRAG on top of whichever navigation button you need in order to maneuver around the tool. Hold SHIFT in order to lock movements to 45 degree angles. This is especially important when wanting to get a perfectly straight-on or profile view of your tool.

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Otherwise, you can also use the shortcut keys as follows to navigate:

–       ROTATE: CLICK & DRAG anywhere in blank canvas

–       MOVE: ALT+CLICK & DRAG anywhere in blank canvas

–       SCALE: ALT + CLICK & DRAG which will start MOVE, then release the ALT and continue to DRAG in order to start Scaling. (*a bit wonky I know, I tend to use the navigation keys personally)

DEVELOPING THE ZPHERE

Head back to the top tool bar to keep EDIT on, and now switch MOVE to DRAW again. This will allow you to start building up and developing your Zsphere.

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By hitting ‘X’ on your keyboard, you will activate the shortcut key for SYMMETRY. By doing so, whatever you draw on the right side will be mirrored exactly the same on the left side. This is especially helpful when roughing in something like the human form. I will go into more detail specifically on using and mastering the symmetry transformation in a later tutorial. CLICK & DRAG on your main Zsphere now in order to create two symmetrically corresponding Zspheres.

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You can move and adjust those two new Zspheres by switching back over to the Move transformation:

–       Q – Draw

–       W – Move

–       E – Scale

–       R – Rotate

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By toggling back and forth between DRAW MOVE SCALE AND ROTATE transformations, you will have the basic building blocks to developing your Zsphere. Here I developed a very crude stick figure person.

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Mocha Tracking in Silhouette FX

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Silhouette FX is a dedicated rotoscoping program. Rotoscoping is the process of tracing a video image frame by frame creating a matte for later compositing. Essentially, think of of a father and son throwing a football back and forth in the front yard. What if you wanted them playing catch in a more obvious atmosphere – like a warring alien planet! You will need to rotoscope, or trace, around the father, the son, and that darn football in every single frame of that video clip. Once you are done tracing, you will have a series of black and white images called an alpha matte. Other software can then interrupt the image’s black as transparent and white as opaque. Therefore, the background will be removed, leaving you with just a go-lucky father and son playing catch. Now you can add in a new background, like that warring alien planet, underwater Atlantis, or in front of the great Pyramids of Egypt.

In the past I have shown you how to create an alpha using Silhouette FX, and also rotoscoping with Silhouette FX. This time, I am going to break down how to motion track. This is an advanced technique that is required for reducing the workload of rotoscoping by hand each frame of movement. The idea is that if you can mocha track an entire limb, for instance, throughout a shot, you will be able to apply your shapes using that tracked data and greatly reduce, if not fully eliminate, the need for manual frame by frame adjustments. I will now show you how to mocha track in three basic steps:

  • Setting Up Your Track
  • Tracking
  • Filing and Functionality

SETTING UP YOUR TRACK

Mocha Tracking is a partnership in the newest version of Silhouette from the planar tracking program, Mocha. I use this tracking program the most while working, and I find it to be the most accurate in diverse situations. Mocha is a planar tracker, which means that you create a shape (plane) that, when isolated, you can use Mocha to track from similarities in pattern, color, contrast, etc. The tracking shape will then follow along the path of tracking while storing the information in a layer (known as the tracking matrix). By storing the tracking information in a layer, you are able to add limitless shapes under that layer and the tracking data will apply to each of those shapes. Extremely helpful!

In the scene I am using I have a pair of hands with tracking markers on them. Tracking markers are not necessary, but are helpful in certain circumstances and encouraged if you have a savvy VFX supervisor on set to make those calls.

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To Mocha track, I first need to create a layer in the Object list panel.

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From there, using the B spline tool (it doesn’t matter if you use x, b, or bezier. I just prefer using B spline with human anatomy) draw a shape around the “area” you want to track. Now, I say “area” because you might want to track just the thumb, the index finger, wrist, or something that has a consistent movement throughout the clip. Think of a man walking from the profile view – you wouldn’t track his head and expect your shapes to adhere to the legs properly. You will need to track the head separate from shapes on the head (nose, chin, forehead), the thigh separate from the calf, the forearm separate from the shoulder, and so on. Since each section usually takes 5 – 10 shapes to complete, having a track all of those shapes can follow is a huge time saver. So again, I am going to draw a shape around the “area” I want to track.

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Keep the tracking shape tight around the area you want to track without it being a pixel perfect shape to what you need to roto. It needs some data from the surrounding area to differentiate pattern and movement. At this point, let’s go into our tracker controls.

TRACKING

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Looking at the controls (unless I have a scene where the cameraman is moving around a scene while filming) I generally only want to track the TRANSLATION, SCALE, and ROTATION.

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In Pre-Processing, you can check on PREVIEW and play with the Blur, Sharpen, contrast, etc., until you get a high contrasted image that gives nice shapes and patterns for your tracking shape to follow.

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Now go ahead and Track forward.

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FILING AND FUNCTIONALITY 

Back in the Timeline you will notice the LAYER you created now has multiple keyframes under whats called the TRANSFORM MATRIX.

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This is your tracking storage, and now you can create any number of shapes you need under that layer, and that tracking data will now apply to each of those shapes.

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Notice towards the bottom of the list, I labeled that initial b spline I used for tracking as my “tracking shape” and just locked it and turned it off. That way, if I need to adjust the track down the line, I still have it for reference.

For your reference, here is the video that particular sample clip came from. In this example, you can see how rotoscoping became important for us (me and the other artist working on this clip) in order to strategically animate on new skin tones and iron man hand blasters.

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Rotoscoping with Silhouette FX

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Rotoscoping is the process of tracing over footage, frame by frame, in order to create a matte to be used as an element for compositing over another background. Think of it this way; say you have a three second video clip of a golfer hitting a ball. If you wanted to place that golfer on an alien planet, or deep underwater, playing a round of golf, then you would need to go frame by frame tracing around the golfer swinging his club and then composite over the new background. Rotoscoping is a time intensive process. With the example of the three second video clip of the golfer, at the standard rate of 24 frames per second, that means you would need to rotoscope 72 frames to complete the sequence. In the past, I’ve showed you how to use the rotobrush in After Effects. However, with longer sequences, it’s better to use a dedicated roto program such as Silhouette FX. In this tutorial, I am going to show you the basics of roto with Silhouette FX in two simple steps:

– Breaking the image down into Shapes

– Moving Shapes throughout the Sequence

*Before we begin, if you need help setting up your shot, or need some initial background on Silhouette FX, I would recommend you refer to a previous tutorial I posted titled “Creating an Alpha in Silhouette FX” which you can review here.

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BREAKING THE IMAGE DOWN INTO SHAPES

Once you import your media and setup a new session, you will need to select your spline tool from the left hand side of the canvas window. Your options are B spline, X spline, or Bezier. Please note that if you intend to import the roto’d footage into NUKE for compositing, then you will want to avoid using the X spline tool as there seems to be issues with NUKE interrupting those particular splines. I would recommend going with the B spline in that instance.

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Whichever tool you decide to use is up to you, however, the technique is universally the same. A successful roto is built upon breaking the image down into a series of shapes. In this example of a video clip of some hands, I will focus on the left hand first and break down each finger into a series of ovals and curves that contours around the joints.

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This is because as the video clip progresses and the hand begins to move and flex, moving individual shapes located around the anatomical joints is much easier than trying to create one large outlining shape around the entire hand and trying to move that frame by frame. It doesn’t matter what the roto subject is – a hand, a face, a machine, a book – it is your job as the roto artist to visually break down the subject into a series of shapes and animate those shapes over the course of the footage.

MOVING SHAPES THROUGHOUT THE SEQUENCE

At the bottom of Silhouette you will see the TIMELINE. This is where you will be able to visually see all the keyframes and movements you are making with the shapes throughout the sequence.

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Here are the playback controls:

X – Move one frame forward

Z – Move one frame backward

L – play video forward

K – pause video playback

J – rewind video playback

You can also zoom in and out of your image with ‘I’ and ‘O,’ and SPACEBAR allows you to pan around the image as needed.

As you move forward frame by frame you will not be using the X spline or Bezier tool to move the shapes you created. Instead, you will be using the Transform tool or the Reshape tool:

T – transform Tool > creates a box form around your shape allowing you to manipulate the corners of the box in order to stretch and form the shape. This is ideal for most simple movements between frames. The more basic movements you make, the less chance there is for “jitter,” which is an anchor point from one of your shapes jumping around from being manipulated wrong throughout the sequence.

R – Reshape Tool > this tool allows you to manipulate the individual anchor points of each shape. This should be a last resort method of moving a shape and only needs to be used in shapes that have extreme changes that cannot be captured using the transform tool. An example would be an article of clothing where a wrinkle appears for a few frames and then disappears.

To summarize, you will be using the X and Z keys to move forward and backward one frame at a time and using the Transform tool to move the shapes to capture broad movements, or the Reshape tool to capture fine details. Once your finished, use the J,K, and L keys to playback the footage and watch the shapes to make sure they stay on track with the roto subject. If there is an issue, simply stop the play back and make the adjustment as needed.

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Creating an Alpha Matte in Silhouette FX

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An Alpha Matte is a black and white piece of footage that instructs a program what is transparent or opaque. Think of a family photo – say you took that photo of you and your family in your living room, but you wish you could place them in a more exciting environment. By creating an alpha matte you can instruct a program, such as Adobe After Effects, to only see you and your family and make the background completely transparent. Thus, allowing you to insert a new and exciting background – outer space, the jungle, Paris, etc. I will show you how to create an alpha matte using Silhouette FX in three simple steps:

– Setting up a New Session

– Creating the Alpha Matte

– Exporting the Alpha Matte

SETTING UP A NEW SESSION

When you first open Silhouette FX you will need to import the footage you intend to roto – this may be a video clip or a sequence of JPEGs or DPX images. For this example I will be creating an alpha matte from a single image. To import the footage go to FILE > IMPORT > MEDIA, and then navigate to the desired footage and select OPEN.

You will notice the footage is then added to your PROJECT PANEL for visual reference. At this point, you need to open a new session with this media before you can start to create your matte – think of a new session as a new composition if you are more familiar with an Adobe After Effects pipeline. To create a new session, simply go to SESSION in the top toolbar and select NEW SESSION (or hotkey COMMAND + N). An info window will pop up allowing you to name the session and adjust any settings needed. For this training exercise, keep all the default settings and leave only ROTO checked as the available Node.

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CREATING THE ALPHA MATTE

Now that you are ready to create the alpha matte you will notice a set of tools located on the upper left hand side of the canvas window.

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About halfway down that list you will see an icon that looks like a dot with a curved line and an x – this is the X SPLINE TOOL. Just beneath that is the BEZIER TOOL.

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Both tools are sufficient in completing this task. If you use Photoshop you most likely already know all the subtleties and tricks behind them. I find the X Spline tool better suited for rotoscoping human anatomy. However, if you intend to export your matte to composite into NUKE, there tends to be some ingest errors as X Splines are not supported in NUKE and, in turn, attempts to be converted into faulty Beziers.

To use either tool simply click and select it from the tool set, navigate over the canvas image and click to create an ANCHOR POINT. Move your mouse and click again to create a second ANCHOR POINT. Now you’ll notice a line is connecting the two points. Continue to click around to create your desired shape and finish by returning to the first anchor point you created. Click on it one final time to close and create an OBJECT.

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OBJECTS you create are then stored in the OBJECT LIST window located to the right of your screen.

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You will also notice in the lower right of the OBJECT LIST window is a ‘+” icon – if you click on it you will create a LAYER. You can highlight shapes and drag and store them in these layers you create. Layers are helpful to help sort all of the objects you create for quick reference and control.

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It’s good to break your image down into a series of objects instead of trying to outline the entire subject with one giant outline. It is easier to make adjustments to isolated shapes.

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EXPORTING THE ALPHA MATTE

Once your alpha matte is finished, you are ready to export. Simply go to SESSION > RENDER SESSION (or hotkey COMMAND + R).

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You will be presented with a Render Options window. To ensure you are getting just the alpha matte, uncheck COLOR and make sure ALPHA is the only format checked. For format type, use the drop down menu to select TIFF. Change the range to CURRENT FRAME. Finally, to finish under output, you can select the three dots next to DIRECTORY to be able to set your render destination, input a FILENAME, and hit APPLY.

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You have now successfully created and exported your alpha matte. From here, you can import the matte into another software program, such as Adobe After Effects, and combine the matte with the original image in order to eliminate the background and continue to composite as needed.

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BASIC Screen Replacement with Mocha & After Effects CC

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One very common visual effect is the screen replacement. You see this in movies, TV shows, commercials, corporate videos, music videos, documentaries – you name it. The screen is replaced with an alternative image or video, most commonly on televisions, computer screens, etc. Now, phone and tablet screens are becoming more common.

I will show you how to create this effect in three simple steps:

  • Set up your new comp in After Effects CC
  • Import and track screen in Mocha AE
  • Export data and finish comp in After Effects

SET UP YOUR NEW COMP IN AFTER EFFECTS

First you will need two different pieces of footage – one is the source video clip of the screen that is going to be tracked and replaced.

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And the other is the image or video that you plan to comp on top of the screen.

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Go to COMPOSITION > NEW COMP (Hotkey is COMMAND+N) – create the parameters needed for your source clip (time, fps, size, etc.). Drag your footage into the comps timeline, making sure to keep your screen replacement footage layered on top. For now, you can keep the visibility turned off (click the EYE icon next to the later to toggle visibility).

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IMPORT AND TRACK SCREEN IN MOCHA AE

We are now ready to send your footage into Mocha AE, to do that simply highlight your source footage in the layers panel and go to ANIMATION > TRACK IN MOCHA AE. If you’ve never opened mocha AE before, it will ask you if you want to register the product (feel free to fill this out or simply hit ‘register later’). You will then see a projects panel where you will notice your source clip is already loaded in for frame rate, duration, and title. Hit OK to confirm these settings.

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Using the X Spline tool you will be creating a shape around the screen you want to replace.

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To use this tool, simply click and you will place an anchor point in your shape. The shape we want will have four anchor points – one around each corner of the screen we want to replace. When you connect back with the first anchor point, your shape will close and be complete.

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Below the viewer you will find the track options.

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Go ahead and choose TRACK FOWARD allowing Mocha to track the screen using the X spline shape you drew.

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Across the top toll bar you will find a square icon with an ‘S’ in the middle (hovering over the shape will reveal ‘show planar surface’), select this, and you will notice a blue box has appeared within our X spline shape.

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This blue box will dictate where the corner pin data will place your image or video in relation to replacing the screen. At this point, grab each corner of the blue box and line it up with the edge of the screen. When you are finished, you can test how the border looks by going to the left INSERT CLIP drop down menu and selecting one of the grid layouts.

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EXPORT DATA AND FINISH COMP IN AFTER EFFECTS

To export this track data and use it back in After Effects, locate EXPORT TRACKING DATA in the lower part of the screen, select it, and use the drop down menu to locate the option AFTER EFFECTS CORNER PIN [SUPPORTS MOTION BLUR]. Finish by choosing COPY TO CLIPBOARD.

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Back in After Effects you can turn the visibility back on for the image or video you will be using to comp on top of the screen. Have the image or video selected in the layer panel and choose EDIT > PASTE. The Mocha AE track data that was copied to the clipboard will be pasted into the image or video and correlate all the corner pin needed for a successful comp.

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You will notice the image or video will not be comped correct over the screen after you paste the corner pin data. To fix this, highlight the image or video in the layer panel and hit ‘A’ to bring up the anchor point. From here you will need to use the axis sliders to move the image or video into place.

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Understanding the Roles in Visual Effects – Part 2

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Visual Effects, VFX for short, is a big ocean and covers numerous jobs. Last time, in part 1, I explored several roles including previs artists, data wranglers, research & development, math moving, compositing, roto/paint artists, and technical directors. Each plays a smaller part towards a larger goal. I’m here to help make sense of all those roles to give you a better informed decision if you plan to heading into VFX, or at the very least, offer some clarification to some of those more obscure sounding roles. So with that, let’s start with the fur groomer!

*Take Note* Each role header is a link that leads to a related creative reel or article going more in depth on the material. Enjoy!

Fur Groomer

This title kind of makes me giggle whenever I read it, but actually this name is quite apt given their role. A grooming VFX artist is the person who specifically focuses on fur, hair, and feathers. Designing them in 3D, controlling how they move throughout the elements, and all other physical parameters surrounding those points. Most grooming artists are well versed in Maya and similar 3D modeling and shading programs.

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Modeler

This artist, as you might have guessed, is the person who creates the 3D models of people, creatures, etc. using various 3D modeling software such as Maya, Cinema 4D, or 3DS Max.

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Environment Artist

Similar to the Modeler (and most modelers market themselves also as environment artists), this artist develops the digital 3D landscapes found in some CG films, TV shows, and video games.

Texture Artist

As the title sounds, this artist creates the textures that go on the 3D models and environments. This can be anything from human skin, scales, cobblestone roads, or a brick and mortar castle exterior.

Matte Painter

A matte painter creates digital paintings of a landscape or set and is then composited into the background, giving the illusion of an environment that did not exist at the time of filming. Sometimes, the scene could have been shot in a green screen room, and an environment artist could develop the 3D foreground. Then a matte painter would create the 2D painting composited in the background. Sometimes, instead of flying to Paris for that one shot, a matte painter will develop a French landscape that is then composited into the background of a live action shot giving the illusion the actors are sitting at a café in Paris with the Eiffel Tower perfectly positioned in the background.

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Rigger

The rigger then takes the 3D model created by the modeler and creates the skeleton – the physical structure, joints, flexibility, range of motion, etc. – that defines how the model moves and interacts with its world.

Animator

The animator then takes the rigged model and breathes life into the object by moving it around as required for the specific scene. This can be anything from walking, talking, blinking, breathing, pointing, or any number of specific movements and actions. It is not uncommon to have a team of several animators working on a single model to create the most realistic motion.

Motion Capture

Aside from an animator, motion capture is another process to breath life into a rigged model. This process is a bit more physical as a performer wears a motion capture suit that is covered in marker points that correspond with similar marker points on the models rig. Therefore, when a motion capture artist moves their arm in real time, the model moves its arm. This method has been gaining popularity over the last decade with memorable performances from actors like Andy Serkis playing the role of Golem in Lord of the Rings.

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Visual Effects Supervisor & Coordinator

Visual Effects Supervisors work directly with the director on and off the set to ensure planning and execution of the final image is achieved. The coordinator works directly under the supervisor and makes sure the artists work smoothly and coherently with the same vision the director and supervisor are working towards. For instance, the supervisor works with the director to create the physical space with all the correct markers and camera movements to have a dragon destroy a village. The supervisor then has the coordinator coordinate the team of artists to execute that vision (environment artist creates the town, matte painter designs background, modeler designs dragon, texture artist designs the scales, rigger builds the dragons skeleton, etc. etc. …).

I hope this post has helped educate you on some of the most crucial roles in the big machine that is visual effects. Each role is a small cog in a much larger working device – each equally important and necessary to reach the final goal. If you have any questions or comments about any of the roles I mentioned, or if I’ve forgotten a role you wanted to learn more about, then leave a comment below!

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