Express yourself!

Whether or not you can imagine a couple of everyday guys and girls doing pole dance moves on what we used to call "Schlampenstange" (bitch pole) to the Madonna song of same name I’ll leave up to your fantasy, but it’s undoubtedly a kind of dancing very few have truly mastered. That is also true for expressions in After Effects, which always have been some sort of love-hate relationship for me. I’m using them all the time to automate my projects, yet some of their shortcomings and quirks frustrate me to no end. The lack of specific control types like user-defined pop-ups or radio button groups is one of those, their slow performance due to linear evaluation another, the latter of which also can cause massive problems with multiprocessing renders for instance. And of course it’s 10000% ridiculous to get error messages like "An error occurred on line 127" when the built-in editor doesn’t have line numbers and you always end up copy & pasting to a text editor to find out what the fuck the program is actually trying to tell you. Now I will admit that I’m really pushing my luck sometimes with code spanning across multiple comps and on occasion reaching up to 500 lines for a single property, in summary making thousands of lines of code for some projects, but I sure wish things were a bit easier.

Another thing that puts me off quite a bit is how and why people attempt to use expressions when they better shouldn’t. Unfortunately there are too many users out there who think expressions would be some kind of magic sauce and could do things that would compensate for their absence of artistic skill, poorly structured projects or general unwillingness to realize that some things require hard manual work. "Is there an expression for this?" has become a forum standard in a very sad way for all the wrong reasons. No, a simple wiggle() is not a sufficient way to mimic a camera shake and neither are expression driven tools like Video Copilot‘s Sure Target the be all, end all of 3D camera moves. In fact I find it amazing how people go looking for expression based solutions even on things that require just a few keyframes on some parameters. It’s not entirely their fault, though. Can’t blame anyone for not being attentive in math lessons in school. I was never great on that, either. Just as much blame has to go to those millions of tutorials who advise the use of expressions, but never explain them properly, many times simply because the author doesn’t understand them himself and has only picked up random code snippets from elsewhere. This then leads to this weird situation where people cannot even grasp the purpose of the frequency and amplitude parameters of the aforementioned wiggle() and produce non-working code.

Now at least the latter part can be avoided to some degree using Mathias Möhls new iExpressions script. It adds a panel to After Effects where you can pick your favorite expression from a library and define all your values using nice input fields. It will then add the expression to the property you have selected. Since it adds the expressions in an encrypted form, there is essentially no way for the user to make a mess other than deleting the expression or rendering it defunct by deleting just one character. That’s of course not so good if you want to learn expressions by studying other people’s code or are of the kind who wants to add his own code, but it’s a pretty fool-proof way for all the rest of the users who just want a safe method to use simple expressions. Because it also supports an easy way of linking different properties, you can create quite complex setups already by applying different expressions. A simple example of this would be using some sort of wiggle on the position of two layers and then use an average expression on a third layer to keep it between those two layers. Another example would be random text combined with a newsticker, just to mention some things you can do with the default library. Additional expressions will be added over time and can easily be downloaded automatically from within the interface, so at some point you should have enough choices to cover even more complex scenarios. You can buy it on AEScripts.

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