06 Jan 2014

The RedShark Interview with Michael Feerer of Pixelan

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Pixelan plugins have been on the digital video editing scene for about as long as there has been a digital video editing scene. We talk to founder Michael Feerer about their past, present and exciting future

RS: When Pixelan started, what was digital video like back then?

MF: Those were thumbnail days, when big digital video output meant 160x120 pixels. Even at that size, movies often played choppy because most desktop computers didn’t have enough horsepower. Hard disks then were relatively slow. And video codecs were not as advanced as they are now.

RS: Lots of users from the YouTube generation don’t know about those thumbnail times.

MF: That’s right. Now streaming full-HD video is no big deal. I still find it amazing. I feel like a graybeard for saying that, but I like having been through that history first-hand. I have a lot of appreciation for what we can creatively do now.

RS: What led you to developing video effects plugins in the first place?

MF: I had written the book Premiere with a Passion which was published by Peachpit Press. That was one of the first books for digital video. It was about how to creatively use Adobe Premiere, which was about all there was back then to edit with. Almost as an afterthought, I included a floppy disk -- remember those? -- that held a few dozen transitions and effects that could be added to Premiere.

RS: What got you from that first floppy disk to Pixelan? 

MF: Premiere with a Passion was popular. I received a bunch of fan mail. Real, physical mail in those pre-Internet days. A big pile grew about the book, and another big pile grew from users begging me to create more effects. After the book went into second edition and raising my toddler daughter became less time-demanding, I decided to get serious about the second pile. I spent several months creating a CD of more effects and transitions. That CD was called Video SpiceRack and quickly became popular worldwide.

Coincidentally, later that year the Spice Girls started to make a big splash internationally. They have nothing to do with us. But the spice metaphor was very much in people’s minds then.

RS: So Video SpiceRack is what you started Pixelan with?

MF: Yes, it will be 18 years ago this January. For effects plug-ins, there was basically just BorisFX and Pixelan spices.

RS: Why were your video effects and transitions in such demand?

MF: Well, I wasn’t a software engineer. I was a successful architect and a life-long creative designer, so I conceived them like an artist or designer would. I prefer soft-edged and organic. Those qualities are timeless to me and are inspired from the natural world. It’s not a fad, geeky, or “in your face”. It’s not violent like explosions or other Star Wars-inspired effects. Or silly looking like analog video switchers. I didn’t care soft and organic was not common in the video world. Heck, I did not even own a TV, intentionally, so maybe I had fresh eyes, a beginner’s mind. That helped. My intuition as a life-long designer guided me. It still does to this day.

Keep in mind, the beginning of the desktop video revolution was a lot like the beginning of the desktop publishing revolution, when you would see documents with 13 different fonts in them -- just because people could. So it took a while for soft, subtle, and organic qualities to be noticed and ultimately preferred. I think we helped that movement along a little bit. It was contrary to throwing all sorts of digital eye candy into a video.

RS: What came after Video SpiceRack?

MF: I created a followup CD a year later called OrganicFX. Then I started working with a very talented software engineer -- Ivan Ivanov -- who had contacted me because he was also very interested in these kind of effects. I realized he could leverage their power even further. That’s what led to SpiceMaster. He was Pixelan’s first employee and we continue to work closely together to this day.

RS: How was SpiceMaster different from Video SpiceRack?

MF: Video SpiceRack was only adjustable for edge softness. You’d pick a transition geometry and then tweak the edge softness as desired. That’s all. SpiceMaster, in contrast, gave users the power to adjust virtually everything in the transition -- geometry, placement, movement, timing, various edge enhancements, etc. -- and keyframe those qualities over time. Also, with our Mixer slider for the first time someone could variably alter the transition’s shape to what was actually in the scene, so the results became a lot more seamless and natural looking. Plus we added soft-edged, organic picture-in-picture effects and title effects. Tens of thousands of editors have used SpiceMaster over the years.

RS: My understanding is SpiceMaster also can animate other video effects. True?

MF: Yes, in fact that is its most overlooked feature. Typically when you apply a video effect, by default it alters the entire scene. Sure, some moving masks or simple garbage mattes can limit the effect area, but there really isn’t a lot of control in most video editing systems to dynamically flow or animate a video effect over time within a single scene. SpiceMaster solves that easily.

RS: Give me an example.

MF: Imagine a clip with your subject in a sailboat and you are slowing zooming out during a sunset, but you want to further warm that sunset’s glow during the clip’s in a way that radiates subtly outward from the subject to the frame edge. You don’t want some sort of simple oval or other hard-edged mask geometry to distract the viewer and basically look amateurish. Instead you want to gently and unobtrusively lead the audiences eye. You want everything to appear natural and respond visually to what’s in your scene. SpiceMaster can do that in a snap. Soft, flowing, and subtle.



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