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Another Year, another Mess…

I’m fast running out of post titles to describe my frustration with After Effects and its current development direction, having ranted and bitched about it for years now, but every time I think things will get better, another bit of depressing news arrives. Like so many times already, the pre-announcement announcement for the latest CC update looks anything but promising.

It’s funny how clearly visible the influence of the current product manager Victoria Nece and her work at some former infographics agency shows up in that one and I don’t mean that in a good sense. Importing JSON files? C’mon, don’t we have other problems and can’t leave that to the script writers? There was a time when some other ex-AE product managers would have wiped the suggestion off their desks with an angry grin. The whole concept is just puzzling, even more so since AE‘s limited capabilities doing stuff in realtime and actually being able to use such data prevent it from being more useful as a full news graphics production system or whatever, anyway.

The casual mention of motion blur and some other GPU features doesn’t improve on that, either, as none of that doesn’t do you much good if you can’t use it. You guessed it – forums everywhere are already full of “Why don’t I have GPU acceleration?” and “My comp window looks weird.” posts and I don’t see how pushing things further into that direction before sorting out all those existing bugs and glitches is of any use to anyone.

Along those lines I’m also not too jazzed about the new type panel with font previews. Who needs this, anyway? YouTube kids who can’t keep their thousands of stolen fonts straight by name? If you feel so inclined, you might also get some kicks out of researching how many times font previews alone crash Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and so on. If you ask me, this is going to be another permanent black hole that you just can’t plug.

On a more positive note, if only ever so slightly, after like 25 years they now have managed to implement a native keyboard shortcut editor and we get access to masks and shape paths using expressions. Yay! Erm, not really. There was a time when I would have nerded out on this, but considering that there’s already scripts and plug-ins for this now, it seems like an afterthought. Don’t get me wrong – in the long-term this could open up some interesting opportunities for tracking (if they ever get around to really writing a completely new full-featured hybrid 3D and 2D tracker) and all workflows based thereon so you don’t always have to delve into mocha, but it just feels lame. I also fear that the limitations of the expressions engine and the potentially clunky syntax (if the one used in scripts is any indication) will make this less powerful than one might think.

Finally, the VR features are of course inevitable, albeit rather obvious in a trendwhore-ish way. At least Adobe got some good return value by shoving a few millions to Mettle. To me, however, the fate of VR remains questionable, at least this particular kind. I find those panoramic videos on Facebook and wherever highly unsatisfying and my impression is that people get carried away with the technicalities and otherwise don’t have any good ideas what to do with the technology and how to actually use it for telling great stories. I mean there’s only so many “Inside the MOMA” videos you can do before it gets boring, if you get my drift…

Atomic Lens Distortions

With the advent of action cams and cheap “VR” lenses (yes, the ironic/ sarcastic use of quotation marks is fully intended) the problem of lens distortions is more prevalent than ever. Personally I’ve never been too much a fan of people ironing out every bit of lens curvature on their video and photos because, you know – what’s the point of learning the art of lensing when you still doctor up your imagery to look like run-off-the-mill stock footage (which BTW is one of the reasons why you can always tell “bad CG” even in super-expensive movies) – but of course there are occasional requirements for that sort of thing, be it just for technical reasons to facilitate things like rotoscoping or integrating set extensions. To that effect our friends at Atomic Image Labs have been at it again exploiting their adaptive technology and just like their first effort it’s free. That should be reason enough to grab it. just don’t forget to bring some of that nice lens effect back after you’re done…

Going Fu-Fu-Fucking Fusion?

Best news of this year’s SIGGRAPH so far: Fusion is going 9 and they’ve lowered the price to a ridiculous level that even I might be able to afford the Studio version despite living off charity. With this there’s barely any excuse left to not take the plunge, considering that you get pretty much all the tools you need, including particles and support for 3D object rendering. They even added a planar tracker, a 3D tracker and VR tools. It really makes maintaining your After Effects and all the necessary plug-ins for even some simple tasks look expensive, assuming you a) have the right kind of work and b) can get behind the sometimes awkward logic of node-based compositing. I also have to disagree on their claim of Fu being good for motion graphics – it isn’t, at least not in its current state. A bunch of particle swirls don’t save your bacon from mediocre text tools, if you get my drift. Still, if you feel so inclined and are as frustrated with Adobe not pulling their fingers from their asses and fixing After Effects for good, it’s worth downloading and giving it a spin.

Your not so annual Particular

Trapcode‘s Particular, or as I lately have been calling it Tadpole Testicular *lol* is an odd tool in terms of its development.

I loved the original version back then in 2004 and I loved v2 just as much, but powerful as it may be, this plug-in is one of those tools that didn’t evolve as quickly and comprehensively as it perhaps could have. It always seemed as they simply couldn’t be bothered to add new features no matter how much requested because ultimately the plug-in seemed to sell itself. There simply were no better alternatives for After Effects. It was the go-to tool for anyone needing some sort of reasonably decent particle effects. As a result, there’s like six-year gaps between every major version. Fast forward to 2017 and here we are finally arriving at v3.

Why are we even here? To be brutally honest, I think the only reason we ever got to see this version is because there is Stardust. They likely would never admit it and of course tell you they long had plans for the new features, but I really think that last year’s newcomer put a thorn in their side and as a minor helped to speed things along considerably or else this might only have come out next year. Of course some things are super-obvious, long-standing feature requests like OBJ-based emitters that people already took advantage of in Form or that unified 3D space. Those would have made it into the plug-in one of these days regardless of any other features.

I’m not sure about the OpenGL rendering, as there’s always that thing with resources and I’m sure it will budge when you have too much stuff going on and your hardware isn’t up to the task or other plug-ins like Element 3D, Plexus or their very own Tao and Mir are used as well. Likewise I still have some reservations about the preset system, as it may take longer to tweak them to fit your scene than to create them from scratch. Admittedly, though, with multiple emitters and cascading/ nested effects it makes some crude sense, be it just for getting rough setups to get a feeler for how things might look.

So for what it’s worth, this seems a rather useful update and if I had a current Trapcode Suite license, I wouldn’t think twice about upgrading. Still, I’m wondering if we might have to wait another six years for v4? And did I mention that I like the medusae/ jellyfish like structures in the promos? ;-) Reminds me of some stuff I used to have on my long-deceased download site…

Your annual Maxon

Of course I’ve announced a hundred times that I plan on staying away from this stuff, but it’s that time of year (SIGGRAPH, that is) and I just can’t help but feel compelled to jot down a few lines regarding the latest R19 release of Cinema 4D. Yes, *boohoo* to myself for not having enough self-control.

Forums have run rampant with speculation about this likely being another underwhelming release ever since a few days they posted this article on their blog about their MSA. Aside from being full of the usual corporate bullshit about loyal customer relations, return value and predictable investments of course such statements always reek of something foul. It’s like saying “We’re not going to tell you what you get, but if you would please be so kind to keep our company afloat?!…” and should best be avoided – especially if you don’t have anything outstanding to offer. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy that yet again seems to be the case with this release.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ll be the last to say that things like rebuilding Bodypaint 3D fully in OpenGL, pimping your viewport or rewriting your core modeling functions aren’t all good and valid, but Maxon are taking a jolly good time with them before their customers even begin to see the tiniest advances. These points on the feature list read like they were just cramming them in to show that they can do it, but still at the cost of leaving workflows fractured and incomplete, forcing the user to alternate between the few new tools while using the legacy functions most of the time. That certainly is puzzling just like it’s puzzling that this same list is full of “me, too” features once again. There’s a clear tendency to look at the competition and then try to catch up and mimic their features.

There are of course a few highlights, though strangely enough some have barely any info on them, which once again gives that impression they were merely last-minute additions rather than part of a holistic strategy. One such feature is the Sound Effector. Aside from the fact that it had its issues and even was mostly defunct in some releases due to bugs, it always suffered from limitations that were hard to understand from the user’s point of view. You could always work around them in some way, mostly using complex XPresso and piping stuff through secondary objects, but this of course wasn’t necessarily particularly intuitive and performance friendly. Therefore it’s actually nice to see some of this stuff now being available natively. Conversely I’m still quite impressed with the Voronoi Fracture stuff and its potential for creative exploitation. If I had the money for a Cinema license, this would almost be a good reason to go back and spend a few afternoons just dabbling around.

On the other hand I’m still not convinced where all this ProRender stuff is headed. Don’t misunderstand – any renderer these days is better and more advanced than Maxon‘s own failed attempts at renovating their craptastic renderer, but I still consider reliance on code that you technically don’t own a risky path. There’s always the risk of the whole Mental Ray story repeating. That and of course as a spoiled Lightwave and modo brat I have enjoyed things like interactive rendering, rich features, fast rendering and pretty good quality for quite a while long before some people even knew what iRay or vRay RT even were. I’m simply not particularly impressed. Even something like the VR spherical camera therefore merely appears like everyone trying to quickly grab their corner of the market as long as the trend lasts. It’s laughable even by Maxon‘s low standards and a bit too cheap and predictable.

The rest of the lot is okay-ish, but as I said, it seems they just can’t make up their minds which of their many holes to plug first and which of their “under construction sites” to truly finish and turn it into a wholesome experience while at the same time trying to keep up with competitors. Unlike some people suspect I don’t even think they are holding anything back for R20. They are just chugging along and have arrived at this dreary level like Autodesk – they’ve let some things slip and slump for too long, but as long as you have been a longtime user and can afford your annual MSA renewal it’s okay. It’s just not that exciting and what passes as “innovation” in Cinema land these days is often only copycatting other programs, give or take the occasional exception that gets even me excited…

Can as Can can

Though I’m mostly watching from the sidelines these days without actually using creative software and thus I cannot be bothered anymore about a lot of things that go wrong in “the industry” (thankfully), I remain a keen observer and occasionally some news stand out and still pique my interest. One of those is Autodesk and e-on Software “canning” some of their software, as the people at CGChannel put it.

The Autodesk decision to cease support for their game-centric tools comes as little surprise. They never got a foot in the door in those markets and in a day and age where you can get even the most sophisticated engines like Unreal or Cryengine on a “free” basis for just doodling around and learning them (of course you have to pay if you use them commercially for a game) it’s too painfully obvious that they would not make much money of it, if any at all. They completely missed the bus in that department and now would have to pour endless money into it to even become remotely competitive. Nobody is going to miss it.

Things might be different for Carbon Scatter and Ozone. Personally I never had any use for them even at the height of my Cinema 4D usage since I didn’t have much to do in the way of architectural and landscape visualization. Even if I did the plug-ins seemed to be so clunky and flawed (slow rendering, massive data hogs blowing up your scene file sizes and the like) I probably would have just sat down and used MoGraph to create my own EcoSystems. On the other hand there seemed to be enough people using them despite their somewhat hefty price.

Either way, them being EOL‘d doesn’t surprise me much, either. It’s the same old gag of companys getting themselves in a cul-de-sac which they can’t get out of. At first it always seems such a good idea to exploit your existing technology and molding them into some plug-ins but after a few years it gets really muddy. You have to support tons of different versions to not break compatibility of project data you have no control over, every new feature you add becomes another burden because it too needs to honor that old code, it doesn’t benefit from advancements you made elsewhere in your core code and if your only developers leave that know the host APIs you’re pretty much screwed. I’m just waiting for the day Realflow for C4D, Houdini Engine and a couple of others fall into that same trap and the only means of escape is pulling the plug.

In this particular case, though, not everything is lost since they offer you to crossgrade to Vue Infinite. The tough question of course is whether it makes sense for you. Going from 200 bucks per year to 1000 is not what I call a simple decision. It’s easier when you already used both tools in your native 3D program and paid for them, but if you only used one this is quite a price hike. Therefore the interesting part will be what they have to show for in Vue itself to actually win people over. It’s a good thing SIGGRAPH isn’t too far away and we might find out soon…

Sic transit Vir

I admit the headline is probably not that original and hopelessly overused in the context of Babylon 5 just as most of you might already have heard of Stephen Furst‘s passing, but aside from mere practical issues this time it really took me a bit of time to come to grips with that news and forge a few words of remembrance.

Sadly, this even hits a few chords with my own life, since one of my own grandpas died at 63, too, after years of suffering from heavy diabetes, renal issues and multiple heart seizures. Of course there’s always a certain inevitability to it and Furst was known for his struggle with diabetes from a young age even when B5 was still filming, but him being one of the younger members of the regular cast he had such a great presence and influence which makes this even harder. He was so integral to some episodes, whole storylines would have collapsed without him.

First off, for all intents and purposes he was Londo‘s better half in every way. His assistant, his servant, his confidant, his conscience and yes, ultimately his best friend. The chemistry between the two was really at times like a married couple and his comedic talent played out well in these situations. The other big part was the fine art of mediating. He somehow was constantly busy smoothing over rough spots and dents others made or sorting out some ruckus. In the end he was almost as powerful as Londo without ever realizing his potential. He was just too modest, subtle and kind for that.

It’s really strange – the more you think about it, the more depressing it gets. I almost feel like when Andreas Katsulas passed on, another of those great, kind-hearted guys that made Babylon 5 such a wonderful series. *sigh*

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