David Simons is a 28-year fellow at Adobe, if you count the first three years at CoSA where he created After Effects. His creation has dominated the post-production world since its inception and has been the crucible for compositing for thousands of productions from indie one-offs to the biggest films and television shows around. The Academy Sci-Tech award was given to After Effects and Photoshop this year in recognition of those contributions to film and TV, and I was given the opportunity to speak with David after his win.
Kenny McMillan: How did Egg become After Effects?
David Simons: Egg was the code name, short for Eggroll. Our code names were taken from the menu of an Asian restaurant in Providence Rhode Island. You may have heard me reference Chicken Bee Boong in the speech? That was also from the same restaurant. That was kind of like a staple for us: we would go to the restaurant (called Apsara) and get like 7 Chicken Bee Boongs and bring them all back, and then after we would sit around at the office on these couches eating the food from Apsara, and then afterwards we’d all just be laying there and we called it “Getting Chicken Bee Boong’d.” Those were good times. We are all just right out of college, but After Effects was our last-ditch attempt to save the company.
KENNY: Oh wait really?
DAVID: The company was founded by me and three others and we were trying to be a hypermedia publisher. This is before the web, so you can think of it as a magazine publisher like National Geographic but on CD-ROMs because that was the only way to distribute rich information on a computer back then. So to make a long story short, basically it just failed completely. No one was interested in the content we were trying to produce, we couldn’t even give it away for free, we tried to sell advertising, then we tried to give the advertising away for free and that didn’t even work, no one even knew what it meant! Like “what’s a multimedia advertisement?” Nowadays it’s just what the whole web is every day, but it’s hard to start something new when people don’t have a framework of what it is.
But, one of the tools that we created for ourselves was called PACo Producer: the PICS Animation Compiler. It was a tool for us, but people found out about it because it did streaming animation from CD-ROM, unlimited length, with synchronized sound. That was something people wanted and they started coming to us saying “hey yeah we don’t want your stupid magazine but we’ll buy that!” so we just became a technology company. We did that with streaming animation but then the digital video revolution started taking off and it so happened that the code that I wrote for this animation system worked for digital video with no changes at all. It was lossless compression, so the files are fairly large, but it looked great and it was fast. We were in a really good position at the beginning of the digital video revolution and people started using PACO for digital video streaming playback. Also it was unlimited length, which helped. It was the only system that could do that and keep synchronized sound. And it was cross-platform.
Then Apple came out with QuickTime and we thought we were just going to get destroyed because we couldn’t compete with Apple, obviously. They’re a much bigger company and Quicktime’s design was just better than the PACO’s design. PACO hadn’t been designed for video it just happened to work for it. So we figured we had six months left of revenue to survive and that’s when we started working on After Effects.
K: Great case of right place right time eh?
D: We were very lucky. I liken it to surfing: we just caught a big wave and we’ve been riding it for 26, 27 years now. [laughs]
K: I was actually going to ask something like “did you feel like you were on the edge sort of leading the pack or riding a wave of demand?”
D: I would say the whole time we’ve developed After Effects it’s been in close collaboration with the customers. By sitting down with them, talking to them, observing them, and sometimes they’ll even put us to work with what we call “embedding” where we will just go to their facilities and we will just be a worker bee, working on their projects so that we can really understand the problems that they’re trying to solve and what was happening in the workflow. That’s how we have determined the features really from the beginning.
We started… I think there was a Mac Week article on people using Macintosh’s for video post-production, so this must have been ‘91 or ‘92, and some of those people were like Chris and Trish Meyer, who ended up becoming our beta testers,writing books on After Effects, and they’re still writing articles on After Effects… Harry Marks, one of the leading Motion Graphics creators in the ‘80s, way before the desktop revolution… We just cold-called these people and they were very kind and helped us. So from the beginning it was a collaboration, adding things based on feedback from people who are actually using it. It also helped that we’d been trying to do some of our own productions and were also a customer, but we had no professional video or film experience. For us it was kinda just multimedia and animation stuff.
K: I feel like getting an award like this should have happened earlier though, I can’t think of a more-used effects program.
D: I’ve have a number people say that it’s long overdue so I think we probably could have qualified for it earlier, but from the Academy’s point of view it’s all about After Effects’ impact on film specifically. We didn’t create After Effects specifically for film but it was involved in film right from the beginning, from the early beta testers who were using it for Film Production, so that’s been an important component the whole time. I believe this is the first time that the Academy has ever had a Motion Graphics category. That obviously helped us because After Effects is so clearly the leader of the category. Usually a tool that is general purpose is not an advantage, it’s a disadvantage. The Academy wants to promote tools that are solely used for film, but After Effects has had such an impact on film that they still thought it merited the award which is great and we appreciate it. At Adobe, film is not our sole thing. We have customers in many different segments, but we did always consider film to be our highest-end. If we catered to the film customers, everyone else would aspire to do that kind of work and in that way our film customers have always been our our guiding star.
K: Do you remember any particular impactful moments during the development? I assume Jurassic Park was huge.
D: I’m thinking all the way back to ‘92… Are you a programmer by any chance?
K: Not in the slightest [laughs]
D: We just type code, numbers and letters, into a text editor and then compile and run it and start to play with it and I remember the point in which the layers were things that you could click on and select and move around. It suddenly really felt like “wow, this is actually a thing that you can interact with” and that’s really the moment it seemed like it was alive. You could bring layers into a comp and you could move them around. It was very primitive but that was a big formative moment because I knew that all that had happened was I typed a few more characters into a text editor, right? The difference between the creating process and the creation is quite stark when you’re programming [laughs]. You’ve used After Effects?
K: All the time.
D: So when you select a layer, and you see little marks around it, and it highlights it as being selected and you can move it… that’s a thing you take for granted every day but that had to be programmed. The first time that happened, yeah it just felt like “oh yeah there’s a thing! There’s a thing called a layer and I can move it!”
That was the very early Genesis but then once we had enough features in there, I don’t remember exactly how far along it was, but one of our beta testers Randy Cates had done some like, “Saturday Night at the Movies” kind of openings for different TV channels and he put one together in After Effects. It wasn’t for any particular channel, it was just a prototypical test of what you can do, but it was beautiful! It was like a bumper or something, 5 or 10 seconds that would go on before you watch a movie on TV. It was like spinning gears, and shiny things and everything was moving slowly and coming together, and there was text saying “Saturday night at the movies” and it was really the kind of thing you would see on TV. That really drove home that you can really use this tool to make these things that I’ve been seeing during my whole life and didn’t really think about “how does it ever get to the screen?” so that was pretty great.
That was more of a TV type use, Jurassic Park the first film. It was also used in an IMAX film… I think “Search for the Great Sharks” around the same time. Every time there was one of these uses it was great. The first book that was written for After Effects, I think it was Chris and Trish’s book, that was an amazing milestone too. It’s so long ago I don’t have a lot of Milestones recorded but it’s been really inspiring to see. It’s always about the artwork that other people can create with it that I don’t have the ability to create myself.
K: And then you get to take credit when people crush it!
D: Exactly, yep [laughs].
K: Adobe might send the A-Team after me for this question but After Effects has to be one of the most cracked programs of all time. Has that had a positive effect? In the sense that a lot more people end up using it who probably wouldn’t otherwise due to price and then we possibly see more creativity from more places?
D: I myself used to recreationally crack software when I was in elementary school [laughs]. It’s sort of a fun thing to see if you can get around protections.
K: Oh as a programmer I bet. Educational too.
D: It’s just a challenge, but I do think that all software companies get a benefit from piracy where the people pirating the software weren’t going to buy it, but now they’re exposed to it, learn it, and then when they actually get a real job for money, they buy it. That’s really the point where I hope they’re going to pay for it, if they’re actually making money with the software. Really if they’re just learning it, yeah. Adobe has great education discounts, I mean extreme educational discounts now so hopefully, it’s [easier to access legally]. That might not be the Adobe official line but I don’t know.|
K: Oh yeah I mean the thing that finally had me able to buy the CS6 Suite was a collegiate discount combo of some kind. Got some version it for like $200 when Photoshop alone was $700. Now it’s all what like $20/month? [Note: Well, kinda. Apparently the Creative Cloud “All Apps plan” for a student is US$19.99/mo the first year, and US$29.99/mo after that — regularly US$52.99/mo]
D: Something like that. Hopefully that’s a better way to get the access legally. Going to subscription was a switch that I wasn’t sure was going to work out. I was one of the naysayers like “I don’t really want to rent my software, I want to buy my software!” but since we’ve made that transition (I’ve also made that transition as a consumer)… I mean I no longer buy CDs, I sign up for Spotify and Pandora and I love it.
I think the best thing about it, besides it being more affordable -ya know, you don’t have to hand over a big chunk of cash all at once- is that our interests are better aligned. Like, in the past when we were shipping new versions, our biggest competitor was always, by far, the previous version. It wasn’t any of the other programs it was always the previous versions of our software. So to compete with the previous version we had to add shiny things that would attract attention and get people to upgrade, and a lot of our revenue came from upgrades. The problem with that is that shiny things aren’t always in the best interest of the people who are already using it, even though those are the people that were catering to. We’re trying to get an upgrade where is really a lot of times maybe it’s just like a little something maybe something we did last cycle we should just do faster, fix some more bugs or whatever. There are things that are less exciting from a marketing point of view but really our hardcore customers would rather have us work on, but since we have switched to subscription it now works in our best interest, and their best interest, that we make a great product to us even if it doesn’t mean that thing we’re going to do isn’t going to increase sales directly, because we’re no longer selling upgrades does that make sense?
K: Absolutely. I also feel like the tentpole features probably just come when they’re ready, too, versus waiting for next year’s version. I’d much rather wake up and one day have “render and replace” without much warning than get all hyped on something I probably can’t afford anyway.
D: It’s great. Anything that aligns better with the customers I like, and I think we can take it even further taking more advantage of the subscriptions to make sure that the software is really rock solid. We know people are paying, so rather than rush the software and come out with bugs, we can ship something that’s even more solid then we’ve been doing and so I’m working on an initiative to do that now: higher quality, more time crafting something that’s great, something solid rather than something shiny.
K: I use After Effects a lot for titling and compositing things in Premiere mostly. Do you see a future where AE and Premiere are simplified down to one program?
D: My view on that is that as you simplify things for a broader audience you need fewer specialized tools. You could sort of look at Premiere Rush as a combination of After Effects and Premiere, and I don’t think that there needs to be an After Effects Rush, for example. After Effects Rush and Premiere Rush would be the same thing. Premiere Rush just has those kind of features built-in because they’re simplified, but as you create a pro tool that is very deep the user interface and model of it -the pieces of things that you’re working with, the different models- work better for different things. The Premiere model is just better for editing so obviously there’s overlap with After Effects. You can use After Effects for editing too, but it’s clearly not as good as Premiere. I don’t think there is enough for people that live and breath this stuff every day. Once you want it to be really deep I think you want a special user interface for that task, so for now I don’t see the pro tool merging in that way, but yes simpler versions would basically be Premiere Rush. A lot of these things will filter down, but with fewer options. Simpler interfaces. But, that often means less creative control. If you’re just trying to do it on your phone you probably want it to be very simple.
K: Well to book-end the talk, do you have a favorite project codename? Who even comes up with those?
D: I guess the Wikipedia page would show which one is the first, like, fake word the rather than just an arbitrary food, but like there was like FauxFu for the tofu intolerant [laughs]. I think that came from a Simpsons episode, but the team votes every cycle. I’m no longer directly on the After Effects team. I still sit with them, but my team is not working on tech transfer between research and product, which means After Effects and Premiere. More recently it’s been Adobe Character Animator. so that’s my main focus right now. So for those hybrid words the team comes up with, I think “FauxFu” was the first one. The fake words with some sort of food theme that’s just got some some sort of pun, [FauxFu] was probably my favorite. Goatmeal was also good.
K: Actually that’s a better way to end it, Character Animator is amazing. I know Colbert used it a bunch, the Simpsons did that live thing… is it possible that it’ll work in 3D soon? Is it mostly a live thing or is it going to be used more in Film & Television?
D: Yeah so currently it’s just a 2D app, but because the layers can come from Photoshop, and Photoshop can contain any image, you can have 3D rendered characters. For example, if you look at The Late Show, there was an owl that representing Nigel the Owl, and that was rendered in 3D and then brought in as the Photoshop layers and then brought into Character Animator so Colbert could talk to this 3D rendered doll in real time. All of the 3D part of it was pre-rendered, and Character Animator is driving the automatic lip sync and moving the body and the arms and triggering animations that were created in 3D.
Currently, those pieces have to be 2D before they go to the screen, but to answer your question about it going to film or television it’s really targeting two different audiences. One is people who know how to animate but need to animate faster, including live, so that’s how the Late Show is using it, The Simpsons… on Showtime there’s Our Cartoon President. They’re not doing it live, but that’s the character that spun off from the Late Show and created a whole new show, and they’re doing it in about half the time that a regular animated series is produced. I think about half the people as well. It’s all done in New York too [instead of being sent overseas] because they can afford to do it in-house whereas in the past it wasn’t possible.
Two, it’s for people who don’t know how to do character animation but they do know how to illustrate. We even have the Characterize feature which allows someone who doesn’t know how to illustrate to create an animated puppet of themselves that is stylized. We are pushing it in all those directions, helping the pros do it faster and live. Now anytime you have a cartoon character, say, they now have an ability to show up on a talk show for promotional purposes. I would like it to be a completely normal thing where any animated movie comes out, that character can go on the late-night circuit and they just use character animator as a way to deliver that character talking to audiences live. Similarly, ya know, 6th grade classes who are doing class projects want to do a video. They can do their video with a character that they make to illustrate their point, and all the things in between. By taking animation and democratizing it, we don’t really know where it’s going to go. The hope is that it’s going to go places that we haven’t even thought of and that’s actually already happened with with Twitch, which I didn’t even know anything about when we started the project, but now people are taking their their character animator avatars and while game streaming on Twitch. Rather than stream a video of their face in that corner of the game stream,they stream a little avatar driven by character animator and they can trigger different animations. There’s this streamer Scribbleh and he’s triggering his animations with foot pedals. So he’s triggering the Character Animator avatar with foot pedals while he’s playing the game with his hands and Character Animator is tracking his face. He’s also reading the chat and responding to those people and playing the game so it’s that’s just one person who does this for hours every day.
K: That’s actually super smart! I hadn’t thought about that, that’d be a way better way to do it. Stay somewhat anonymous but still play “the character”. You probably have even more creative freedom that way.
D: Yeah it also gives kids a way to do video blogs without, say, revealing their identity if their parents don’t want them to be public on the web so it gives you away to hide — it gives you that anonymity at least of your face.
K: Well thanks for your time again David and congrats on the win, well deserved.