Creator Q&A: After Effects Senior Experience Designer Troy Church
Adobe After Effects celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, and launched After Effects® CC this month. The latest version features a “Live 3D Pipeline that brings Cinema 4D scenes in as layers – without intermediate rendering.” We had the opportunity to chat with After Effects Senior Experience Designer and Vimeo PRO Member, Troy Church, about everything from working for Adobe to the importance of unplugging to the future of interactive design.
VVS: So, who are ya?
TC: My name is Troy Church. I’ve been on the After Effects team for about seven-and-a-half years, but have been using After Effects since version 2.0. I started off as a motion graphic designer. When I first saw After Effects and the work created with it, literally within the first year or so of it being invented, I was floored. I immediately tried to get a copy. It was a couple thousand dollars back then and I got a copy and began using it. This was the early 90s and I started using programs like QuickTime, After Effects, and digital video in general to make my living.
VVS: What kind of educational background did you have? As you said everything was so new when you were starting out. How did you learn to do this kind of stuff?
TC: After high school, I did two years at a junior college, mostly so I could play drums in the jazz band. Then I went to what is now a huge institution called Full Sail. They are a media training school in Florida that teaches film, game production, etc. Twenty years ago they were extremely small. It was a year-and-a-half program. It was also very expensive, but for me it opened my eyes to the industry. I just didn’t have exposure to this world. I grew up in Kanab Utah, right on the border of Arizona; a 4,000-person town. I started this school in 1989, so the Internet hadn’t done its thing yet. It was good for me to walk into real recording studios and to see real filmmaking.
I distinctly remember one day in the early 1990’s when I was sitting in my apartment thinking, “okay this digital video stuff is new, if I want to learn it, I’ve got to become the expert on it.” Anything I could do to get my hands on digital video I did. Adobe and Apple released Premiere and QuickTime around the same time, 1992 or so, and I just started using them, learning them, connecting with anybody else who was doing the same thing.
VVS: Have you watched any of that work you did recently?
TC: Yeah it’s fun to go back.
VVS: We love going back and looking at earlier work. You can see how styles and things have changed so much. Sometimes we look at it and think, “wow that’s really, really dated.”
TC: Yeah, sometimes I’ll think “wow that’s really scary” and sometimes I’ll think “wow that’s cool.” There’s probably a healthy balance somewhere. You remember how you made something and you remember how much your tools influence what you create. I can look at something I made and say “Oh yeah that was done in After Effects,” but it was also influenced because I had a Media 100 editing system at the time. So I reflect on the environment, who I was working with at the time, and the tools we used. All of those things go into the mix of your final output.
VVS: So how did you end up working for Adobe?
TC: I moved to Vancouver to work for Electronic Arts in 1997/98. I was there a year or so and found out that EA had just bought a small game company in Seattle. Long story short I moved to Seattle. I was there at the beginning and height of the “dot com boom.” I was surrounded by lots of very smart people and thought, “I want to learn more, I want to be smarter”.
So, at age 33 I went back and finished a bachelor’s degree in film. Then, I went to Indiana University and completed a Masters in Human Computer Interaction Design. My thesis was on something I call “Cinematic Interaction.” It was the idea of combining the language of film with computer technology. The language of film was quickly becoming part of the computer’s user experience.
When I finished school in 2005, I started sending out resumes. Within a few weeks, I started getting responses. I interviewed with Microsoft, ESPN, and Pixar. Pixar was amazing, but I interviewed with them within a couple days of interviewing with After Effects. I thought, “Wow if I could get the After Effects gig and move back to Seattle, then I’m definitely going to take it.” That’s what happened and I’m forever grateful.
VVS: Adobe recently announced a shift to a fully online subscription service for its software via the Creative Cloud. Can you speak to why Adobe’s shift to the Creative Cloud is ultimately a good thing and how you think it will affect the future of creative workflow?
TC: I’m certainly not an official Adobe spokesman, but I’ll give you some of my thoughts. It’s a big business model change for Adobe. I think in the end it will be a win for our customers. It allows us to respond quicker to their needs and it allows us to spend more time on what really matters to them. With Creative Cloud subscriptions, we will be able to build more of the features that our customers truly want. We won’t have to worry as much about some big glamour feature that some of our customers may not need.
I’m really excited by the positive reception that Creative Cloud is getting. After Effects and the Creative Suites weren’t cheap – this new model makes Adobe’s creative tools more accessible. I’ve been impressed that the first thing I hear customers saying when I talk with them, is that they love Creative Cloud - as opposed to, “we love your new camera tracker or whatever specific feature.” I’ve been really surprised, but I think it’s cool.
Some people don’t like this new model, and I have empathy them - but overall I think it’s a great solution for both our users and us.
VVS: Is the Adobe HQ in Seattle?
TC: Adobe HQ is in San Jose, CA - Silicon Valley. The Seattle office has actually been here quite a while, but the reason why Adobe has this office is because years ago Adobe bought Aldus, which was based in Seattle. Aldus was the company that made PageMaker. Maybe a year before Adobe bought Aldus, Aldus bought CoSA. CoSA was the small team that made After Effects.
VVS: How would you describe the offices that you are in?
TC: We’re located close to the water in Seattle, so it’s very beautiful. We also have some very cool meeting rooms where we get together. There’s one in particular for After Effects - that’s where the magic really happens. No one else can use it, that’s where stuff gets done.
VVS: I can only imagine what goes on in that room.
TC: Yeah, there are lots of arguments (laughter).
VVS: Switching gears to your job specifically: How has it evolved since you started at Adobe?
TC: People will often ask me, “What does an interaction designer do?” There are a couple parts to it. One part is the form the other part is the behavior. For example, the form is what it looks like and what can you visibly observe about it. The function is the other part…. How does it behave? My job spans those two things.
Sometimes I will tell people I draw storyboards for software. Software is dynamic. When I first started I didn’t think of it quite so much that way. It was much more of a static process, but I’ve since learned a ton about how software gets made.
VVS: With that said, how would you describe what your typical workday is like now at Adobe?
TC: It ebbs and flows. My days can involve pre-production design, customer research, validating current designs, and sometimes my days include working with other teams. In the new version of After Effects shipping soon, After Effects CC, we’ve got a wonderful new feature where After Effects links with Cinema 4D. So that [process] wasn’t just collaborating with another Adobe team it was collaborating with Maxon in Germany. Every week, we were on the phone with them. At times we had people from Germany come to Seattle to sit down and work with us. It was a wonderfully collaborative process to work on that particular feature.
My days also have lots of on-the-phone time with customers. Often I get to go to their office or studio. You want a good experience? Go watch someone use your tool. Go sit like a fly on the wall for three hours and you realize, “Oh crap that is hard.”
VVS: What do you enjoy most about your job?
TC: Life and my job are good and bad at the same time in different ways. Rarely is everything going your way, and rarely is everything terrible. There are elements of both at the same time.
I love what After Effects has done. It has changed visual culture, literally. When I turn on the TV, probably 70 percent of what I see After Effects has touched. That’s huge. It’s neat to feel like you have a direct connection to something that impacts the world like that. Another thrilling part of the job is that we make a tool that lets a lot of people make a living. They get to be creatively expressive with that tool. That’s very rewarding. They are passionate about After Effects and they come to trust the software a lot. To feel like we have the trust of those people, that’s a high honor.
VVS: What are some of the biggest challenges?
TC: One of the hardest things in software is deciding what you’re going to prioritize and who. Who is the user? After Effects has a broad range of users from people creating web banners to motion graphics artists, DSLR filmmakers, Premiere video editors, all the way up to high-end film compositors doing special effects for film. When we prioritize a new feature we’re often prioritizing a user, and the other way around. I’ve had a lot to learn about how to manage that process – and I’m still learning.
I will often think of software production as three big circles. One is the design aspect – is what you’re building desirable? Then there’s the engineering circle - can we build it? Do we have the technology? Then the last circle is the business part – is this viable? Can we make money doing this? Are we going to lose money? You want these three circles to converge on that sweet spot in the middle.
VVS: Do you have a dream pet project that you would love to work on in your down time?
TC: That’s a beautiful question. I’m a sketcher and a drawer. I’d love to work on some sketching pre-production thing. That would be fun for me.
I have all sorts of little projects I do at home. I don’t make big films myself, but I get to work with lots of filmmakers and talk to them about how they’re doing stuff. I love whenever I can I break out the DSLR and go film a small project. To design better software I need to put myself in my users’ shoes. The best way to do that is to use our software in the same ways and conditions that they are using it.
VVS: When building a new feature, where do you start?
TC: It depends on what motivates the topic. With After Effects, we have a pretty good feel for where it’s strong and where improvements need to be made. We get tons of requests. When we hear users for years and years say, “Please put more 3D in the app,” we listen. At the same time, we know 3D can also be a black hole of possibilities. We have to listen to our community very carefully, and then synthesize what we’re hearing. The majority of After Effects artists use Cinema 4D, and that has only become the case in the last few years. It is huge now. Initially we put a little bit of 3D into the app, a 3D render, and a ray tracer in CS6. As we explored that more it made sense to actually partner with Maxon, which we did in this new release. People will love it. I really think so. It’s really exciting.
VVS: How would you describe your approach?
TC: Direct. We talk with customers and we listen. We evaluate lots of great ideas and technology. We participate in the industry. We’re aware of the other software and tools are out there in the ecosystem, but we try not to follow (in the negative sense.) Our 3rd party ecosystem is one of the things that has made After Effects what it is. We are so grateful for that. My personal approach is to sketch out ideas quickly and iterate a lot – get the experts in a room and hear all the angles to a problem – then move forward as practically as quickly as possible.
VVS: How do you power through a big creative problem? What do you do when you get stuck?
TC: I have a handful of go-to friends. I gravitate towards a few people with whom I can be very honest. I can ask, “Is this totally lame?” or “Is there something here or not?” I know they’re smart - smarter than I am - and they will give me good feedback.
I come into work early and that helps me. It’s usually quieter in the morning. I can think and get a lot done before there are a ton of meetings. Those mornings help me. I do love to get outside and sometimes even go back to southern Utah, sit in the Red Rocks and just think. I try to do that at least once a year.
Often the best thing I can do is just go home and go to sleep.
VVS: Do you find time to just completely unplug?
TC: Boy, not as much as I should. But you ask how I get unstuck creatively, I would say it’s a combination of collaborating with other people while at the same time separating myself where I can think clearly. You need both. Just like you need exercise and you need sleep, I need collaboration time and I need time where no one interrupts me. That allows me to go to a meeting prepared to contribute something, you know, rather than just a big group think, design-by-committee meeting.
VVS: Now that you can do more reactive, real-time updates to the software, how do you see After Effects evolving on a higher level?
TC: What do you do with a program that is, by software standards, pretty old? After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator- they’ve been around for a while and have gotten pretty big. People ask me sometimes – “Wouldn’t it be cool to do a little start up and have a small team?” Yes, there are lots of cool things about that. But another wonderfully cool thing would be to figure out how to take industry standard tools and move them into an online world where they can have far greater reach and more accessibility. Maybe there’s a whole new class of people who could be using After Effects. It’s super exciting to think about connecting these powerful Adobe tools to the Creative Cloud world in innovative ways.
VVS: In your world, it’s probably very important to stay up-to-date on new technology and trends. Do you agree? If so, what kind of resources do you use?
VVS: Do you think following “heroes” can sometimes be daunting?
TC: It’s often easy to think, everybody knows so much more than I do. Often that’s not true. I used to think wouldn’t it be awesome to work on a film like Star Wars? Wouldn’t it be awesome to work for a company like Apple? Wouldn’t it be awesome to work for After Effects? That just seemed so far out of my reach, but it’s possible. It’s certainly possible. You work hard and figure it out. Not everybody will get that chance, but it’s more attainable than a lot of people think. This isn’t rocket science – well, some of it kind of is - but it’s learnable.
VVS: What advice would you give a student or a young professional interested in your field?
TC: The most important skill in my job is communication. It is being able to communicate an idea clearly to everybody involved. With a company like Adobe, we’re all over the world. Sometimes I’m on a video chat with people in China, or South America, or Britain, wherever. You’ve got to be able to communicate clearly and effectively. For me, that ends up being visual communication. I have learned to communicate with these tools of cinema in everyday work. If I have a graphic, I might not send someone just the still graphic, I might make a screen recording of me narrating that graphic so I can highlight the important parts and explain.
I would also say to start wherever you can. If you want to learn how to design good software, pay attention to the applications you think are good – learn from them. Learn the needs of your users - then start solving their problems – designing your software - even if you don’t have someone to code it. Worry about that later. You can prototype with a pencil and paper and some focused thinking. If you want to learn how to make a good film, pay attention to films you think are good – then get your camera, click record, and tell a story. Start wherever you can.
Join us as we chat about After Effects, the new Creative Cloud, and the future of interactive design.
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