Some of the most innovate products to come out over the past few years have stemmed from user saying, “why doesn’t it do that?” Being able to investigate a solution from a user perspective is an incredibly powerful thing, because it’s undoubtedly exploring a real need.
Not too long ago, editor Wes Plate asked that very question about effectively translating his Avid timeline into After Effects. After sitting down with a programmer to figure out how to do exactly that, Automatic Duck was born. Wes continued to ask those questions and create answers for them, but hasn’t rolled out any new products for Automatic Duck in a few years. Now though, he’s ready to get back into it with the release of a brand new product and an update of a classic.
On the heels of their big announcement surrounding Ximport and Media Copy, we sat down with Wes to talk through what users can expect from these products, and how they were developed. We also discuss what’s different about Automatic Duck as a company, the importance of setting proper expectations around how his products work, why feedback is so vital and plenty more.
ProVideo Coalition: I mentioned the highlights of the Automatic Duck story in my intro, but why don’t we kick things off by talking through those details. What did Automatic Duck looked like pre-Adobe, what happened when Adobe acquired some of your products, and what’s been happening for you and the company since then?
Wes Plate: In the late 90’s I was an Avid editor in Seattle doing primarily offline editorial work, but a lot of my editing back then was of semi-complex things like green screens and multi-layer complex edits. In the late 90’s, I was often finishing in either a linear suite or something like a Quantel Henry. So we were always doing finishing work in these high-end, expensive rooms, but in my Avid we were doing the creative work.
I found there were a lot of times where I would do a crappy chroma key in the Avid, and our advertising agency clients would freak out and ask why the chroma key was so bad. I’d always tell them not to worry because it was offline and that we would redo it in the Henry, but they couldn’t see past it. So I would take my edits into After Effects and do a really nice key, and do really nice effects and all this extra work just so I could get the agency people to buy off on the cut. They were much more willing to say they liked something if they saw the nice key in there, when they couldn’t accept the exact same edit with a crappy key.
That meant I had this problem where I was rebuilding these timelines from Avid into After Effects a lot, and it was very time consuming, and just a lot of work. I had the idea that there had to be a better way, and went to my father, who at the time was working for an HP spinoff, and he had been a software engineer for many, many years. I told him I had this idea, that if we could create a plug-in for After Effects that could read an Avid timeline, it could be a little weekend business for us. A nice side project.
We started working on it in earnest in October of 2000 and called the company Automatic Duck. By NAB of 2001, we were demoing our very first product, which would import OMF files from Avid into After Effects. It was the very first bridge from Avid to After Effects. People really liked the idea, and at that same NAB people from Apple approached us to find out if we would be interested in making a similar bridge from Final Cut into After Effects. So we did that, and over the years Automatic Duck was building more and more bridges between digital video products.
We had the first Final Cut to Pro Tools solution. We had the ability to send Final Cut Pro 3 to After Effects, and then FCP3 to Pro Tools. When Final Cut Pro 4 came out we built a Final Cut import plug-in and we were shipping a solution that would allow people to take Avid offlines and finish them in Final Cut Pro. At the time, it was heretical. People could not believe that you would do something so sacrilegious as start in Avid and finish in FCP.
At the same time, our translation was so good that everyone became a believer. We had this once sequence that we used to demo with, which was a documentary that had been cut in Avid Express Pro. They were trying to finish it in Avid DS, but they were losing all of their pictures and metadata, so they tried our product to go from Avid Express to FCP4, and it was so much better.
We built the company up from a true need, and since I was a working editor, I really understood that need and what we were going after. I didn’t even realize how smart my Dad was, and when we started he had no idea about video of any kind. We both learned a lot along the way.
Things changed for you and for the company in 2011. Can you tell us what happened there?
By 2011 we had 20,000 customers around the world and had been much more successful than we expected. The concept of this being a weekend thing was gone. It turned into a full time job for both of us and a few other people. That year, Adobe approached us with the idea of partnering with them, and we set things up so that they would acquire our technology, and then we went to go work for them for a couple years.
The plug-in that we had been selling up to that point for After Effects which would import Avid timelines and FCP timelines got bundled into After Effects. So After Effects CS6 and later has built in the product we used to sell. We also worked on getting our AAF import technology into Premiere Pro. So Premiere Pro CC and later has improved AAF import that’s based on the technology that we licensed to Adobe.
That lasted about two years, so by the end of 2013, right around the new year, my time at Adobe came to an end. Then, by the spring of 2014, I was starting to play around with Final Cut Pro X.
And that got the gears turning again, didn’t it?
It did, but I had also been listening to podcasts, watching social activity, and talking to other editors about how much they liked FCPX. I’m kind of one of the old-timers. I started on Avid, so I’m one of those people who didn’t get it when FCPX came out. I didn’t spend a lot of time with it. It just wasn’t connecting with me.
By 2014 though, so many people were talking about how great it was and it had come so far. I felt like there were a lot of people out there having this amazing experience, and I wanted to feel what they were experiencing too. Later that spring, after really digging in, I did start to get it. I can remember the first time when I was doing a project in FCPX and the magnetic timeline and I were in sync, and I wanted to do something and I did it, it was such a revelation. I was really starting to understand it.
As I was doing this work, I realized I wanted to take a clip into After Effects. As a long time After Effects user, anytime I’m editing, something is going to have to go to After Effects. That’s just the way my brain works. I didn’t know how to get my FCPX stuff into After Effects, so I started talking with my Dad and we said that it would be fun to do a project again. We missed working together, so we looked at doing a FCPX XML to After Effects translation. We started on that last spring, and have been working on it almost non-stop since then.
That brings us to today, four years since we licensed our technology to Adobe, and we’re thrilled to be able to basically relaunch Automatic Duck. With it, we’re going to be bringing this new product that translates FCPX into After Effects. We’re also resurrecting a product that we used to sell called Media Copy.
How are things going to be different for you and for Automatic Duck with this relaunch?
Automatic Duck got really successful on our own, but with this relaunch we’re partnering with Red Giant to help us get the magic to more and more people.
As we started thinking about this relaunch, we realized that we were only two people now. The company was a bit bigger back in 2011, but there’s a lot of work to do to maintain a large business, especially one that was as successful as Automatic Duck. The two of us really enjoy developing products. We enjoy making the tools, and helping customers how to use them. Making websites, doing marketing, building and maintaining a system that manages sales and credit cards…that’s an enormous amount of work that is less fun.
I’ve been good friends with Stu Maschwitz, who made Magic Bullet, and Peder Norrby, who made Trapcode, for many years. They had told me along the way about how happy they were with their partnership with Red Giant, which is basically setup so that Red Giant publishes their tools. So we started talking to Red Giant about how Automatic Duck and Red Giant could partner, where we could make the tools, they would put it on their site to market and sell it while supporting the customers, and things could escalate up to us if necessary. It allows us to focus on developing new tools and sets us up for new product development.
Are there any specific benefits users will be able to take advantage of in light of this partnership?
Anyone who’s unfamiliar with the tools will need to learn how to use them, but one of the things that’s exciting about this partnership with Red Giant is that their infrastructure allows us to do trials. That’s something Automatic Duck did not do in the past.
Anyone can go to redgiant.com and download trial versions of Media Copy and Ximport AE to see how they work for themselves. For 14 days they can use the products without any limitations and get to know what works and what doesn’t so they can make an informed buying decision.
That also gives us more opportunity to solicit feedback from people who tried the demo and tell us what it would take to get them to purchase the full version.
What are some Automatic Duck Ximport AE features that people should know about?
The way the workflow in FCPX functions is that you’ll select your project and export an XML file. That’s a pretty easy and straightforward process. The product that we’ve developed, which we’re calling Automatic Duck Ximport AE, is a plug-in that lives inside of After Effects, and it reads that XML file into After Effects. It rebuilds every clip as its’ own layer and does a bunch of other things.
What I’m excited about is how rich and robust this translation is. We’re able to take compound clips, which in FCPX is similar to a nested sequence, and turn them into nested compositions inside After Effects. We’re able to take transformed data like position, scale and rotation, and translate those exactly into After Effects. So whatever you have in FCPX will show up exactly the same way in After Effects.
Sometimes we go overboard in areas where we really don’t have to. There’s something called a split edit. People will often call them an “L-cut” or a “J-cut”. The audio and video have different in and out points, so you might hear the sound of a car rumbling before the picture cuts to you seeing the car. We wanted the After Effects composition to sound just like your FCPX timeline, even though After Effects isn’t an audio editor. Having perfect sound in After Effects isn’t the most important thing in the world, but it’s important enough that we put in lot of effort into making sure even the audio comes in correctly.
Also, we were able to do cool things like 3rd part effects. For example, I can have Magic Bullet Looks and Magic Bullet Colorista III applied to some clips, and our plug-in can see those 3rd party effects and the parameters, and then take all of those into After Effects. When you open up that clip in After Effects it looks exactly like it looked in FCPX. Any work you’re doing in FCPX to get you where you want to be in After Effects is going to come through so you won’t have to redo your work. Even if things are animating, like with scale keyframes, they’ll come over into After Effects.
After Effects Timeline
FCP X Timeline
What has you most excited about Automatic Duck Ximport AE?
When we first did our Automatic Duck product back in 2001, there were people like me who were using Avid and After Effects a lot together, but the number of people who were interested in that only grew once we had a solution to make it a more viable workflow. What I’m especially excited about is that there are a lot of people out there using FCPX, and maybe they aren’t using After Effects just because there isn’t a viable workflow for them. I’m hoping this will get FCPX users to try out After Effects, and I’m also hoping some After Effects users who haven’t taken to FCPX might be inclined to give it another look.
I’m not going to try to convince someone to use FCPX if they’ve decided they hate it. I’m not into religious battles. But let’s say you’re an After Effects user who doesn’t know editing very well, or you’re mostly a designer. FCPX can be a fantastic editor because it’s so approachable. The simplicity of the app means that you can do some editing it in without having to get bogged down in the mechanics of a complex NLE. Something like Premiere Pro might be overkill for an After Effects user who wants to get some editorial in their workflow, but they’re not a full editor.
So I’m excited about the workflow opportunities that we’re going to create for users.
What about Automatic Duck Media Copy? What do we need to know about this updated product?
Media Copy is a simple utility that is especially popular with Avid users. What Media Copy does is it reads an XML file from FCP7 or FCPX (and the FCPX feature is new in this update) or an AAF file from an Avid. Media Copy figures out the media files that are required for that timeline, and then copies those files to a location that you specify. It could be a computer cross network, a Thunderbolt drive, your archive system or anything, really.
Every NLE has its’ own way of consolidating media or copying projects. But everything is always done in the editing system. For example, on an Avid, you can do this consolidate step which is kind of like copying, but doing that creates a whole bunch of new clips in the bin, and they have the suffix “.new.01”. Editors were frustrated by it because more often than not they had their project where they wanted it, and just wanted to isolate the media. They didn’t want to create a bunch of new clips. Media Copy just makes something that is otherwise tedious very easy. It makes it very easy to simply copy your media.
It’s not as groundbreaking as Ximport AE is, but it’s helpful, and I think that’s one of things that’s always characterized Automatic Duck tools. Sometimes they’re groundbreaking, as in being able to take a FCPX timeline into After Effects. But other times they’re just handy. You’re not going to blast your Facebook page with updates about how excited you are about Media Copy, but you might tell an editor friend how amazed you are that this tool helps you with the simplest tasks.
I’m excited about getting this tool back out there, because I know users loved it a lot.
What sort of feedback do you typically see from users once they try out your products? Do you expect that same feedback around these new ones?
For these specific products, our beta testers have commented that they can’t believe how rich the translation is from FCPX to After Effects. In a more general sense though, what we often hear back is something along the lines of, “this is so helpful, thank you for making this.” The whole “thank you for making this” is something I’ve heard so many times over the years, and it really keeps us going.
Historically, our tools have embedded themselves into workflows to the point that users can’t imagine working without them. I can remember in the past, people wouldn’t update their FCP until they knew our stuff was going to work with it. I hope we kind of revive that reliance and see people get as addicted to our new tools as they were to our old ones.
And speaking of those old tools, they’re all free and available for download now, right?
In 2011 we took the After Effects import plug-in that worked for pre CS6 versions, so that’s CS 5.5 and earlier, and the two Final Cut plug-ins for going to Avid or from Avid to FCP, and made those free. We did take it off of our website sometime in the last year when we were getting ready for this relaunch because we didn’t think there was much interest in those products any longer, but then everyone kept asking us where they could get these downloads because they still needed them.
Those old products are going to return and will be available for free. We are adding a donation box to the page, because we’ve had plenty of users who actually want to pay for them and support us, which is always great to hear, especially now that we’re not associated with a big company and we’re trying to go out on our own again. Help paying the bills is always appreciated.
Let’s talk about a few details that users are curious about. Is there anything people need to do to prepare clips or a sequence to transfer to After Effects?
For the most part, no.
That said, it is important for users to know and have the proper expectations around how the product works and what it’s going to translate. It does not translate absolutely everything from FCPX into After Effects. A good example of what won’t come over would be the color correction inside FCPX, which they call the Color Board. That color correction effect in Final Cut has some parameters for gamma, brightness, darkness, etc. and there isn’t an exact effect in After Effects that will accept those parameters and come up with the exact same result. In the case of something like that, there’s not much we can do at this time to get the color correction info from FCPX into After Effects. The user just needs to know if they’re color correcting in FCPX with the intention to take it into After Effects, depending on how they do that color correction, they might be redoing that work in After Effects.
There are ways around these limitations though. If the user instead uses Colorista III from Red Giant, then the work they do in FCPX will translate across into After Effects. The user just needs to know what the plug-in can do, and sometimes re-doing work is fine, but having us do it is even better.
Why, in your opinion, has Apple not implemented a ‘Send to Motion’ right out of the FCPX timeline?
I’m honestly not sure why Apple has not done that. I know that in the Final Cut legacy days of Final Cut Studio, FCP7 to Motion for workflow was very popular, and it was pretty neat. When they went to FCPX and Motion 5, that “Send to Motion” feature went away, and I’ve heard a lot of users say they wish they had it.
If the user is really interested in getting something in FCPX to an effects tool, in a nice, and almost completely seamless way, Ximport AE will satisfy some of what they used to have with sending something in Final Cut to Motion.
What should users keep in mind once they’re able to try out these solutions?
We’re really excited to get these product out there, partly because we’ve been developing them now for over a year and a half, and we know they solve a lot of problems and work really well. But it’s not until we ship it that the real bugs are going to be found, and we hear from people about the features they really want, and what might be an even more ideal way to use the products. Beta feedback is essential, but getting our products into the market is the most important thing, because we need to see how the community reacts.
We’re at the point now where we need to decide what we’re going to do next, either in this product or in other products, so customer and community feedback is hugely important because it tells us where we need to devote our time, which obviously equates into money. It costs us a lot to develop this stuff, and we really want to make sure we’re making the right decisions. We’re going to be looking for all the feedback we can get.