The same thing appears to be going on with the animated backgrounds products that videographers use to smooth transitions, invigorate their opening and title screens, and generally add a more professional sheen to their videos. The first step in the maturation process happened a few years back, arguably, when animated backgrounds became less of an embarrassment and more of an asset to event videographers, less a hallmark of low-budget or dated work than a signpost of classier undertakings. Of course, not everyone uses these things well, and it's easy to lapse into clichés and reveal your own limitations as a videographer when you were trying to overcome or hide them by using a Jump Back or other animated background or third.
But the second wave of growth seems to be happening now, as a number of upstarts and lesser-known outfits begin to mount a measurable challenge to the company that has dominated the motion-graphics side of event video almost from the get-go: Digital Juice. After all, it's Digital Juice's signature product, Jump Backs, which has become more or less the Kleenex of animated background clips. Which is not to say it's disposable—rather, it's so ingrained as a brand that the brand name itself has become synonymous with the category.
One company that's taking dead aim at Digital Juice—starting with their products' name—is TriLab Productions, with its Digital Hotcakes line. Digital Hotcakes doesn't yet offer anywhere near the mother lode of graphics libraries that Digital Juice offers (at last count, they were up to volume 28 in Jump Backs alone, with a new HD set on the market along with other products like their popular Editor's Toolkits). They also don't have the online community presence, the newsletter, or the wealth of expert third-party tutorials. But Digital Hotcakes has a number of products designed specifically for the wedding market, as well as other animation sets such as Abstract Backgrounds, Nature Animations, Network Backgrounds, Overlay Effects, Worship Backgrounds, and a PowerPoint Video Plugin.
Digital Hotcakes sent EventDV review copies of two sets of Wedding Essentials, Volumes 3 and 4, which are sold in tandem for $179 and available separately for $119 each. There's a host of attractive and relevant material here for wedding videographers, and all the greenscreen clips clear very cleanly in NLEs like Premiere Pro.
Past issues with these types of animated backgrounds included quality and tastefulness, and the tendency to make wedding videos look indistinguishable where the goal was to add distinctiveness. No matter how good these animations get, their users will always run the risk of following a lockstep look with other videographers who have eaten from the same trough—which is reason enough to venture off the beaten path and consider Digital Hotcakes, ShowstoppersFX, ActionBacks, or some other lesser-known supplier or take advantage of the range of Digital Juice offerings with animations not expressly designed for wedding video. Limiting yourself to wedding-specific animations (and relying on those done-to-death gleaming gold rings) from any vendor will narrow your horizons.
WHILE THEY'RE HOT
The key advantage of any digital animation set is the cost savings over hiring an animator to design original material in your studio; even at $119, which is more expensive than some motion graphic collections, the Digital Hotcakes products come way cheaper than starting from scratch. With Wedding Essentials 3, you get six beginning and ending sets, 6 wipes, 19 overlays, and 10 backgrounds. The Intro/Outro bits range from the de rigeuer gleaming rings to some snazzy I Love Lucy-type clips, while the wipes and transitions include butterflies, disco balls, and other delightful add-ons that can make nice enhancements to your video if used with the requisite subtlety.
Volume 4 is more color-oriented, with an emphasis on matching the visual leitmotifs of your wedding video to the predominant colors the bride chose for the wedding. Volume 4 also offers lower-thirds for more partial color-touches, titles, and banners. Available textures include lace, drape, and fold for the fullscreen animations, and assorted satins for the thirds. Among the color choices available are blue, "bold" gold, burgundy, celadon, chocolate, gold, "hot" pink, and hunter.
In each volume, the Hotcake themes ship on three DVDs, each containing the complete set in one of three formats: DV-AVIs, QuickTime movies, and Targa image sequences. NTSC and PAL versions are available separately (naturally, Digital Hotcakes submitted the NTSC version of each volume for our review). One advantage of Digital Hotcakes over Digital Juice is that the animations are designed for direct importation into your NLE or graphics program; there's no intermediate application like the Digital Juice Juicer. (On the other hand, you don't get the Juicer's easy browsing feature). The Hotcakes animations also share one shortcoming with the Digital Juice clips: all the backgrounds are 720x480 (NTSC), which means they're not exactly fullscreen-TV-safe (640x480 NTSC) and thus not title-safe. This will become less and less of an issue as more videography clients move to widescreen 16:9 TVs, but for now—especially if you're using, say, a GoldFrame animation from Volume 3—here's another reason to preview your video to a 4:3 NTSC monitor before calling it a day.
ON THE GRIDDLE
I did all my Hotcakes experiments in Windows, using my testbed 3.2GHz HT Alienware MJ-12m 7700 laptop, but it's worth noting that these animations will import into any NLE that supports the file formats. How effectively you can work with them within said NLE depends on its chromakey capabilities, frame-adjustment features, and title design flexibility. That said, we're talking about fairly basic functions, at least for prosumers and pros (these motion graphics libraries are supposed to make your life easier, after all); if your NLE is found anywhere in the typical Premiere/Final Cut/Xpress/Vegas/Edition roll call, you should have no problem importing the files and working with them as you would any other video or greenscreen clip.
After that it's really a matter of how you want to use the graphics and how well a particular set meets your needs that will determine how helpful they'll be in your work. Using the animations as title backgrounds for opening titles, transitional scenes, or credits seems the most obvious use, and it's basically a drag-and-drop procedure to insert the backdrop before opening your editor's title window. With some basic opacity adjustments, you can also run fullscreen (or, rather, widescreen) animations in one track and your concurrent video clip in another track.
Volume 4 certainly is the more background—or backdrop—oriented of the two, restricted as it is to basic colors and textures and simple movements. Volume 3 goes more for the animated intros and outros, like the pink I Love Lucy heart that draws in itself and then the "Our Love Story" text. In Volume 3 you also get the gold rings with the rotating gleam, the gold hearts moving on curtains, the disco-ball wipe, and wedding-specific bells and cake.
Perhaps the best feature of the Hotcakes animations is their ease of use, especially the greenscreen pieces. In Premiere, integrating a greenscreen Hotcakes animation—such as the monarch butterfly reveal in Volume 3—is as simple as placing it in the timeline, opening up the Effects window, selecting the Green Screen Key preset, and dragging it onto the Hotcakes clip. Voila, you've got a butterfly fluttering over your main video track.
CUT THE CAKE
Some of this stuff sounds kind of trite when you rattle it off, and certainly it can be. As with any other gadget or effect, animated backgrounds aren't going to make you a great videographer. If you use them indiscriminately or imitatively, or rely on them too heavily, it will show in your work, and this applies as much to Digital Hotcakes as to Digital Juice, ShowstoppersFX, or clips from any other provider.
While familiar animations aren't necessarily a barrier to innovation, they definitely shift the emphasis elsewhere. The fact is, many brides don't want their video to look different from everyone else's, but they do want it to have a professional look and feel. A well-placed animated graphic often can give a warmer touch than a simple title overlay, and a tasteful intro/outro can pull a piece together if it doesn't seem artificially tacked on.
If you don't have your own graphic designer in-house, and creating motion graphics isn't a particular strength of yours, it's worthwhile to take advantage of the creations of the seasoned pros who produce these clips at TriLab Productions and elsewhere. Filling in gaps with effective use of video backgrounds and animated segments can be as important as using music clips to smooth over transitional segments or dead spots in the audio (it should come as no surprise that Digital Hotcakes has some solid bundling deals going with SmartSound). And while "royalty-free" doesn't mean free by any stretch, it's certainly a much less expensive strategy than commissioning the design work on your own.