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Peter Wiggins looks at Sapphire Plug-ins from GenArts

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Peter Wiggins looks at Sapphire Plug-ins from GenArts
Creativecow.net Product Review




Peter Wiggins
Flick Pictures Ltd,United Kingdom


©2004 Peter Wiggins and Creativecow.net. All rights are reserved.


Article Focus:
Peter Wiggins takes a thorough look at the new Sapphire plug-ins from GenArts. One thing is for sure, you will have seen many examples in film and television already as Sapphire is used on a daily basis by large film effects and post production houses. Many compositors and editors swear by them, Peter included! Peter's been using Sapphire with Shake since the beginning of 2003, and every job has used at least one plug-in. Now, they're available for Final Cut Pro, Combustion and After Effects.

INTRODUCTION

I was very excited when I was asked to beta test the excellent range of Sapphire plug-ins for Final Cut Pro. For over a year and a half I’d been asking Gen Arts when the logical progression of Sapphire through the range of compositing and editing tools would extend down to FCP.

What are Sapphire plug-ins? Well hopefully this article will give you an insight into the tremendous creative potential they unleash. One thing is for sure, you will have seen many examples in film and television already as Sapphire is used on a daily basis by large film effects and post production houses. Many compositors and editors swear by them, myself included! I’ve been using Sapphire with Shake for over a year now, and every job has used at least one plug-in.

So, big deal, more plug-ins, more filters! Yes! but with a difference. Complex effects, treatments and compositing are all within easy reach to anybody with Final Cut Pro. Prepare yourself for amazing glows, edge rays, lighting effects, warps, picture treatments, time effects, transitions, image generators and much, much more. (No steak knives though!)

I guarantee the first day you start to use Sapphire you will have a late night in front of the computer! These plug-ins are fun and you’ll want to go through each one seeing what you can create. – So be warned, have a pizza delivery number handy!


INSTALLATION

The installer for Sapphire is about 6MB and available to download from the Gen Arts website at http://www.genarts.com/download-sapphire-ae-mac.html The licence is dedicated to the machine, so any of your applications that support AE plug-ins can use Sapphire. The installation instructions are very straightforward, quick and worked first time. The installed demo will give you a fully functioning copy for three weeks, after that a watermark will be applied to the output.

There is not a floating licence currently available. If you are like me and run FCP on a Powerbook as well, although you cannot run them both together, you can install Sapphire on both machines. When you purchase, the licence is not timebombed, they are yours to keep and you will be entitled to free upgrades for that issue.

Sapphire plug-ins are completely scalable with FCP, if there is a codec that will run with FCP, then Sapphire is just fine. For the beta test I was using both 10bit and DV Quicktimes without any problems. There is a currently a downside though, as with any plug-in or filter within FCP, any render will only be 8bit. This is a limitation of FCP and not Sapphire, so when Apple fix this problem (soon please), expect 10bit pin sharp results. The range is also compatible with FCP3/4 and Jaguar/Panther – I did the double upgrade mid beta test without any problems

Opening the effects page in the browser reveals 9 new Sapphire folders. Each folder contains the ‘grouped’ plug-ins, 19 for example in the case of the lighting folder. However, don’t just think that’s all, because each one contains many adjustable parameters and drop down menus. As an example, in the Lens Flare plug-in there are 3 drop down menus, the main menu having 9 presets as well as 21 other adjustable parameters in the filters tab!



Easy as the installation process is, should you run into a problem, I’ve always found the guys at Gen Arts to be excellent at resolving a difficulty. When I was installing a floating Sapphire licence to run with Shake, their engineer telephoned me within minutes of me firing an email off to them. Excellent support indeed.

OK, now on to the interesting bit.


OPERATION

It’s simple, drag and drop! The Sapphire interface follows the normal protocol for AE/FCP filters with a few extra tweaks. All parameters are keyframeable and all attributes can be cut and pasted. One problem that I encountered was for a ‘generator’ to work such as Clouds or Texture, this had to be dropped onto ‘something’ as opposed to pasting in between in & out points. Not a problem, just keep a black graphic of your timeline resolution in a bin that you can use as a base for these effects, reduce the opacity where needed.

OK, I can’t continue without mentioning the R word. Yes, Sapphire has to render and the more complicated the effect, the longer it will take. Saying how long rendering takes varies from machine to machine, but let’s say I wouldn’t like to use Sapphire in a very time pressured edit – it has to do some serious, serious maths. On the plus side, it does support dual processor machines. My render times have varied from seconds to hours. All I can say is that I have found it to be considerably faster than the Avids I was using before I saw the Final Cut light.

I would be very interested to setup a cross platform render ‘benchmark test’ of Sapphire, right from FFI through Shake, DF and down to FCP/AE & Avid. Please let me know if anybody is interested in taking part.

There are a few steps that you can take to reduce render times & canvas update in FCP though

  1. Set the render settings to preview until you’re happy, then render at full quality.
  2. Don’t render a large stack of clips with plug-ins applied just to see the change on one parameter on one clip – slip the clip left or right on the timeline into clear space and adjust/render until perfect, then slip it back. You will also notice that the timeline will take longer and longer to update on complicated composites when you move the cursor and the above will drastically cut down that blinking cursor wait time. (I expect a lot of free beers at NAB/IBC for that huge timesaving tip)
  3. Save rendered items & cut and paste. Why bother rendering a background 8 times when you can have a pre-rendered clip in the bin that you drop in as and when. A good example of this being the Generators.



FEATURES & EXAMPLES

The best way I thought of demonstrating the potential of Sapphire was to follow through a few examples. However, if you want to see how much bang you get for you bucks straightaway and all on one page, take a look at http://www.genarts.com/picture-index-ae.html for Gen Art’s examples. Saturn’s not the most interesting of subject matter, but it gives you an idea. Also bare in mind that some of the plug-ins hide rather than enhance. An example would be using Flicker Match to vary the brightness of an item over a clip that has a varying light source. Camera flash goes off - graphic flashes as well, flickering old film - now your graphic flickers in time. Get the idea?


OK, go ahead, impress me!

Generators

Ever stuck for a background for text or a picture? Well, go straight to the generators.
A couple of favourites of mine are Clouds, which I’ve used on the BBC quite often and Texture Folded and Grid

Here not only can you change the colour of the Clouds, but you can also dial in perspective as well as changing the direction and perspective of the ‘travelling sky’ Again, all parameters can be keyframed, so you could change the colour of the clouds over time – Sunrise? With a bit of tweaking these really look like expensive timelapse.


Again, Texture Folded is another instant background. I know clients who have shot on high speed film to achieve the same result. As expected, size, colour, speed and direction of ripples can be changed & keyframed.


OK, might look a bit eighties, but used correctly Grid works really well if you are doing anything ‘techie’. I’ve added a touch of Glow to help. The whole image can be keyed. All the parameters can be changed, angle, position, number of boxes, swing, roll etc.



New Year’s Eve composite
Now where Sapphire gets really interesting is when you start to use a few plug-ins together. As long as you can suffer the render times, you can add as many as you like.

Take this clip for example, I want to jazz it up a bit as a short intro to a piece.
Let’s start by using ‘Texture Folded’ for a backround and set a slow ripple in the cloth from front to back




On a new layer on the timeline, insert a rectangle from the FCP generator, then duplicate this on the layer above and set this to a luma key in composite mode. I’ve given the box a twist and softened the edges slightly

Shrink the photograph down to go over the top on the next layer. Use the same rotation parameters and position it so that it looks like an ‘instant’ picture with a bigger gap at the bottom. I’ve also applied Film Effect for a bit more contrast, a slight glow and de-interlacing all in one hit
Apply Sapphire Spotlight to add lighting effect. Here only one of the two lamps is enabled. The colour of the lamp has been set to a slight yellow to warm the picture up. A possibility here would be to animate the axis of the lamp so the picture would be lit by the sweep of the lamp. The axis of the lamp can actually be outside the picture, zoom the picture back to say 25% then position the origin in the grey border.


Add some text, and Sapphire’s Drop Shadow gives that excellent depth and a soft look.



Then on the last layer, add Glint and keyframe the rotation to give it that sparkle. Voila!



Here’s the timeline, the text fades on. To be really flash, you could animate a rectangle, white on black to run over the text - using this as a key would make the sparkle run across the writing. Maybe this would be good potential for a tutorial?

Also a possibility would be to fade the picture on to give the impression of ‘developing’



Logos

Well, we all need to make our clients’ logos look good. A lot of the time small clients supply ‘print ready’ artwork that looks less than stunning on video. OK, time to get the Sapphire toolbox out

Let’s start off with a plain logo... This is straight out of Photoshop. Not bad but nothing moves, good for print but dull for television!
Apply Spotlight to give the text some shadow differential -Can you tell I use this plug-in a lot? Again, keep things moving by keyframing where the lamp ‘points’
Apply ‘Lens Flare’ but toggle to anamorphic to get this groovy film type spread. You can animate the brightness and size of the flare so that the text might appear once the size shrinks down. Or how about running the ‘hotspot’ in between the two words. The blue streak on the bottom right is designed to emulate an internal lens reflection and should travel in the opposite direction to the main flare. A lot tastier than the original, I’m sure you agree


OK, let’s keep going and add the client jaw dropping edge rays that will be all the fashion (groan) in 2004!



The first picture shows Edge Rays dropped straight onto the logo on the timeline. The problem here is that the rays stop at the edge of the graphic. To overcome this, nest the graphic in another timeline, then your rays can be as long as you like.

The origin of the rays can be animated to pan the rays left to right for example. This will send you off hunting for that swoosh effect CD!


Using the nesting gets other plug-ins ‘outside’ the box as well – Sorry I couldn’t resist Glint and ZapTo.

Distorts

Well, guess what, they distort the picture. First, find a piece of rusty metal



Next, apply the Distort plug-in to the clip and insert a graphic into the lens box. Then it’s a simple tweak on the Amount & Blur Lens to distort the metal around the logo. Add another layer of the logo on top, fade it in at the right time and it looks as if the logo has been pushed through the metal. Remember that you can stack the effects, so using a nest it’s possible to push a logo through that has a glow or other similar effect applied to it.

View the steps below.









Time Effects
Well, this was a big surprise for me as the plug-ins for Time Effects are not even supported in Shake. These really do open up a whole new range of effects, one of them being the aptly named TimeSlice. It’s one of those effects that’s easier to demonstrate than describe.


Now, take one understanding girlfriend, make her stand in a snow covered garden and ask her to slowly rotate on the spot. Applying Timeslice cuts the frames up into thin horizontal sections and then offsets each over time. The result is the feet are from the beginning of the clip, the rest of the body being made up from ‘later’ slices. Hence the classic helix effect. One word of warning here, this plug-in is very, very processor intensive. Bank on long renders, in fact, ‘Sorry, How about a meal out?’ long


Transitions
Also included in the package are 27 new transitions. These are under their own folder in the Sapphire list as opposed to being installed in the video transitions file. Without detailing all the new patterns here, it’s probably easier to scroll down to the wipe examples at http://www.genarts.com/picture-index-ae.html .

The big difference here from a normal transition is that the two clips have to be on different layers to each other. You then apply the transition to the top layer and then animate the wipe/mix percent to achieve the desired length. Below is Wipe Blobs




Sometimes the bottom layer needs to be manipulated say in Dissolve Vortex where the two images dissolve into each other looking as if they are spiralling down a bath plughole. Then the lower layer needs to be dropped into the Background box and similar parameters to the top clip will be applied. Don’t just think of these wiping/mixing on full screen images as they can also be used for keys to wipe on a graphic for example.

I hope the basic examples above give you some insight into what you can do with Sapphire. We’ve only scratched the surface here, when you start to stack plug-ins, the possibilities are endless. The image at the top of this article of me hiding behind the graphic used 9 plug-ins on 4 layers.



SUMMARY

Nobody can doubt the immense power and flexibility of Sapphire and I’m sure over the next few years the use of Sapphire in television will increase exponentially. Even the most basic budget ad can now have a very professional look. Experienced clients will expect any FCP house to be able to do something simple like Edge Rays as a matter of course.

There is one big question though, the price?

At $1699 / £1000 they are not cheap – being more expensive than FCP itself! GenArts do offer the range split into box sets at $599/£350 per set – so if you were after one specific effect, you don’t have to buy the complete set. A list of what’s available in each box is at http://www.genarts.com/sapphire-ae.html

I think Sapphire is a professional tool, the amount of programming that has gone into making their plug-ins available to FCP users has been huge and the cost reflects that. Therefore it’s not a product that’s going to appear on the shelves next to DV camcorders and appeal to FCP users in a non-commercial environment. It is going to appeal to those FCP users who survive by offering a better, more creative and cheaper alternative to large post houses.

One thing to bear in mind if you are shocked by the price. If you wanted to buy the same package for your Flame (It uses the same algorithms) it would punch a hole in your wallet $10,000/£5,875 wide!

Considering you are buying the same creative potential, albeit working on a slower scale, I think Sapphire is a bargain, especially if you use After Effects as well.

If you are a serious professional FCP user, the question is not can you afford them, it’s can you not afford to have them. Don’t forget you can get a 3 week free trial, starting straight away – so what are you waiting for?.

Cow Rating:



4 1/2 Cows

Now where’s that pizza delivery…?

Peter Wiggins

http://www.flickpictures.com/



I would welcome any feedback, especially if there is a demand for a few tutorials on Sapphire. Also would there be enough interest to warrant a Sapphire forum here on the Cow?

This review may not be re-published without the permission of Peter Wiggins
Copyright MMIV


Please visit the forums or read other articles at Creativecow.net if you found this page from a direct link.



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