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Alias|Wavefront, maker of the high-end 3D animation software Maya, has branched out into the realms of desktop video post-production with the release of Paint Effects, a plug-in for Adobe After Effects. Paint Effects is Alias’ ground-breaking technology for creating rich, detailed imagery within Maya of anything from plants and grasses to electrical sparks, copper pipes and waterfalls. Originally for Maya 2.5, Paint Effects caused quite a stir because it allowed users to create dense, animatable backgrounds in only a few minutes, which under normal circumstances would have taken days. By painting strokes directly in the 3D scene an animator could see the Paint Effects objects sprout and grow in near real-time, and when rendered act as if they’re 3D objects casting shadows within a scene. Paint Effects was also available in a 2D canvas form in which strokes could be applied to an image within Maya. Somewhat disappointingly, it’s only the latter that has been developed to work with After Effects. Having said that it’s still an incredible system and significantly is available for both the Windows and Mac versions of After Effects – testament to Alias’ commitment to the Macintosh platform.Installation is simple, but you need an Internet connection on each machine you wish to run Paint Effects on in order to licence the software. Paint Effects has two modules – accessed from the Effects menu – PFX Stroke and PFX Write On. The latter produces animated write-on effects from motion paths while the Stroke effect uses a layer’s mask or bézier path to define the stroke. So instead of painting, you draw using paths. Paint Effects comes with over 140 preset brushes that range from traditional pens, brushes and oil paints to hair and grasses and even entire trees. The brushes are simply the effects that are applied to the paths you create and each brush consists to over 100 parameters. There are actually two types of stroke – simple, and strokes with tubes. While a simple stroke follows the path, tubes sprout to create wild and complex forms such as flowers, lightning, or even fingers. Strokes are shaded in pseudo 3D so they appear as objects with depth, and there’s also a lighting control to define the direction they are lit from. When very complex strokes overlap, the tubes intermingle in a 3D way rather than simply overwriting each other, so that you can place flames within a bush for example rather than just on top of it, which makes for much greater realism. The quality of the strokes is variable. A lot of the flora type strokes are wonderfully rich and dense, although they’re more artistic than realistic. When used subtly, however, Paint Effects is simply stunning. You can add beads of sweat to the brow of an actor, create swirling mist or lightning with ease. Paint Effects is processor intensive and complex strokes will take a long time to render – even when using the Wireframe mode. As a package for visual effects, it’s superb for adding subtle details to footage. Trying to get it to produce full-on realistic scenery isn’t the best use of the software, but it has massive scope for artistic effects. Paint Effects is quite expensive, but there’s so much in there, you’ll continually be finding new ways in which to use it. Now if only Alias can get it to render a bit faster.