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VFX for Motion Breakdowns with alumni Nic Dean

By Adam Korenman
After EffectsCinema 4D

After Effects Compositing Mastery: A Q&A with VFX for Motion alumni Nic Dean

Every superhero has an origin story. Peter Parker forgot to wear bug spray, Bruce Banner violated a number of OSHA laws, and Wolverine forgot to wait 45 minutes after eating before he got into a pool.
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Nic Dean’s story is pretty much the same. He found his powers when he was young, honed them with the help of some incredible mentors, and now uses his gifts for the betterment of the world. 
Okay, maybe we’re getting a little over-the-top here. Nic is a rising MoGraph Artist. From humble beginnings, he’s leveled up his editing career by adding in compositing skills and motion graphics. Now as an alumni of VFX for Motion, he’s feeling ready to take on the world.
We got a chance to sit down and ask Nic to share his wisdom and experiences, and he was gracious enough to accept. Pour yourselves a warm mug of cocoa and drop in a double scoop of mini-marshmallows, it’s time for a good ol’ fashioned Q&A.
Check out Nic's amazing VFX breakdowns from the course!

Tell us about your background and how you became a motion designer!

Sure thing! My path to Motion Design has not been straightforward, but elements of what we now call “motion graphics” or “motion design” have always been there.
As a teenager, I was editing together gaming videos with friends (please don’t look them up). I first started on this ancient program called Pinnacle Studio, and I would animate effects by chopping the clip every 2 frames in the timeline and slightly adjusting a glow or mask. Terribly rudimentary, but that was my first introduction to the concept of “keyframes.”
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I quickly transitioned to learning Premiere and After Effects in tandem. I love these tools, and I really think artists are only limited by their imagination and time. I went to Syracuse University for Film, realized I liked the Art Video program way more, and switched to that. My teachers encouraged my weird, heavily-effected videos and I learned a ton about After Effects through experimentation. 
After college, I kept being asked to edit and “also do graphics.” The graphics organically became what people requested more often, so I leaned into it. As this industry exploded in the past few years, I learned a ton by being proactive with online education and through talented co-workers (shout-out Dustin for giving me a crash-course in flat design years ago).
I work exclusively in motion graphics now, but I try to stay abreast of all programs related to post-production.

What made you want to create this VFX Supercut? 

I wanted to create this VFX Supercut because I think showing all of the layers and techniques involved in each shot is the best way to show off VFX work. Breakdowns make sense for artists who understand every step of the process, yet are still eye-catching for people who have never touched visual effects.

What are your dreams / goals as an artist? 

I just want to work on cool projects with cool people. That’s been my goal since I was sixteen. There’s nothing better than being on a team with talented people, where everyone is passionately working towards the same goal.

What School of Motion Course(s) have you taken beyond VFX for Motion? Did they help prepare you for the VFX Beta?

I previously took the Advanced Motion Methods course with Sander van Dijk. Sander is an incredible teacher, and I knew it was worth the investment in that first week of lessons. That class helped prepare me for the VFX Beta because it goes deep into clean and optimized workflows, expressions, complex rigs, and even the render order of different controls. Once I started looking at everything in After Effects as data, it changed how I build projects. This really helped when I was building rigs for VFX for Motion, like for the time and distance measurements in the “Ray AR” bike shot.
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Where can people find your work?

My personal website is nicdean.me, and I'm active on LinkedIn. I’m pretty accessible and always down to chat with new people. Feel free to reach out and say hi!

What did you personally gain from this course? What were some valuable lessons you learned? What is some foundational info that a beginner would learn?

I personally gained confidence in tracking, keying, and rotoscoping by taking this course. I knew the basics already, but the class teaches tips and tricks to speed up your workflow and how to deal with difficult edge cases.One valuable lesson I learned was how to get a perfect key with Keylight. There’s really only a handful of controls necessary: Screen Gain, Screen Balance, Clip Black, and Clip White. Use them in the right order, add a Spill Suppressor, a Refine Hard or Soft Matte, and you’re set.Foundational info for beginners includes: what to look for in a proper key, the right way to roto, edge blending, dealing with lens distortion, troubleshooting complex tracks, image stabilization, and general compositing tips.
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Were there any surprises going through the class?

I was surprised how much rotoscoping there was in the class. I was hoping for some magical extraction shortcuts, but at the end of the day it’s often faster to roto in Mocha than to mess around with keying or some other tool. There are work-arounds for different shot types that we go over in the class, but I’m very comfortable in Mocha now.I was also surprised how much of the art of VFX is trial and error. I found myself constantly testing, adjusting, and testing again. As I progressed I learned what to watch for, but each shot has its own unique problems and solutions.

Name one quicktip that has stuck with you since the class.

If I could pass on one quicktip I’ve learned from this class, it’s to check your composited elements with the individual R, G, B Channels (Shortcuts: Alt-1, Alt-2, Alt-3). If elements aren’t blending with your shot, there’s a good chance they’ll stick out like a sore thumb in the individual Channels views. Once identified, play with Levels or Curves and make it mesh. Check it back in RGB view, and adjust as needed.
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What was your favorite exercise and why? Did you listen to any of the podcasts? Did any stand out to you for some reason?

My favorite exercise has to be Ray AR. I loved compositing for augmented reality, it’s so fun to balance the practical and the beautiful. We had great designs and style frames provided, so I aimed to animate and composite them in a way that would make sense in the real world. I can’t wait to design and animate for AR completely from scratch.The podcasts were terrific. My favorite was with Daniel Hashimoto, aka “Hashi.” For those who don’t know, Hashi creates the wonderful Action Movie Kid videos. I love how Hashi carved his own lane, and his “work with what you have” attitude really stuck out to me. I’m a firm believer that the tools don’t matter, and that the idea is paramount, so his mentality really resonated as I listened.
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What do you think other motion designers would get out of the class? Who should take the VFX Course in your opinion?

By taking this class, I think other motion designers will primarily expand their skill set in working with live action footage. One of my favorite videos to fuse VFX and motion design is This Panda is Dancing (Sander can Dijk). Now I feel confident that I could work on a video like that too.As virtual, augmented, and mixed reality technology improves, motion design will continue to grow. However, our clients don't know there's separate disciplines; to them it all just looks like After Effects. The reality is that there's many different skill sets and disciplines involved, with new tools and programs every year. It's up to each of us as motion designers to carve our own path within that, with whatever gets the job done.I’d recommend that junior After Effects artists and motion designers with a graphic design, illustration, or UX background take this course if they want to quickly get a footing with VFX. It’s a fundamentals class, so current VFX artists or advanced After Effects won't benefit as much. Also, if you like Star Wars, this course is packed full of stories about the trailblazing artists who worked on those films, and about the legendary Skywalker Ranch. It was an absolute blast to sit down with Nic and pick his brain about his amazing career in our strange little industry. If his supercut got you interested in learning more, head to the info page for VFX for Motion to get all the details.

Master Compositing in After Effects

The line between Motion Design and Visual Effects is a fuzzy one, and the best generalists can move seamlessly between both worlds. Adding compositing chops to your arsenal will make you a much more well-rounded artist and will open up new doors in your career
If you’re interested in learning the art of compositing in After Effects from the perspective of a Motion Designer, check out VFX for Motion. The course is taught by industry-legend Mark Christiansen who brings feature-film experience to the world of motion. Filled with real-world projects and professionally shot assignments, this class will load you up with new knowledge and experience.
Feel free to contact our staff with any questions. Thank you so much Nic for sharing your experience, and thank you for reading. Have a lovely day / afternoon / evening.