Noise Industries, the developers of the plug-in management and shopping system FxFactory, last week announced a new plug-in for Final Cut Pro X, After Effects, Motion and Premiere Pro. It’s an upgrade of a compositing classic: Yanobox Nodes 2. The first version of Nodes was nice, albeit a bit limited in capabilities and customisation parameters. The new version will simply blow you away. For those who are new to this game: Nodes started life as a plug-in that allowed you to create lower thirds, titles and animated infographics, but version 2 is much more powerful and enables the creation of exciting sci-fi effects.
Nodes 2 works in Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5, Premiere Pro CS6 or later, and After Effects CS6 or later on OS X. You will get the most complete user experience in After Effects, followed by Motion and the NLEs. Most of the time, I used Final Cut Pro X and Motion to try out Nodes 2, but I did dabble around a bit in After Effects too.
For Nodes 1 users, it’s interesting to know that Nodes 2 is a complete rewrite using low-level coding to provide a rendering engine capable of 50,000 particles and a unique font acceleration feature. Point clouds are now created from primitives, footage and 3D models, dramatically increasing the creative possibilities. A number of animation modules have been added, which you can intermix with keyframes, resulting in great results. Node images are generated to a resolution of 4096 pixels, so you can zoom in to a high detail — which combined with keyframes will again result in great looking results. Connection mode allows you to use distances between points to create organic looking shapes and the new Triangulation mode renders wireframes with hidden lines on imported 3D models. Finally, from Yanobox’s web site you can download 50 3D primitives to play with.
In Final Cut Pro X, Nodes 2 presents itself as ready to use effects in the Effects browser. In all hosts, the full set of parameters (with a drop-down of presets) looks a lot like the one that you found in Nodes 1, but with far more and more powerful modules. The parameters of each module (there are about 100 available) are identical in each host application, with the exception of After Effects. In the latter, the Camera parameter group is missing as Nodes 2 will integrate seamlessly with the 3D camera of Adobe’s industry standard compositing software.
The Nodes 2 Workflow
Yanobox prepared a user guide that not only lists all the options of their plug-in, but also suggests a workflow. According to them, you have to start with selecting a distribution in space in the Form group, then move on to the deformation task, using the Oscillator or the Effects group to morph the object. The next step is to customise the aspect with parameters from the Nodes, Connections and Lines groups, then animate the lot with the Camera module (which changes the viewer’s position) and/or the Animation group. Finally, you can fine-tune the composition with elements from the Render group. Note that not all steps are required to achieve great results.
It certainly all looks like a piece of cake, but it really isn’t because you’ll quickly run into making choices of which you cannot forecast what they’ll look like in the end-result. My “best practice” would be to start changing one parameter from each group and first see how it renders, then add a next parameter, etc. I also experimented a lot by setting parameters to their extreme so that I had a good idea of what the parameter’s influence was.
On a fast machine — my mid-2011 iMac was just fast enough — and using Motion, you can keep the loop/play feature active while you’re experimenting, to see effects of parameter changes in real-time. In other hosts that is not so easy, and so you’ll need to render often to see what your customisations look like.
While in all hosts you can start with the default object, which is a spherical point cloud, I found it easier if I started using one of the many presets and then change the groups and parameters to my liking. In Final Cut Pro X, however, some templates that already use a default image (like the world map) have a locked “Form > Primitives > From Image Colors” setting. For those cases where you want to use your own images, you must start with the empty template.
Creating sci-fi interfaces with Nodes 2
In Adobe’s host applications, extracting nodes from footage to create the form has a slightly different interface than in Apple’s hosts, but both accept footage to create the basic form of the object you want to create. I tested this and while it works like a charm, it’s not that easy to find a clip that will work well from a creative point of view. The form is based on luma and colour differences within the clip and while I guess compositing artists will have a keen eye for this, I have not and so to me it was a challenge to find just the right clip. even then, I don’t think my end-result was as dramatic and nice as how the world map Yanobox uses for some of its templates works out.
The basic Form image or footage is different from the Image List option in the Nodes group. The latter will load multiple images as nodes, which is great if you don’t want to have ‘ordinary’ shape nodes. The creative results of using node images is much easier to imagine than the footage-to-form capability. A combination of footage and image nodes does slow down rendering a bit — but only a bit. Oddly enough, you can add as many images to the list as you want; that by itself won’t slow down Nodes 2!
The combination of having footage or images as your basic form and image lists as your nodes, opens up endless creative possibilities. On FxFactory’s Nodes 2 page, you will find a couple of videos showing off how compositing artists used the product to create sci-fi objects in Ender’s Game and The Avengers. Of course, there aren’t many artists like Ash Thorp, but even if you’re only pottering about with Nodes 2, you can add visual interest to existing footage or better yet: enhance the story you’re telling. Needless to say, Nodes 2 will add drama to marketing video in a big way.
Virtual landscaping and texting
With some groups, you can decide on luma and depth influence on rendering. In the Form group, luma can affect nodes sizes, while in the Nodes group, you can test for depth. In the Connections and Lines group you can have depth (or distance, which as far as I could see, does the same) decide whether connections are drawn. I found this to be interesting if you want to make it appear that parts of an animated form are completed relative to their spatial whereabouts. You can also create a foggy/misty appearance based on this type of parameter, which further adds to the illusion of perspective.
As with Nodes 1, the nodes can have text attached to them. Not much has changed in terms of capabilities, but a dramatic improvement is the availability of so-called “accelerated fonts”. These are special fonts that render much faster than the traditional fonts we know. The list of included accelerated fonts is generous, but if it still isn’t enough to your liking, you can use ordinary fonts if you must. However, most of us will prefer the speed of Yanobox’s specialist fonts, I’m sure.
Text can be attached to every node, or scattered on some. You have full control over all of this.
However, in one of the tutorial videos you will find an example where the text itself is animated. This, I found, is not a feature of Nodes 2. The animated text must be a generator by itself — the Counter in Motion, for example. I asked Yanobox’s developer how he did it as I couldn’t find this out by myself — you can’t attach a generator to a node — but am still waiting for an answer.
However, in one of the tutorial videos you will find an example where the text itself is animated. At first I thought this is not a feature of Nodes 2; surely, the animated text had to be a generator by itself — the Counter in Motion, for example.
However, I asked Yanobox’s developer how he did it as I couldn’t find this out by myself — you can’t attach a generator to a node — and he told me I should use the “Text Index Offset”. I decided to give that one a try. And sure enough: when you keyframe the “Text Index Offset” parameter, changing it over time, numbers seem to count up or down, which gives a very nice sci-fi effect!
To buy or not to buy
Should you buy Yanobox Nodes 2? You can try out Nodes 2 by first downloading FxFactory and then installing the demo of Nodes 2. But why would you? After all, and in my most humble opinion, I don’t think you will find the price — €224.24 — anything but right.
Admittedly, it’s not the cheapest plug-in you can buy, but it sure is the most versatile. Let me perhaps rephrase that: if it’s good enough for people like Ash Thorp, then it sure is good enough for most of us.