With the release of Sapphire 8, GenArts has unleashed the biggest addition to Sapphire in its history, but those aren’t just the bold words of a press statement. Professionals across the industry have taken notice of the new and updated effects featured in this version of Sapphire, and have especially taken to a new feature called “Builder” that lets users create their own effects and transitions. Of course, there’s plenty to say about how these features came to be and how they’re actually being utilized, and we’re literally jumping across the world to find out those details.
St. Louis based Alan Lorence has been the Sapphire product manager for the version 7 and 8 releases. He joined GenArts when his company wondertouch was acquired. Originally a developer on the particleIllusion products, Alan transitioned to product management after a couple of years during the Sapphire 6 release cycle. Down in Australia, John Dickinson has been employed at Foxtel in Sydney, where he started out as a Senior Designer on a six-month contract to help launch Fox Footy Channel. He’s moved to Foxtel On Demand as Head Of Design, which is his current position. For the past few years he’s been working with GenArts to create presets for Sapphire and now has over 350 in the library.
Talking with both pros was a great opportunity to understand the thinking that goes into these kinds of updates and in turn what that can and does mean for users. Alan and John share their respective experiences around what Sapphire 8 has meant to them, to their careers and to the industry as a whole.
ProVideo Coalition: John, what sort of projects do you typically work on, and how has Sapphire been a part of that?
John – At Foxtel On Demand we generally create promos for films on the service, education spots, image spots and highlight spots. Most jobs are one to two days. Sapphire is important in our workflow because it has a large variety of effects that give us plenty of creative options, which has increased exponentially with the release of Sapphire 8. I use Sapphire in some way on every project that I do, even the more basic: Blur, Glow, Drop Shadow, Grain, and others in place of the default After Effects counterparts. Sapphire offers more options, the quality is better and they render fast, which is important on short-deadline work.
The release of Sapphire 8 included the biggest addition to the product in its history, which isn’t something that happens all that often. Alan, what was it like to experience the buildup and anticipation around the release?
Alan – It was a bit scary at first, since it required a huge engineering effort with a correspondingly long development cycle. Though, once a few customers saw the early alpha versions, their reactions confirmed our hopes that Builder would be a huge feature, and would in fact change the way that people use Sapphire from now on. Then there was a period before the beta test started that was exciting and frustrating because we had a feature that we wanted to shout about to the world, but needed to be kept under wraps. Then beta testers started producing results that were incredibly sophisticated and imaginative, and that just ramped up our excitement level even more!
John, once you saw what it had to offer, what was your biggest surprise about Sapphire 8?
John – Definitely Sapphire Builder! I was involved in the beta testing of Sapphire 8 and had the opportunity to use the tools at an early stage. It was immediately obvious that this was going to be something different from previous releases. I felt like a kid playing with a brand new toy and was excited to share the looks I created with the engineers and beta group. We were genuinely surprised at what was possible to create in just a few minutes. I think all of us who had the opportunity to use Sapphire 8 before its release knew that GenArts had created something special.
Our own Kevin P. McAuliffe said that the “entire upgrade cost was worth it for one effect”, and he was referencing the Builder effect, which he is obviously in love with. Is that something you’ve heard/experienced?
Alan – I’ve actually heard that said about other features of Sapphire 8 too, for instance DigitalDamage. Certainly people using Sapphire on Adobe and Avid hosts see Builder as the main feature and they love it for different reasons, which is very satisfying to me as PM. Some love that they can create their own effects or modify existing Sapphire effects; some editors love that they can now create brand new transitions. Avid users love that they now have a way to easily use multiple effects on a clip, and almost everybody loves that they can hide parameters to simplify effects. So yes, we do hear customers talking about Builder more than the other new features.
John – Yes, while effects such as Grunge and LightLeak are useful additions to Sapphire, it’s the Builder that makes this release really special. Builder liberates me as an artist, allowing me to mix and match existing effects and presets to create new and unique looks. It’s changed the way I think about working with effects in After Effects. Once you try it, going back to standard effect stacking and precomposing feels dated. It really feels like you’re a chef in a kitchen with all the ingredients lined up and prepared. All you have to do is drop something in your mixing bowl and try a touch of this and a touch of that. Even if you have no idea what an effect does, just drag it in and see how it looks when combined with other effects. If you can drag and drop, you can use Builder. My only wish is that all effects in After Effects could be manipulated in this way!
What sort of opportunities does Sapphire 8 represent for productions as a whole and even for individual users?
John – It was always a challenge to leverage such a huge range of effects, over 250 in After Effects, and I found myself generally using a fairly limited set of go-to effects. With version 8, Builder and the new preset browser make it much easier to explore and experiment with the effects, making the investment far more worthwhile. Builder speeds up my workflow, for example, allowing me to change how effects operate, borrow parameters from other effects, and negate the need for precomposing. You can save the settings as a preset into the preset library for later use and to share with other users. The preset library has also had an important overhaul. Sapphire has a large and increasing library of presets, many which I have personally created. In previous versions you could only search presets per effect. This was only useful if you knew which effect you wanted to use. With Sapphire 8’s Builder you can now browse presets across all effects in one place, making it easy to find a suitable look for the project at hand. I often don’t know exactly what I want and being able to “window shop” looks in this way is vital to my workflow, especially when turnaround times are tight.
Alan – On Adobe and Avid right now, Builder is of course huge. It will without a doubt provide artists ways to be more creative, efficient, and productive. In addition, Sapphire 8 has a modernized license which allows Sapphire to be used on multiple host platforms — for instance, After Effects and DaVinci Resolve — with a single license. This has made Sapphire a more viable option for facilities and users who now rely on multiple tools.
Alan, what were some of the things you were hearing from users regarding what they wanted to see in Sapphire 8?
Alan – In addition to the “more transitions!” that editors always request, there were two main trends in what many users were asking for. The first was “modern looks”; they wanted ways to create the edgy looks that are so popular now. DigitalDamage, LightLeak, Grunge, and the enhanced Shake effect all came out of those requests.
The second trend required us to read between the lines a bit. Nobody said, “I want a node-based interface that lets me create my own effects and transitions.” We did hear most users saying that they use the same five Sapphire effects every day, and five or ten others regularly but not all the time, or that they love a specific Sapphire effect but they wish it did something that another Sapphire effect does too. There were also requests for effects that you could already do by combining multiple Sapphire effects together, but that nobody had figured out yet.
The result of course was Builder, which not only lets users create effects, but is a great place to experiment with unfamiliar parts of Sapphire so they can hopefully expand the five they use daily to ten, and the ten they use less often to 20 or 30.
What sort of feedback have you gotten around the release since it went public? Anything users have especially taken to, or are asking about for a future version?
Alan – We’ve had an incredibly positive response to version 8, but it’s only been a month since release so nobody is asking for anything new yet. I suspect that users need a bit of time to get familiar with Builder before they start sending in “Builder v2” feature requests.
One thing we have heard is “Why isn’t Builder available on my host?” There are a couple of reasons why Builder is only available on recent versions of After Effects, Premiere Pro, and Media Composer, the first being that some hosts — like Flame or Nuke — are already node-based and have always allowed you to use Sapphire in this way. The second is technical: some hosts don’t currently support the features needed to make Builder work correctly. It was a tough decision to create a huge feature like Builder that would not be available on all of the hosts that Sapphire supports, but we’re working with our host partners to bring Builder to as many additional platforms as possible in the future.
How have you seen Sapphire impact the way in which professionals approach or realize their projects?
Alan – I’ll have to answer this with regard to Builder again, as it really does change the way that most people will use Sapphire. One story that I’ve heard more than once is how a senior editor will design a look for a show — whether it’s a color/effect treatment, transition styles, whatever — and then a team of junior editors will then apply that look countless times to shots throughout the season. Before Builder that process could be tricky, in that the “wrong” parameter could be adjusted — inadvertently perhaps — and the look will be changed in an unacceptable way. Now with Builder not only can the look be contained in a single preset, but parameters can be hidden, which provides much less opportunity for error or “unadvised experimentation”.
Other artists — John included — have said that the creative experimentation that Builder allows is changing the way that they use effects.
How have you seen the democratization of professional tools affect the industry as a whole?
John – This has been evident for a number of years but never more than now with applications such as After Effects and Premiere Pro being used in the biggest production houses to the smallest one person operations. A one-person operation can get the same results using After Effects and Sapphire that were once only possible with the highest end systems.
If a fellow artist was unsure of how Sapphire 8 could impact their work, what would you say to them?
John – Sapphire 8 for After Effects has over 250 effects and hundreds of presets that give me countless creative options. Sapphire 8, with the introduction of Sapphire Builder, has made those effects more discoverable than ever before, allowing me to push the software beyond what even the creators thought was possible. I think any artist could benefit from having Sapphire in their toolkit.
See John Dickinson’s in-depth demo of Sapphire 8 and Builder – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXWPXEflku0
For more on Sapphire 8 and Builder, visit genarts.com.