Nirvana through Motion and FileMaker Pro

If you’ve only known me since I helped start Automatic Duck in late 2000, you might not know that in a previous life I was an editor in the Seattle-area.  I was pretty good at what I did, but in addition to my creative chops and ability to handily talk through a render I used to dazzle clients with my prowess for combining the wonder powers of several different pieces of software.  I cut on Media Composer, but I would do a lot of stuff in After Effects, plus create elements in Photoshop, maybe even create an animated matte in Elastic Reality or Commotion and then use Cleaner to compress a web copy for client approval– all this back in 1997-2000, a while before this is what everyone did.

Anyway, I’m used to combining the strengths of different tools, and the work we do at Automatic Duck is a ten-year extension of this approach.

I don’t get to edit professionally anymore, but I like to dip my toes back in once in a while.  Recent projects have included a video promoting a local 50+ condo building plus visuals for a Helios house concert.  And since last year I have become the defacto video guy for my daughter’s dance studio, a mostly thankless job selling recital DVDs for way too cheap.

It is the recital videos that have presented some interesting challenges in balancing the Good-Fast-Cheap conundrum.  It has to be cheap, there’s no way around that.  I need to get it done fast, too, because I’m doing it in my spare time which I don’t have a lot of.  And it has to be good, that’s how I roll.  So I shot 720P60 using a Panasonic HPX-170 camera, sending HD-SDI out to a Kona 3 inside a Mac Pro.  Plus I have a consumery Canon HF20 that I used as a wide locked-down safety.  This year there were two shows, each well over two hours and between the two there are nearly 130 performances.  The goal: to finish with one DVD for each show, with DVD menus and chapters and lower third titles identifying each song, dance group/class as well as teacher and choreographer.

You can tell I love my daughter, there ain’t no other way a sane person would agree to do all this.

Enough preamble, let’s get down to it

Of the various tasks involved in producing a four hour DVD set, probably the most daunting was creation of 129 animated lower third titles.  These titles included a lot of information: the name of the performance, the name of the dance class or group, if it was a solo, duo or trio the names of the performers, and finally the name of the instructor.  This is a lot data, the typing alone would have taken me forever.

Lucky for me I was able to get the showcase program as a PDF, something I could get the text out of quite easily.  Ok, so I might not have to perform a bunch of data entry, but I’d still have to spend a day copy and pasting to create the titles, right?  Thankfully not.

I edited the Pacific West Performing Arts Spring Showcase 2010 in Final Cut Pro, and it turns out that Final Cut comes with an excellent titling and graphics application called Motion.  Motion is good for more than just titles, but when it comes to banging out a lot of lower thirds that share a look, Motion just can’t be beat.  And not just for FCP users, Motion can also be quite a good tool for you Avid users too.  I can hear a few of you in the back snickering because you think Motion is no match for After Effects.  I grant you that, you’re right, After Effects is the power tool, but in this particular situation even After Effects can not do what Motion makes possible.

You see, Motion’s project files are written as XML, meaning they are text files that can be read, edited and written by any application.  The ramifications of this are huge:  You can create a template Motion project file, open it in a text editor and make some changes and when you reopen the project in Motion– or better yet, switch back to your Final Cut Pro sequence containing that Motion project clip– your changes are reflected immediately.  See where this is going?  What if I could somehow combine the text from the PDFs with a template Motion project and make my title creation easy?

There’s an App for that

I could tell some of your eyes glazed over  during that last paragraph when I mentioned XML. It is like your creative antibodies started screaming, “I’m an artist, not a programmer!”

Lucky for you there’s a very user-friendly application called AutoMotion from Digital Heaven that leverages Motion’s openness and allows you to combine a Motion template with data you had your assistant type in– don’t worry I totally get you’re an artist and don’t do “data entry”– creating many many titles in just seconds.

AutoMotion’s interface is easy to use.  First you import your data into a simple column view, next import a Motion project file to be used as a template, then finally assign which of your data fields link to which of your text objects in the Motion project.  That’s all there is to it.

When you’re ready you tell it to do its thing and process through them all.  It takes no time at all to create many many animated titles.  Better yet you can update your design in the Motion template project then have AutoMotion update all of your titles, again in just seconds.

The Road Less Traveled

But I, I took another route.  I first faced this challenge of the avalanche of animated titles last year, when I produced the first DVD for my daughter’s recital.  I was aware of AutoMotion but I was also very curious in achieving a similar result DIY style.  Plus, I’m quite a closet nerd, so I decided if Motion was the key to the castle I could pick the lock using FileMaker Pro (that’s right, the database application).

A bit dramatic, maybe, but I embarked on some cool shit.  Turns out this cool shit was a lot easier in the spring of 2009 when I first tried it, at the time I had Motion 3 installed and it was more forgiving of the XML my scripts produced.  When I decided to reprise my FileMaker Pro/Motion “solution” I was now using Motion 4 and it was a lot harder to pull off because it required some elements to be present in the XML that Motion 3 didn’t care about. But I persevered.

Here’s a summary:

  • Copy and pasted text from program PDF into text file
  • Used some Find and Replace routines to convert line endings to tab markers so that in the end I had a tab delineated list of all of the performances and associated credits.
  • Imported the text list into a FileMaker Pro database
  • Created a Motion project that had the look I was after, then replaced the FPO text with unique placeholders
  • In FileMaker pasted the .motn project XML into a global field then created a series of calculated fields that replaced the text from my template with the record fields of the database
  • Created a script that would write the new calculated Motion project into a file
  • Edited all my new Motion .motn titles into my Final Cut Pro sequence

Later realized I needed to tweak my title position and font size, so I adjusted the template then re-ran my FileMaker Pro script.  Switched back to Final Cut Pro and just like magic the sequence updated with the new look.

Doing it the hard way had some advantages, too, I was able to customize my solution to my exact needs.  Like: make the font size controlled by a calculated field that, based on a count of the characters in a line, would cause lines with more characters to slim down the font size to allow more characters on screen.  I could also populate the database with all of the data from the program but then choose which fields I would actually “publish”.  I also had more control over the file names of the generated .motn files.  My solution was far from elegant, far from general purpose, but it worked great.

Motion is XML, and also QuickTime

There’s another secret that Motion is hiding, another remarkable feature that may entice you to try using it even in conjunction with a non-FCP NLE.  A Motion project file may be just an XML file, but QuickTime can read those .motn files too.  In fact, if you change a motion project’s extension from .motn to .mov just about any QuickTime-savvy application is able to use the files too.  So you could import the .mov-named version of the .motn file into your Media Composer.  You could also drop a list of .motn files into Compressor and have it run a batch to render out proper QuickTimes with alpha channels.

I encourage you to play with it yourself.  Animate a video layer around in Motion in some fun way, then save the project and open it in a good text editor.  Search for <pathurl> to find where the media file is described.  Replace that file path with a similarly formatted path to another media file (note that spaces are represented by %20), save and open the project again in Motion.  Pretty cool, eh?

Maybe this will give you some thoughts the next time you find yourself needing a systematic approach to a motion graphics or titling problem, it could be that by building a template in Motion then running it through AutoMotion or your own processing system you could achieve this kind of nirvana.

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