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Editing, Compositing, Animation: A Fine Line

Are you an Editor? Compositor? Animator? You may be all three. By Charlie White
Long ago, in the dark ages of video post production, editing was a completely separate discipline from animation. If you were an video editor, there was a boldface line dividing editing and 3D that you never needed to cross. If you wanted a show open, you just took yourself and your half-baked ideas down to your local 3D animation boutique and started fantasizing out loud about your vision to the resident animation artist. But now, we're editing everything on computers, and those computers are also really, really good at rendering animations. Why not just dip into that other world, since we already have the processor power to do so?

Well, that depends on you. Are you a one-man[person]-band shop, where if you don't do it yourself, it just won't get done? Then you may be a candidate for 3D. Keep in mind, though, if you want to use a software package like 3D Studio Max or Lightwave, you'll have to drop some serious coin just to buy the software -- a copy of 3D Studio Max runs about $3500, and Lightwave, although cheaper at around $2500, still ain't cheap. Then there's the learning curve. To get really good with this stuff, it might take you months to get up to speed. But if you're artistically talented -- and I mean you can draw stuff and not just arrange things on a page -- then it might be worth your trouble. It would really be worth the effort, for example, if you had a client offering you, say, $20K to do an animation for him and says he doesn't need it for two months, and you have nothing else to do. In that case, go for it!

The concept here is when something is maddeningly difficult to learn, you'd better have a damn good reason for wanting to tackle it. And, even though animation software is lots easier to use now than it used to be, I still think animation is a separate industry from editing and compositing. And if you want to jump from one industry to another, you'll have your work cut out for you. It's commonly called a "barrier to entry." An example of an industry with a huge barrier to entry would be processor manufacturing. You can't just set up a chip fab facility to compete with Intel unless you have a few billion dollars lying around. Accordingly, you can't suddenly start competing with high-end effects shop ILM with that old 486 and a copy of Logomotion. But that's not saying that you couldn't add on to your array of services with 3D capabilities, especially if you have loads of extra time on your hands, or are a student.

Now compositing is a different story. Tipping its hat to the increased demand for compositing in the edit suite is the awesome Final Cut Pro 2, where many of the compositing features of apps like Adobe After Effects were built in by master video editing software designer Randy Ubillos. Here's where the line between editing and compositing are getting more blurry all the time. But how would you define compositing? Would keying a title over video be compositing? Well, technically, yes, but generally compositing is defined as the piling up of multiple layers of video. In this age of mostly-real-time editing, I've heard some people say that the line between editing and compositing starts when you've created something that needs to render.

When we started Digitalvideoediting.com lo so many years ago, compositing wasn't even going to be part of this site. Now, we cover compositing, and especially After Effects, all the time. More and more reasonably-priced editing hardware products lets you edit limited composites in real time. Raising the bar even further are new features in After Effects 5 that allow you to insert 3D models and incorporate them into your composites with lighting and shadows. After that upgrade was released, the line between compositing and editing began to blur.

So what's an editor to do? Well, if you're earning good money editing and know of a great 3D animator who can do all your show opens, 3D graphics and such at a reasonable price, I'd say stick with that. If you're a student, talented artist or just love the idea of 3D, why not give it a try? Get some training and that'll flatten out the learning curve a bit.

By the way, I'd like to hear your opinion. I'm working on a feature article about editing and animation, and would like to include selected user stories in the piece, so if you've crossed the great divide between editing and animation, send your tale to my email address listed below. I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

Charlie White, your humble storytellerCharlie White has been writing about new media and digital video since it was the laughingstock of the television industry. A technology journalist and columnist for the past seven years, White is also an Emmy-winning producer, video editor and shot-calling PBS TV director with 26 years broadcast experience. Talk back -- Send Chazz a note at cwhite@digitalmedianet.com.

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