School of Motion

Expression Session: Course Instructors Zack Lovatt and Nol Honig on the SOM Podcast

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MoGraph Veterans Zack Lovatt and Nol Honig Talk Making It in Motion Design, Expressions in After Effects, and their New SOM Course Expression Session

Expressions are a motion designer's secret weapon.
They can automate repetitive tasks, build flexible rigs, and extend your capabilities far past what is possible with keyframes alone. If you've been looking to add this powerful skill to your MoGraph tool kit, your search is over...
On Episode 80 of the School of Motion Podcast, we go behind the scenes of Expression Session, discussing in depth what went into our first team-taught course's creation with the creators themselves, Zack and Nol.
The culmination of two years of collaboration, Expression Session is the ultimate experience for motion designers who want to add Expressions to their skillset. Every project in this course is crafted to help you gain real-world skills used by motion designers everyday in After Effects. By the end of the course, you'll know how, why, and when to add Expressions to improve your workflow.
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During their conversation with our founder, CEO and Podcast host Joey Korenman, Zack and Nol discuss their past and present work, divergent backgrounds, and making it in the motion design industry; how and why to use Expressions in After Effects; the development and purpose of Expression Session; and how to prepare for the course before it launches in 2020.
The instructors also answer the questions you asked through social media and email!

About the Instructors/Podcast Guests

Together, the cross-country team of Zack Lovatt and Nol Honig have 30 years of motion design experience.
Based in Los Angeles, Zack focuses on workflow, internal and commercial script and tool development, and data-driven animation and automation. He has served as freelance 2D technical director for some of the biggest studios in the world, consulted for tech companies big and small, and created a number of the most popular After Effects tools, including Explode Shape Layers, Flow and his newest, Swatcheroo.
Nol is Creative Director of The Drawing Room, based in New York City. Throughout the course of his career, the critically acclaimed designer and animator has worked with an array of upper-echelon clientele, such as Coca Cola, MTV and Youtube; in 2012, he served as art director and lead motion designer for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. The instructor of School of Motion's After Effects Kickstart course, Nol has also always been passionate about sharing his knowledge and experience, contributing to the Motionagrapher industry blog, serving as an advisory board member and short-list judge for the Motion Awards, and receiving a Distinguished Teaching Award for his work as an Associate Professor of Motion Graphics at Parson School of Design.

Zack Lovatt and Nol Honig on the School of Motion Podcast

Show Notes from Episode 80 of the School of Motion Podcast, Featuring Zack Lovatt and Nol Honig

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The Transcript from Zack Lovatt and Nol Honig's Interview with Joey Korenman of SOM

Joey Korenman: If you go by YouTube play counts, one thing is clear: After Effects artists love expressions. And why not? They're cool. They're like this black magic voodoo that lets you automate all kinds of stuff and create rigs, and funky setups for your animation. They're also a little intimidating because you have to, you know, type code into a computer like some kind of programmer.
Joey Korenman: Well, Zack Lovatt and Nol Honig are here to tell you, "Don't be afraid." Expressions are not only accessible to even the most code-phobic artists, but they can actually open up lots of new possibilities creatively and professionally, for you. Which is why we are launching Expression Session, a 12-week expression bootcamp for After Effects artists.
Joey Korenman: This class has been in the works for about two years and is the culmination of a ridiculous investment of time and resources. We made sure that the artwork for the class is killer, that the projects are based on real-world use cases and that the lessons build on one another in a logical way.
Joey Korenman: Nol has been on the podcast already, episode 31, and so has Zack, episode 18, so if you want a little more backstory on these two you can listen to those episodes. But today we are answering questions from our audience about expressions and about the new course.
Joey Korenman: Even if you have no desire to learn the dark art of expressionist-eering--I don't know what the actual term is--you'll learn a lot from this one. We go pretty deep. All right, let's get to it.
Joey Korenman: Well, Zol, as we've been calling you both, it is awesome to be talking to you yet again. I've been talking to you a lot over the past several months, but it's always a pleasure. Thank you for doing this.
Zack Lovatt: Thanks for having us on.
Nol Honig: Yeah, thanks for having us, Joey.
Joey Korenman: Now you've both been on the podcast before and we're going to be linking in the show notes to those episodes, so anyone who would like to hear more about Zack and Nol's backgrounds and experiences, you can check those out. But for everyone else, I'd love to just catch up really quickly. I know that you two have been working at least for a couple of weeks on this class, maybe even a month or so? I don't know. I feel like it's actually been closer to two years. But aside from that, because you're now pretty much at the end of the production cycle, what have you two been up to since we heard you on the podcast? Why don't we start with Nol. What have you been doing with yourself?
Nol Honig: Right on. Well, right now I'm sitting up at the Verizon offices because I've been called in here to do some work for Verizon, and that's been really fun. And just been juggling a lot of holds, basically. After the class, which took five months really of hardcore work, what I really wanted to do was just start animating and designing again. So I've just been saying yes to some fun jobs.
Nol Honig: I'm also working on a documentary, a feature-length documentary, that I'm doing all of the graphics for. So, that's kind of a fun job. And I'm actually using my newfound experience with coding to make it a lot more fun for myself too. So, that's kind of fun.
Joey Korenman: Oh, very interesting. We were talking a little while back and you were telling me that you were starting to get some pretty exciting phone calls, you know, some of the big studios that we all dream about working for are now starting to call you. And I'm curious if you have any sense of what's helped you get to that level. I mean, when you were on the podcast last time, I think you had just done the Saturday Night Live opening, so you were already doing really amazing stuff. But I know you've been working with Golden Wolf and other awesome studios like that. So what's helped you get to that next level?
Nol Honig: Yeah, that's a little bit of a mystery to me as well. But I'm going to say that I was working, I started the drawing room with a partner and we were really trying to build it up as a studio and then at a certain point he dropped out, and I started offering myself up for freelance again.
Nol Honig: And I think that's really the thing, is that I had built up a body of work that I had been doing as myself, as The Drawing Room, and so I really got a chance to put my own personal stamp on a lot of projects. And then when I went freelance again, I feel like people were looking at my work and saying, "Oh, this is now good enough" to come into Gretel's and Buck's and places like that.
Nol Honig: So yeah, I think that's what it's about. But also just been doing it for a while, so yeah.
Joey Korenman: All right, so just survive long enough and then eventually...
Nol Honig: Exactly. Plus I've met a lot of people too, which really helps. I mean, networking and contacts are really the way to get in to good studios.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, for sure. And you're in New York, where I'm sure it's a little bit easier to get on the radar of studios like Buck and Gretel because their offices are actually there. Did you know people at those studios before they gave you calls?
Nol Honig: With Gretel, no, but I think it was actually Claudio Salas who they came to him and asked him if he could do something, and then he was busy and then he recommended me, so that's how that happened. And then with Buck, I've just been trying to get in there for a while. So yeah, just through personal contacts, like through meeting Dan Oeffinger, the CD there, just staying in touch and stuff.
Joey Korenman: That's awesome. Just persistence. All right. Zack, what about you? It's funny, because right before we started recording you had a little something drop on a script, I assume you've been working on.
Joey Korenman: So maybe you can talk about that and what else you've been doing since mostly finishing the class.
Zack Lovatt: Yeah, so I just today, the day that we're recording this podcast, released a new tool, called Swatcheroo.
Joey Korenman: Great name.
Zack Lovatt: Thanks. It's just because you get little swatches and you can swap them, and it just kind of, I don't know, I like to think I'm cute. That's really one of those-
Nol Honig: You are.
Joey Korenman: It's a pun.
Zack Lovatt: But this is something I started working on three years ago and it ended up in my archive of half-finished tools, and there's a ton in there. And then this April I was just trying to show off to someone, and talking about other stuff I was working on in the past that never made it to market, and decided to revisit, "Hey, why did I never finish this?"
Zack Lovatt: I had no good answer. So on the side of the course is like a palate cleanser I've been working on Swatcheroo, and finally it's ready to come out with an amazing promo video, which is my favorite part of the tool, which isn't the tool, just the video.
Joey Korenman: The tool's okay, but the video is actually spectacular. I watched a little bit of it.
Zack Lovatt: Yeah. It's like this two-minute bizarre world short film about this shape-shifting bunny character. It's amazing. I love it.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. Is that really what you've been focusing on, just building additional tools, or are you still doing any technical directing or pipeline building?
Zack Lovatt: It's been a mix. Some of my ongoing clients I'm still working with. People have known that I've been off work for the length of production, so now I'm just easing back into it slowly. But I'm mostly intending to take the rest of the year pretty easily. Just for context, it's mid-November right now, or early November. But yeah, a bit of scripting, a bit of client work, a lot of personal stuff, like exploring new hobbies and things, and just becoming a human again.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, you both did just run a very long ultra marathon of sorts to get to the finish line of Expression Session.
Joey Korenman: So why don't we start easing into the discussion of the class. We reached out to our audience, as we always do for these episodes, and got some questions from the peanut gallery. And I put a bunch in there too, because I realized as I was researching for this episode that there are things that I'm curious about the two of you. So now I get to ask them and you have to answer them. It's the law.
Joey Korenman: First of all, I think one of the most interesting things about the class is frankly that there's two of you teaching it, and you two have very different backgrounds in terms of your career paths and the things that you've become known for.
Joey Korenman: So Zack, I'm curious; watching your role in this class, it just becomes obvious instantly how good you are at coding. And I'm curious, did programming and coding just come naturally to you? Is your brain just wired that way, or did you have to work super-hard to get where you are?
Zack Lovatt: I think it's a bit of both. For context though, I took a programming class in high school. I was one of those, I don't know what to take, but I have a few interests, so I'm just going to dive deep on those. I took a computer hardware and a computer programming class in high school and all of the maths, which, in retrospect, wasn't a great choice, but whatever. So I had some foundation of it from forever ago. Then in my short stint at college, I had a programming class, but I don't remember any of that.
Zack Lovatt: So I've kind of toyed with it over my adult life, but it was really just through expressions and trying and failing, and then failing, and then failing, and then failing, before things started to click and-
Joey Korenman: That's pretty standard. I mean, that's the metaphor for the entire motion design career path. Fail enough times until you're successful. [crosstalk 00:10:03]
Joey Korenman: Nol, I want to ask you about how it's been for you to really get comfortable with expressions and coding. I'm just totally stereotyping you here, but you dress really well, and you live in New York, and you go to museums, and you know about art history, and you're a really good designer. You don't fit that mental stereotype of really good at coding, and yet, as you've taught this class with Zack, I've seen you get really good, really, really good at writing expressions. So I'm curious if that was hard for you, if you felt like you were fighting your art brain to learn this?
Nol Honig: Not at all, actually. I feel like it really augments rather than fights against, and I should say also that I wear glasses so I am part of the nerd family, so, you know.
Joey Korenman: This is true, I forgot.
Nol Honig: But I feel like in teaching this class I did learn a lot more about expressions and just through working with Zack, just how to make my code better, which was amazing. But I think that it does really augment, like the random art generator project that we do is the kind of stuff that I really like to do, where I kind of just use code to make a big mess and then try to rein that in and make something kind of artistic out of it.
Nol Honig: I don't know, for me the process has been like, I was the guy that was full-time motion, and then I learned like wiggle and then it was like, "Wow, that blew my mind." But then I didn't know what to do with it, you know what I mean? And then over the years, like a snowball rolling down a really, really not very steep hill, I was just gaining this knowledge. Now I think, as a result of making the class and working with Zack, it's just turned it up to 11 for sure. And I just think expressions are great for everything now. I'm like the hammer now that just sees everything as a nail. Every job I'm just like, "Ooh, I could write an expression for that." I'm kind of stuck in a permanent rabbit hole.
Joey Korenman: Oh, that's so great.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, and it's a deep rabbit hole. So you're getting me thinking, because there's a lot of different things expressions open up for you. And I think the one that's the most obvious, because there's tools out there that are built upon expressions, is now you can create these rigs, you can get very technical and create these things that sort of automate tasks, but you can also use expressions to do some of the dirty work for you, like randomizing things and creating motion without key frames, and all this kind of stuff. I mean, does one of those areas kind of appeal to you more than another, or are you just now all-in with expressions?
Nol Honig: Well, like any animator or motion graphics person, I'm trying to save time all the time. And so, yeah, certain expression things, now that I've learned them that I kind of have them under my belt, they're really great timesavers, and other ones are more, for me at least, artistic prompts a little bit. So I think it's a mix. You know, I like to save time and I'm lazy just like anybody. But I also, I like the experimental side sometimes where I'm not sure what the outcome will be. And I think expressions for me, they're handy for that as well, just to play.
Joey Korenman: That's a good point, yeah.
Joey Korenman: All right, well that leads to our first question, and it's a very simple one. It's one that, I mean, this is almost like a devil's advocate question that I ask sometimes when I'm talking to people who use a lot of expressions. I think I asked Sander the same thing. I'm an animator and I go in to the graph editor and I manipulate the curves and the key frames and that's how I do my thing. Why should I care about expressions? What's the point?
Zack Lovatt: I don't think it takes away from any of it. You still need to do the animation, you still need to massage those curves, but it's more like what happens when you need that same curve to repeat 50 times? Okay, you'll copy and paste your key frames, amazing. And then you want to tweak the timing and now you're like, "Oh crap." That's a pain to do without some sort of tool or something, versus is if you use the handy-dandy Loop Out expression, you just have to do the key frames once and the expression will do the work of repeating it a bunch of times. It's not really about taking work away from you, it's about making your life easier. Kind of like augmenting the work you're already doing to save you headache and hassle.
Nol Honig: Right. And also depending on the kind of motion work that the person's doing, if you're all about versioning, like a hundred different lower thirds or something like that, I think expressions are really going to be helpful. But if you're just hand animating one thing, it might not be as helpful. So, it depends on the situation, I think, too, but I think they're useful across the board, though, for any motion person.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, I agree. I think you summed it up, Zack, it just makes your life easier and it lets you do the fun part and let the computer do the boring part. Loop is a great example. I mean, there's a lot of fake UI elements that are used in this class, and actually in the visual effects class that we also recently completed, we're using expressions there just to create easy animation that doesn't take any time to set up just because a lot of times you just need something to be happening, you know, in this tiny little design element and you don't really want to get in there with key frames. So yeah, I mean that's a good way to get into this conversation.
Joey Korenman: The next question, you know, you were talking, Nol, about the rabbit hole that you're looking at now, the question is why are After Effects artists so obsessed with expressions? It seems like everybody wants to learn them. Is it necessary for success in this industry? And I've asked myself that same question because I could tell you, when we put out a YouTube video with some really fancy crazy expression thing in there that is, you know, probably not actually all that useful to most people who watch it, it gets so many views. You know there's almost like this version of expression porn or something that we get trapped by and I think that, you know, they're incredibly useful and amazing but maybe not for the reasons most people think about, initially. So I'm wondering what do you guys think about that? Why are our After Effects artists just so obsessed with expressions?
Zack Lovatt: Okay, I just want to jump in and say since the existence of Cyclops, the After Effects tool that will overlay handles and all your nulls into a render for behind the scenes stuff, that's exploded too. I don't think seeing super complex expressions is really different, people are just so into the whole "how is it made? Show me the how is the sausage made? Show me the behind the scenes thing."
Joey Korenman: Right.
Zack Lovatt: But yeah.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, that's a good point. That's a good point. I mean what do you think Nol? Were you ever in that camp of, "Oh I really want to learn expressions," and you're not quite sure why you just know you do?
Nol Honig: I think it was more in the camp of "This seems interesting but I'm scared of it." But then I realized over time that I could actually do it, but I don't know. I think partially for me and partially for some people it's just cause it's a different thing in After Effects. Like you're using this tool all the time, maybe you've been working with this for a decade and then all of a sudden there's this new thing to learn that's just cool and exciting. You know what I mean? I think that's part of it for me. It was just like, "Wow, this is a whole other facet of motion that I never even knew existed at a certain point." And then I just want to get good at it. You know what I mean? Because we're all kind of self-starter people that once we understand something we're like, "Let me dive into that." You know? I think that's how it is.
Joey Korenman: Right. So you just said that you were initially scared of it, which I think is pretty common because you know, in our minds, I think mentally as creative people, we sort of tend to separate the left and right brain with this hard, you know, this giant wall saying, "Well on this side is animation and design on this side is code and they're very separate," And I don't actually believe that's the case. But I'm wondering if you could just talk a little bit about what was that fear? What were you worried about and then did you find that the fear was unfounded, was it actually easier than you thought to learn?
Nol Honig: It's a little of both. Think the fear is partially just for me is, I learned this working with Zack, as well, is that I have an expectation that I'll be able to pick something up quickly and that things will be kind of easy for me, which is not always the case, but that's sort of my expectation about things. And I think part of the fear was just like that it seemed complicated enough maybe that I wouldn't be able to do that, and so I tended to kind of avoid certain of the complex parts of it. But I think actually it was easier to get into it than I thought and to learn a lot of it. Although I will say there were some parts that are so complex that again, I started to fear them even though I had a much better basis. Like when we got into this sort of two cop, two world space transformation parts, again, I got confused a little bit. So yeah, there's parts of this that are complex for me, even still that I fear.
Zack Lovatt: And I just want to add in a lot of that layer space transform was also complex for me. I always kind of understood the principles, but it took building out a lesson and teaching it for me to really connect and understand it natively.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, and actually you're reminding me of something that we talked about when we started outlining this class and this was something that I know when we were outlying was really important in and you two really focused on getting this across. With code, I think beginners tend to focus on, "I need to learn the syntax, I need to learn the commands and that's what I'm learning." Then in truth, what you're learning are concepts and these ways of logically piecing things together.
Joey Korenman: I know in the promo for the class, we joke around and you start saying, "Oh you need this mental model of this thing and that," but that's actually what coding really is about to me. The actual code you type in, I mean, it doesn't matter really what that is because in Python, you use this, in JavaScript, you use this, in Ruby you use this, it's all the same. It's the concept of a loop or an array or a function or things like that. So I always thought that that was the hardest part to learn. And one of the questions here is just, "Are expressions hard to learn?" And I'm curious, I mean Zack, for you, what was the harder part? Was it just memorizing all the JavaScript commands you need or was it in the syntax, or was it that conceptual part, that higher level, like, "How do I actually iterate through a list and update these values in an efficient way?"
Zack Lovatt: No, for me, it's definitely a matter of learning how to kind of formulate questions or problems and that's something we go over a ton in the course, and something even online I try to tell people when they're trying to solve problems. The code, the actual stuff you're writing is not as important as understanding what you're trying to accomplish. And so maybe the result is that you have to loop through layers, but really you're trying to ask the question of, "How do I look at everything in my comp and do a thing?" It's breaking down the task into a series of plain English sentences. That I think is more work, or are harder to grasp because it's that problem solving side and then online you just turn that into Google and you go find the code bits you need, but you've got to figure out what you're trying to accomplish first.
Joey Korenman: Right. Like, if you need to grab the first letter of a string and make it a capital letter. Just being able to say that out loud now gives you a Google-able thing, you know? The JavaScript itself is easy to find, but it's just that conceptual part. Nol, was it difficult for you to kind of get your brain trained up to think that way?
Nol Honig: That one, I mean the problem solving stuff is really specific. It feels to me like per task, you know what I mean? So I don't think it was difficult, but if you don't know the code at all, I think you could struggle with that as well. I mean I think it's true, you could just Google stuff and the problem solving is the hardest part, and it definitely was for me too, but I think some of the code, like for Zack to say, "It doesn't matter what you put in there," it's sort of like, "Yeah, for you because you're so good at it." But for me, sometimes I struggle with the empty code box as well. Even if I know like what I want it to say, in plain English sometimes it is a little bit of a struggle to translate that into code for me. So, kind of a different take.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, well it was really cool to see by the end of the class, I mean you were whipping up some absolutely ridiculous expressions. I would watch the lessons as I was checking them and I was like, "God, I didn't know that," so much cool stuff in there.
Joey Korenman: So next question is one that we get a lot and I'm sure you know Zack, you probably answered this a million times, but you can answer it once more. What's the difference between an expression, a script and an extension.
Zack Lovatt: Right. Well an expression is like smiling or frowning. The script as a prescription from your doctor.
Joey Korenman: Oh, here we go.
Zack Lovatt: No, sorry. So expressions, they live on a specific property on a specific layer inside of After Effects and so it's like a wiggle on rotation. It's only on rotation, only affects rotation and it can't affect anything else. Whatever property you write it on, that's where it lives and it'll always live there. The script is like a series of commands that runs on After Effects. So it's like, "Hey, After Effects, I need you to make three layers, name them Jonathan and color the label blue." It's all stuff you could do by hand eventually, but it's like these one time instructions that you're giving to After Effects. Now extensions, they are like a fancier front end for a script. So the interface is shiny and probably more interactive and they're prettier. But behind the scenes they still just run commands on After Effects. You still have to press one button and it does one series of things on the software.
Joey Korenman: Perfect. And I think one thing that we should point out is that most scripts, maybe not most, but lots and lots of scripts apply expressions for you. So for example, if you download Duik and you're rigging a character, what Duik is doing is just a ton of manual labor and putting expressions onto properties for you, so you don't have to. And so these three tools tend to all sort of mix and match and work together in the end.
Zack Lovatt: Yeah. Yeah. It's kind of neat as well in that the kind of the scripts next step expressions work together in that way. But you could theoretically save all the expressions out of a Duik set up and then apply them manually to something else, but you wouldn't do that. You would just use the script panel to apply those to next project.
Joey Korenman: Exactly. So yeah, it's just greater and greater levels of time-saving I guess is the way to look at it. So here's another question. I guess this is kind of related to, you know, why does everybody want to learn expressions and it's a little bit of a softball. Do expressions make your work better? No? You tell me.
Nol Honig: Why yes, they do, joey.
Joey Korenman: Of course, yeah, that's the secret.
Nol Honig: They can make you work faster. They can just help you save time, which I guess is the same thing. Or they can also just enable you to think and work in a different way, which can sometimes be really instructive in our field since a lot of times it's easy to fall into doing things the same way over and over again and if you have this new tool, maybe you can change that up and do something new and then kind of get used to that system as well. So definitely, definitely makes you work better.
Joey Korenman: Zack, here's a question for you. How much math does someone need to know to get good at expressions? I think that's a huge fear for motion designers, "Oh my God, I'm going to have to remember some of that algebra I learned."
Zack Lovatt: Yeah, that's sort of a pet peeve. I asked at one point just online, "Is there anything people want to know about expressions?" And a lot of the feedback I got back was saying, "Yeah, I don't really know math or not good at math." And it's sort of cool, great. I didn't ask that. I don't care whether you know math. Think of again, I go to a wiggle cause it's the most understandable wiggle is an expression and you have to learn how it works and it just moves something randomly. Where's the math in that? nothing there has anything to do with math.
Joey Korenman: Right.
Zack Lovatt: And so if you're doing expressions, or if you're using expressions to sort of augment to work with stuff already there, there's no requisite that you use math in your expressions. It's like if you're writing a book, how much- I'm trying to come up with an analogy here that makes sense. But the idea is, if you're not doing things that involve math, you don't need to do math. It's not like every expression is going to use trigonometry or whatever. So they're sort of very distinct.
Nol Honig: Yeah, I have a different take on this. I feel like you do need to have some basic math skills. Even in the wiggling sample, if you're talking about frequency, you have a certain number of frames per second in your comp. So you can't really set the frequency higher than that, otherwise you're really not doing anything, for example. So there's basic math, but I think that kind of plays into this. But it's not complex at all. It's definitely not algebra or trigonometry or anything like that. It's a lot of adding and subtracting. Plus having to remember if it's in the parentheses that gets multiplied first and after the parentheses, that kind of stuff, basic, basic math stuff I think you do need to know. Sorry to contradict.
Zack Lovatt: No, it's good.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, I think you're right. I'll add to that too, Nol, that I think that when people say, "I'm not good at math," they don't mean, "I can't add and subtract." You know? I think maybe they just didn't do good in geometry or pre-calculus or something. And I also too, I think a lot of people tell themselves a story that isn't true. "I'm not good at math." Well, no, that's not true, you haven't practiced math enough. You know, math is a set of rules that you follow. It's the same as anything else. If you can learn After Effects for God's sakes, you can learn a little bit of trig. It's way easier, I'll tell you what, PEMDAS is much easier than After Effects's is order of operations, All right?
Joey Korenman: If you're listening to this podcast, you can definitely learn some basic geometry. With that said, you really almost never have to, unless you're building some crazy rig that actually relies on trig and in the class I think, there's a couple of things that are in there that are advanced for the most part. I mean, you guys are just showing how to be clever and you know, use the built in functions After Effects gives you to automate stuff and you don't really need tangent and cosine and cosine, you know, all these things. It's pretty basic.
Zack Lovatt: Though, to be fair, we do talk about sine and cosine, but we're not using them as mathematical trigonometry functions. We're just like, "Hey, if you type this thing into your expression, you can make something wave up and down forever." So there is some mathematical objects we're using, but we're not using them in the context of like, "Learn trig".
Joey Korenman: Exactly. Yeah. I mean you could just give that sine function a different name. This is the wavy function, you know, and it's just kind of abstract it away.
Joey Korenman: Awesome. All right. This was sort of an oddly specific question. "Recently I started learning processing," and for anyone listening that doesn't know, processing is this programming language that lets you generate visuals. So it's programmatic animation and design, "And I'm halfway through this book and I'm slowly understanding the possibilities of it for motion graphics. My question is for After Effects, can I use this little coding knowledge that I have with vectors, forces, array lists, random number generators, or are expressions completely different?" I think I know the answer to this. Zack, what you think?
Zack Lovatt: Do you want to field it first?
Joey Korenman: Let me take a stab at it. So yes, it's totally different. Yeah, so like Zack said, expressions are bits of code that sort of determine the behavior of a property on a layer and processing lets you set up far more elaborate behaviors, particles and reactivity and things like that. You can do some of that with expressions. You can certainly use trap code particular and put an expression on say, the particle birth rate and tie that to the amplitude of an audio file. You can do things like that, but processing is really about creating an entire system that then generates visuals for you and to get that kind of fidelity and interactivity with expressions, you'd have to do, you know, a hundred other things in After Effects. Expressions alone aren't going to do it, whereas with processing code alone can do a whole lot for you. How was that? How would you rate that?
Zack Lovatt: I think that's a great answer as far as talking about whether or not processing the same workflows make sense in both, which they don't, but what will carry over is that processing is based on JavaScript (Editor's Note: Zack has clarified that processing in After Effects is actually based on Java, not Javascript.) and the expression engine and After Effects is based on JavaScript. And so the actual syntax and code tools you're learning, those will carry over. There's still the same math stuff, still the same way of working with text, and arrays and numbers and booleans, and if outs, all of that will kind of give you a leg up. But it's just the actual ways of using it that won't really carry over. Expressions are a little unique in that they run on every frame on every property all the time and there's sort of things you have to learn there. Plus both processing and After Effects, they have a lot of custom utilities built into them. So some stuff that you just know in one won't exist in the other.
Joey Korenman: Right. Like I'm assuming in processing, you know if there is a wiggle function it's called something different as an example.
Zack Lovatt: Yeah, exactly. Wiggle is very specific to After Effects.
Joey Korenman: That's really cool. I didn't actually know that processing used JavaScript (Editors Note: See note above). So I mean in that case I think a lot of the concepts and expressions will be familiar. I mean, towards the end of the class, Zack and Nol will get into loops. I mean a loop is a loop and you know, the way that you add two arrays together is the way you add two arrays together and things like that.
Joey Korenman: So, cool. All right, well then I need to revise my answer to yeah, kind of.
Zack Lovatt: It's very much a "Yeah, kind of." Yeah.
Nol Honig: I'm just going to stay silent.
Joey Korenman: Okay. Let's start talking about the course itself, which I have to say, I am so incredibly proud of how that came out. I mean, you two did all of it. I barely had to do anything other than convince you to do this. You guys absolutely killed it.
Joey Korenman: All right. So we're going to start talking about the class now, and one of the questions, which is a good question and one has an interesting kind of backstory to it. Why did you guys decide to teach this as a duo? This is the first ever team taught class at School of Motion, and why did you guys want to do this together?
Nol Honig: Well, okay, so the way that I remember this working out is that I really was pushing for Zack to teach this class cause he's obviously naturally this great expert, but Zack wasn't sure if he would really be able to do it all by himself and to really translate his knowledge into a really good class where the information flowed well. So, that's kind of how we started talking. We were kind of working together on a project before all this and we had developed this rapport that we thought was really fun and excellent. And then I basically went to you, Joey and said like, "Hey, we could do this together." And that it just seemed to kind of fit, you know?
Joey Korenman: Yeah. And I have to say for anyone who takes this class, it's also sort of a technical marvel, the way it's been put together. Zack lives in Los Angeles and Nol lives in Manhattan and they're thousands of miles apart and there are many, many points in the course where they're talking to each other and then sort of throwing to each other almost like a news anchor, "And now we'll go back to Zack and he'll do this part," and I would say it's going to be many years before another class comes along that has more puns in it than this one.
Zack Lovatt: But on the technical note, we actually, and it's not like an editing trick, Nol is working on a project and then I keep working on the same project and we actually go back and forth in the same AP's for a lot of the lessons. We actually wrote up this page of rules and thoughts on how to teach a class together. But yeah, there was a lot of thought that went into it, how we can work together and going from, "How do we do this technically?" To, "How do we make sure that we're communicating, and we're not overstepping each other, and that we're not cutting each other off?" And yeah, it's cool. It's a lot of fun.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, it's really, really fun to watch and I know everyone who takes the class is going to get a kick out of it. I mean, the information, and the teaching, and the lessons, the exercises, all of that stuff, we've really upped our production value this year and we got some amazing artists to provide assets and even just the concepts themselves, we put a ton of thought into it. And then on top of that, there's this layer of standup comedy that kind of flows through the whole thing.
Nol Honig: More like dad jokes, but yes.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. Okay. You know, I was just trying to elevate it a little bit.
Nol Honig: I think one of the things that's really cool about it is that Zack and I do have very different skills and we're similar in our sense of humor, which is what drives a lot of the class, but were otherwise really different. So I think that makes a really interesting combination of people.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, totally.
Zack Lovatt: It was very cool to me, as we were building the course, to kind of see which exercise in which lesson, Nol got super into it, and super attached to versus the one I were. Because his favorite exercises were super artistic, and abstract, and creative. And mine is of course super technical, and kind of linear, and there's so much little details going on but it's very precise and yeah, that speaks to us very well.
Joey Korenman: So here's another devil's advocate kind of question and I almost didn't even include this one because cause it's insulting. No, I'm just kidding. What's the difference between this course and just watching a bunch of YouTube tutorials because there are probably over a million hours expression tutorials out there, and so you know, why do we need this class?
Zack Lovatt: Cohesion and consistency is what I would say. Every lesson, every exercise builds upon the one before it. The overall curriculum that we spent over two years, we spent a ton of time refining it, getting down to this point and I think a lot of the YouTube stuff is sort of just frivolously one-offs here and there, or they're assuming a lot of base knowledge that you don't have, but that's what I'd say.
Nol Honig: Yeah, and I just add on that, that, you know, not only does each lesson build upon the next, but we really try to break things down into plain English. So we're not just like, here do this. It's sort of like we're explaining as we go, what we're doing so that it makes sense to people so that when they do it, it makes sense to them. Some other expression tutorials I've seen are more just like, you know, "Do this, and you can accomplish this," but we didn't want to do that.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I think in the promo video, one of the things that Zack says is, you know, "At the end of this you'll know not just how to write expressions, but why." And I think that kind of sums it up in a nutshell. I mean that was sort of the through line that we tried to carry throughout the entire class is, it's not enough to just know that this is the code you type in to do this thing, it's why, because the goal is not to just teach students a fixed set of code and then whatever's in the class, that's what they know and no more, no less. It's really to rewire their brains. Like, now, you understand how to think to use these tools, you know?
Joey Korenman: I think what will likely happen and what the goal is students take the class and afterwards they end up writing expressions using things that they didn't learn in the class, But now that they know what's possible. They can go out, you know, you guys provide resources, "Here's other places to go learn. Here's how you find a JavaScript function that you didn't know existed." All these things and curriculum really is the answer to that question for any school of motion class. I mean that's really why we exist to be honest is you know, because if you take the Swiss cheese approach to learning where you're just biting off teeny little bits of knowledge that are all scattered about, taught by a hundred different people, it works if you do it for long enough or you can just sort of go through a class that was curated and designed from day one to sort of teach you all of the things you need to know.
Joey Korenman: The other thing I'll say too that it may not be obvious to people who haven't taken a School of Motion class before. All of our classes have exercises. They get assigned and this class is no different, and so not only are we giving you challenges to complete that really are based on real world things that happen. Here is a design for an end frame and there's going to be 10 versions and we want you to build a rig that does X, Y, and Z and we're giving you artwork. That doesn't happen for free tutorials and stuff like that. So it's really giving you an opportunity to test the knowledge that you just learned. And of course there's teaching assistants and you know, you're getting help with the code and there's a support, a student private Facebook group where you can get support on code and things like that.
Joey Korenman: So there's a lot more to it than just the content, but even just talking about the content, it's very different.
Nol Honig: Yeah, I would second that. It's a lot like all the other School of Motion classes in terms of its attitude, you know, which is that it's definitely a focused place, like a bootcamp where you'll just really be put through the test and by the end of it you will come out with a ton more knowledge.
Joey Korenman: So speaking of knowledge, here's a good question. How much After Effects do I need to know to take this course?
Zack: You should be very comfortable in After Effects. We are assuming you understand layers, layer order, hierarchy parenting, pre comps. You should know your way around After Effects. We kind of skip over a lot of the foundation After Effects stuff, but if you've never used expressions or just little bit, that's more what this is about. This is about going from zero or very little to comfortable in expressions, to add to already existing motion design workflow.
Joey Korenman: Right, if you take an Animation Bootcamp, that's plenty familiar enough with After Effects, I think.
Zack Lovatt: I would agree. I mean, I would even say if you've taken After Effects Kickstart, you know your way around After Effects by that point. There are some things that you know, you may not have encountered before that you'd see in an expression session. But for the most part I think anyone who has a few months of experience will be able to at least grasp what's going on. I would say, expressions are not something you want to start learning six months into your effects career. I would get a little more than that under your belt, but yeah, I mean there's really nothing app wise or program wise that that is too advanced. I mean the code is the advanced thing. That's the big stepping stone right there.
Nol Honig: Yeah familiarity with a couple of effects. You know, the idea of pre comping and that kind of thing, but yeah, you're right after somebody's worked with After Effects for, I don't know, a year, they're good I think.
Zack Lovatt: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: Totally. Is this course actually practical? I feel like we keep circling this idea of, "Expressions or this rabbit hole," and I mean they can be kind of a distraction. And I know that when we started outlining this, we were very clear we did not want that to be the case here. So how would you answer that? Is this course actually practical? Are you learning things you'll actually use?
Zack Lovatt: Oh Nol, definitely not.
Joey Korenman: I thought you said "No!"
Zack Lovatt: No, I said, "Nol." It's that Canadian accent.
Nol Honig: I assume that if you're taking this class you're already interested and you kind of know that it's going to help you a lot, but if you're on the fence or whatever, definitely I think it will help. It's very practical. I mean, like we said before, depending on what you do with After Effects, this could be something that really changes your career. If you're all about versioning things and that kind of work, then this is definitely going to help you with that. But I think for anybody, even just you know, your average motion person, I think this is going to really increase their game, make them work faster and give them, I think a new found excitement about working with After Effects to make it more cool.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. So this would be a good time, I guess there's another question on here asking, "What will I be able to do by the end of the course?" And I think this might be a good place to just talk about some of the topics that you cover and what are some of the example setups that you build and things like that.
Zack Lovatt: Yeah, we try to cover a wide range of things, but as mentioned before, kind of the overarching thing is not necessarily that you'll be an expression wizard at the end, but if you're copying and pasting stuff from online, you'll understand what it's doing. You'll be able to read it and modify it for what you need. Or if you open a project with somebody else's expressions, you'll get what they're trying to accomplish and hopefully be able to work with it. So some of our assignments are things like the classic example is doing lower thirds, where you're having elements and shape layers and objects respond to any amount of arbitrary text. So if your name is Nol, then you're a little rectangle graphics is short. If it's Gordon, then it's super long and that's sort of an easy go to understand, or having the whole follow the leader graphic where you've got a whole bunch of layers duplicated and each one is following the layer before it a little bit offset.
Nol Honig: Or how to harness it's the power of randomness to make art. Certainly we go a lot into expression controls and kind of how to master all of those different expression controls, which I think is the kind of problem solving that will jump up in your work all over the place if you start to think about it.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, I mean there were a lot of examples of just how to automate certain things, you know, making things animate without you having to do anything, using time, using loops. Towards the end, I mean the last few lessons they do get in some pretty cool uses of expressions. You know, tying After Effects layers, which are 2D or 2.D, tying those to the actual 3D position of 3D renders and things that come out of Cinema 4D and stuff like that, using layer space transforms.
Joey Korenman: A couple of things that I thought were really cool in the class was learning how to manipulate the shape of paths for shape layers and masks and things like that, which is so useful if you're doing any kind of data visualization. If you're setting up rigs, you know, that are driven by values and you also show how you can do that.
Joey Korenman: And then you know, there's always a final project. It's sort of like the last boss that we always have in our classes and in this one it's such a cool example. It's this entirely sort of fake UI data-driven dashboard thing with really cool artwork, but also there's just so many neat things happening in there, how you can automatically, you know, turn layers on and off and select things visually using loops and iterating through layers and checking, you know, this property against this one. There's a lot of stuff in there where, I know Zack, you said you may not be an expressions wizard by the end of it, I mean, it's depends on your definition of wizard. I mean they were most people they would say that doing this stuff that you teach in the class, does indeed make you a wizard.
Zack Lovatt: That's fair. That's a good point. I just mean don't be intimidated by thinking it's going to be huge and scary. This is very much an everyday workplace acceptable level. Everyone is going to benefit from this. It's not too far out of reach.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I think the most valuable things that are just instantly valuable are learning how to set up really simple rigs with expression controls that drive things and learning how to automate layouts, you know, basing like you were saying, the width of a rectangle off of how wide someone's last name is. That kind of stuff, it really does save you, you know, days and weeks of your life over the course of a career.
Zack Lovatt: Yeah. And not just that, I mean overall this idea of spending a little bit more time at the beginning to make your life easier later. And for me, I think the first way I really got into expressions was doing a ton of lower thirds where you had to go into a million comps and duplicate each one, change the text. And so that's just a pain in the butt. And so we show ways where you can have your text layers, pull the text from the comp name. So instead of having to rename text stuff, you can just build these rigs that make your life easier. Or Re-time things based on sliders instead of timing out key frames and it's working smarter not harder, or like a little bit harder but also smarter.
Nol Honig: Yeah. That was actually something that I really got out of working with you, Zack, was how to make the code modular so it fit into almost every circumstance so you could kind of copy and paste it into whatever layer and it would still work. That was really nice. So the modularity I think is something that people will get out of this as well.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, it's just best practices for stuff like that I didn't know either. And also one of the things that was really cool that I learned in this class is just how smart you can get with master properties and using that to automate a whole bunch of stuff. And this kind of I guess is a good place to talk about this next question, which I think is really just about, a lot of our classes, you know, my goal for our students is that you take a class, it gives you a skill that either opens up something creatively for you, or more likely helps you take one more step in your career. You know, you're adding a new skill that's going to help you get your foot in the door, whatever the next stop is in your career.
Joey Korenman: So as far as this class goes, are there any new "services" I'll be able to offer to my clients after taking the class? I mean, how do you think that someone who's already a pretty good animator, decent designer, and then they take this class, how does having this tool help them make money and get booked and stuff like that?
Nol Honig: I think one quick answer to this is that if you work at a studio or if you freelance around or if you have a full time job somewhere and you get really good at expressions and people know that, they'll start asking you to do more things using expressions and it'll kind of increase your profile no matter where you work. You'll be that guy or gal or whatever who knows expressions, and already that's sort of been happening to me after teaching the class a little bit. People have an expectation like okay you'll be able to help us solve this problem because you know, expressions and so it's kind of a nice place to be. That's just one thing. But that's what I've noticed right away.
Zack Lovatt: Yeah and there aren't many people that do it, but there is definitely a place in this industry for the more technically oriented. And I think I've said this in half our podcasts in the chorus with the guests, but I am one of the few full time technical directors in motion design, meaning my whole world is expressions and scripting and not even necessarily writing code, but just organizing projects and setting up rigs in After Effects just with master properties and sliders and stuff. And this course will kind of put you along that path, or at least show you that this path exists and there's other facets to motion than just necessarily being a designer or artist or that route.
Nol Honig: Right? Yeah. I think this will add to your confidence just in general too. If your client asks you to pull data from a JSON file or CSV, you're going to know how to do that. You know what I mean? You won't be like, "I have no idea and now I'll have to Google this." You'll just know. Same with MOGRTs and things like that too.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I was that, you know, when I read that question, what I was thinking was, I mean the most obvious answer to me was you've got MOGRT files, you've got templates and they're all driven by expressions and after taking this class certainly you'll be more than equipped to make really responsive layouts and have check boxes that you can click one thing and 10 things happen and it changes the entire dynamics of your template and all of those things. I mean, there's kind of this wild West right now of, you know, places to sort of create sellable elements like that where there's an army of editors out there that don't want to learn After Effects but need sort of bespoke customized templates and lower thirds and full screen graphics and stuff like that.
Joey Korenman: We actually, you know, this year we built an entire sort of visual identity graphics package for all of our classes in MOGRT, using MOGRT files so that our editors can use them when they're editing, and there's a lot of expressions driving them. And if the Zack hadn't been working on the class, I probably would have hired him to this is set all that stuff up. There aren't that many people out there that are sort of known for this. And to Nol's point, it's funny, that definitely happened to me when I was freelancing and stuff like that. I mean I sort of was one of the first After Effects artists that I knew that started using expressions and I got the hang of them pretty quickly and then I would get booked sometimes just because of that when I was freelance, because they knew that I could come in and I could animate, but then I could set up a rig and give it to the other animators so that they didn't necessarily need to know how to do what I just did. I could sort of scale myself a little bit.
Joey Korenman: And so that's another way of looking at it. It's really kind of a-
Nol Honig: Something you can charge a little more too, I got to say.
Joey Korenman: An astute observation there, Nol. Well, I mean that's where we're going next. Right? So how much did you raise your day rate after? Kidding, no kidding. So you know, we touched on the difference between expressions, scripts and extensions and this class does not teach you how to write scripts or extensions, but after this class, how much more would you need to learn in order to build, say, a basic script and then eventually move into extensions?
Zack Lovatt: That's sort of a deliberate path. That's an intentional decision you'd have to make. It's not a, "I'm running expression, woops, now I'm selling scripts online." There is a lot to learn to go from expressions to scripting and extensions and so on, but it's not out of the question. And that is the exact route that I took. I was writing expressions and I had mostly abandoned at this point blog talking back then and I just wanted to learn about scripting. And so using the After Effects coding awareness I had from expressions, I had a great foundation for when I would start looking at scripts to sort of understand how those work. But it Really is a different philosophy, but you know that both of them work on layers, and comps, and key frames, and project items and so you're already in that world. So it's much easier to jump. It's like if you know Photoshop, it's easier to go to After Effects versus if you've only used Microsoft Paint or whatever the Mac OS equivalent is, it's probably harder to go from that to After Effects.
Joey Korenman: And are the coding languages the same between expressions and scripts?
Zack Lovatt: Yes-ish.
Nol: No.
Zack Lovatt: So After Effects is two expression languages. One is the old extend script one and then there's the newer JavaScript language. Now the old extend script one is the same as the scripting language. However, there are certain things just in the scripting side and sort of things just in the expression side, but it's the same thing. And both of them are based off of a version of JavaScript from 20 years ago. However, it's new expression language is like brand new modern JavaScript, which scripting doesn't have access to. So it's this sort of yes and no, but it's all based on JavaScript, so that's a great place to start.
Joey Korenman: And how hard was it to learn the scripting part once you already had the expression part down?
Zack Lovatt: I don't think there's a satisfying answer to that question. Certain things are harder than others. It's really a matter of the task you're trying to accomplish. For me to write something that will loop through every player and rename it. Okay, that's pretty straight forward. To create a script that draws a custom panel in your interface, and is very interactive, and modify as a whole bunch of things, well, that's more complicated just because you're trying to do more tasks. And so, if you're willing to put in, you know, some time after work, after hours, learning about scripting and development and best practices, then it's attainable. But how much work it is really depends on what you're after or where you're coming from.
Joey Korenman: Got it. All right. Well script-stravaganza session coming 2020 right? And we'll all know how to write.
Zack Lovatt: Oh yeah. Intro to scripting. I've given that at a few conferences. We can do it.
Joey Korenman: Oh, I love it. All right. You heard it here first. Last question here. You know, we touched on this a little bit, you know, how much After Effects do I need to know? But I think, a lot of times when we launch a new course and there's a lot of excitement in it, students want to be prepared, they want to be able to get the most out of it. And so if there's someone out there and they're thinking of taking this class and they have this question, what would you say? And the question is, "What can I do to prepare my mind, body and soul for expression session, and you can focus on any one of those three or all three."
Zack Lovatt: Coffee?
Joey Korenman: Yeah, that's for sure.
Zack Lovatt: In the evening, perhaps some wine after your coffee.
Joey Korenman: Oh, there's many layers to that joke.
Nol Honig: Coffee and cookies. Yeah, that's my answer.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I mean I honestly like this class, like all of our other classes I mean, once you've got the minimum required level of knowledge, the class takes you the rest of the way. So if you're comfortable with After Effects, I think that's really all you need. I'm assuming this person's probably wondering like, you know, I want to at least have some kind of expression knowledge, so it's not just totally new to me. What are some things that they could do if they wanted to just kind of get their feet wet while they wait for the class to start?
Zack Lovatt: Yeah, I think there's no harm in starting to look online and check out YouTube, intro to expression classes, read the blog post, read the tutorials. There's so many resources out there and in the interest of full disclosure, we're probably going to tell you that the style of coding they write isn't great, but that's okay. Having any foundation will help, but it's not necessary. It's just once you're in the course, just have patience and bear with it. A lot of it will be unfamiliar and take some getting used to. But you know, we structured in such a way that we're with you the whole time and you know, everything's kind of building upon itself and just have patience and be open to a different way of thinking, especially if you're super, super, artful and creative and you've never worked in this world before.
Nol Honig: Yeah, I would second that. Plus coffee and cookies.
Zack Lovatt: Absolutely.
Joey Korenman: And I would say muscle memory, one of the things that happens when you start writing code, is all of a sudden you're doing all of these things that you just normally don't do, like you're hitting the semi-colon a lot and curly brackets, you know, there's all these buttons on the keyboard, even that you're going to have to like look down and find them the first time you have to type these things. And so just even following along with a basic tutorial on how to set up some simple expressions, just so you get in, you get in the habit of like, "Okay, hold option. I clicked the stopwatch, ah, this code editor opens, and then I type in something in camel case," which you'll learn about that, "And then you put a semi-colon at the end." Just doing it, even if you don't really know what you're doing, it gets your hands used to doing it and it'll be a lot more comfortable I think when you start writing longer expressions.
Zack Lovatt: Yeah, and one thing, I'm not sure how much you too would agree with me on this, but you know this is a course on expressions. This is not a course on coding. The fact that it's expressions in After Effects is a huge component to it. It's about how to work with layers, and projects, and animation ,and composition in a problem solving way. And it just so happens that the solution is code, but it's really just problem solving and thinking differently about your projects.
Nol Honig: Yeah, I'll second that as well. It's sort of like every assignment is like doing a puzzle. It's not necessarily hard. It's just the problem solving and how you get there. And then a few aha moments and then just writing some code, and you don't need to be good at math.
Joey Korenman: You can find out all the details about expression session at schoolofmotion.com and of course everything we talked about here can be found in the show notes on our site. I want to thank Nol and Zack for creating a pretty amazing course. There's really nothing like it out there, and I also want to give a shout out to Yaniv Friedman, Daniel Luna and Ariel Costa, who all created animations for the course. The production value on expression session is crazy, and there's a big team behind the scenes making that all possible. So thanks to everyone who worked on it and thank you for listening. It really does mean the world. Until next time.