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Production Values

by Mark Christiansen

Mark Christiansen is the author of After Effects Studio Techniques (Adobe Press). He has created visual effects and animations for feature films including Pirates of the Caribbean 3, The Day After Tomorrow and films by Robert Rodriguez. Past corporate clients include Adobe, Cisco, Sun, Cadence, Seagate, Intel and Medtronic, and broadcast work has appeared on HBO and the History Channel. Mark's roles have included producing, directing, designing and effects supervision, and his solo work has appeared at film festivals including L.A. Shorts Fest....

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Creative License Renewed! sign of things to come or a splashy tease?

By Mark Christiansen | March 06, 2008

Now if only you could create something like this entirely with Adobe software.Or does the joker indeed get the last laugh? Read More


Star Wars Main Title (as if by Saul Bass)

Parody illuminates two contrasting styles

By Mark Christiansen | March 04, 2008

A friendly reminder: if you want your motion graphics work to be shared far and wide, humor and satire can be a great way to go.Note: the AEList apparently beat me to the punch on this one... s'okay, wanted to test video embeds here anyhow... Read More


awards oscars vfx

Golden Compass: First Flop to win VFX Oscar in Nearly a Decade

For once a great performance is not overlooked simply because hardly anyone saw it.

By Mark Christiansen | February 26, 2008

Visual Effect Academy Awards™ are not much different from any other category in at least one respect: great performances in films that underperform at the box office tend to be overlooked. I and many others thought that Transformers had this year's visual effects Oscar™ all sewn up not only because the work was amazing - not just the amazingly complex 3D animation but some really fantastic compositing. Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (on which this author contributed a few shots) was clearly not going to win as that would break an Oscar taboo: the repeat winner (since Pirates 2 took a statue only last year). And yet, nearly as much of a long-shot seemed to be The Golden Compass simply because the film was a flop, and Hollywood is allergic to losing money (despite many examples to the contrary) - this despite that many in the visual effects community believe it contained the most ground-breaking work, raising the bar for complex interactions between computer generated creatures (realistic looking daemons, the animals representing the soul/anima of the human characters) and recreating grand scenes of steam-punk London and Oxford and grand vistas of the Arctic. Not since What Dreams May Come has a vfx film lost money at the box office and taken the statue.Perhaps Hollywood's love of giving the prize to anyone but ILM - who along with the 49ers were the bay area force no one could beat in the 80's and early 90's - trumped the box office vote. However it happened, a great visual effects film (albeit a failed re-telling of one of the best novels of the past decade) won. Read More


Adobe’s Magic 3D Lens

Adobe's foray into the hardware market, or just a cool peek into the near future?

By Mark Christiansen | February 13, 2008

Check out this video in which Adobe engineers debut some much rumored hardware designed to interface with a future version of Photoshop (and, perhaps, other of our favorite Adobe apps?) to provide persective and depth of field in post.Not only is it a stunning demo, such a lens might not require mechanical controls for changing focus or aperture; the lenses are the fixed focus type found in your point and shoot camera.It's possible to recreate depth of field in post, or do without it entirely, Gregg Toland-style (but since we all know that DOF is crucial to a cinematic look, that ability may be more useful for 3D artists who need that kind of image fidelity).Adobe has vastly increased its investment in research and development so this is hardly the last innovation we're likely to see, particularly in cases where the proof of concept comes from academia. Read More


Recreating 1970’s San Francisco: Contrasting Approaches

Recreating 1970’s San Francisco: Contrasting Approaches

David Fincher and Gus Van Sant take contrasting approaches to recreating the oddest decade of a unique city.

By Mark Christiansen | February 05, 2008

Every day that I cycle from my home into the Presidio I pass through the intersection of Washington and Cherry streets, site of a murder that is the centerpiece of David Fincher's film Zodiac, a film that fabulously recreated the San Francisco of the 1970's. Last weekend I cruised Castro Street (not what you're thinking when you read that) to witness its own fabulous 1970's makeover for Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk, about San Francisco's most famous murder of that era.There is great irony here: the corner of Washington and Cherry has the timeless quality that goes with old-money upper class neighborhoods, yet Fincher chose not to shoot there at all, instead painstaking recreating the neighborhood as 3D matte paintings and shooting the taxi driver murder in front of a green screen. These allowed them to add period details that perhaps no non-local filmgoer could notice, such as that the street trees would have been 35 years younger - this for a scene that takes place at night.Castro Street, meanwhile, is as different from its 1970's self as any vibrant commercial tourist destination would be, and yet for Milk, the filmmakers are going back in time using set decoration: redoing the storefronts that have changed hands (you have to hand it to Rossi's Deli for appearing virtually unchanged in 30 years) and repainting the Castro Theater, the cinema that is the neighborhood's visual centerpiece. Hilariously, they have taken the level of detail right down to the real estate listings (in the window depicted below).In an era when even a romantic comedy has 2-300 digital visual effects shots, what's up? I'd like to hear your suggestions in the comments, but I think it's mostly a question of taste, or even what you might call comfort zone. Yes, the director of Se7en and Fight Club can afford have an artist or two spend a year of their lives working on one effects shot, a time-lapse of the TransAmerica Pyramid being constructed, even though it's tangential to the storyline at best, so you could follow the money and simply say that Zodiac was a bigger budget film. But locations aren't cheap, especially in high-end coastal cities.So this is really a study in contrasts. Fincher makes an investigative drama and can't help but insert almost-unreal effects and even motion graphics into the story (at one point the letters from the Zodiac killer occur as three dimensional projections all around the offices of the Chronicle). Van Sant, on the other hand, is an old-school actor-centered independent filmmaker, just the kind who really hates green screens and handing over key shots to digital artists. I don't doubt there will be effects shots in Milk, but it looks like the heavy lifting is happening in "pre," not post. Read More


Adobe Hacker Effects

Adobe Hacker Effects

Magnum and other great improvements growing through the cracks in After Effects

By Mark Christiansen | February 01, 2008

The After Effects development team is surprisingly small, especially given how much innovation has gone into each revision in the app's 15 year lifespan (as of this past month - Happy Birthday, After Effects!). Like a Hollywood feature executive they can only greenlight a handful of great ideas each year.That's what makes a tool like Magnum part of what could be a sea change, if Adobe can figure out how to harness the energy of thousands of passionate and smart After Effects users. You may have heard about Magnum already: give it a single layer in a comp that has cuts and it figures out where they are, and splits that one layer into many. I used it this week to break down a client rough cut for shot organization prior to receiving their actual edit.The thing is, cut detection is a supposed to be hard - Final Cut Pro has it, but unless I'm mistaken it's restricted it only to captured miniDV footage. But Magnum's author, Lloyd Alvarez, made use of what I knew would be a major addition to scripting once someone figured out how to do something useful with it: the sampleImage() method, which is the first expression command that can actually get pixel data. Magnum cleverly performs a series of Classic Difference operations between adjoining frames to analyze if the data change between frames is significant enough to indicate a cut.Since Magnum is a script, I can open it, and when I did, I was stunned to find helpful comments on each line explaining exactly how the script works. Not only is Lloyd giving this thing away, he's encouraging others to learn from his example, hiding nothing. Now if that's not an example of the gift economy replacing the economics of scarcity, I don't know what is. Lloyd gets to be considered among the smartest AE artist/developers on the planet, and Adobe's community gets a new feature for free. So the question is, what can the next version of After Effects do to remove more of the obstacles between people like Lloyd and great ideas like Magnum? Read More


Flat Earth VFX

Flat Earth VFX

By Mark Christiansen | December 11, 2007

Some new (to me at least) and interesting info in this morning's seven and a half minute NPR story about the Rhythm & Hues studio in Mumbai that recently completed work on The Golden Compass and Alvin and the Chipmunks:• India is on track to take $1 billion/year of Hollywood computer graphics production within the next few years.• Tax breaks in the UK are so generous they make it difficult for US studios to compete DESPITE the unprecedentedly weak dollar.• Talent costs, which would not logically decline over time (or ever) in the west, are low in Mumbai and Hyderabad - it's the connectivity costs which are high. Connectivity is a commodity which would logically decline over time, in many cases rapidly.• Perhaps most significant, there's clearly no marginalizing the contributions made by the 200 person Mumbai office, who are heard being congratulated for work on the Monkey in Golden Compass - a major CG character. The CG creature (animal) work on that film has received universal praise; some claim it's the best yet in any film (I haven't seen Golden Compass yet and can't comment).This is not like the in-betweening studios that do The Simpsons - the Mumbai R&H office is heard receiving credit for a major breakthrough with the monkey ("a central CG character") in Golden Compass. I corresponded with a couple of R&H folks (from the main L.A. studio) who said that the job simply wouldn't have been possible without Mumbai, that it allowed them to bid a bigger job than had been in their scope (so everyone benefited) and that although the Mumbai folks started out with the 'simple'(meaning easier to work on from remote) stuff -- roto, tracking, and simple compositing, and gradually introducing the more difficult stuff as communications problems got solved, and their capacity and capability increased.It looks like a nice place to work! Read More


adobe flash flash 9

This Revolution Will (by definition) Be Televised

By Mark Christiansen | December 11, 2007

To paraphrase Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, this writer's strike will end someday. Amid more and more speculation as to the irreperable damage being done to the Hollywood studio system is a major ray of hope for thousands of aspiring filmmakers - not just those outside the system currently, but even those striking writers - particularly the ones with an entrepreneurial streak.And help is lining up. Just today, the mother of all alternative distribution channels, YouTube, announced a somewhat unclear yet promising expansion of its revenue sharing model which, when combined with their earlier announcement (also vague) that quality will improve in 2008 starts to make digital distribution a real and appealing option. Meanwhile, Flash 9 now supports HD, one more arrow in the arsenal of AMP beta.Mark my words: the differentiator on youtube will move from sensationalism t0 production values, or the public will move on from youtube to the distributor that has them. A well-written story with poor visuals is certainly better than a fabulous looking vacuum of ideas, but a good looking, entertaining movie or series that can be created without the middleman? Now there's the money. All it takes is teamwork by people who can write, edit, pull off some great color or visual effects work, light, and/or shoot.There's some fun and adventure to be had here. Read More


Fun with Gamma, Quicktime and After Effects

Fun with Gamma, Quicktime and After Effects

By Mark Christiansen | October 31, 2007

Here's a scenario being replayed at studios around the globe: The decision is made to upgrade to After Effects CS3. A big project comes in. All proceeds quite well until it's time to render for final output, at which point files coming out of After Effects - particularly those being edited in Final Cut Pro - appear darker, even when rendered with a codec traditionally thought to be "safe" for gamma such as Photo-JPEG or even Animation (as was used to create this image). Howls of pain and gnashing of teeth ensue, After Effects is blamed, and in at least one case the entire studio reverts to 7.0. True story.Don't let this happen to you, folks.Although there are various permutations of this problem, it generally comes back to rendering Quicktime movies directly from After Effects. "Why is After Effects messing with my Quicktime output?" you might ask. "Why doesn't it just work like in previous versions?"The short answer is that a simple checkbox may help you. Open Project Settings in After Effects CS3 and under Color Settings, toggle Match Legacy After Effects Quicktime Gamma Adjustments. This causes After Effects to work with QuickTime movies the same way as previous versions of After Effects. Boom. No need to set a Working Space or mess with gamma in any other way.The longer answer is that gamma in Quicktime has essentially always been unpredictable for a couple of reasons: Apple changes the gamma according to their perception of how you're viewing it (i.e. which platform you're on, whether it's a web codec, and what application is being used) and, being Apple, they haven't published their gamma settings so that anyone else knows what the heck is going on, other than empirically.Oh, don't get me wrong Apple, I'm typing this on a MacBook Pro running Leopard, an iPhone at my left hand, Mac Pro behind it, ready to send this post via Airport Extreme.I will likely have more to say on the subject of color management and I/O in After Effects, also a huge topic for the new edition of the book. Meanwhile, please freely post your horror stories (or revelations) here and I will scan them for more specific points to address. There's also more to say about Quicktime and how it handles (or doesn't) things like aspect ratio.If you're feeling bitter, boycott Quicktime until Apple and Adobe work this out together and use image sequences instead, like your pals who are film professionals.By the way, here is a post from FreshDV a couple months back showing another culprit feature for unpredictable Quicktime gamma, in Quicktime 7.2's very own preferences. Read More



Why isn't After Effects used more for feature film effects? And is the future of compositing software up for grabs?

By Mark Christiansen | May 03, 2007

This post is prompted by the following questions and comments from a reader:Was AE used for Davey Jones in Pirates 2? Is it capable of those kinds of effects or was that another program altogether? I don't expect to do anything that advanced in my movies yet but I love learning new things.I'll extract the real question here, rather bluntly, and then address it (hopefully without falling into the usual traps inherent in comparing software, operating systems, religion, sexuality and party politics): Is After Effects a real high-end tool or does its mass appeal make it more limited?The short answer is: you can do pretty much anything you can think of (2D compositing-wise, at least), in After Effects.That's it. Seriously.Okay then, has it been used at the pinnacle of effects work? Yes. Want proof? Look at The Day After Tomorrow, which I happen to know was composited in just about every package available - not just After Effects but Flame/Inferno, shake, Nuke, and probably more. Can you tell which shots were done in After Effects? Of course not. But now it gets complicated. Is After Effects the software of choice at most high-end visual effects houses? Clearly not. Although the list of features on which After Effects has been used is long and prestigious, numbering well into the hundreds, among high-end visual effects houses, The Orphanage (and preceding them, ILM) have been prominent among a very few to use After Effects for the biggest vfx jobs. Why? Is After Effects not up to the demands? Let me try to avoid the religion/politics part be as simple and concise as possible.There are four basic points on which compositing software (and, perhaps, all software) is evaluated:A) FeaturesB) PerformanceC) WorkflowD) PriceWhich of these is 80-90% responsible for major vfx companies choosing anything but After Effects? If you said C, we agree. After Effects does not fall short on features, nor is its performance truly inferior, compared with other desktop sotware. It's price used to be cheap but would now be considered middle-of-the road with shake having reached the bargain bin. Yes, with every new release of After Effects, people find some feature to pick on that other software has and it lacks, but if you pay attention, that's true of all of its competitors as well. The After Effects team has consistently responded to the needs of the visual effects community, and the complaints of what's missing (individual curves for x, y and z axes! More iterations in the motion blur!) are not true deal breakers.And yes, work in After Effects can be slow on a big shot - but I can tell you from working on 2K plates in Shake, very similar speed issues exist there unless you manage the shot properly, something I focus on quite a bit in the After Effects Studio Techniques books.The real reason After Effects isn't considered for more feature films clearly has to do 80-90% with workflow.But here's the funny paradox: of all of the major desktop compositing software packages available, only After Effects has been used both for the highest-end visual effects work and the highest-end motion graphics. And because the needs of those communities, while closely related, are unique, serving both markets actually makes the After Effects workflow more complicated for visual effects work. Certain operations require far more steps in After Effects and involve pre-composing, an operation foreign to the all of the other node-based competition.Therefore you could make the case that After Effects is its triumph - it is more versatile than the competition. So what makes the difference? The strength, and therefore the Achilles heel of After Effects is the Timeline. It is the heart of the application (or as I call it in my book, the "killer app"), the place where all of the work gets done, and it allows for complex timing and spatial animation of elements. Among all major compositing packages, this workflow is unique to After Effects.And in some cases, the Timeline becomes a liability instead of the fantastic feature that it often is.Why, you might ask, if I can acknowledge that After Effects isn't the software of choice at most feature effects studios, do I persist in writing books about doing feature-quality visual effects work in After Effects? Two reasons come instantly to mind:1) Today and for the forseeable future, more shots will get done in After Effects than in all of the others combined.2) I can comfortably argue that After Effects is more powerful than the competition, because of the breadth and depth of work you can do with it.Number one is a no-brainer. There are way, way more copies of After Effects out there than Shake, even now that it costs half as much. Even if, out of the dozen or two highest-end vfx shops, only a handful use After Effects, when you add the full range of artists creating visual effects for everything from television to youtube, After Effects moves into the dominant position. And with good reason - you can deliver the highest quality results with it. In the previous post I acknowledged what specifically about the workflow hangs up film compositors about After Effects, but there have still been an awful lot of film shots done in it, and will continue to be.Number two is also a no-brainer, if you consider this: try to create the highest-end motion graphics and the highest-end visual effects in a single compositing package. The only other software that is even a candidate to do this is probably Combustion, and because I don't use it, I can't make a meaningful comparison - I just know that it's the only one that even has a comparable feature-set, because it offers both nodes and a timeline. In my books I refer to the After Effects timeline as its "killer app" - ask a shake artist to create a shot that involves lots of intricate timing, the choreography of numerous elements and type, and then listen for the howls of pain.And maybe that's the point - most feature film effects don't involve the type of animation and timing artistry that requires the timeline, and so feature film artists end up paying the price of pre-composing and nesting compositions without typically getting the benefit of this fantastic feature.So, while I can put on my pundit hat and admit that After Effects CS3 doesn't add anything that would win over the feature effects houses - except maybe the forward-looking Color Management features and the amazing Puppet toolset, along with a few other features I'll mention in my next post - I know that I, and many other artists, will be creating uncompromising effects and graphics in After Effects for years to come. As for Nuke and Motion - well, they make things interesting. We'll see if the former can become user-friendly enough, and the latter deep enough to sway After Effects die-hards like me. Read More