Little did I know when I started down the road of motion graphics and VFX that it would be virtually impossible to do so as a hobbyist.
Advanced animation path by LegoMushroom
VFX, on the other hand, is what you see in movies. It’s what happens in front of a green screen, or is what adds ejected casings and muzzle flashes to otherwise inert plastic and metal firearms that actors shake around.
I subscribe to the Adobe Creative Cloud because I use and am familiar with the Photoshop workflow. I have tried the popular free alternatives with little interest and a lot of frustration, so the subscription to CC is OK by me. Because the CC subscription is expensive, though, it made sense to increase its worth by learning other tools in the suite like Illustrator or After Effects.
After Effects became particularly important to me for its ability to create motion graphics. In fact, it’s one of the only apps out there that does motion graphics. When I wanted to create overlays for live streaming, motion graphics was where it’s at (popular overlay producer Nerd or Die uses AE to make their super-slick alerts, so it’s a battle-tested pipeline).
When I stumbled across videos on how to use AE for VFX, though, I was floored. It’s like learning that your humble skateboard is an intergalactic time machine that also cures cancer and juliennes potatoes, and all this time you were only using it to roll up and down the street. Whereas AE is the sole purveyor of motion graphics around, it’s not the only show when it comes to VFX. Apparently, it’s not even what the professionals use. There’s a whole lot of others like Nuke and Fusion and Natron. Some of these are way more expensive than AE, but some are free or even open-source, which kind of blows my mind. Of course, I have little real need for compositing abilities, but because it’s fully one half of what AE is capable of, I wanted to learn how to use the software in that regard. While basic AE can accomplish a lot, it does have some hard limits beyond which push a person into kludging together passable result, so if I want to do more than just what the basic tools allow, I’m going to need to go shopping.
First is hardware. I’ve seen tutorials and breakdowns done by professional VFX folks like ProductionCrate and CineCom. They may or may not be working out of a warehouse-sized building which is 1/5 office space, 1/5 storage, and 3/5 cavern filled with scaffolding, high-powered lighting rigs, lift-trucks, and yards upon yards of green material. They’ve got expensive tripods (yes, three sticks tied together can get ridiculously expensive) to hold up their $50,000 multi-K, 120fps cameras. They cart around cases of lenses like they just grow on trees. And most of their videos are just them goofing around and doing cool stuff with all of this hardware worth several car dealerships. I mean, it’s their job, sure; my office has a crapload of computer hardware that’s also expensive when you add it up, but office equipment just isn’t the same? I don’t have a 4K mirrorless or DSLR camera, so I have to rely on my Pixel 3 (which has 4K, but at 30fps) because I can’t spend an insane amount of money and write it off as a business expense.
What I can do is cobble together some household items. I obtained my green screen when I bought some video editing software years ago (because why not include that, I guess?). I bought a frame to hang it from for about $70. I have my aforementioned 4k/30 phone and I purchased a tripod mounting bracket for it ($15), and a Bluetooth remote ($8) so I could start and stop recording from a distance. I rely on regular house lights and move lamps around when I need to. The end result is…passable, but barely. I do what I can with what I’ve got, but I have some nice LED light panels, more green material, some microphones, and other odds and ends on my Amazon wishlist should I find myself with a winning lottery ticket someday.
The second and most attractive element of the hobby is equally expensive: plug-ins. The good thing about plug-ins is that they can be used without regard for physical hardware because their effects can be applied to stock video or even motion graphics. Companies such as RedGiant and Maxon make industry-standard applications and suites of effects and tools that start at around $1000 or charge a “rental fee” — yes, they call it a “rental fee” in this industry and not a “subscription” — of $60 per month or more. Beyond the tools, there are some amazing producers of stock footage for things like smoke, fire, and explosions that can run into the hundreds of dollars for a few seconds of video. There’s also a fantastic community marketplace called AEScripts.com that offers plug-ins made by professionals and users, and while the prices of these elements are far more reasonable in relation to the ones mentioned above, all of this adds up quickly. With a studio footing the bill, a lot of these tools are probably just the “cost of doing business”, but there’s no hobbyist level in this industry. You’re either assumed to be a student, paid for by your higher ed institution, or a pro, paid for by your employer. The rest of us are cordoned off by a very, very expensive velvet rope.
The final issues I have as a rank amateur are just general resources like time or ideas or my ancient enemy “being the only person I know who is interested in this crap”. It’s fun to do what I can with what I’ve got, but not infrequently do I find myself growing despondent not because I’m not making any progress, but because I know this is completely academic. I am not going to be making movies. I am not going to be able to get a job doing VFX or motion graphics work. I have absolutely no reason to be doing this and no destination to reach. I am completely jealous of my daughter who is going to be going to college this fall at an institution where they have a pretty decent program for film, graphics, and the like. She’s not going there for any of this, but there was nothing like those programs when I was considering going to college, and that makes me sad in retrospect.
[*] UPDATE: As of this morning, I am the proud owner of Trapcode Particular from RedGiant. Today is the last day of their 40% off summer sale and with the power of “buy now, pay later”, this single suite component selling for $230 tipped gently to the “justified” side of the fence. This will keep me quiet for a period during which I will continue to stockpile cash here and there for the next sale that RedGiant offers.