MacWorld May 1997 -- Magazine Feature

Video Tools' Top Stars

Dazzle Your Viewers with the Latest Special Effects


By Jim Heid

Special effects are the spice that seasons video productions. A glittering logo with stars bursting from its center, a transition in which one image pushes another off the screen, a meteorologist standing in front of a hurricane--whether you're a broadcast-video professional, a producer of training or promotional videos, or a QuickTime tinkerer, effects like these are essential ingredients in your video kitchen.

All video-editing software packages--those programs you use to edit and combine clips into a finished product--include a variety of built-in effects. The most popular, Adobe Premiere 4.2 ($795; 408/536-6000,, provides more than 60 of them (see Reviews, Macworld, March 1996). High-end editing systems that rely on proprietary editing software, such as many members of Media 100's (508/460-1600, Media 100 family, also provide effects--and often provide dedicated hardware that speeds up the process of rendering them.

Just as good cooks search for ingredients that set their dishes apart from the pack, good video producers seek out effects that go beyond those included with their software. Good news: a bushel of effects software is available, ranging from stand-alone packages to plug-in modules that expand the effects capabilities of existing editing programs. In fact, more effects packages are available for the Mac than for Windows--proof of the Mac's continuing dominance in video production.

The most powerful stand-alone effects package is Adobe's After Effects 3.1 ($995 for the base version; $1995 for the Production Bundle, which includes extra features and effects). After Effects is particularly adept at projects involving motion--for example, video clips that fly across the screen, tumbling and changing size as they move (see Media, in this issue, and Reviews, March 1996). Like Premiere, After Effects accepts plug-in modules that expand its repertoire.

To find the best plug-ins, I tested 14 collections for After Effects, Premiere, and Media 100 ranging from a $45 transition set to a $1495 image-compositing tool. (See the table, "Expand Your Effects Options with These Plug-in Collections," and check out demonstration versions on the vendors' Web sites.)

Most plug-in collections include a dozen or more effects, often having little in common. To make it easy to find the effects you need, I organize my evaluations by categories. Within each category, I point out the best options I found. Then before the credits roll, I share my picks for best all-around effects collections.

For tips on optimizing hardware for video-effects work, see the sidebar, "Best Hardware Upgrades for Video Effects."

Transitions: Good Investments

The transition, a segue from one clip to another, is the most common video effect. Simple transitions such as dissolves and wipes (in which one clip pushes another off the screen) can emphasize the passage of time or a change of location, or simply provide a gentler cut. Glitzy transitions such as page peels, where one clip peels away to reveal another, can convey a change of theme. Given their importance, investing in transitions is a smart way to start a plug-in collection.

MetaTools' ( KPT Final Effects 3.0.1 (see Reviews, April 1996) and Final Effects AP 1.0 for Premiere (see Reviews, August 1996) each have a gorgeous three-dimensional page peel and several flavors of wipes. MetaTools' Studio Effects 1.0 also includes several wipe variants and a sharp transition called Jaws, in which a clip splits horizontally into two halves (each of which has customizable teeth), which then separate to reveal another clip.

A fun way to spice up Premiere transitions is with DigiEffects' ( TransFX 1.0. Some of its 42 transitions are silly: in Dollars, the destination clip is gradually revealed by a set of dollar signs--perfect for a Bill Gates documentary. But there are gems here, too, including two Batman-style transitions named Blam! and Pow! And at $45, TransFX is a bargain.

Gryphon Software's ( $119 Dynamic Effects 1.0 contains some appealing transitions as well as several distortion effects, but for bang for the buck, you can't beat Pixelan Software's Video SpiceRack 1.0, with a whopping 300 creatively designed transitions. Video SpiceRack bases each transition on a PICT file containing a customizable gradient. It's easy to load these files into a video-effects application; in Premiere, for example, you use the Gradient Wipe transition. The results are beautiful, and Video SpiceRack's tip-laden documentation is a welcome contrast to most effect products' minimalist manuals.

Top Stars

For a page peel with appeal: KPT Final Effects and Final Effects AP. For a selection you won't outgrow: Video SpiceRack. For wipes: Final Effects and Studio Effects. For clever (sometimes corny) transitions: TransFX.

Motion: Make the Most of It

One of the most common effects involves putting clips into motion: flying a title across the screen, spinning a clip into view, or superimposing a clip over a slowly panning background texture.

After Effects 3.1 is the ultimate motion-graphics machine. No other program provides After Effects' combination of precise motion control and ease of use.

Luckily for Premiere and Media 100 system owners, Artel Software's ( Boris Effects 2.1 MP comes close. Boris Effects provides far more control over motion than Premiere's lame Motion command does (see Reviews, January 1997). And being able to create motion effects within Premiere or Media 100 systems is convenient--it eliminates the need to render an effect in After Effects and then import it. I still prefer the After Effects user interface, but Boris Effects remains the best way to add high-octane motion graphics to Premiere or Media 100 systems.

Top Stars

For general-purpose motion magic: After Effects. For adding After Effects-style features to Premiere and Media 100 systems: Boris Effects.

Keying: Key to People Placement

Without keying, the weather report would be a lot less interesting. Also called matting and bluescreen compositing, keying lets you put people in front of weather-radar images, on alien spaceships, or in midair. You shoot your subject in front of a blue or green background, and then use keying software to substitute the blue or green with another scene.

Premiere and After Effects have built-in keying features; After Effects' Production Bundle provides enhanced keying features that create cleaner composites.

Boris Effects 2.1 MP has keying features that go beyond Premiere's. Besides allowing more control over keying settings, Boris Effects lets you crop out unwanted portions of the foreground image--handy when that image contains colors that don't key well.

But the ultimate keying package is Ultimatte 2.0 (from the company of the same name), which works with Premiere, After Effects, and Media 100. Ultimatte the company ( has won Oscars and Emmys for its keying technology. Ultimatte the plug-in provides far more control over keying settings than do other keying products, making it easier to get clean composites, even through smoke or wisps of hair. Ultimatte is blissfully forgiving of background-lighting irregularities, a common source of bluescreen blues. The learning curve is steep and the user interface has some rough edges, but the results are beautiful.

At $1495, Ultimatte is the most expensive product I tested. But if you rely extensively on bluescreen shots--and if you're tired of spending hours retouching Premiere-generated composites in Photoshop--Ultimatte is a must.

Top Stars

For keying, After Effects' Production Bundle and Boris Effects will do, but Ultimatte will do best.

Particle Generators: Add Pizzazz

Fireworks bursting, bubbles reflecting the world around them, glittering fairy dust spewing from a magic wand--effects like these call for particle generators, which synthesize shapes whose size, motion, and color you can animate. The more control you have over how particles appear, disappear, and move, the wider the array of convincing effects you can create.

Among Premiere plug-in effect collections, only Final Effects AP provides particle generation. Fortunately, it's one great particle machine, offering all the fine-tuning options of its After Effects-based cousin, KPT Final Effects. Such options include particle birth and death size and color (which add realism to explosion effects) and gravity and turbulence (which affect how particles move). You access the nicely designed user interfaces through Premiere's standard Filters dialog box; a preview window shows how the results will look.

The larger array of particle generators is available for After Effects. KPT Final Effects sports several versatile, general-purpose particle generators. Studio Effects provides some that you won't find in other packages, including Mr. Mercury, whose particles are liquid blobs that resemble molten metal. Studio Effects' one-of-a-kind Particle World generator adds the dimension of depth: you can animate a camera position over time to fly through an explosion. The effect is awesome, although it takes some practice to master the plug-in's 3-D interface.

DigiEffects' Cyclonist 1.0 is a particle-generation specialist, well suited to creating everything from flames to floating balloons to animated textures. It's a complex plug-in with dozens of parameters and a busy user interface, but it includes dozens of canned presets to get you started, and it sports the most thorough online help of any plug-in I've seen.

DigiEffects' Berserk 1.3 also whips up particles; its StarField module creates Star Trek-like journeys through space, with options for controlling star shape, streaking, speed, and more.

Top Stars

For Premiere (the only choice is a good one): Final Effects AP. For 3-D particle effects: Studio Effects. For warp-speed star fields: Berserk. For sheer particle power: Cyclonist.

Natural Effects: Weather Drama

Natural effects simulate Mother Nature: lightning strikes, fire, rain, snow, and fog. Use them to add realistic-looking weather to scenes or to add drama to titles or 3-D animations.

The After Effects 3.1 Production Bundle provides a lightning effect that would fool the Addams family. The effect's nearly two dozen adjustable parameters let you specify bolt color, width, branching, speed, and more. You can also specify a pull direction, which lets you simulate Jacob's-ladder devices--those sci-fi gizmos where sparks dance between two metal rods.

Lightning can cause fire, and many programs let you light it. Fire effects are usually the purview of particle generators. Final Effects makes realistic flames, but Cyclonist provides a hotter array of options.

To put out the fires, several plug-in collections include rain and snow effects. The Berserk plug-in sports a blizzard effect whose parameters include the number and size of snowflakes, their speed, and the angle at which they fall. KPT Final Effects provides similar features but lacks the last; in its world, snow falls straight down only.

And for fog, Berserk's FogBank plug-in can turn the Sahara into San Francisco. It also creates convincing smoke.

Top Stars

For fun in the fog and burying blizzards: Berserk. For enlightening lightning: After Effects' Production Bundle. For fire and rain: KPT Final Effects and Cyclonist.

Lighting: Brighten or Blast

Lighting filters simulate all things illuminating: the lens flare that occurs when a camera points near a bright light, a pool of light cast on a stage by a spotlight, or the blast of a laser or photon torpedo. Use lens flare to add drama to outdoor scenes, music videos, or animated graphics. Use lasers and photon torpedoes in your battles with the Romulans.

After Effects and Premiere include lens-flare filters, but they can't hold a candle to Knoll Software's Lens Flare Pack 1.5, a set of two filters for After Effects. Lens Flare simulates a wider variety of lens types than After Effects' own filter. (The Rock Concert option yields enough glare for a Spinal Tap movie.) Scratch Filter generates beautiful light rays whose direction you can animate.

Studio Effects and DigiEffects' Aurorix 2.0 provide spotlight effects. Studio Effects lets you specify the angle of the light cone to create an oblong pool of light, and it lets you simulate gel effects, such as striped shadows cast by window blinds. Aurorix lacks these features.

As for lasers and death rays, Berserk creates convincing bursts. They convinced me, anyway; I can't speak for the Romulans.

Top Stars

For lens flare with flair: Lens Flare Pack. To spotlight your video: Studio Effects. To set your phaser effects on stun: Berserk.

Media Simulation: Film and More

Media-simulation filters create film, video, print, and paint effects. Use a film effect to add scratches, dust, and jitter to simulate an old movie. Use a video effect to make a clip look as if it had been shot from a TV screen. Use print and paint effects to stylize clips.

The AgedFilm filter in Aurorix does a jaw-dropping job of simulating movie film. Apply it subtly to make digital video look like film--just the thing, the manual says, for film festivals that require entries shot on celluloid. Apply it with abandon to make a clip look 75 years old. It's the only filter of its kind, and it's a stunner.

AgedFilm pairs up nicely with Studio Effects' Burn Film filter, which simulates the melting that occurs when film jams in a projector.

Moving from film to paper, we find Berserk's NewsPrint filter, which turns a clip into halftone-like dots whose size and color you can animate. It's great for creating that comic-book look.

After Effects' built-in Brush Strokes filter and Berserk's OilPaint and VanGoghist filters make clips look like paint on canvas. Animate the brush stroke size for a fun effect. If you're into paint effects in a big way, investigate Xaos Tools' ($199; Paint Alchemy, an Adobe Photoshop filter that works within Premiere and After Effects (for tips on using Photoshop filters for video work, see Media, in this issue).

Finally, to make your video look like, well, video, there's Aurorix's VideoLook filter, which creates pronounced scan lines. By animating the filter, you can simulate bad reception or a worn videotape.

Top Stars

To take a video back in time or make it look like a video: Aurorix.

3-D: Depth-Defying Tools

Three-dimensional effects add the third dimension to video clips by projecting them onto spheres and other shapes or by distorting clips in ways that add a 3-D look. Three-dimensional transitions create dramatic scene changes, often by mapping two clips on different sides of a rotating cube; they create a high-tech impression suitable for corporate or news programming. Three-dimensional text features enable you to create spinning titles without having to buy and master a dedicated 3-D program.

The Sphere filter in KPT Final Effects and Final Effects AP wraps a clip around a sphere whose reflectivity and other surface characteristics you can control and animate. A Sphere-filtered clip looks as if it's reflected in a Christmas tree ornament.

M.M.M. Software's ( HoloDozo 1.0 is a horse of a different color. Built on Apple's QuickDraw 3D, it lets you map clips onto 28 different 3-D shapes, including boxes, planes, spheres, and tubes. A creatively designed 3-D interface and real-time preview make it easy to adjust settings.

For 3-D transitions, you can't beat Boris Effects for Premiere and Media 100. Boris Effects includes ten customizable 3-D transitions. Use Boris Effects' Camera track to add realism-enhancing lights and reflections.

Xaos Tools' TypeCaster 2.0 is the only 3-D text plug-in available. TypeCaster renders beautiful text whose position and location you can animate. The included CD-ROM contains hundreds of surface textures, dozens of canned presets, and several fonts, along with a clean interface that makes it easy to experiment. TypeCaster's biggest flaw: no kerning feature for tweaking character spacing.

Top Stars

For text with depth: TypeCaster. For transitions with dimension: Boris Effects. To put footage on spheres: KPT Final Effects and Final Effects AP. To tap the power of QuickDraw 3D: HoloDozo.

Distortion: Lots of Good Choices

While many effects distort a clip's appearance, there's a distinct category of effect whose sole job is to warp, squish, and otherwise alter clips. It's a big club whose members have myriad applications, from simulating earthquakes to making a clip look as if it had been shot underwater.

Almost every After Effects plug-in collection includes at least a few distortion effects. Most warp or twist clips in some way, with only minor differences in their approach. But some distortion tools stand alone. Aurorix's Earthquake effect blurs a clip horizontally and vertically; testing it made me want to duck and cover. It's terrific for simulating not only plate tectonics, but also explosions, torpedo hits, and dinosaur footsteps. Aurorix's Flitter effect, which generates random noise, is great for transitions and for creating animated graphics that blow up or assemble themselves.

Remaking Waterworld? Use the Ripploid effect in Berserk or the Ripple Pulse effect in Studio Effects. Both simulate concentric ripples, such as those caused by a stone dropped in a pond. And to make your remake of Waterworld go down the drain, use Berserk's Spintron effect or the Flo Motion effect in KPT Final Effects. Both suck a clip into a vortex.

The Glass effect in Studio Effects is also noteworthy. It creates a glossy, 3-D appearance that makes a clip's contents look like a glass sculpture.

Top Stars

To feel the earth move: Aurorix. To go underwater: Berserk and Studio Effects. To go down the drain: Berserk and KPT Final Effects. To get glassy-eyed: Studio Effects.

The Last Word

Focus on the effects you just can't live without. If you're using Premiere or a Media 100 system, that list should start with Boris Effects. No single plug-in does more to enhance Premiere's effects capabilities, particularly with 3-D transitions and motion graphics. For Premiere-based particle generation and distortion, Final Effects AP is a must-buy. For bluescreen work, there's no beating Ultimatte.

As for After Effects, every plug-in collection I tested has some gems, but in the end, I'm partial to Aurorix and Berserk. Both have a broad range of genuinely useful effects, and at $289 each they're half the price of KPT Final Effects and Studio Effects. DigiEffects also packs a lot of value into its CD-ROMs, which contain not only the plug-ins, but also demo movies, interactive documentation, and a collection of utilities and shareware.

The universe of plug-ins is expanding. By this spring, Synergy (801/281-0237, will be shipping the $799 Hollywood FX 3.0 (101 3-D transitions and filters for Premiere and Media 100) and the $99 Hollywood FX Take 32 1.0 (32 transitions). Synergy plans to support multiprocessing in both packages. I worked with the Windows versions and was impressed with their capabilities and ease of use.

A Windows vendor moving into the Mac OS world: tell that to your friends who say developers are deserting the Mac. And while you're at it, dazzle them with a video you've created using the largest selection of effects software available for any personal computer.

Contributing editor Jim Heid's Web site ( focuses on media production. His latest book is HTML and Web Publishing Secrets (IDG Books Worldwide, 1997).


Best Hardware Upgrades for Video Effects

If you're working with digital video, you probably have a warehouse's worth of hard disk space and RAM. But if you plan to make effects and plug-ins a major part of your video life, you might want more of both.

Using plug-ins generally requires you to increase Premiere's or After Effects' memory allocation, so make sure you have at least 48MB of RAM, preferably 64MB or more. After Effects likes RAM; the more you allocate to it, the faster it renders.

As for hard drive storage, videos containing effects don't use any more space than ones that don't contain them, nor does more storage allow faster rendering. But you may find yourself devouring megabytes because you're trying out different effect permutations and saving each one until you decide on a favorite. If that happens, add another 2GB or so, or invest in a removable-media drive.

A 604 Chip Is Good

Most video-effects software runs on 680X0 Macs, but the calculation-intensive nature of video effects makes a PowerPC chip all but essential. In one of my tests, for example, an After Effects preview that took 165 seconds on a Quadra 840AV executed in 45 seconds on a Power Mac 9500/180MP--and that was an extremely simple project.

Within the PowerPC clan, a 604 or 604e chip is preferable to a 601 or 603--not only is the 604 family faster, but most effects packages are optimized to take advantage of its architectural enhancements.

Multiple 604 Chips Are Better

The Apple/DayStar Digital MP architecture is a godsend for video compression and effects rendering. QuickTime 2.5 provides multiprocessor support, so compression is faster in every program. But effects rendering is another story. Of the plug-ins I tested, MetaTools' Studio Effects and Artel's Boris Effects 2.1 MP supported multiprocessing.

Most vendors told me they plan to support multiprocessing in future versions. They should: the difference is dramatic.

Consider the results of my informal tests, conducted on a two-processor Power Mac 9500/180MP. An After Effects preview that took 32 seconds with one processor active took just 19 seconds with both. Rendering a short After Effects composition containing motion blur, image resizing, and motion animation took nearly 19 minutes with one processor, and just over 10 minutes with two. With video effects rendering and processors, there's definitely strength in numbers

After Effects and Premiere support multiprocessing through plug-ins available from DayStar Digital's Web site ( In After Effects, most major operations--including rotation, scaling, antialiasing, blending, and creating motion blur--have been MP-enhanced for previewing and rendering. Many of the filters and plug-ins included with After Effects also support multiprocessing. In Premiere, MP-accelerated areas include clip motion, scaling, and rotation (the Motion command's options); numerous filters and transitions; transparency calculations; and file importing.

Even though most third-party plug-ins don't yet support multiprocessing, the fact that After Effects and Premiere do creates a strong argument for buying a multiprocessor machine or upgrade card.


Editors' Choice

Premiere and Media 100 Plug-Ins

Four Stars/7.7 Boris Effects 2.1 MP Sophisticated motion graphics, keying, compositing, and multiprocessing support combine to make Boris Effects the best plug-in for Premiere and Media 100 systems. Company: Artel Software (617/451-9900, List price: Premiere version $350; Media 100 version (also runs under Premiere) $695.

After Effects Plug-Ins

Four Stars/8.5 Aurorix 2.0 From aged film to earthquakes, Aurorix's 26 effects are eminently usable and creatively designed. The interactive documentation and sample projects on its CD are inspiring and instructive. Company: DigiEffects (415/841-9901, List price: $289.

Four Stars/8.1 Berserk 1.3 With its fog, blizzards, lasers, star fields, oil paint, rippling water, and 14 other effects, you'll go nuts over Berserk. Company: DigiEffects (415/841-9901, List price: $289.

Four Stars/8.9 Lens Flare Pack 1.5 This one-trick pony is a show horse. Nothing generates more beautiful lens-flare effects. Company: Knoll Software (415/453-2471). List price: $129.

May 1997page: 118

Copyright © 1997 Macworld Communications, Inc.