Is After Effects for Editors?

Editors on many Hollywood productions are more valuable with After Effects skills. What's stopping them?
Mark Christiansen

An article published last month on the Adobe Press site has sparked much discussion and a little controversy, so I think it's worth following up, starting with a clarification.

The topic clearly strikes a nerve; the article became the site's most popular for the month, and among the enthusiastic response I heard back, I also received some thoughtful criticism which sounded to me like a response to things I never said - in other words, an opportunity to clarify and take the topic further.

If I had to pick one group that most wants to do more in After Effects, yet avoids even opening the application, it would be film and video editors. There are specific reasons for this, most of which have to do with how many productions even in Hollywood have come to resemble small independent projects more than big-budget VFX films

The counter-argument was made on the debut episode of the new podcast for compositors, A over B, that editing and compositing are and should be entirely separate disciplines, that compositing is somewhat of a distraction for the editor, who needs to focus on knowing the content and aesthetic of the project and work with the overall rhythm, timing and look.

No one sensible would advocate that Thelma Schoonmaker would have been better off diverging from her editing work on Hugo to help out my friends Ben Grossmann and Alex Henning on their Oscar-winning VFX work with Rob Legato. That's silly.

In the real world of Hollywood and independent production in the second decade of the 21st century, editors see more and more jobs that call for After Effects skills. The reasons for this are simple:

• There is a lower tolerance for letting little things go that can be fixed with a VFX composite
• Graphics work is more sophisticated. Every show of any merit has a carefully-designed open.
• At the same time, production cycles are shorter and budgets stingier, so that there is value in completing a project with fewer people.

With a short turn-around, it's a huge cost-saving to the production not to have to attach an After Effects artist to do a couple hours a day of quick fixes.

The number one mistake editors who want to get into After Effects make is to start with motion graphics. This is, in fact, one of the most rare and difficult skill combinations in the business. To be even a passable motion graphics designer requires not only that you can design a compelling frame, but that your sense of timing and technical acumen allows you to put it in motion, with any unique effects you might have conjured.

I love motion graphics work, but I'm especially interested in helping bridge the gap for editors to create the kind of bread-and-butter effects that not only will make them more valuable as employees, but in fact allow them - you - to live the dream of creating your own production, on whatever budget you have, with the kind of effects that can make people believe it's just as good as anything they see from the studios. This is the dream lived by such pioneers in all-in-one VFX independent filmmaking as Gareth Edwards and Neil Blomkamp.

This could very well become a series of thoughts on this topic, beginning with yours.