This tutorial covers a technique to create a microfilm machine look step by step. It start by searching for and analyzing references, then continues onto collecting source materials, animating the different attributes and giving the composition a final polished look. This can be useful as a motion graphics style or for rendering the contents for screen replacements in film or TV.
The first thing you do for a project like this is to seek for reference on what the microfilm machine‘s screen looks like. I went to the closest library and took some pictures of the microfilm machines. This way you can start to think about the different features that compose the "look" of this screen.
With the references you can clearly see a yellowish cast on everything, a strong, yet uneven vignetting effect with a reddish tone in the upper right side, going to a greenish tone on the other corners. For the texture, there is a lot of dust, grain, small hairs and leftovers of scotch tape and paste.
Next, let‘s search for references on how the machine moves. Here I‘ve got a little reference video on how the machine works; There is manual control over the x/y axis relative to the image and the rotation in the center of the screen. There is also manual control over the focus. The zoom is mechanical and it multiplies the movement inputted. Finally there is a scroll control which quickly goes through the microfilm roll.
Now start in photoshop. Create a clean plate of the background by cloning and healing one of the reference pictures. You can find the reference file "ReferenceScreen.jpg" in the elements folder.
After that, rebuild the different overlay elements, the grids and the numbers by using the tools of your preference. Now we have separated layers for the background and overlays of the Machine‘s screen. You can find the finished photoshop file "screen.psd" in the elements folder. Make sure you end up with a photoshop file with just the overlay and background layers and name them that way.
Get texture materials. As you‘ve seen there is dirt, dust, hairs, scotch tape and that kind of textures all around our screen. Use your scanner and be creative with it. In the elements folder you will find a sequence of files named "TransparentElement09" which might come in handy if you don‘t have a scanner near.
This is a bonus step which you don‘t have to go trough. You should find artifacts that are characteristic from this particular media (like the universal counter leaders on movies). As the microfilm machines are ussually scanners, you can easily retrieve this artifacts for your use. You can find the ones I found named "otherArtifacts" in the elements folder.
After so much preparation, let‘s get down to business. Load your material in after effects, along with the content you want to put in it. Remember to import the screen photoshop file as a composition to keep the layers.
Make sure you set the project to 16bit which helps us avoid banding since this look relies a lot on the use of different color gradients. Start with a composition, I like to use the NTSC D1 widescreen square pixel preset. Name the layer ‘Base‘ and make it last 10 seconds at 24fps.
In this base composition we will make a diagram for the image we want to see in our machine. You can give it a newspaper look by using different big headings, medium excerpts and small paragraphs.
I will make this diagram on white over black background to easily see all the texture elements later. So invert the images you put if necessary and make them grayscale. Color Correction>Channel Mixer is my favorite option for grayscaling.
I will fill the paragraphs with lipsum and make it look a bit like a newspaper page.
Use the transparent elements, invert them and place them around using the "screen" blending mode. Use Levels and masks if necessary to make sure they don‘t leave their borders around. You can also use the shape tool to draw some lines to separate text blocks. Imitate the look of newspapers the way you feel better about it and ad lots of texture thinking that this is the texture the film has. The machine‘s texture comes later.
Activate the motion blur of every layer (we will use the collapse transformations feature later). Add an adjustment layer with a box blur effect with radius set to 0.5. This softens everything a little bit to make it look less digital. Now we can precompose everything naming it "film" and let‘s start animating.
First animate the translations. The machine has a very mechanic feel to it which is affected by the precision of the hands of the person using it. It‘s usually moved in one axis at a time, with very snappy movements, always going back a little bit (settling) to adjust the position of the image.
This is the keyframe distribution I used, you can clearly see in the motion path that the image moves quickly horizontally or vertically, repositions and returns to its previous position. Watch the movement reference and check how it moves on the x and y axis relative to the image. Try to imitate this behavior the best you can.
Add a default null and name it "Rotation", make the film precomp a child of this null and animate the rotation much the same way as the translation. Snappy movements and long rests. I made the rotations between -45 and 13 degrees. Note that all the rotations are relative to the center of the screen and completely independent from the translations of the film.
Now that we have the animation for the film, Put the "otherArtifacts01.png" image in the composition; this is upper border of the machine, seen when the image goes down. It moves with the image as it goes up and down but it doesn‘t scroll sideways with it since it‘s fixed in the machine.
Make the Artifact child of the layer we just animated, scale it until it fits horizontally in the composition and use the expression [-thisComp.layer("film").transform.position+872/2,-190,9] to invert the horizontal movement of the other layer keeping the vertical animation.
Turn on the motion blur switches for all the layers. Now we can start seeing what our machine looks like in movement. Now we can also animate the zoom of the layer.
Add a new null and name it "Zoom" and parent the Rotation null to this one. Animate the scale the same way we have animated the other attributes, I animated my zoom between 100% and 200%. Remember that everything will look nicer if you animate the different attributes in different timing, that way it will look more mechanic.
At this moment your animation must be looking pretty cool, so let‘s start with the look. Add A Black Solid Behind everything to make sure the layers we will stack affect everything below them.
Now add an adjustment layer with a channel/invert effect on top of the Film precomp to make it positive. Name it "Invert"
Add the background layer from our psd to the composition, use it to get the colors we‘ll be adding to the composition. Use two shades of green, a dark red, a medium dark yellow and a light yellow. Create a solid for each color and fine tune the tone as you like.
Sort them with the darkest on the bottom and the lightest on top.
Now we will assign masks and blending modes for each of our solid layers. From bottom to top, the darkest one, with multiply blend mode.
The same with the next solid, this time using the hue blending mode and this mask settings.
Now using the darken blending mode.
The first yellow one with overlay
And the last one with linear light.
Add the overlay layer from our screen.psd file. position it as you like inside our composition. Add a Perspective/Drop shadow effect to it and set the shadow to a light yellow, with a very light opacity. Now add a box blur with 1.2 radius to soften the overlay and mix it a little bit more.
Add the otherArtifacts07 file to the composition. This is gonna be the dust and hairs from our machine‘s lens. You could also use a frame from film clutter from 35mm scanned material and get a nice result. Set it to multiply blending mode and put it just under the grid overlay.
Let‘s make the whole animation a bit more jittery. First, turn every layer except for the invert adjustment layer into 3d layers. Position them in the z axis keeping in mind the separation they would have in real life by keeping the Z position of the film layer in 0.
Create a new null and name it jitter. Parent all the unparented layers to it except for the adjustment layer. Using the wiggle expression, the wiggler or stored camera shake tracking data make the layers wiggle around a little bit with the position animation of the jitter layer.
Time for the finishing touches. If you watched the video references you probably noticed that there is a significative bump on the amount of light shown in the machine when zoomed in. To fake this, we will connect with expressions the lightest yellow layer to the scale of the zoom null. Take the opacity of the yellow layer and add this expression to it thisComp.layer("Zoom").transform.scale/2 so that the layer has a 50% of opacity when we are at 100% zoom and a 100% when we are at 200% zoom. You can duplicate the yellow layer for more emphasis on this effect and experiment with blending modes to suit it to the look you like the best.
You can also add a black solid with a vignette mask with the same expression to darken the edges and get more contrast on it.
We‘re gonna add some lens blur to the machine. Add a new adjustment layer just below the otherArtifacts07 layer (the machine dust layer). Name this layer "blur" and add an utility/grow bounds effect to it with a value of 30 pixels. This will help us blur everything below without adding new colors on the borders. Next add a Lens Blur effect to the layer and animate it‘s iris radius the same snappy way we‘ve animated every other attribute.
To Counterweight the blur in the film layer we can apply the inverse blur amount to the machine blur layer. Add a lens blur effect to the otherArtifacts07 layer and on the iris radius add this expression 30-thisComp.layer("blur").effect("Lens Blur")("Iris Radius"). This way the film and the machine dust will look as if they were on different focal planes of the machine lens.
For a nice detail let‘s add a little bit of scaling connected to the blur, just like real lens which zoom a little beat when the focus changes. In the rotation Null layer, add the expression $temp=100+thisComp.layer("blur").effect("Lens Blur")("Iris Radius")/5;
[$temp,$temp] to the scale channel.
This expression makes the scale 100% plus an amount given by the focus change divided by 5, for both the x and y axles.
Finally let‘s add some grain to the composition by adding a black layer with noise & grain/noise set at 100% without color noise and a Box Blur with Blur radius 1. Ad an elliptical mask by double-clicking the elliptical mask icon and set it‘s mode to subtract with 500 pixels of feather.
This expression makes the scale 100% plus an amount given by the focus change divided by 5, for both the x and y axles.
To add an inverted look to things you can animate the opacity of the invert layer and add light yellow flashes to the composition by creating a light yellow layer, setting it‘s blending mode to add and animating it‘s opacity from 0 to 30 and back to 0 in 5 or 6 frames.
And there you go. Turn the collapse transformations switch of the film layer to keep it’s detail and render the composition in the format of your preference. Besides what you‘ve seen here, you can add any textures or movements you find nice. Furthermore you can use stock footage of film clutter to give the whole thing a more analogue look(as a tip: the grain looks much nicer if it comes from stock footage of a grey card). Also you can use stock pictures to give more life to your newspaper. You can take this a step further by animating the contents of the film or by turning it into a full 3d composition, giving it the look of a futuristic microfilm machine which navigates the data 3d-style... or whatever you can think of.
I really hope you enjoyed this tutorial, any suggestions or questions are welcome. Thank you very much for your attention.