Behind the scenes

Here’s Version 0.9 of the Trickster Pictures SFX and Motion Graphics Reel.


Excerpt from Kellys’ secret blog, December 2009.

This is an outreach to potential clients, based on bliss projects. The theory is that if we do the work we really like, there will be clients out there who will “get it” and hire us. This means we don’t have to do flying logos or commercial crap, we just have to do what we are into with gusto and crazy enthusiasm and the clients will show up.

The following is a list of scenes for projects that we have either already done or really want to do. They should not be too complicated, rather we want to select doable excerpts of 3-7 seconds and execute…

10 months later, the idea escapes…

The lads and I are assembling a motion graphics and fx reel. Making a range of support services available to other Michigan film makers could be a lucrative niche. The idea is to repurpose elements from past and current projects and then add new material as we develop it. It’s also an exercise to focus our diverse talents on a common goal, to get better at working together, more organized.

Version 0.9 of the Trickster Pictures motion graphics and special effects reel launched on May 8, 2011. Five lightly documented legacy scenes required seventeen months to incubate, decrypt, redesign and assemble. Dan shepherded two generations of Kelly brothers through the process.

We’re not asserting that this special effects reel is awesome – it’s rife with aesthetic compromises and technical glitches. Rather than strive for perfection and release nothing, we’re getting out there. Version 0.9 is inherently incomplete, but it achieves pragmatic objectives.

Certainly we want to introduce the possibilities of motion graphics to indy producers and recruit new artists, but evaluating our collective competency and identifying our potential are the most significant outcomes. The reel is also the most complex After Effects project I’ve handled – but not nearly as complex as other projects I’m scheming on. Version 0.9 has provided essential lessons on workflow and mindset.

Perfection is the enemy of the (pretty) good

Let’s say project X has the potential of being 100% awesome. A novice motion graphic artist might spend an infinite amount of time on X and only achieve 60% of it’s potential. An experienced artist could achieve 80% percent of X’s potential working for a reasonable amount of time, but the final 20% would require a crazy investment. A master artist would achieve 99% of X’s potential in a reasonable amount of time.

I am becoming an experienced motion graphics artist, so I have to watch out for the 20% trap. Getting projects to 100% amazing is presently cost prohibitive. When a project has a zillion components each with potentially infinite iterations of polish, striving for perfection is folly. An aspiring master must cultivate a sense for ‘good enough’. Only then will she be able to negotiate the narrow and treacherous trail that bisects schlock and glorious obsession, the middle path between delivering a steaming heap of crap and laboring on an eternal opus.

That’s what I’m talking about

Speaking of art, I’ve had an epiphany – editing is not enough. Though subtle and startling expression is possible just by changing from one image to another, I yearn to touch the images themselves. That’s probably because I originally incarnated as a painter. Painting is about making images by hand, establishing a direct circuit from imagination to hand and back again. Movies are heavy on photography which kinda depends on a pre-existing photon friendly physical reality. Cameras can’t coax images right out of gray matter… yet. Obviously my camera technique has been influenced by my painting past, as has my approach to montage, but… control over cinematography and editorial isn’t analogous to the painter’s freedom or the direct expression possible with painting, sculpting, writing, acting or dance. So movie making can be a bit of a dry hump. Widening the channel from my interior universe to production could tickle the kink, start to satisfy.

Fluency with motion graphics might be the very thing. Now I can potentially build a moving image up from scratch. That gurgling sound? The percolation of spontaneous joy. In 2004 I set aside painting to give my visions motion, and at last the dream begins to manifest. I’ve asked this question before – Why did I wait so long to learn After Effects?

Whoa Bessie!

Back to the dangers. The risk of getting mired in myriad details is compounded by a slew of steep learning curves that the artiste de virtualité must ascend simultaneously. Copious notes are required, coherent observations to both facilitate working memory and provide the breadcrumb trail that guides my future selves. Let’s not even go into hardware and software bugs. It’s daunting, plenty of precious life gets soaked up by all that screen staring. It’s truly tempting to just toss it all and go lay on the beach.

The demo reel is an After Effects composition or comp that contains about 15 other comps, including the 5 primary scenes with 5 deconstructions.  My first approach was to render comps and import movies into the main comp, as opposed to importing the scene comps themselves. This makes for a less complicated main comp, but restricts the sync of visual rhythms to music and (probably) means that the movies get re-compressed and degraded when the whole project is rendered. I later reconstructed the entire project with only comps, but that resulted in rendering glitches! Finally, I was forced to hybridize and mix up movies and comps. Research is required, the all comp approach HAS to be viable, because comps within comps is fundamental functionality.

Getting a little punchy on the home stretch, I switched the bit depth from 8 to 32 before rendering, running under the assumption that this would provide the best color fidelity. Atmospheric effects created with fractal layers looked balloon-like and protoplasmic as opposed to cloudy/steamy. I haven’t checked, but likely this is because  the fractal effect is 16 bit max. What was more alarming (and yet to be investigated) is that the “power mask” of my 32 bit color correction plug in (Colorista II) also seemed to fail at 32 bit on Canyon Princess. Bumping down to 16 bit cleared up the issues.

These examples illustrate that there’s a foundation of arcane knowledge required to support major projects… and I’m still discovering what bricks belong there! Aside from scouring the forums, the only answer is to watch where the walls are sagging.


The reel rendered as animation is about 20 gigabytes – uploading to trickster’s youtube channel took about a day using the advanced java utility. Several attempts with Firefox failed and a successful attempt with Safari ended up with bad audio sync. Re-rendering with tighter adherence to youtube’s recommendations (H.264, duh) and then a 4 hour upload using Safari worked. I also brought Ganesha over to the studio to supervise the operation.

From now on, the discussion will devolve into tex talk. If you wanna see me myelinate, then by all means peruse a detailed analysis for each scene.

Avenues of Exploration, Our dystopian Detroit
Climate Change featuring the epic execu-jet
Commando Kill, he’s kind to animals
Uturnpike, no exit on the highway to hell!
Canyon Princess, she sails the azure skies

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