Visual effects plug-in suites

Many video-editing or compositing tools ship with hundreds of effects filters. Some ship with only a few. But chances are at some point you’ll find yourself needing more – either to expand your creative options or to add specific fine-tuning controls.

In this feature, we’ve concentrated on the larger plug-in suites, though we also recommend individual filters on the later pages of this feature. There are two main types of suites. The first is a large, disparate group of plug-ins, usually comprising over 100 effects. The second includes a smaller number of tools focusing on a particular type of effect, such as Magic Bullet Suite for editing dramatic productions.

The first approach is designed to expand the number of filters available in your application. While the likes of After Effects and Final Cut Pro ship with a wide range of effects, there’s always room for more – and compositing programs such as Combustion, Shake and Nuke have far fewer filters built in.

Plug-in suites can offer effects not found in the original application, and some sets offer improved versions of built-in tools, offering quality improvements or more effect parameters. Other suites include niche tools that allow you create a specific effect faster than by fine-tuning an application’s built-in effects; it’s much swifter to select one of Sapphire’s ten glow effects and modify one or two parameters, than to tweak AE’s Glow effect, where you’d possibly have to rely on other lighting filters or colour corrections to get the end result you want.

All the plug-in suites we’ve looked at here are available for After Effects format or in FxPlug for Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Motion (some are available in both). Some of the suites are available in other formats such as AVX (for Avid systems), OpenFX, Fusion, Shake or Sparks (for Autodesk systems such as Flame and Inferno).

Plugging into many tools

After Effects is the most popular format. Adobe’s compositor has the widest usage for professional-level visual-effects and motion-graphics work, and many AE plug-ins work in other tools such as Combustion, Boris Red, Fusion, Premiere Pro, and Final Cut Pro. However, there are two versions of the AE plug-in format: one that works in all of those applications, and an expanded version that’s specific to After Effects – which allows the plug-in to interact with information outside of the layer it’s applied to (such as masks or the 3D workspace).

Not all AE format plug-ins work in other applications – there may be a separate installer for these and they may have less functionality than the version designed to be used inside AE.

When used inside other applications, the AE format also doesn’t support real-time processing – so Apple created its own plug-in format that can take advantage of the real-time architecture within Final Cut Pro and Motion, FxPlug. There are a lot more plug-ins available in the FxPlug format than previously, but it’s still not as common as the AE format.

A few plug-ins are available in FxPlug format and not AE, such as FxFactory and it’s third-party add-ons. Apple’s Shake uses its own proprietary plug-in format, but we expect its successor to use FxPlug (which was codenamed Phenomenon when Apple first announced it was stopping development on Shake back in June 2006, but since then no further news has been forthcoming).

OpenFX is an open source plug-in format created by The Foundry. It’s supported by that company’s Nuke compositing system, Fusion, Autodesk Toxik and high-end grading tools such as Assimilate Scratch. Support is growing slowly, but it’s popular with the disparate players in areas such as film-grade VFX and DI (digital intermediate).

Reviewed products

Boris Continuum Complete 5
GenArts Sapphire 2.0
Noise Industries FxFactory Pro 2.0
Red Giant Software Magic Bullet Suite 2007
RE:Vision Effects Effections V7
The Foundry Tinderbox 1, 2, 3 and 4

See the next page for our guide to top individual plug-ins and standalone tools.

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