If you’ve ever needed to track footage with the tools built in to After Effects, especially when dealing with shaky, imperfect footage or dreaded moving shots, you probably understand the flaws and limitations of pixel-based tracking all too well. I once had to track several shots for a prominent feature film using After Effects 7 (go figure) and, after a few hours, thought for sure that I was going to lose my job because I simply could not get rock-steady results on these seemingly basic film plates.
I think it’s great that Adobe sees fit to include these types of tools with their software, and at times the built-in tracking tools are the most appropriate and time saving means of getting what you need. But when you are working on professional caliber projects or find yourself dealing with challenging footage, you simply have to look elsewhere. There are a few high end tools on the market that the big visual effects houses use, but most are over-the-moon expensive, have steep learning curves and are generally off limits to commoners like you and I.
Mocha for After Effects v2 is one of the few products in this category that offers feature-film quality results at a price point well within reach of all users, hobbyists included. When you consider that Mocha also includes high-grade rotoscoping tools that can easily cut production times in half, the economics of this package start to make a lot of sense. Throw in the fact that Imagineer, the company behind Mocha, now offers Mocha for Final Cut Pro and you’ve got the makings for an affordable, studio wide solution.
There are many great tutorials available that cover the mocha workflow, but in a nutshell here’s how it works. You import your footage or frame sequence into Mocha, being careful to adjust the settings to match your source clip. Once imported, you use spline tools to draw simple mask shapes around the features you’d like to track, with little need to be precise. In fact, one of the great things about this tool is that you can move very fast without having to zero in on exact locations. Those days are over. Once your spline is laid down to roughly surround your object, you simply press the track button and Mocha handles the rest. If the particular object you are tracking begins to exit the frame, no problem - simply pause the tracker, draw a second spline around another trackable object, and resume tracking. This new spline will compliment and extend your existing spline and tracking data, making moving shots a breeze. Once the track is complete, you can copy and paste the tracking data directly into After Effects, applying it to either the source footage or a null object and you are done. It really can be that simple.
But let’s say that you also want to rotoscope an object in your shot, such as a foreground building, so that you can add isolated effects to that object in After Effects. Within Mocha you simply draw a reasonably accurate spline around the item, use the adjustment tools to soften or harden the angles of the spline, adjust the edge feathering (which can be done on a per-vertex basis, something not possible with After Effects masks), and attach the roto mask to your tracking layer. When played back, the roto mask should track perfectly with the footage, dramatically reducing the amount of manual frame-by-frame animation needed to get good results. Once you build your roto mask, it will be much, much easier to animate, requiring fewer adjustments and far fewer keyframes. Depending on the subject matter this can take mere minutes compared to the old standard of keyframing every few frames while adjusting the shape of the entire mask each time. This is an absolute dream of a workflow that will produce smiles for anyone who has rotoscoped even one shot in their lifetime. To complete the trip, Imagineer’s Shape plugin ($99) allows you to import rotoscoping data as masks directly into After Effects, rather than having to render out a matte. This is an obvious render time saver, but also affords you a second layer of control once you are back in After Effects. That said, I think many users will prefer to render mattes in Mocha just to take advantage of the extremely cool per-vertex mask feathering.
My only complaint about Mocha for AE v2 is that it did take some head-scratching to figure out how best to use some of the tools, several of which seem confusingly similar to other tools. When I set out to test some “real world footage,” that is to say imperfect focus and shot handheld, a few track tests gave me real problems but, in the end, were solved. Once I got the hang of the workflow Mocha expects you to adhere to, and began to understand how to process my less perfect footage, I found myself able to power through most tracks in under a minute flat.
The interface of Mocha for After Effects is clean, simple and laid out with speed in mind. All tools are easily accessible and arranged in a way that will feel familiar to users of Combustion, Inferno, Shake and many other visual effects apps. Working in Mocha, one begins to feel as though your next move has been anticipated and accommodated, making the whole process pleasant and, above all else, very speedy.
In terms of processing power, Mocha v2 on a common Mac Pro Quad was zippy, responsive and made short work of everything I threw at it. I pulled in several 1920x1080 DVCPROHD shots, expecting to see some level of lag from the program. It handled them with ease, and made almost laughably short work of standard definition footage. Even HD shots with multiple spline and roto tracks couldn’t bring about the kind of chugging along you might expect.
Finally, Imagineer wins the price vs. features battle hands down. Between the motion tracking/stabilizing features and the roto tools, they have put forward an extremely compelling visual effects tool that few other packages can even come close to, especially for the mere $199 price tag ($99 for upgrade). If you do any tracking or roto work, this package will pay for itself in efficiency gains the first time you put it to use, guaranteed. In future versions, I would definitely like to see the Shape plugin included as part of the main Mocha application. It is a highly valuable addition to the Mocha pipeline, but serves a fairly limited purpose which makes it hard to see the reasoning behind selling it separately.
Overall, Mocha for After Effects v2 is fast, friendly and cost effective, making it an excellent choice for freelancers and major studios alike.