Plug-In Crazy

Some folks collect teddy bears. Others collect rusty lawnmowers, porcelain penguins, antique carpenters' tools or Victorian tea cozies. For an artist, editor, animator or compositor, however, the quest for plug-ins is the collectible craving that can never be satisfied.
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Some folks collect teddy bears. Others collect rusty lawnmowers, porcelain penguins, antique carpenters' tools or Victorian tea cozies. For an artist, editor, animator or compositor, however, the quest for plug-ins is the collectible craving that can never be satisfied.

Odds are that if you're paid money to push pictures through a computer, you know full-well what plug-ins are, what they do, and how they add those clever little features to your workhorse graphics applications. As long as the developer was wise enough to write an API, or software tie-in point, plug-ins are likely to be available for your imaging, editing, compositing or animation program. And you've just got to have them - all of them - whether it's one-by-one or in massive, bankruptcy-threatening buying sprees.

Plug-ins seem to add value no matter where they're used. Powerful ones can turn a small program into a big one, and little ones can add sparkle to the mightiest behemoth of an application. The classic example of amplification-by-plug-in is the early success of 3DStudio MAX, supposedly the best-selling, most-affordable 3D animation program of all time. At its core, the original 3D Studio wasn't terribly different from any of a half-dozen or so inexpensive 3D programs; but when extended by a broad array of modeling tools, import/exporters and filters, modest MAX was made mighty.

Of course, a lot of the "low-cost" hype flew out the window when you added in the cost of all the add-ons, but the simple fact remained that you could do big things with a small program thanks to ingenious third-party plug-ins.

SATISFYING THE NEED

One of the more thrilling aspects of NAB2002 was the opportunity to poke around and look for more AfterEffects plug-ins, my particular drug of choice - and that quest was richly rewarded. Imagine my glee when I stumbled across Grain Surgery, a plug-in from Visual Infinity, which analyzes noise and grain in your footage and applies seamless, matching grain to your newly-composited layers. Yes, it works beautifully; yes, it's moderately affordable; and no, there is no compositing application that already includes this feature; once again, plug-ins to the rescue.

Easily the biggest plug-in thrill came from The Foundry, the British developer of big-ticket effects for high-end systems like flint, flame and inferno. (Such plug-ins are called "Sparks," dovetailing nicely with Discreet's incendiary product-naming scheme.)

The wise folks at The Foundry have learned that there's a huge, ravenously hungry market for AfterEffects plug-ins, one that is substantially larger than the universe of high-end Sparks users. They've taken some of the shining stars among their big-time plug-ins and bestowed them upon us, the common folk; and the best part is that the only thing scaled back was the price.

NAB2002 saw the release of a collection called Tinderbox 3 (there's that pyro thing again), which might be one of the few, true "must-haves" for working animators and compositors. No esoteric, fru-fru little plug-ins here; just finely tuned versions of some of the effects you're most likely to want to use. There's a superb fire effect, so subtle it can be turned all the way down to a mere muzzle flash; a sublime condensation effect, with droplets that turn to rivulets and dribble away; and a full range of presets for the "Bad TV" plug-in which make you want to start twisting the ol' rabbit ears for better reception. There are quite a few winners in this collection, and the best part is that the controls are straightforward and effective, with really useful presets. Brilliant, chaps.

As one of the biggest targets for plug-in developers, Adobe Systems has always encouraged third parties to write for both Photoshop and AfterEffects, its flagship programs. But how do you inspire "plug-in mania" among the uninitiated? You can do it by "seeding" your users with a sprinkling of standard effects, something Adobe has routinely provided.

In an age of plug-in sophistication, though, you can't get by on posterization and Gaussian blurs for long. Recognizing this, Adobe came down with an aggressive form of plug-in craziness of its own, and bought technology from two of the best-regarded developers in the AfterEffects market space, Cult Effects and Atomic Power. Many of these have been included in the higher-powered Production Bundle version of AfterEffects since version 5.0. My NAB plug-in hunt, however, was considerably brightened by Adobe's announcement of an AfterEffects Plug-In Power Pack, downloadable from the Adobe online store for a mere $25. The collection supplements paint and compositing tools, extends effects capabilities and adds advanced Windows Media support.

Pinnacle Systems has expanded over the years by acquiring some of the best software companies they could find, including Puffin Designs and its flagship compositor, Commotion. But one of the best-kept secrets around Puffin was its collection of powerful plug-ins, repackaged into a single bundle for NAB2002. Pinnacle's Primatte Plug-In Pack, named for the robust Primatte keyer plug-in, is a bundle of three products: Primatte; Image Lounge, a collection of more than 20 effects and tools; and Composite Wizard, which gives compositors advanced controls over parameters like edge feather and color correction. While these variables can usually be adjusted within a compositor's core settings, Composite Wizard adds the kind of fine-tuned control sets that high-end shops need to create flawless, high-res effects.

Pinnacle's current bundle is not inexpensive, but the combination of these three for under $1,000 is big news - and a good deal.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

While AfterEffects and Discreet Combustion are big plug-in destinations, it's not just compositors that benefit from third-party development. The list of add-ons for 3DStudio MAX is a long one, and Alias|Wavefront's Maya has motivated a lot of folks to develop "Conductors," or plug-ins, as well. And almost every non-linear edit system can be extended by character generator plug-ins from Inscriber, Pinnacle or Artel. Moreover, NLEs often pick up compositing capabilities from plug-ins.

Artel's perennial favorite, Boris FX, has steadily expanded its compositing feature set, resulting in top-of-the-line Boris Red. Conversely, StageTools' ingenious Moving Picture plug-in, available for all the top names in NLE, provides simple pan/zoom compositing capabilities at eminently affordable prices.

Don't even ask an audio engineer about plug-ins, by the way. ProTools users have tons of third-party effects and processors to choose from, and audio mavens from the Cubase and Nuendo camps seek out VST effects like pigs after truffles.

So what is it about human nature that makes this all happen? Is the "pack-rat gene" more commonly expressed among visual creatives, driving us to acquire these geegaws to the exclusion of all else? I can't answer any of that, but thanks to weekly twelve-step meetings, I now have the courage to stand up and say, "I've been there... I, too, have gone plug-in crazy."