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Why learn a node-based compositor?

Ever since Blackmagic Fusion and Nuke went free, I’ve been curiously trying my hardest to learn them, wanting to learn what “the biggest pros” of the industry use. You see, I’m a professional as well, and I have a problem. That problem comes in the form of Adobe After Effects.

Don’t get me wrong, I love AE. It’s what was taught to me in college, and what got me interested in VFX/Compositing in the first place. It’s also what we use at my current media firm, and it’s got some great integrations with our bread and butter; Cinema 4D. However, as my projects become larger and more complex, staying organised in After Effects is growing cumbersome. How many hours I’d wasted scouring through nested pre-comps, folding hundreds of parameters looking for that one little mask or effect I want to tweak… Combined with the rising need to do more 3D work in post(after rendering from my main package), and the rendering times that comes with such a workflow in AE. I was at my wits end.

Enter Blackmagic Fusion. A piece of software so low-profile I just accidentally found it whilst getting the latest update to Davinci Resolve. I hadn’t heard of a node-based compositor before, but it seemed like the solution to all my gripes with AE. It had a true 3D workspace, amazing performance, a node-based system that looked a whole lot cleaner than the layer-based approach of AE, and as a bonus, a decent particle system. Excited about my newfound discovery, I downloaded the latest version of Fusion 7 only to be dumbfounded by the alienating workflow.

A year later, I was still using After Effects as my primary compositor. I’d tried over and over, but somehow I just ended up back where I started. Sometimes because I missed rotoscope, KeyLight or other features I’d become familiar with, sometimes because the layer-based system seems more effective for motion graphics(Text and shapes), and also because my coworkers use it. I just wasn’t getting effective using nodes.

Then we met another problem. A big one at it. See, our local football stadium got some new screens to show ads around the playing field. It consisted of three long strips made of daisy-chained LCD panels . They even got some custom software to go with it, so they could make playlists and distribute motion graphics to the screen. Problem was, they were renting out the entire LCD strip for companies to put ads on, whilst the software could only send video to the panels individually. This meant that we, being responsible for producing and otherwise priming all ads for the screen, had to split each ad into several smaller video files. We made somewhere close to a eighty ads in total. Not all had to be split, but our workflow for the ones that did went somewhere like this: You create a comp in AE, you set it the resolution of a panel. You align the left of the video to the left of the comp, add that to media encoder as “ad_a.mov”, you offset the video by the resolution, add that as “ad_b.mov” and so on. It was a horrible waste of time, and I had to find a faster solution.

Then the lightbulb hit me: I can use a node-based compositor to create my own tools. This one was dead simple. You create a loader node(which is used to import footage into a comp), you pass that loader into a crop node set to the right resolution and offset, and lastly you pass that off to a saver node, to render and save the file. You duplicate the crop and saver as many times as you need(in my case, 5). Then, for each ad, you simply replace whats in the loader node, then the output file name, and you’re done. Further down the line, with a bit of scripting, you can even make the naming part automatic, and you can create a script that makes fusion automatically create the right amount of nodes, with the right settings, for you. Simply pass in the amount of times you want it split and the program does the rest.

This is why you should learn a node-based compositor. Because they are made so you can make your own custom toolchains and set up effective workflows; Like it’s tailor made for every project you make.

These days, you can get three node-based compositors for free(as if their powerful features aren’t reason enough). There is a non-commercial version of Nuke, which is pretty much the industry standard. You can get Blackmagic Fusion(previously made by Eyeon), which is what I’ll be using for their less restrictive licence and integration with Davinci Resolve, and finally, there is Natron, an Open-source compositor that I don’t know much about, but it looks a lot like nuke.

This time around I’m learning Python next to Fusion, to fully tap into the power of these programs. Furthermore, I plan to share my progress right here on this website, and over at YouTube, whenever I discover something useful. I hope others will do the same.

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