Semi-automatic title and menu creation

Introduction

These days I don’t get much time for real video production and editing, except for a couple of times a year I put my skills to use and produce recital DVDs for the parents of my daughter’s dance studio.  I’m just finishing up one of these projects and I’d like to share a few ideas that might help you in your future projects.

A cornucopia of software

When I was editing full time in the late 90s I would often impress my clients with my effortless orchestration of many pieces of software.  My mission wasn’t to be showy but rather to combine the powers of the different tools to better complete my project.  These days this way of working is a matter of course, today’s editors are required to juggle a lot of applications and skills.

For this project the key applications I used were

Don’t redo work already done

When I produce these dance recital DVDs I need to be super efficient.  I need to get the project done very quickly while still providing the kind of quality I can be proud of.  For this project the “deliverable” is a set of two DVDs, each disc approximately 90 minutes in duration with 35 performances in one, 34 in the other.  Each performance has a lower third identifying the song the kids are dancing to, the class they’re in, who their teacher is and who the dancers are.  Each DVD also has a menu system so viewers can choose individual performances to watch.  That’s a lot to do, and if I had to type all the data into the computer it would have added significant time and annoyance to the process.

So my first rule was to get the recital program as either a PDF or a Word doc.  Someone at the dance studio already went to the trouble to type it all into a computer for the program, so I wanted to leverage that effort.  This seemingly simple request made possible a lot of workflow improvements.

Specialist tools

Once I had the Word doc I was on my way.  I copy and pasted the text into a super-powerful text editor called BBEdit (if you’re looking for a good free text editor check out TextWrangler from the same developer).  In BBEdit I was able to change line endings into tabs allowing me to quickly create a tab-delineated text file.  The tabs separated the individual data fields of each performance (performance number, performance name, class name, instructor name, dancer names) and each performance was separated by a new line.

Next I spent some quality time in Motion 4– the motion graphics and compositing component of Final Cut Studio– creating the look of my lower-third graphics.  I’m not a designer, but I can create graphics that are appropriate enough to impress dance moms.  But doing this in Motion and not Adobe After Effects is key, because Motion has a secret.  Motion’s project files, which can be played back in any QuickTime savvy application (on a machine with Motion installed), are actually XML files which makes possible some interesting workflows.

One app that fantastically leverages Motion’s openness is Automotion from Digital Heaven.  Automotion combines a Motion template with a tab-delineated text file to quickly (very quickly) create many variations of a title with the text file’s data.  It is really fantastic, and afterward you can update your template with a new idea then within seconds reproduce all of the graphics with the new look.

A few tips for using Automotion:

  • to include quotes ( ” ) in your titles replace them with double quotes in your text file ( “” )
  • you can create a box of paragraph text in Motion so lines of varying length will wrap
  • include a forward slash character ( \ ) in your text to force a new line

Motion is a great companion to MC too?

The output of Automotion is many Motion project files (.motn extension) which you can open up in QuickTime Player or edit directly into your Final Cut Pro timeline. What may surprised you is that Media Composer can also import .motn files just like any other QuickTime movie!

It isn’t entirely smiles and rainbows, though.  If you have ever seen Motion demoed you know that it does a lot of coolness in real time, harnessing the power of your video card.  But if other applications want to incorporate the Motion project the .motn must be rendered in software.  What is nice is that the rendering happens automatically, but what isn’t nice is it can be rather slow.  In other words if you import the .motn file into Media Composer part of the import time is consumed by rendering each frame of the .motn file.

In my case the titles were rather simple, just an animating blur as the characters faded up and each took approx 1 minute 15 seconds to import into Media Composer.  I had 69 titles to import, so that time added up quick.

I admit that I didn’t do it exactly this way because I don’t entirely trust Media Composer with importing .motn files directly.  Instead I ran my Motion projects through Compressor to make QuickTime movies with an alpha channel, then these movies I imported into MC.  It was slower to do it this way, but I have more faith in Media Composer doing a straightforward .mov import.  I have no reason or experience to justify mistrust, mind you, so try it both ways and decide what works best in your situation.

Either way, this is a good time to give yourself a break.  Your computer is going to be tied up for a while, so go for a walk or a drink or lunch or run some errands.  You’ve earned it.

Title revisions

Revising graphics is inevitable, but Automotion makes it a breeze.  Change your data or tweak your template then re-run Automotion and in no time at all your .motn files will be brought up to date.

Though not as immediate as if you were using the .motns in a Final Cut Pro timeline, it is still very easy to make the adjustments and then update your sequence with the new Automotion output.  You can delete the media for the imported clips then use Media Composer’s Batch Import command to reimport all of the Motion projects or QuickTime movies.  Even if your titles are edited and cut up throughout your timeline the sequence will relink to the new versions of the media files.

It is easy, but will be as time consuming as it was to bring the files in the first time, so be ready for a snooze or a bubble bath or whatever.

Bottom line: Automotion is fantastically useful, and while it is primarily marketed to Final Cut Pro users it should also be considered by more Avid editors.  Definitely check out the trial version, tell them I sent you.

Just a note to those of you wondering why I haven’t brought up AMA.  I couldn’t bring in my movies via AMA because they had an alpha channel.  If they had been full-screen and lacking transparency I could have saved a lot of time by relinking via AMA.

Smart DVD menu creation from text file

Eventually I had my edit finalized and I was ready for DVD authoring. As the time came to create the DVD menu systems, it occurred to me to again leverage the already-typed-in state of the text.  I would have a set of chapter selection screens, and the name of each performance would be onscreen along with an animated thumbnail of the dance. I didn’t want to start typing all those names in now!

I used After Effects to create the animations that would become my menus, and my hope was that I could put together an expression to read from a text file each of the song names.  As I was working on it I decided I would go a step further and tie together all of the layers of the menu comp with expressions, so that every element that needed to change for each menu screen could all change together automagically via one control.

If you’re scared of Expressions I completely sympathize.  I don’t know much about coding myself, but thankfully there are loads of expressions and threads about them on the interwebs.  I managed to find a few threads that talked about reading a text file and putting the data into a text layer, and the trickiest part was that I needed to format my text file as javascript.  Dan Ebberts is the main genius behind this magical code, and you’ll quickly find as you search the web for After Effects expressions that Dan is one of the foremost authorities.  I again used BBEdit to do some text replacement and I had a javascript-flavored text file that After Effects could read and the text layers sprang to life.

The following expression was put into my text layers’ Source Text control:

x = comp("130 Chapter LOOPing").layer("CONTROL LAYER").effect("NUMBER OF FIRST SONG")("Slider"); //number of first song on page (1, 7, 13, 20 etc)
y = x + 0; // increment the number for songs 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 etc. per page
if (y < 10) {"" + "0" + y}else{y}; //add leading zero to single digit
myPath = "/Volumes/G-SPEED Q_1/PACWEST JAN 2011/DVD MENUS/WINTER SHOWCASE list of songs.txt";
try{
$.evalFile (myPath);
song = y;
txt[Math.min(song,txt.length-1)]
}catch (err){
"file not found"
}

I used similar expressions to change the chapter number for each performance. The thumbnail was controlled by layers in a nested comp setting their opacity based on the song number.  It was pretty neat to change one slider in the control layer and have all of the elements update accordingly.

There was one significant downside: Because of my use of precomps and the control layer being in the main parent comp I couldn’t set up six different menu arrangements and render them all together (I had six pages of chapter selection menus, each page pointing to six chapters).  I had to render the comp once, change the slider value, render again, change the slider value, render again, etc.  Not the end of the world, but it made me wish I’d planned better.

Avid locators to chapters

In the past I have decided to start and complete an edit in Final Cut Pro because the output was DVD and it is so nice to have FCP sequence markers exported as chapter markers for DVD Studio Pro.  When I made the decision to cut this project in Media Composer I knew that I was setting myself up for hassle when DVD chapter time came, but I decided to deal with that problem when the time came.

Apparently I’m not the only one who has considered this challenge and I’m thrilled to see that the solution I arrived at was also innovated by the fantastic editor Steve Cohen.

From the Avid’s Tools menu choose Locators, and this opens up a window displaying a list of the sequence’s locators. You’ll see in my screenshot I have my locators in the M1 track, I put them there for my own mental convenience to differentiate from any locators I used for editorial purposes on any other track. With the Locators window open choose Export Locators from the File menu and the result is a nice tab delineated text file. Open in OpenOffice or Excel or such thing and remove the columns other than timecode and comment. Now you can import the text file into DVD Studio Pro.

The end

That’s it this time. I am really pleased with how well these techniques worked for me on this project, I was really able to save myself a lot of time.

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