Regardless of what software you use in post-production, the process is never perfect. If you’re content, then you’re either not pushing your ability enough, or you’re spending too much time at work. Consider what could make your day more efficient or what effect you really want to achieve. Perhaps a simple addition to your current software could help you improve your abilities. That’s where plugins come in.
Knowing what plugins are out there gives you the freedom to tackle any advanced request with confidence. Knowing which ones to use and how can make an expert editor into a wizard. First, highlight the best plugins across several categories. Then we’ll take a broader view and look at how you can most effectively use plugins in your next production.
Best VFX Plugin
Red Giant Trapcode Particular
- Powerful particle effects designer
- GPU acceleration
- Over 355 presets included
- Requires After Effects
Trapcode Particular, part of Red Giant’s Trapcode Suite 15, is a much more advanced particle generator than the stock generators available in After Effects. This makes it easier to create complex particle systems and effects. Version 4 introduces a new radical Dynamic Fluids engine with four customizable fluidic forces and behaviors.
With the new Dynamic Fluids physics engine, users can create dynamic, swirling effects that Red Giant promises to look like real moving fluids. There are additionally four customizable fluidic forces and behaviors to choose from. It’s now easier to create particle grids and particle objects in Form’s updated Designer. You can add adjustable blocks with preset settings and styles for forms and particles. There are over 150 Trapcode Form presets and each is fully-customizable. 20 of those presets showcase the new fluid feature.
Best Titling Plugin
Boris FX Title Studio
This plugin brings a complete set of 3D titling and animation tools to your host program of choice. The plugin offers full control over lights, cameras, materials and other stylization elements along with a customizable interface and hundreds of presets to get you started — including a collection of professionally-designed material presets. GPU acceleration means you can add animated glows, burns, volumetric lighting and more to your titles in real-time. Boris FX Title Studio sells for $199.
Best Repair Plugin
- Effective noise reduction
- Compatible with most NLEs
- Good value for money
Known for its ability to remove distracting noise from your video without sacrificing image quality or fine details, Neat Video attributes this to the plugin’s unique noise reduction algorithm, which is able to distinguish unwanted noise from the patterns and textures in your scene. This plugin can also take advantage of both CPU and GPU hardware acceleration for a speedier workflow. Pricing starts at $75 and varies according to the host program.
Starts at $75
Best Color Plugin
Red Giant Magic Bullet Colorista
- GPU acceleration
- Guided color correction
Colorista aims to eliminate the need for a separate color-specific program by bringing more robust color correction tools to your host program. This plugin offers more color control with tools for vignetting, temperature and tint, RGB curves, chromakeying and more. Colorista also provides a three-way color tool and support for log footage and LUTs. There is even a Guide Color Correction tool that will help you through the standard color correction workflow, letting you learn as you go. Magic Bullet Colorista sells for $199.
Best Plugin Suite
Red Giant Universe
An ever-expanding collection of plugins, Red Giant Universe includes a variety of tools, each designed to tackle a specific post-production problem or task. There are tools for stylizing your video, creating complex motion graphics and adding unique transitions and effects. Also included are several different text generators and a wealth of presets to jumpstart your workflow. Universe is available via subscription for $199 per year or $30 per month.
What is and isn’t a plugin
Plugins are not stand-alone programs. They are designed to integrate into existing software and provide improved functionality. Plugins are also not templates. Templates have work half-done for you that you can customize and make your own. Plugins let you utilize or design something that did not previously exist. Once enabled, they are always available. You don’t need to load a specific project to make use of them. Rather they sit within your application’s interface as if they had always been there. Think of them as additional effects–only they aren’t limited to creativity. They might also be processors, or functional, or extenders.
Plugins let you utilize or design something that did not previously exist.
Can you exist as an editor without plugins? Yes, absolutely. That’s why they’re extra bits and not built into the core programs. However, they will allow you to save your most important resource: time. Some will simply do in one or two clicks what you could do yourself in twenty, but others will allow you to create and tweak particles, light streaks and even virtual environments that you would take you hours to create by other means. They also often cost far less in both hassle and price than a standalone program that achieves the same thing.
Types of plugins
The concept of a plugin is essentially limitless. Some are tiny and may add on a simple menu option or single function that will make common operations easier. Other plugins are massive and can give a program designed for one function the ability to do something entirely different. These creations are then instantly ready for use in your compositions.
If your projects run the gamut from home movies to feature films, then consider suites, which are bulk packages of similar (or not so) add-ons. Packages will often provide a well-rounded assortment of transitions, filters, light and particle generators and/or processing utilities, without the need for those all but incomprehensible AE expressions.
Other packages target more specific ranges. There are bundles that provide only effects and transitions, and others that offer image manipulation, advanced masking and tracking, composting tools, image stabilization, and more. Perhaps you need to correct production issues. There are highly specialized plugins for processing, color correction and more.
Finally, let’s not forget that visuals are only half the story. You can find plenty of processors, filters and converters for cleaning up your audio. Plugins do not exist only for video editing software. In truth, they are everywhere.
How plugins work
Most programs these days have the ability to accept external additions. They essentially reserve the memory registries, variables, etc. that are essential to run the host and free up everything else for other programs or scripts . By allowing these scripts run at a specific time when the program loads, an application can add to or, in some instances, replace the current operating functions.
Installation usually is as simple as running an installer file, or just moving the plugin files into a specified folder within the program’s directory. The third party vendor will always provide installation instructions along with their product. Activation is usually done through a digital code that must be entered the first time you use an effect in the package, or through linking to a remote server for verification.
Potential issues and how to avoid them
There can be pitfalls when using such products. The creator of the host program does not guarantee compatibility and functionality, even when they themselves have created the plugin. Plugins may not work properly (or at all) with every version of the core program. They may introduce bugs and quirks. These issues may take weeks or months to be resolved after a host application update. Indeed, there is no promise that they will ever be fixed.
Additionally, if you ever pass your project onto another computer without the plugin installed, any work that relies on the plugin will be disabled (sometimes without telling you). Some plugins will introduce “features” that you may not like, or may not be available for your operating system. On rare occasions, they may simply not agree with a piece of hardware in your specific computer.
There may also be support issues. If something goes wrong, your host applications tech support will probably blame it on the plugin, whether it is causing the issue or not. The plugin creator will then tell you that they are “working with the vendor to resolve the issue”, leaving you to figure out a solution on your own. Even uninstallation can be an issue if the plugin installation process was poorly implemented.
For example, we recently had an issue in my office where a particular plugin would not run after a host update. Contacting both vendors provided no resolution. The simple solution (which we discovered on our own) was to take the plugin file out of the sub-folder that the plugin installer created and place it directly into the host’s “plugins” folder proper. Magic!
Be prepared to troubleshoot
The bottom line is that you must remember and accept the fact that plugins are functions not officially supported by the creator of the core application, who will never support nor guarantee the operation of such systems. They only provide the ability for third-party vendors to create such devices; they do not exercise any control what is done with such access.
Don’t be deterred by all these red flags though. We’re simply being thorough. There are advantages to third-party vendors as well. The plugins are often very inexpensive compared to what they provide. Third party vendors are often smaller and willing to help whenever and wherever they can. While they may respond slower than desired to core program updates, they may roll out enhancements to their plugin faster than expected. Typically, they are also very open to suggestions. They usually take constructive criticism seriously, as they are focused on their very small niche products for revenue.
Weighing the options
Prices for plugins range rather wildly. Don’t let a low price make you think the plugin isn’t good. Likewise, don’t let a high price drive you off. A single effect can be free and can max out at about $100. Packages typically start at about $50 and can run into the several hundred dollar range. Suites may be into the thousands or even have subscription pricing, which is great for that short-term high-profile project. When it comes to features, obviously there is plenty of overlap. You will find many similar effects from multiple companies, and people who swear by each of them in turn.
When deciding which company to purchase from, you’ll simply have to compare and see which workflow you are most comfortable with, and which gives you the results you are looking for. Weigh your options. Do not buy a suite when a single plugin will do. Save your money for the next necessity. However, if you manage to work a slightly bigger package than you need into a required purchase for a project, then you will have even greater resources to draw on next time.
How to get started
If you’ve never tried using plugins before, our advice is to skip trial versions at first. Look for a few free plugins that will provide a function you might want and start with them. Look for ones that provide simple conveniences. For example, something that adds one-button export of a still image in After Effects is a great tool. Once you are comfortable with the concept, you will begin to see where your needs lie and how well they work for you.
Trial versions are better for comparing similar systems from multiple vendors because not all plugins are created equal. Some may provide better results or process faster. Even with similar results, one might have a user interface design that you prefer. It never hurts to compare similar products and find which works best for you. The trials are there for you to evaluate not only if you need the plugin, but also if it produces a value and quality that is better than the source program or other similar plugins.
We also recommend avoiding the massive bundles when first starting, as they can be easily overwhelming and you may never end up discovering their full potential. However, when you are experienced with plugins, the bundles can provide the excessive flexibility that the smaller packages alone might not. You will often find you already have a tool you didn’t know you needed. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts.
Discover the joy of plugins
When you are at the point when you are searching for plugins for something specific you’ll realize that you can’t live without them, and wonder how you got along in the past living with only what the host vendor provided. You’ll take your abilities to a whole new level, providing you with happier clients and more of that precious free time.
Contributors to this article include Peter Zunitch and the Videomaker Editorial Staff.
Disagree with our picks? Think we missed something great? Tell us about it in the forums.