Phil Rhodes gives us his take on Red Giant's TrapCode Suite, Effects Suite and Universe software tools, and why it makes sense to have all three.
You might think Red Giant has been a fixture of motion graphics for as long as After Effects itself, but in fact, the company was founded in 2002, almost ten years after Adobe's finest. While After Effects still reigns supreme in motion graphics (and it's widely used in visual effects as well), much of Red Giant's output is now available as a series of plug-ins compatible with popular applications, including Final Cut, Premiere and Avid. Resolve compatibility with many plugins is ensured via OpenFX, which implies that there should be ways to get things working in other OpenFX hosts, too. Although industry adoption of OpenFX (and thus de-facto standardisation of moving image plugins) has perhaps not been as widespread or as quick as we all have hoped, none of this is Red Giant's fault and OpenFX adoption will undoubtedly progress over time.
Red Giant is arguably best known today for the Trapcode plugins which it publishes, but which are still developed by Peder Norrby's company in Sweden. In-house tools include the immensely popular Magic Bullet Suite, which, if you were born some distance outside the solar system, you may need to be reminded is an expansive software tool-set designed to help electronically-acquired footage look more like film.
Vast and fast Universe
Recently, Red Giant has made a vast compendium of its catalogue available via the Universe subscription service, including a simplified version of the well-known Knoll Light Factory plug-in.
Knoll Light Factory UI
For those unfamiliar with Knoll Light, it's been more-or-less the last word in lens flares for some time. What's particularly nice about Universe is that it's available either as a cut-down free install or via premium subscription (US$10 a month, $99 a year), or outright for $399, an approach that suits people working in various different circumstances where monthly fees might not make sense.
It's pointless to mention every plugin included in Universe by name (there are dozens). It includes a lot of utility tools which do things that could, in theory, be done with built-in features, but can be both set-up and rendered much more quickly in a specialised plugin. Thus, the principal benefit of Universe, particularly in its free incarnation, is in saved time. This comes from both the convenience of a single plugin to achieve an effect which would otherwise require a combination of techniques, but also because Red Giant's code makes extensive use of the GPU. This is something that the core applications have sometimes been a little slow to do. In many cases, particularly with mathematically repetitive operations, such as blurs, the speed boost is significant and the resulting convenience a breath of fresh air.
The company has also taken measures to begin building a community of users around the Universe suite, as befits a subscription service. It's easy to be cynical about this sort of effort, given that there are already many online fora dedicated to the discussion of motion graphics and visual effects, but Red Giant has made moves to make this genuinely useful. There's a system by which users can vote up proposed future features, which is a very nice idea in a world where almost anything is now possible and it isn't always obvious what's most urgently needed next.
Many of Red Giant's best-known products are part of the Trapcode Suite, including the Particular particle system and Form, a system for wrangling particles into the shapes of other objects.
Trapcode Particular and Knoll Light Factory
Trapcode Particular Settings
If Universe includes utility tools for working on pre-existing material, Trapcode probably exists to create that material in the first place. These tools remain important simply because many of the most common particle systems, including those built into After Effects, lack flexibility, have no 3D awareness and can be terribly slow by comparison. In many ways, the key feature of many of the Trapcode plugins, beyond the actual visuals they produce, are that they're fast and remain fast when traditionally time-intensive features like motion blur are turned on and configured for the best results.
Trapcode Suite Plugins
Trapcode Suite includes, among other things, both Particular and Form, as well as Mir, a more recent addition to the stable which produces a wide variety of abstract 3D shapes and which also renders principally in OpenGL, on the graphics hardware, for maximum performance.
Trapcode Form and Trapcode Starglow
Trapcode Mir and Knoll Light Factory
Access to the full version of Knoll Light Factory requires purchasing that plug-in or Red Giant's Effects Suite, which includes Knoll Light and much more. Other member tools of this package include the particularly powerful corner-pinning plugin Warp, which, while offering utility reflection and glow capabilities, is perhaps most used for its ability to attach layers to tracked points. Further creative use of floating video panels is facilitated by PlaneSpace, which does a very quick and easy job of arranging layers in 3D space. Again, this is something that could be done by hand, but happens much, much more quickly given a piece of code dedicated to the task. Red Giant has also managed to create, in ToonIt, a plugin that makes photographic images look like drawings in a way that's actually convincing and is a welcome antidote to the last twenty years or so of this being done, in general, rather poorly.
Some may complain that some of these plugins are overused, particularly in certain fields, and there was a phase a few years ago where spotting the work of Trapcode's 3D Stroke became something of a drinking game. The reality is, though, that many of these plugins are so configurable (Particular, particularly), that any tendency toward this problem can be laid directly at the feet of fashion. These software tool-sets will do a huge variety of things; whether the client will allow those things to be done is another matter entirely. In advertising, especially, the creative conservatism of clients can be a terribly limiting master and it's entertaining, sometimes, to notice what isn't being done, as much as it is fun to see what is.
Between them, the Trapcode and Effects Suites, as well as Universe, create a collection of enormous potential. One might hesitate to refer to it as completely comprehensive, given that an awkward client will, at some point, inevitably fixate on some specific effect that requires other tools; there will always be new things, after all, and that's why this is fun. Similarly, some of the Trapcode stuff is now a de facto industry standard, and it'd be surprising to find a motion graphics freelancer who didn't own a copy. Even given that, though, owners of Red Giant's Trapcode Suite, Effects Suite and Universe should feel confident that they are well-equipped for most tasks.