Since no program can offer every possible feature or capability, users are increasingly turning to third-party graphics plug-ins to satisfy their needs. Plug-in developers use the host program’s API (Application Programming Interface), SDK (Software Development Kit) and any other technical support the host vendor offers to ensure that their plug-in software dovetails with all of the commands and capabilities within the host program. Since the fate of a graphics plug-in is directly tied to the success of its host program, it’s no surprise that most developers target the most widely-installed programs: After Effects, Shake,Combustion and Digital Fusion.
For these 2D effects/compositing systems, developers typically write plug-ins that add a particular effect, like glows, blurs or a filmic look, or a workflow enhancing tool. And plug-ins for 3D animation software focus on streamlining time-intensive 3D modeling, animation and rendering tasks. Whether they’re targeting 2D or 3D applications, developers agree that end users are motivated to buy graphics plug-ins that they believe will save them time, improve their workflow or produce their desired innovative, eye-catching look.
We’ve compiled a list of some of the top graphics plug-ins for 2D visual effects compositing and nonlinear editing systems, followed by a sidebar listing graphics plug-ins for the 3D market. Keep in mind, the world of plug-ins is too large to be covered in just a few pages.
At NAB, Boris FX (www.borisfx.com) unveiled Boris Red 4.0, an integrated 3D compositing, titling and effects plug-in for NLE systems. Red is a versatile application that integrates many capabilities, including advanced 2D and 3D compositing, DVE, 3D modeling and animation, native vector titling, motion tracking, vector paint, rotoscoping, Illustrator file animation and extrusion.
“Maintaining its tight integration with all industry-standard NLEs, Boris Red 4.0 will move the Red product further in the direction of 2D and 3D software-based compositing and effects creation by offering support for 16-bit color and a new procedural paint engine,” says Boris Yamnitsky, founder/president of Boris FX in Boston.
Boris Red 4.0 includes a new raster paint engine with clone paint brushes and support for a Wacom tablet with multiple paint input channels. It also adds 16-bit per color channel image processing and 40 new filters, including a new Motion Key filter that removes moving foreground objects from a clip.
Digital Anarchy (www.digitalanarchy.com) in San Francisco has released Data Animator 1.1, a tool for creating animated charts and graphs. The eight plug-ins can be used to create a wide range of chart types, from business graphics to scientific visualization. The new release marks the debut of a Mac version. Data Animator 1.1 is designed to work with Final Cut Pro, After Effects and Premiere Pro. To work with Data Animator, users just import a tab-delimited text file into a particular chart type, like Pie Chart or Stock Ticker. The data quickly animates onscreen and is customizable. Because Data Animator dynamically updates source data, it is suitable for collaborative work and projects started before the data is finalized.
Another recent update is ReSizer 2.0 for Final Cut Pro. ReSizer is a plug-in for intelligently scaling footage or upconverting SD to HD. The plug-in works in After Effects, Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro.
Digital Anarchy also offers 3D Assistants 1.2, which is now now compatible with After Effects 7.0. Their Primatte Chromakey digitally removes a blue/green background from a photograph, leaving the subject against a transparent background with any color cast removed. Their Anarchy Toolbox is a set of nine plug-ins that create a variety of sophisticated effects. These include blurs, glows, controlled distortions, seamlessly tiled images and warped graphics.
The Foundry (www.foundry.co.uk) offers Furnace and Tinder 2D image processing plug-ins for Adobe After Effects, Avid DS, Apple Shake, Autodesk Discreet systems, Assimilate Scratch, FilmLight Baselight and Nucoda Film Master.
“The Furnace plug-ins help digital artists by automating many time-consuming processes and drudge tasks,” says Dr. Bill Collis, commercial director/head of R&D for The Foundry in London.
Furnace is a collection of tools, including DeBlur, which automatically removes motion and out-of-focus blur; MatchGrade for automatic color histogram matching; and Tracker, a multi-point tracker that can track regions within a moving image. The Tinder collection includes over 90 plug-ins that add digital effects, such as blurs, warpers and generators, to effects sequences.
Furnace and Tinder plug-ins were both used on the 3D animated film Valiant, which features the voices of actors Ewan McGregor and Tim Curry, to fix problems that would otherwise have required time-consuming re-rendering of the sequences. Produced in the UK, Valiant will be released in the US in August.
Known for its Sapphire Plug-ins, GenArts (www.genarts.com) began by catering to the needs of high-end VFX compositing artists and broadened from there into the desktop world. On Autodesk Discreet systems, like Inferno, Flame and Flint, the Sapphire package takes full advantage of the multiple processor architecture of high-end workstations. Sapphire Plug-ins are also compatible with Avid’s Symphony, Media Composer, Xpress Pro and DS.
Today, GenArts also has versions of its Sapphire Plug-ins for Adobe’s After Effects and Premiere Pro; Apple’s Final Cut Pro, Motion and Shake; Autodesk Combustion; Eyeon Digital Fusion; Sony Xpri and Quantel systems.
“Today’s desktops are gaining in processing speed, and artists can now accomplish very high-end effects using more affordable systems,” says Karl Sims, president of GenArts in Cambridge, MA.
GenArts offers plug-ins for lighting effects, including glows, edge rays, glints, lens flares and spotlights. Sims says that while these lighting effects are technically 2D, they often give the appearance of being 3D. “Our lighting effects are flashy finishing tools that can make your footage look more alive and compelling,” says Sims.
There are also many stylized effects, such as emboss, blur, lightning bolts, warps, kaleidoscope, TV scan lines, video feedback or JPEG damage effects, as well as tools for giving video the rich look of film, or the look of film damage, like dirt and scratches.
GenArts’ Sapphire plug-ins were used in many scenes in The Lord of the Rings movies.
GridIron Software (www.gridironsoftware.com) has three plug-in products that enhance productivity when working with Adobe After Effects 7.0. The first is X-Factor, which improves the speed of previewing and rendering by taking work that would normally be done on a single workstation and distributing it across several computers on a network.
Next is Nucleo, which allows After Effects, and all third-party plug-ins, to maximize the latest in multiple CPU processor design from companies like Intel, AMD and Apple. And the newest plug-in, Nucleo Pro, takes Nucleo a step further by adding the ability to render as a background process on the After Effects workstation while continuing to do creative work.
“Many artists cannot afford to sit there and do nothing while their machine is rendering,” says Ben Piercey, director of product management for Ottawa-based GridIron. “Nucleo Pro is in beta testing but is expected to ship this summer. Nucleo Pro allows them to move their renders to background processes so they can keep on working.
“Adobe really opened up its platform and APIs to third-party developers because they value the added functionality we bring to their software,” continues Piercey. “We developed our plug-ins based upon user feedback and frustrations that were expressed on various industry forums and news groups. When we saw what was really bugging people, we realized that we had the technology to solve those problems.”
At UK-based Imagineer Systems (www.imagineersystems.com), the product portfolio includes several software programs for 2D graphics and compositing tasks, including Monet V.2 for efficient 2D tracking and a complementary plug-in for Apple Shake called Mofex, which extends the benefits of Monet inside Shake’s compositing environment.
Imagineer’s CEO Allan Jaenicke says, “Mofex implements the same rendering engine that powers Monet. The connection between the two is that within Monet, you can improve the accuracy and execution of the most complex 2D tracking and warp effects and export that data to Shake. Then the Mofex plug-in allows you to continue to refine the tracking sequences from within Shake.”
While conventional multipoint trackers can fail when any of the points being tracked become obscured by foreground objects in the composite, Imagineer’s Monet uses a 2D planar tracker that allows artists to draw shapes around any area they want to track. One high-profile Monet user is CIS in Hollywood. In the future, Imagineer may extend the Mofex plug-in to Eyeon’s Digital Fusion.
At Red Giant Software (www.redgiantsoftware.com) in San Francisco, co-founder Sean Safreed says, “We’re accelerating the speed of our graphics plug-ins by enabling them to tap into whatever GPU processing power is available on the graphics accelerator cards in the user’s workstation. Since GPU chips have become extremely powerful compared to CPUs, we’re replicating our core feature sets and quality on the GPU to dramatically increase processing speed.”
One of the first products to be GPU-accelerated is Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Suite, a complete toolset for creating a film look output from any SD or HD video source for After Effects. Magic Bullet Suite offers 24p conversion, Misfire film damage effects and the “Look Suite” toolset containing 65 creative presets for mimicking a film look. Also, Magic Bullet Editors adapts the Look Suite capability for popular video editing programs, including Final Cut Pro, Avid, Premiere Pro and Sony Vegas, and it includes the Misfire tools.
Coming this summer is another Red Giant plug-in featuring GPU-acceleration: Primatte Keyer 4.0 for After Effects, Premiere Pro and Avid, which optimizes keys through a combination of compression correction for DV and HDV, the GPU-accelerated Primatte engine, and integrated tools for secondary spill correction, color matching and edge lighting. Red Giant also offers Knoll Light Factory 2.5, a light effects package that features GPU acceleration for After Effects, Protoshop, Premiere Pro, Apple Motion, FCP and Avid AVX systems.
“With GPU acceleration, Light Factory 2.5 is realizing up to 10-times faster effects processing,” says Safreed. “The more artists can exploit the hardware they’ve already invested in, such as GPU accelerators, the faster they can get things done and realize productivity gains.”
Toolfarm (www.toolfarm.com) is a comprehensive resource for most of the plug-ins for After Effects, Final Cut Pro and Combustion, among others. Toolfarm’s Web site features The Plug-in Finder, which allows artists to search the plug-ins universe using keywords, then immediately buy and download that product.
“There are hundreds of plug-ins on the market, and hundreds of filters associated with them. Without our Plug-In Finder, finding the right plug-in for a job would be like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Colin Sharp, VP of sales and marketing for Toolfarm in San Francisco.
Toolfarm is completing the acquisition of Buena Software, which developed plug-ins for After Effects, Final Cut Pro and Combustion, including Effects Essentials, for effects like camera flash, radial glow and digital interference; Au Naturel, for effects like Gaussian blur and F-stop exposure adjustment; and Depth Cue, which adds realistic depth effects to 3D layers based on lights and cameras in 3D space.
WalkerFX (www.walkerfx.com) offers WalkerFX 2.2 professional edition for After Effects, which features a collection of 19 filters designed to solve real-world production problems. Steven Walker, president of the Glendale, CA-based company, says he is now working on WalkerFX 3.0, which will expand the collection with many new tools, as well as port the plug-in to Apple Shake and Motion, and eventually Autodesk Combustion, among others.
“The advantage to developing plug-ins is that I can focus on developing new tools and techniques that really help artists be more productive, rather than having to create all of the aspects that comprise a stand-alone program,” says Walker. “I began developing plug-ins while I was working as a professional artist, so they were tested in real-world conditions.”
WalkerFX 2.2 includes filters that enable artists to apply channel noise to individual channels to match film grain or create unique grain styles. It also offers control over 3D lighting during 2D compositing; a fast tracker that generates motion data from 3D renders to track 2D effects; tools for advanced compositing of layers; tools to create glow effects, and more. No release date has been set for WalkerFX 3.0.
St. Louis-based Wondertouch (www.wondertouch.com) is working on a plug-in version of its ParticleIllusion particle effects program for After Effects. The plug-in — which is currently in the testing phase and expected to ship by year’s end — includes much of the features and functionality of ParticleIllusion V.3 (stand-alone) software, including the ability to create explosions, smoke, sparks, fog, rain, snow, fire, sparkles and other particle effects essentially at the click of a mouse.
“The plug-in will give users some latitude to customize particle effects, but someone that wants to change and control every aspect of an effect will still want to work within the stand-alone program,” says Alan Lorence, president Wondertouch. “Creating plug-in versions of a stand-alone program is a way to give users a choice of solutions that best meet their unique needs and requirements.”
ParticleIllusion 3.0 is a user-friendly tool that uses Open GL for realtime or near-realtime previews for all effects as well as fast rendering. There is also a library of 1,500 particle effects, with new ones added monthly.
Hollywood’s Zoic Studios used Particleillusion for this season’s finale of Battlestar Galactica on the Sci-Fi channel. In one sequence, when a large spaceship in a fleet is sabotaged and explodes, ParticleIllusion was used to generate elements of the explosion, including a cloud of glass shards, smoke and a fireball effect.
Lorence adds, “Zoic Studios used the built-in particle effects tools within NewTek Lightwave 3D to create the explosion and break-up of the ship. But then they turned to ParticleIllusion to generate many different particle elements — like fire, smoke and glass shards — that could be layered together for a richer, more detailed effect.”
After 15 years as an artist using 3D animation programs to create broadcast graphics, Zax Dow aspired to create software that would take the tedium and expense out of the 3D modeling and animation process. Today, his company, Zaxwerks (www.zaxwerks. com), based in Temple City, CA, offers several popular software products, including ProAnimator 4.0 and 3D Invigorator 4.0, both of which are plug-ins for After Effects.
“With our software, artists don’t need lengthy training in using 3D animation software, nor do they need to spend half the day to create animated 3D text and logos,” says Dow. “This is a very fast solution that gives text and logos a professional 3D look within the After Effects environment.”
Rather than having to set-up keyframes for every object, ProAnimator uses behavioral animation techniques, along with a familiar timeline interface, to position and animate many objects with a single set of controls. And Dow adds, “Rather than having to go back to square one whenever you need to make a change or create a new version, ProAnimator can make changes in a few keystrokes, which saves considerable time.”
3D Invigorator Pro offers text creation and editing tools that support TrueType and PostScript Type 1 fonts. Users can import 3D models from other 3D animation programs; mix 2D and 3D elements in a scene; use spotlights and cameras; and modify text while retaining the desired color, 3D beveling, textures, animation, or other attributes. Using Open GL accelerator cards, 3D Invigorator Pro enables fast tracking, motion blur, cartoon color rendering, photorealistic looks, matte color rendering and a 3D primitives engine for creating spheres, cubes, cylinders and more, with 3D shading.
“Since artists working in the broadcast design market typically work under tight production deadlines, using complex 3D animation programs is not practical,” Dow explains. “In minutes rather than days, artists can create sophisticated graphics that look and move in 3D from within After Effects’ 2D environment, and quickly and intuitively make whatever changes are needed without hesitation or hassles.”
Zaxwerks also offers a plug-in for After Effects called 3D Flag that turns any video image into a flag, pennant or banner. The flag can be standing still, waving in the breeze, viewed from any angle or designed to behave in virtually any way the artist desires. Dow says 3D Flag has been especially popular for sports graphics, including the Olympics in Torino and the stadium graphics at the 2005 World Series in Chicago.