Expressions, Scripting, Automation -- and Fun
COW Library : Adobe After Effects : Dan Ebberts : Expressions, Scripting, Automation -- and Fun
I first encountered After Effects in a somewhat roundabout way. In 1997, I was managing a large group of IT professionals and was on the hook to give a safety presentation to an even larger group. I have (as many people do, apparently) an aversion to public speaking, so I came up with the bright idea of creating a video to do the talking for me.
I got a Digital 8 video camera and a video capture card for my PC and managed to cobble together a five-minute video, which was well received. That led me to Adobe Premiere which led me to After Effects. Unfortunately, at that time, AE was Mac-only. I was in luck though, because Adobe was furiously working on a Windows port.
Back then, AE came in two flavors -- the Standard version, and the more expensive, dongle-protected Production Bundle. Of course I wanted the Production Bundle, but you could only buy it through a local VAR. I eventually found one in Sacramento that was expecting delivery of the first Windows version of AE (3.4). I was at the loading dock when they took delivery, so I'm pretty sure I got the first retail copy in the Sacramento Area.
Armed with AE, my little video projects became more sophisticated, with moving titles and lots of effects. But my video making pretty much came to a halt in 2001 when AE 5.0 was released. That's when expressions were born. I was fascinated by the idea that I could use my programming skills to create animations in After Effects, and focused pretty much exclusively on that feature. During this period, I wrote a few tutorials for the COW and began answering expression-related questions on the AE forum.
It wasn't until 2004 that I actually got my first paying AE gig, which included creating some expressions to auto scale a title and background for a cable TV network. Money and a chance to see my work on TV -- fun!
Title and background are scaled to fit into title safe area
Things started happening pretty quickly after that. Later in 2004, AE 6.5 came out with a full-fledged scripting capability that allowed you to create powerful process automation and complex comp-creating scripts. Around that time, Adobe hired me to develop some expression presets to ship with After Effects. It was also around then that I got my first process-automation scripting job, which involved swapping out team logos for a sport network's "Plays of the Week" feature. Most of my work is process automation scripting. It usually takes the form of a script to automatically swap out a project's images, video footage and text based on an input document of some sort (usually XML). One of the major networks hired me to automate the generation of end credits. You can still see it in action on all of their primetime shows. One of the big cable networks hired me to automate the creation of their bumpers ("Coming Up Next...", etc.), based on a monthly schedule.
I enjoy the scripting work, but every once in a while a really fun project comes along that requires developing some complex expressions, or a combination of scripting and expressions. An early example is an image-unscramble animation (based on the magic number puzzle kid's toy) I was commissioned to build for a Dutch television show. I came up with a script that would start with a solved puzzle and randomly scramble it, keeping track of the moves it used. It would then construct a fly-in of the scrambled puzzle pieces, and build an expression for each puzzle piece that solved the puzzle by running the scramble moves in reverse order.
The original prototype for the image unscrambler animator
A more recent example is a piece where my script needed to create an array of unfolding 3D hexagons which would reveal a complex path of images and text items. The script was driven by a text file that defined each hexagon's parent, its attachment edge, the timing of its unfolding, and the file path to the image. I had to brush up on my hexagon geometry, but it was all great fun.
An early version of the 3D hexagon-unfolder project
In early 2009 I had the pleasure of co-developing (with Aharon Rabinowitz) the Holomatrix effect (it actually consists of a plug-in, a script, and a bunch of expressions) for Red Giant.
A screen grab of the Holomatrix effect and its UI controls
Having an engineering background, I tend to view things in terms of algorithms and equations, but I've been able to team up with many talented and artistic people to help them implement their visions. Although I have done scripting work for Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign projects, After Effects remains my favorite application. AE has afforded me the opportunity to meet and work with so many of my AE heroes, including many of Adobe's AE engineering team. I feel really fortunate to have stumbled into this scripting and expressions niche. Happy birthday AE, and thank you!