Star Trek Transporter: Adobe After Effects

on 01 May 2009.

This step-by-step tutorial is a specific followup to the more general Transporter video you may have already watched. If you haven't seen it, it's way more fun and interesting than this little segment, which focuses like a phaser on Adobe After Effects.

Let's start with a review of the three parts of a Star Trek transporter effect (1) we need a clean plate reveal of our crew member, (2) we can optionally cover that with an overlay animation and, for authenticity, we should (3) create a crewman mask with a sparkly interior of some kind.

We are, of course, assuming you have appropriate footage, shot from a locked-down tripod, of a clean plate and the identical shot with a Trekkie in it. When shooting, do not touch the camera and maybe use your camera's remote if you need to start/stop recording. (The start/stop is strictly optional, since you can edit out the middle easily enough.)
Clean Plates, Cross Dissolves and Overlays

Let's very quickly set up our timeline for parts (1) and (2). Let's do a transport OUT effect:

  1. Add your clean plate and the crewman clip to a composition, clean plate on a higher layer.
  2. Position the two clips so that the overlap in time a bit (one or two seconds).
  3. Create a dissolve from the blank clean plate to the crewman by keyframing the Opacity over the course of the overlap:
    • Expand the twirlie on the clean plate layer and then the Transform twirlie under that.
    • Navigate to the beginning of the crewman clip.
    • Click the Time-Vary stop watch for the Opacity parameter to enable keyframe animation. A keyframe will be added with a value of 100%.
    • Navigate to the end of the clean plate and drag the Opacity value down to 0%. This will automatically add a keyframe.
  4. Add the overlay revealer animation in a new layer on top, positioned in time over the Opacity "cross dissolve."

The overlay animation is strictly optional and, in fact, if you want to be authentic, is not a part of the original transporter effect at all. Still, I think they look good and, perhaps more importantly, they are really easy and effective. I happen to be using graphic elements from Digital Juice, specifically Motion Design Elements known as Revealers.

Trek Trivia!
When did overlay animations first appear in the Trekiverse?
A: Star Trek the motion picture (1979).
Traveling Mattes and Transporters

Now let's get to the fun part, the masked interior sparkle effect. The only trick here is that we need to create a crewman-shaped mask that is going to let us put a sparkle effect on the interior and still allow the background to show through, with the background being the crewmember/clean plate transition.

NOTE: Adobe After Effects is really overkill for this simple project, but it's got an awesome vector mask tool that is second to none and now is as good a time as any to learn how to use possibly the single most useful tool in the history of cinematic special effects. I'm not exaggerating: this is core bread-n-butter visual effects work.
  1. Add another version of your crewman clip to a NEW layer below the overlay, but above the clean plate (layer 2). Sync it in time to match the existing crewman track (now layer 4).
  2. Add you sparkle effect to another NEW layer below that (layer 3) and sync it with the Opacity "cross dissolve." The existing crewman is now in layer 5 (see the screenie below).
  3.  Select the Pen tool (and, optionally, the RotoBezier option - that's how I'd do it).
  4. Draw a mask around your crewman. This is a bit tedious, but it doesn't need to be perfect. Zoom in a bit to make life easier.
  5. On the sparkle layer (layer 3), in the TrkMat column (Track Matte), select the Alpha Matte "crewman.png" (or whatever the name of the clip with the RotoBezier mask is called in layer 2).
  6. Toggle the visibility of the crewman mask off (click the eyeball icon on layer 2).


Easy. Who said After Effects was hard? The only tricky bit might be if you need to create more than just one mask, for example, in the example here, I had to create a mask inside a mask to get the bit under Kirk's arm. We'll want to Subtract this mask from the larger body mask, so expand the crewman twirlie, expand Mask 2, and, from the Mode dropdown, select Subtract (see the image above). There are some other very useful options in here too, like the Mask Feather option, which I'd highly recommend using for this effect, say 2-3 pixels (more for HD resolutions).

Of course the devil is in the (dark) details here, like fading the interior sparkles in and out over the course of 6-12 frames by animating the Opacity parameter. Personally, I find the original series effect to be both very difficult to recreate with modern video sources AND not all that impressive from a visual effects standpoint. My favorite variation (so far: the Star Trek 2009 effect looks pretty darned cool) is the effect from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan best, but once you understand the principles, it is just a matter of time and experimentation to get a look you like.

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