Creative karma

What links whoopee cushions, throwing a Mac out of the window and pushbutton solutions? Jason Arber takes you on a creative journey.

I know After Effects pretty well. Perhaps not as comprehensively as I'd like, and I certainly don't possess the incredible know-how that some AE Jedi have, especially when it comes to wrestling expressions to the ground and making them do my bidding. But for every problem I can usually find a creative solution that gets me out of whatever temporary pickle I might be in.

Only the other day, however, I got this close (and you'll have to imagine me pressing my forefinger and thumb together quite tightly) to picking up my Mac and throwing it out of the office window while letting out a blood-curdling scream. Fortunately, I reconsidered. Unplugging the gazillion leads and cables spewing out of the back of the machine would have taken some of the wind out of my sails, and there was always the chance I might have brained some passing old lady with 19.2kg of aluminium computer.

After Effects was driving me crazy - foaming-at-the-mouth, eating-a-badger bonkers. Why was it that Flash users had inverse kinematics in the latest CS4 upgrade, but After Effects users didn't? Why was I forced to fudge my character animation with shifting anchor points and other less-than-satisfactory techniques?

I would have loved to have been in the meeting when After Effects' CS4 features were being mooted. "How about inverse kinematics?" someone might have chipped in brightly. "No," came the reply. "What people really want is the Cartoon Effect! I can see it now: hundreds of short films and animations, all of them looking like A Scanner Darkly!"

"What about, uh, true 3D in After Effects - that seems to be a highly requested feature€¦" our plucky hero might have ventured. "Yes, it does," the boss would have agreed, stroking his chin thoughtfully before suddenly announcing, "I've got it!" and slapping his thigh. "We could make it so that the only way to get your 3D objects into After Effects is via Photoshop. And then we could make it so that any lights set up in After Effects have no impact on the 3D model. But for the Pice de rsistance, we'll make sure that motion blur can't be applied, making it stick out like a sore thumb in scenes that are supposed to look realistic!" Exhausted by his feverish burst of inspiration, the boss would have slumped back in his chair and ticked off '3D' on his clipboard with a weary smile.

The Cartoon Effect gets me mad for two reasons. Firstly, it wasted resources that could have gone into putting IK into After Effects or a proper implementation of 3D, but secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it panders to the one-button creativity that seems to be rampant. Despite what you might think, there are no shortcuts to a good idea. Staring glumly at some footage bereft of inventiveness and then deciding to apply the Cartoon Effect because it might look cool (with air quotes) is not being inspired or creative. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Creative solutions require thinking about, dancing around, experimenting with. Pre-baked, one-button solutions are bad juju, and are the karmic equivalent of giving Buddha a wedgie or putting a whoopee cushion on Jesus's chair just as he's about to sit down for the Last Supper.

So, before reaching for the Cartoon Effect, adding a lens flare or implementing whatever instant solution you think might get you to the pub quicker, stop, think and ask yourself whether this is the best creative solution you can come up with. Maybe it is, but the world will be a better place for you having given it some thought.