Colin's Flying Dream
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“Marketing shot”
For this assignment (Adobe Gen Pro Animation course, May 2015, Class 6), we were to create a short video in After Effects incorporating compositing and keying (green-screen) effects. Colin Maxwell (one of our instructors) demonstrated these techniques in a tutorial (, in which he appears to fly over Edinburgh on a magic carpet. He also graciously provided his green-screen clip and authorized its use in this assignment.
I do not own any green-screen canvases, photographic reflectors, or related equipment. Since my choices for this project were very limited, I had meant to simply follow the tutorial and turn that in. However, my cravings for creativity demanded more. I fed them, and the Creator of all creativity returned inspiration. I finished most of this project in one day.
The skinny: As an airliner traverses the sky above the clouds, Colin appears from the right on a spinning Frisbee as though surfing the clouds. He flies behind a cloud, reappears, and exits the scene to the left. He returns and flies up close to wave hello, then zooms off the scene to the right. He reappears and flies left into the clouds. He emerges from the clouds, leaps from his rising Frisbee, transforms into a NASA X43a2 scramjet, and zooms off for places unknown. The entire sequence lasts 22s.
Note: This project is CC BY-SA, as it contains some elements that require attribution at the share-alike level. I have placed all attributions at the end of this post.
Left: Tall cloud: Original image / Ps selection layer surrounded by Ae mask.
Right: Cloud group: Original image / Ps selection layer.
Three cloud layers form the background of the scene. I created the layers in Photoshop, where I loaded a large clouds image and then split off two small selections into new layers. I imported the entire Photoshop file into After Effects and created three timeline layers from the Ps layers.
The main clouds image was much larger than the canvas. I could have chosen to shrink it to fit the canvas and make it static, but its size offered me a better alternative: Pan it from right edge to left edge across the entire timeline, via Position keyframes. This makes the clouds appear to travel from left to right, opposite of the panning direction, as though blown by high-altitude winds.
The two split layers consist of the tall cloud that Colin and the plane travel “behind” at the beginning and the cloud group that Colin flies “into” towards the end. Sandwiching Colin and the plane between the various cloud layers was, however, only the first step towards creating such illusions.
Video layer illusions fall apart if the layers do not continuously align. I therefore assigned identical Position keyframes to the three cloud layers so that they pan together.
Opacity presented a greater challenge. For example, Colin can fly either in front of or behind the clouds, yet the plane flies only behind them. To make these interactions more realistic, I tweaked the two split cloud layers in three ways:
1) I adjusted the Opacity of each split layer independently along the timeline. For example, if Colin flies behind the tall cloud, it hides him via an Opacity of 100%; if he flies in front of it, it reveals him via an Opacity of 0%.
2) For each split layer, I drew a mask (using the Pen tool) around the cloud object and then raised that layer’s Mask Feather value as needed. For example, Colin enters the tall cloud where it is brightest and most defined, so I drop the Mask Feather value at that point in the timeline to make the cloud seem denser. The plane later enters the same cloud where it is dim and vaporous, so I raise the Mask Feather value at that point in the timeline to make the cloud seem more vaporous.
3) I carefully ordered the split layers in the layer stack. For example, I placed the tall cloud layer above all elements that could fly behind it. Whether other elements actually get to fly behind it or not depends then not on layer position, but on Opacity and Mask Feather, as described above.
Quick Select in Photoshop.
I wanted a jet to fly across the sky and provide variety. I therefore needed an image of a side view of a complete airliner with its landing gear up. CC images matching these criteria seem very hard to find, but I finally found one image of such a jet against a clear blue sky. I brought it into Photoshop, easily selected it out of the sky as a new layer, saved it as PNG, and then resized it down using MS Office Photo Editor. (For resizing images, Photo Editor is much quicker and easier to use than Photoshop.)
The rest was simple: Rotate the plane to fly relatively flat, and then move it from right to left across the entire timeline via Position keyframes. Since the whole plane image moves right to left, and the clouds background appears to move left to right, the plane appears to fly against the wind.
Green-screen: Before and After.
This project contains two green-screen effects. The first extracts Colin from his video footage so I can place him among the clouds.
Keying out the green screen was easy. I just followed Colin’s tutorial: Make a layer out of the video, apply the Effect/Keying/KeyLight effect, use the eyedropper to pick the strongest green-screen color to key out, and ramp up the KeyLight effect’s Screen Gain to clean up any leftover noise.
Making Colin fly “among” the clouds... That was a challenge. The tutorial has him just standing around on a fluttering magic carpet while the cityscape pans by. I wanted more: I wanted him to move up, down, left, right, back, and forth, and to follow the curvature of the clouds from time to time. I wanted him to fly through most of the timeline. (His original video lasts only 10s.) I wanted him to morph into a scramjet and take off out of the scene.
To achieve all of this, I made four Colin layers. The first three handle the “flying” Colin as he moves around the scene. These also extend the timeline by running back-to-back repeats of the video. I hide the fact that there is only one repeated video by taking Colin “off stage” for each layer switch. The fourth Colin layer handles the “morphing” Colin, via WinMorph. (Read on for more details.)
Colin 1 travel path and keyframes.
Colin 1: Colin enters the scene from the right, flies left “behind” the tall cloud, follows the curve of the lower clouds, and exits the scene at the left. He reenters the scene facing right, gets larger as he flies in for a close-up and waves hello, and gets smaller as he zooms “away” from the camera, passing in “front” of the tall cloud and off the scene at the right.
To make this work, I had to enable this layer’s 3D properties. (Simply click on a layer’s 3D icon.) This gave me instant access to X, Y, and Z dimensions for Position, Scale, Orientation, and Rotation. To tilt him up or down, I adjust the Z dimension for Orientation. To make him face right or left, I flip the image around by doing a minus-180 on the Y Rotation. To make him grow or shrink, I lock the Scale on all three dimensions and change them all up or down to the same values.
Moving Colin about on this layer required 26 keyframes, set along the timeline and adjusted for realism. I set a few keyframes, played through the sequence, added and/or adjusted keyframes as needed, replayed the sequence, and repeated this process until it all looked good to me.
I really wanted to give Colin some 3D depth. For this, however, After Effects requires that you enable RayTraced 3D, which requires power graphics. Unfortunately, After Effects judged my laptop graphics inadequate and refused to turn it on.
So, I had a big problem: If I could not give Colin 3D depth, how would I flip him around without making his side-view look like a paper-thin 2D playing card? Illusion, of course. As Colin exits the scene (either left or right), I barely begin the flip to give only the impression of turning, then I get him out of the scene, complete most of the flip “behind the scenes,” and bring him back just as he finishes the flip.
I also enabled Motion Blur on this layer, and on the Colin 2 layer. This makes him blurry, but it adds to the illusion of smooth motion as he flies around the scene.
This layer runs the entire original Colin video from start to finish.
Colin 2: Colin flies in from the right and descends “into” the group of clouds at the left.
As discussed earlier, Opacity and layer order were essential for this to work. As he flies “into” the clouds, the cloud group layer covers him. At the same time, I quickly drop his Opacity to 0% to prevent unwanted artifacts (such as his legs) from showing through holes in that cloud layer.
This layer restarts the original video precisely when Colin 1 finishes (no overlap) and plays through only the first six seconds.
Colin 3: Colin emerges from the top of the cloud group and prepares to morph.
This layer restarts the original video when Colin 2 finishes and plays only the first second.
In WinMorph, mapping points from image A to image B.
Colin 4: Colin morphs into the X43a2.
This effect took more time to produce than any other effect in this project.
Here I must say that I am very disappointed with After Effects. For all of its vaunted power, it has no built-in morphing tool. Many say that After Effects can “do it all.” That is false. You have to use 3rd-party morphing tools. Why is this a problem? You must “lock” the pre- and post-morph canvas positions and morph timing, so your 3rd-party program can get the morphing right. For example, if you want to morph object A into object B, you must first place the two objects in their pre- and post-morph positions along the timeline. You next have to create the “in-between” morphing sequence outside of Ae, by bringing the two objects into the 3rd-party tool in their correct canvas positions, creating the morph with the correct number of frames to fit the timeline segment, and rendering the morph as a PNG image sequence to retain transparency. You must then import that sequence into Ae and place it precisely between the pre-morph image A and the post-morph image B. This is very much like a jigsaw puzzle: If the imported piece does not fit precisely, the elements will not align. In addition, you cannot move a morphed object afterwards, using keyframes or other techniques, from within Ae. Ae treats the morph as a video, not as two objects separated by layers and keyframes. To move a morphed object, you have to re-plan the new screen positions and timings, redo the entire morphing sequence outside, and then re-import it. This all takes far too much time and locks up creativity.
I tried out several morphing tools. The best results came from FantaMorph, but it costs big bucks to get the options you really need, and the Trial version puts a watermark over your output. I therefore fell back to using WinMorph, which does an OK job, but at least it’s free.
For image A, I scrubbed the timeline until the Colin 3 layer showed Colin at the desired pre-morph position. I then soloed the Colin 3 layer and exported that frame as PNG. As noted earlier, this meant permanently locking in place Colin’s pre-morph canvas Position. For image B, I placed the X43a2 where I wanted it to appear post-morph on the canvas and then again exported the frame.
In WinMorph, I placed points all around image A (Colin), mapped them to image B (X43a2), and rendered the morph as a 50-frame PNG sequence. I then imported this into Ae and dropped it into a new layer. I set the three clips (Colin 3, Morph, and X43a2) to run back-to-back, with slight overlaps and subtle Opacity changes to help smooth the transitions.
This was not all. I originally wanted the Morph layer to span 2s (50 frames @ 25fps). On playback, this felt too long. To shorten this, I had to do an Interpret Footage on the imported PNG sequence and increase it to 30fps. I therefore have one clip running at 30fps while the rest of the project runs at 25fps. I also had to adjust pre- and post-morph object starting and ending Positions, and even Rotations, to reduce jerkiness due to slight discrepancies coming out of WinMorph. All this, and more, because After Effects has no built-in morphing tool...
Artist’s rendition of X43a2.
I wanted to morph Colin into a cool jet. The X43a2 image I ended up using is only an artist’s rendition, but I think it looks awesome. I animate it post-morph up and out of the scene via Position keyframes.
Frisbee video production setup.
Note the thread, secured by a needle on the underside.
Frame capture from the Frisbee video used in the project.
This project’s second green-screen effect is my own: I extract a spinning Frisbee to give Colin a platform on which to fly.
I originally wanted Colin to ride a flying saucer. However, I found no decent CC flying saucer images. I also do not have a way to animate a 2D flying saucer image into a rotating 3D image. (See my previous comments about Ae’s fickle RayTraced 3D effects.) I then looked in my closet, saw my deep blue Frisbee, and got the radical inspiration to shoot my own green-screen video of a rotating Frisbee and have him ride that. However, after searching the house and finding nothing that would work as a green screen, I gave up on that idea. I considered just posting my project with Colin flying around without anything at all under his feet. (It actually looks fine that way.)
I began to write this post and to prepare to publish my feet-only version, but my desire to do a Frisbee video returned and would not let me be. I thought and thought and thought some more. I then pieced together a way to do it.
I found a very pink blanket. I figured that would work, since the Frisbee is very blue and not pink at all. I set the blanket on a large bed, set a paper-ream box on top of the blanket, and folded the blanket over the box. I now had a pink “floor” and a pink “wall” against which to film. I found some very pink thread, threaded it through the center of my Frisbee with a very thin needle, and tied the thread around the eye of the needle on the underside of the Frisbee. I now had a way to dangle the Frisbee almost invisibly against the pink scene. I set up a boom mic stand over the scene, draped the thread over and around the stand, and centered the Frisbee in the scene.
I set a fluorescent stand lamp directly over the top of and pointed at the pink wall. I positioned the Frisbee in front of that light so it would not cast shadows on the wall, and positioned an uncovered table lamp to cast light on the Frisbee itself.
I then set up my camera (Canon PowerShot G15) on a tripod, zoomed in to frame only the pink wall and the Frisbee, set the Frisbee spinning, and shot video. I shot several clips to give me plenty of footage to choose from, as spinning a Frisbee while it is hanging by a thread tends to create a lot of wobble.
I loaded the videos one by one into Premiere Pro and found a 22s segment where the Frisbee was quite stable. I exported this as MP4, imported it into Ae, and went to work. (Note that unlike the Colin video, the Frisbee video fills the entire timeline and runs without repeat from start to finish.)
Now came the most challenging part of the project: setting the Frisbee’s Position, Scale, Rotation, and Opacity to match Colin’s, wherever he flies. I had to calculate and set 45 keyframes to make the Frisbee stay under him so that it looks like he is always standing on it, not above it or too far off to one side, and with correct proportions, whether he is near or far or rotated or flipped.
I keyed out most of the pink by ramping up the Screen Gain. Some pink still showed through along the video’s bounding box edges, so I eliminated that by creating a mask around the Frisbee (leaving some “wobble” room) with the Pen tool. The high Screen Gain also produced a side effect: The center of the Frisbee sometimes becomes slightly transparent and shows the clouds through it. This is probably due to some rogue pink that reflected onto the Frisbee from the pink wall. However, I think seeing some clouds through the Frisbee actually adds to the illusion, so I’m keeping it.
Colin now flies on a Frisbee that continuously rotates and never repeats its pattern, just as one would expect a live flying saucer to do. Moreover, I was able to do a green-screen effect entirely on my own, and that even without a green screen. :-)
Clouds: Cumulus clouds over Jamaica, as seen from an aircraft
  CC BY-SA 2.5 Generic
  Created: 2005_0705 by Keith Pomakis

Colin: Self-created green screen video of him appearing to fly on a magic carpet
  Provided for and authorized for use in this assignment by Colin Maxwell
Airplane (passenger): Air Berlin B737-700 Dreamliner
  CC BY-SA 3.0
  Created: 2005_0930 by Altair78

Airplane (NASA): X-43a2 with scramjet (artist's conception)
  Public Domain
  Created: 1998_1231 by Tm
Colin's Flying Dream

Colin's Flying Dream

Colin Maxwell dreams of flying high among the clouds on a spinning Frisbee, and then transforming into a NASA X43a2 scramjet as he shoots off for Read More