Sugar demons

Sugar Demons Sketches
I was in a draw everything phase, so I tried sketching this idea for fun.

Sugar has a pernicious influence on emotions and willpower. I hadn’t pinpointed the cause to sugar until very recently, because it’s in a colossal percentage of our food–even after ditching soda entirely I still had a metaphorical sugar IV hooked up, consisting of anything from (“healthy”) granola bars and snacks to desserts. It takes a lot of work to escape the clutches of sugar, especially the more refined kinds, but man oh man is it worth it. I’m not here to tell you about all the health benefits, because you’ve heard them all plenty. Instead what I’m here today to look at is the impact sugar has on your mind and your emotions.

I stumbled onto these demons during one of my long-term personal habit experiments. After months of traveling and spending time with family, where I ate most of what was in front of me (still avoiding wheat when possible)—which meant plenty of sugary things—I decided to do an n=1 experiment of cutting out sugar almost entirely. Aside from small amounts of honey in tea and chocolate (dark as sin) from time to time I consumed no sugar, not even from fruit. I started the experiment with the intention of getting food related willpower under control, as eating anything with some refined sugar in it earlier in the day would wreck my ability to not eat whatever I was within reach when I was feeling hungry, and I felt hungry all the time. A dangerous problem to have when baked goods were in the house, especially those little cookies from Trader Joe’s, nom nom.

And thus the experiment began and quickly proved to do have a huge positive impact on said willpower. I felt hungry almost only around mealtimes within a few days and didn’t have any control issues with snacking or not snacking. On that subject it helps massively to not have whatever the offending food(s) is in the house if you’re going to do something like this (also cook more, eat out less). I’m pretty sure this experiment leaned me out too, but I wasn’t tracking that, so I can’t say for sure.

In general I felt great for the couple months that I was sticking 100% to the no sugar experiment. Aside from the food related changes above I noticed a general ability to focus more often, stay focused, and to take care of tasks immediately that I’d much rather avoid (dishes, I’m looking at you)—under normal circumstances procrastination would win out at least 50% of the time, now it was (conservatively) under 20%. I noticed these changes, but I wrote them off as improved self-discipline at the time. It’s a challenge to observe changes and attribute them to the correct variable in the midst of the experiment, with so many factors present.

And thus, while not intentionally, I ended the experiment one day when I had some fancy, and quite sugary, chocolates, then the demons surfaced. That’s when I finally connected the dots, years of dots.

Immediately after that dose of sugar I felt so many old and familiar emotions—ones I had previously attributed to random fluctuations in mood…or maybe they were just normal parts of my personality? I found myself getting agitated and irritated at the smallest slights. My irritability threshold, typically spectacularly high, plummeted and it was trivially easy for me to get annoyed, frustrated and otherwise bothered by mine and anyone else’s actions. Sugar was making me grumpy person and bad human being.

As expected my willpower also drained away, both with food and any activities important enough to activate resistance. I also became easily bored and distracted, even flighty, and found it hard to stay with any one activity/task. Back when I played video games heavily the flightiness would manifest as an inability to play any one game for more than 20-30 minutes at a time. I’d get frustrated with my performance or get bored then switch to another one, hoping to drop into a focused state and failing over and over.

There’s one anecdotal story I have that illustrates how much sugar wrecks focus: for years I played a competitive online game, League of Legends, every day. I was a competent player most of the time and usually was regarded well by teammates, including an old five person team I played with regularly. In some games though I played terribly: getting myself killed in stupid and avoidable ways, farming poorly, working sluggishly with my team and displaying a general inability to stay focused. For the most part I thought I just had occasional cases of the derps, but even then I noticed a trend: my worst performances tended to coincide with eating some sugary granola bars or some dessert before playing. I thought that sugar might have something to do with my lapses in skill, but I was eating it regularly and thus had no way to verify my suspicions.

From that same anecdotal experience it was also those same times that I was snappy, mean, and otherwise dismissive to my mother when she would try to get my attention while I was playing. In general having my focus broken irritates me a bit, but my reactions to being distracted were more severe with fresh sugar coursing through my system. Sorry mom.

And now six plus years later I finally do this no sugar experiment and it all became clear, sugar was the culprit in destroying my focus and bringing forth negative emotions and making them harder to manage at the same time. As seductive as treats are, I’m glad to now avoid them 95% of the time. I’m a better person without sugar, more focused, more disciplined, more calm, and just generally a nicer person to be around.

I got into this no sugar experiment testing for health benefits and they’re there, yup. But the emotional and psychological benefits of a sugar free* existence have been what clinched it for me. I choose to avoid sugar because it helps me be the best human I can be in my relationships and interactions; and because I can more easily choose to do and focus on the work that matters. Those are worth more to me than anything else, and thus the decision is simple: don’t let the sugar demons get the light of day.

* This isn’t absolutely a cut and dry thing, as nice as that would be to explain. The small doses of honey and chocolate I have sometimes don’t seem to trigger the problems. And sometimes desserts, perhaps because they’re accompanied with a heavy meal, don’t seem to have the same impact either. Fruit also seems to be generally okay in this context. For myself it’s typically the heavily refined kinds of sugar (high fructose corn syrup and its ilk) that have the greatest impact, doubly so when wheat is in the picture. While this specific experiment ended years ago, I’m still testing these ideas to see what creates problems for me and what I can consume without some miniature Jekyll effect.

Context and complexity

Ido Portal uses the phrase, “complexity is king,” when talking about how to become a better mover. The gist being that ascending complexity is required for the nervous system to remain challenged enough to experience growth as you improve.

Complexity covers the what and how of your training, the practical stuff: movement selection, sets and reps, intensity, rest times, etc. All of those details are important, but right now I’m thinking more about the psychology of movement. What helps maintain motivation? Why do you want to be moving? How do you want to be moving?

I’m in the midst of reading the book Ungifted, by Scott Barry Kaufman. The book examines intelligence, giftedness, and how we define and measure them—and more importantly, how the labels effect the kids who receive them. I’ve just reached the point where he discusses how passion and excitement, or the lack thereof that’s common in academics, influence performance and achievement. Part of the problem with say, learning math, can be that the lessons are decontextualized and presented as abstract ideas. But abstraction removes context and makes it harder to relate what we’re learning to how we might use the knowledge in our lives.

We need context. Kaufman cites studies where students were taught math either in a traditional environment, or by embedding the lessons into a context, in this case as games. The students who learned through games were far more engaged, retained more knowledge, and actually enjoyed learning&mdah;even though the material was exactly the same in both cases, only the context changed.

What strikes me about those studies is that this process of abstraction is exactly what is done to movement and fitness. Fitness has been decontextualized (if you want I have a more introspective tangent on this topic over here) to the point where…well, what’s the point of the exercises exactly? What problem are they solving right now?

I believe that by making movement solve present problems, rather than focusing exclusively on future improvement, that motivation, persistence, and even purpose will naturally come from the activity itself. No need for imposing self-discipline that inevitably results in burn-out.

To take Ido’s phrase and tweak it, make context king.

What does making context king look like when applied to movement training? I’m still exploring that question, but from my own experiences I know that parkour (obstacles in the environment), martial arts (an attack/defense scenario), and dance (music or internal impulse) all create an immediate context for movement. In each one the movements have meaning and purpose. That purpose doesn’t need to be grand, logical, or even real. I enjoy creating movement puzzles that rely on imagination as much as real obstacles. In each case how you move is influenced by your present context, with your success or failure being measured by how you addressed the challenges of that context. You can see and feel the improvements in skill and execution right then, as you’re training. In contrast success via exercise conditioning is measured in future adaptation (strength, speed, weight loss, etc.). While both can be rewarding, the daily, consistent, and tangible improvements in skill can help you focus on enjoying the process of training. And if you’re enjoying the process then training consistently will be easier, leading in the end to the best of both worlds: a stronger and more skillful self.

Make context king.

PS: And a focus on skills and context builds an interest in supplemental conditioning, with a specific focus on improving technique and performance. Then physical conditioning takes its proper place, as an extra aid to move and perform better, not to exercise better.

"Complexity is king"

Doing ANYTHING 100 times will make you sweat, produce lactic acid and feel a burn.


How idiotic to base a whole movement approach on this concept. Capacity is temporary. Anything that is not complex enough does not challenge the nervous system. The nervous system is what you are. What you will have left tomorrow.

Movement complexity is king.

~ Ido Portal

That phrase, “complexity is king” made its way quickly into my mental framework for movement, providing an easy hook for making decisions about what movements to practice and what direction to develop my abilities.

The conventional fitness paradigm holds to a mechanistic view of the body that doesn’t acknowledge the need for complexity of movement. Exercises are selected solely based on what muscles they challenge. But that selection fails to account for challenging the neurological dimension of movement; the coordination and timing of how each part of the body needs to move in order to contribute most effectively to the challenge at hand. Often the greatest gains in strength come from a more efficiently wired, AKA practiced, movement pattern in the brain, not from bigger muscles. We can increase our physical capacities (strength, endurance, power) by moving smarter, not just working harder.

To be clear this doesn’t mean that physical conditioning to improve your capacity for movement isn’t important, but culturally we value it far more than movement quality and skill, which is completely backwards.


The thing about and all those base physiological attributes (strength, endurance, power, aerobic capacity, etc.) is that they have defined ceilings. There’s only so far you can push any of those attributes before you begin to experience greater and greater diminishing returns on your efforts. In an interview with Tim Ferris coach Christopher Sommer made the point that the body can be developed to about 85% capacity, and can be maintained there without being fanatical about your practice. Reaching 95% of your physiological ability is possible, but the moment you let up the body will happily return to that 85% state. Even that 85% state takes years (around four in Sommer’s estimation) of training to reach. Pushing hard to move from 85, to 90, then 95% makes sense if you’re an Olympic athlete, but for rest of us? Not so much. It’s going to be a long process anyway, so why rush towards that ceiling?

Because there’s an alternative that’s more compelling than exercise that just aims to improve your capacity: complexity*. Our body-mind is challenged most when the action in front of us requires intense focus, precision, control or has many linked or interdependent steps. Challenging the mind with increasingly complex demands yields more strength AND more intelligent movement.

*Sommer inspired me to try proper gymnastics training; it’s brutal on the physical conditioning front and is a stellar example of movement complexity. Proof that you can have both, this isn’t some zero sum game.

There’s another name for complexity: movement skill. The amazing thing about developing skill is that there is no skill ceiling. There’s always opportunities to delve deeper into a skill or to expand into a new one. As you move smarter and gain further skills you unlock even more possibilities than you had days, months, and years before. You’re never done learning and improving and that’s a beautiful thing.

Choose complexity. Choose skill.

Changing your relationship to fear

Fear is a tricky. Ultimately unnavoidable in any meaningful endeavor, whether we’re talking business, creative, relationship, or life.

We learn from culture and personal experiences to treat fear as bad, a purely negative experience. Feeling fear is treated as unwelcome, unwanted, and absolutely not a feeling to solicit or risk intentionally.

Yet fear shows up before the most important challenges and worthy objectives we want to conquer. One way to tackle fear is to “feel the fear and do it anyway,” which is an aspect of a good approach to handling fear. Simply by acting in the face of fear you do improve your ability to do the same again the next time.

But even with that it’s possible we’re still treating fear as a negative experience, something to push and suffer through to get to the good stuff.

What if it wasn’t all negative? If experiencing fear was an integral part of the experience? Treating fear as your friend who tells you when something is worthwhile, or where your current boundaries lie—and whether you’re pushing too far or not pushing enough.

Flipping fear from a negative sign to a guidepost for growth is an incredible way to shift the feeling in the moment from discomfort you just want to run away from to a feeling to dance with. Fear may be a challenging dance partner, but that’s the type that forces you to grow the most. By letting go of your need to feel strong, utterly in control, and confident but acting anyway you open up the possibility for the highest experession of yourself. Going with the flow, instead of resisting it can take you to places you would never imagine.

My route into this experience, one which I’m still learning to embrace, is by putting myself in the path of physical fears. When you step up to a jump, try a movement that risks you falling flat on your face, or anything else that triggers a “whoa now, that looks like a bad idea, let’s maybe not do this” response from your lizard brain (the amygdala) you’ve entered a dialogue with your fear. That fear is an adversarial ally, and now it is your task to ask it whether what it’s telling you is a bad idea is just a bad idea because you’re uncomfortable…or because it is genuinely beyond your current abilities or capacities? Through repeated practice the answer each time becomes clearer.

Do that often enough and your fears shift from loathed adversaries to welcomed partners in the process of pursuing your best life.

Growth metrics

We live in a society where what can be measured, the quantitative, is prized above all else. If it can be measured, it can be improved, and there is definitely truth to that. We can always work to improve numbers, times, and ratios.

The problem, in my mind, is that these quantitative metrics of success, health, improvement and what have you tend to suffer from the problems of ceilings, plateaus, and diminishing returns. We improve the amount of reps we can do, weight we can lift, and pounds shed (or gained) often rapidly at first. But as we continue to improve, maintaining that same improvement velocity becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Each human body has certain ranges that it works within; we can push further towards our own personal edges, but the nearer we get the more difficult it becomes to make improvements—often gains are the result of improved technology, not physiology too—plus the odds of regressing or experiencing setbacks that move you further back become increasingly likely as that edge is pushed.

We can benefit greatly from measurement and quantification, for a time, but, like the body, it has limits. If you’re an Olympic or professional athlete and get paid to push to the absolute edges of your specialty, then going through the intense process of inching closer and closer to the true limits of your physical capabilities makes sense. But it also can hurt us. Pro athletes often pay a price for their power in the long-run. If you’re just interested in feeling healthy, awesome and having a body that allows you the freedom to do what you want, then there is a point where any given quantitative metric stops being super useful…or at the very least increasingly frustrating and a source of demotivation when the numbers don’t improve like you want them to. Most of us don’t have pro strength & conditioning coaches watching over us and helping us sail past plateaus that would normally stall us for days, weeks or months.

So what’s the alternative? A combination of things: 1) change what you’re measuring; 2) focus more on qualitative aspects of what you’re doing. In particular the beauty of qualitative measures is their subjectivity and natural fluctuation. So with qualitative questions, we look more at quality of movement, feelings of ease, consistency of ability over time, day-to-day feelings of improvement, how your energy feels, changes in pain points, and most importantly: whether you’re enjoying yourself. Because many of these are subjective there really is no ceiling on them; in fact, they do fluctuate, as the human body does around points of homeostasis, so the goal then isn’t necessarily to improve numbers, but to feel as good or better than you were yesterday.

This also opens the door to a different focus: a focus on skills and challenging yourself. Because while you can measure duration, speed, reps, or weight, the quality of execution is extraordinarily difficult to measure. We can have judges assign numbers to how the gymnast’s routine went, the quality of the chef’s meal, or the beauty and execution of a painting. But those numbers are attempts to approximate a subjective quality. They can attempt to describe it, but that number is not the thing itself, nor the way either the performer or intended audience might feel—a reason why expert judges usually come in panels/groups, to account for the variability inherent in measuring a subjective performance. But while it can be hard for others to accurately judge such things, you tend to have a much better sense of where your performance stands relative to your previous attempts. With that you can focus on improving by your own yardstick and don’t have to worry about competing or matching someone else’s expectations.

Subjective measures are also awesome because then you can ultimately find more useful metrics, the squishy and hard to define ones which have more impact on whether you’re happy or not. Am I improving? Do I feel good in my body? Do I feel energetic? Do I feel free and capable of moving in any way that I want? Am I being challenged enough? Too much?

On top of this, going back to number one, when we look at many of these qualitative measures we can also switch the quantitative ones too, potentially using a more varied selection. So if you’ve made a particular obstacle course, you can time your speed through it, while still noting qualitative aspects (ease, fluidity, mistakes made). You can also keep track of your ability to do certain movements and combining movements together, so from an initial skill how many others can you link? Which flow together best and which need work?

Switching how and what you’re measuring can help you enjoy the process more and also bring awareness to the truly important questions: am I happy? Do I enjoy this? How do I feel? Am I improving, feeling challenged, etc.? Measure improvements, but realize there comes a time when the solution may not be to try harder, but instead to quit measuring, or measure something else.

Life is a subjective experience, how can you put a number on it?

Practical vs. Personal

There is a growing trend in the fitness community towards working out with practicality in mind rather than aesthetics; “functional fitness.” I’ve been part of that movement for a long time and find myself amenable to its premise: fitness is most useful and rewarding when it develops usable skills and attributes that can be applied in daily life. For me, parkour began as exactly that: a practical set of skills to help me escape in the rare event of conflict. Over time parkour’s philosophy etched itself into my being with the saying “être fort pour être utile,” or “be strong to be useful” becoming core to my own philosophy. For many years in my training, that meant that the perceived usefulness of a skill trumped all other considerations, resulting in little exploration of more stylistic and expressive movements.

Still, as I continued my own exploration of movement and took note of the reality of how I actually practiced and what kept my interest, I realized that the practical side wasn’t everything. I slowly began tapping into my creativity—which I originally thought to be non-existent—and I noticed that many skills that gave me immense pleasure and fun to learn didn’t seem to serve any obvious practical purpose. I felt just as alive—sometimes more so—when I was improvising new movements on the fly or making up silly little challenges–just to see what I could do. In all of those moments, the consideration was not “how is this useful?” but instead “is this interesting to me?” It was movement that was personal, creative, and expressive rather than practical.

What I discovered through this newfound creativity as expressed through movement is that we have two perfectly valid reasons to practice something: a practical, outcome-driven approach (so I can move heavy things safely, run quickly to reach my friend who needs help, etc.) and the personal, creative, experimental approach (how graceful can I make this movement? How many ways can I combine these moves? What’d make moving in this spot harder?). I find myself moving between the two all the time–sometimes it’s all practical or all personal; other times it blends–with each approach strengthening the other. Both are necessary to tap into your intrinsic motivation and desire to move .By keeping possibilities open to account for shifts in mood, focus, and preference, it’s easier to avoid getting stuck in a rut of routine or to run into a plateau. So long as you’re improving your skills and having a good time, that’s all that matters.

Just move.

Habits: All-or-Nothing or Everything-in-Moderation?

I was listening to Gretchen Rubin discuss her new book on habits on a podcast. She pointed out that people tend to gravitate towards one of two general approaches towards making habit changes, which can be referred to as all-or-nothing and everything-in-moderation.

There are strong advocates in both camps, arguing either for absolute rules and no deviation whatsoever or the more laissez-faire approach of allowing for some flexibility in behavior using the 8020 rule or another similar system.

The problem comes in when we run into a compelling argument or tactic for behavior change, whether it’s coming highly recommended from a friend, a well-regarded book, or a multitude of other sources and fixate on that tactic as the “right” solution. The reality is that there are as many tactics as there are individuals, and what works for that friend or author may be wrong for you. These aren’t new ideas, but the point that caught my attention is how we try to force habit changes using one of these two approaches when that particular approach may not actually suit our personality at all.

The funny thing is that philosophy and personality can conflict. I’m a good example. I love the idea of flexibility and adapting my behavior to the changing situation, but this rarely works well for me when it comes to creating new habits or removing old ones. If there’s any sort of bend in the rules, my willpower typically fails and I end up bending too much.

Thus, for myself, I find that I’m firmly in the all-or-nothing camp for the bulk of habits, doubly so if we’re talking about food. I was vegan (full story later, promise) for two years in college and never had issues with breaking from that diet, despite constant ribbing at lunch from co-workers about all the meat I was missing out on (honestly, still not sure how I managed to pull this off for two years…I’m such a carnivore). Having an absolute commandment—“thou shalt not break this rule ever—feels surprisingly easy for me. I just say “no, I don’t eat that” and move on, with plenty of willpower to spare.

If you find it easy to set a new rule—as long as it’s black and white with no wiggle room—and stick to it seemingly without effort, you’re probably better suited for all-or-nothing strategies. If you feel constricted by rules without room for any deviation and can follow an 8020 (80% adhering, 20% not) style rule without frequent lapses that edge closer to 5050, then you’re probably more of an everything-in-moderation person.

(Of course, to make this more confusing, these aren’t absolutes. Odds are, there are some arenas where your typically preferred strategy just doesn’t feel right for you.)

Let’s look at the case of me and chocolate. If I buy chocolate and bring it back home, the odds of that bar surviving for two days are slim: I’d say one day…except I know from experience that 80%+ dark chocolate in large doses is so not a wise idea if I want to sleep at night. If I know it is in the house, it’s gonna get eaten. Thus my favorite habit hack for all-or-nothing types, particularly around food, is to not keep anything in the house you are trying to avoid. Shaping the environment in your favor makes maintaining discipline far easier.

In contrast, perhaps your experience with chocolate is different; it’s easy for you to savor a few pieces after dinner, and saving the remainder for the days to come doesn’t require much additional willpower to achieve. In that case, having a specified daily or weekly limit, say two pieces per day or one bar per week, is likely to be more of what you need to stick to the habit.

Neither approach is absolutely right, and neither is wrong. The answer is in what works for you. If you reflect on your own experiences and past successes and failures in changing habits, I bet you can see which of these approaches works better for you in most cases.

The question is: which are you? All-or-nothing? Or everything-in-moderation? Knowing that, you can structure your habits accordingly.

Building a Static Site (with Hugo)

Well, that took longer to complete than expected (as always). After experimenting with Docpad for a while I stumbled onto a number of other static site generators, finally selecting Hugo. Hugo’s speed—it regenerates the whole site (all 140 pages) within ~1.5 seconds—combined with the flexible structure convinced me to give it a go.

Hugo’s speediness is undoubtedly due in part to Go, as in Golang, a newer language originally developed at Google. The beauty of Hugo has been that I’ve not had to become a master of Golang to understand it. Hugo’s templating resembles AngularJS or Handlebars in its love of double curly braces {{ .Title }} and similar setups. Fairly intuitive, although I’m definitely still learning.

For screenshots of the site, head over here or the live site here. Update: all sites I maintain, including this one are currently using Hugo + Netlify.

Design Details

The switch from Wordpress to Hugo is a forward-looking attempt to minimize the amount of maintenance I have to do on the site, and to enable faster changes. While finishing the site took several months—working typically at most an hour a day on it—the process of iterating on the design and testing features was super quick.

Almost all of the testing took place locally, on my computer, and with Hugo’s speedy page regeneration I was able to make changes very quickly, without having to debug strange bits of PHP or Javascript code in the process.

Otherwise I went straight from a super simple hand-drawn mockup of the site structure to building out a prototype HTML version within Hugo.

For a while I had the silly idea of coding all the CSS by hand, but that created resistance and getting started on that part of the project was delayed weeks because of it…then I used Skeleton as a base and everything went a billion times faster.

The bulk of designing was getting the initial layout working within the CSS, done through Stylus, and then tweaking it as needed. All done mobile-first, of course.

The one major pivot was with the grid system. Originally I used Skeleton’s built-in grids, but I wasn’t happy with the way it was working across the entire site, so I switched back to using Jeet, which integrates nicely with Stylus.


What I’m particularly enjoying now is how I can push new posts and changes to the site. I still do all my writing and code locally, testing it without even necessarily needing an internet connection. Once I’ve finalized the new changes all I have to do is use Git to push the newest changes to the server, and a script will automatically run Hugo to regenerate the folder. Fantastic.

Future Plans

The one major downside to a static site is the lack of a search function. Right now using a Google custom search is a good work around…but Hugo now supports data files (JSON specifically), which should in theory allow for an intuitive site search that still doesn’t require a database. We’ll see soon(ish) enough.

All in all, while there’s certainly a learning curve, I highly recommend Hugo for building a CMS-free site. While I’m enjoying Ghost for this blog, there’s a distinct possibility of transitioning this to Hugo as well in the future. Futzing with logins and updates just gets in the way of writing when you’re doing this solo.


Yup, decided to transition this site onto Hugo as well, with a new design! In some ways less fancy than the original theme (no jQuery animation tricks added as of yet) but I like it. There’s plenty of work to be done around making pagination prettier, adding some CSS animations, and gradual tweaks to typography and styling, but it’s a good start.

Larger update (2019 edition)

Much has changed in terms of the plumbing of this site and my others. While all of them are still built using Hugo, since writing this I’ve transitioned all of my hosting to Netlify, and as part of that transition changed the build process to be based on their Victor Hugo boilerplate. As part of that transition the two major changes have been to my CSS pre-processor, from Stylus to PostCSS (I love the modularity, though sometimes getting specific plugins to function can be finnicky) and my task runner and builder from Gulp to Webpack. Overall I’m happy with the new setup, as now I can simply push changes to my git repo staged, in this case, on Bitbucket and Netlify automatically rebuilds the site each time it detects a change, plus gives me logs of errors if anything in the build process fails. So far so good, with the only significant challenge I’m finding with this method is cleanly updating the Victor Hugo boilerplate files (package.json and sometimes the webpack config) without losing my own changes to the tooling. Doesn’t happen often but it does add a few hours of tinkering when it does cause issues, but that’s the life of anything that relies on Node packages for functionality.

90 Days of Motion Graphics (Project 5)

I won’t usually put in video editing stuff, as it tends to be straightforward. However today was a bit of playing around with fonts for the intro along with some subtle music syncing to a short clip.

…or is it? I’ve been busier with After Effects now that I’ve officially begun helping with the VFX side of the film I referenced in the last post. For that I’ve signed an NDA so the actual projects and experiments I’m working on right now for it I’m not sharing here.

What I can share are some of tutorials I’m working through to learn my way around certain effects which I’ve been modifying to suit the desired style—currently working on titles.

With that, here’s project 5, following on Video Co-pilot disintegration tutorial.

Project 5

Time to complete: ~2 hours

(Note: in this case the above demo is for a simplified version of the final tutorial effect. There were a bunch of further steps to add particles, smoke, and green screen compositing that I didn’t wrap up).

The escalating complexity of a project like this is amazing. The final composition for the video there had approximately 12 layers, with many of those containing pre-compositions with even more layers inside them. For the effect I’m actually creating for titles right now there are around 20 layers at least, and that’s without creating a title fade effect yet, which will likely double that.

I’m gaining massive respect for professional visual effects artists through all of this, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible with After Effects…let alone programs like Cinema 4D or Nuke.

In a couple months I’ll be able to show the real results of the team’s collective efforts on the film. ;)

90 Days of Motion Graphics (Project 4)

This project drifts away from motion graphics towards visual effects. I’ve been participating and helping with an indie film over the past several months, including editing. We’re working our way through that but there’s also a huge amount of VFX work to be done with it being a sci-fi film.

So this project of learning motion graphics and After Effects coincides nicely with that, and presents a fantastic challenge to apply the skills to something more real.

With that, I worked on creating a shockwave effect, based on this tutorial. I doubt I’ll use it specifically for the movie, but the techniques have potential applications for sci-fi effects.

Project 4

Time to Complete: 2:30 hours over two days.


After Effects, from a learning perspective, is an odd tool/skillset. In many other programs learning the fundamentals of the interface and how to create an efficient workflow is often much of the actual challenge. All the extra tools, effects, filters, and such are just bonuses to be learned over time.

But with After Effects it seems that a critical piece of being good at it is understanding the bevy of effects you have to work with, how to manipulate them to achieve a desired effect, and how to combine effects together to create compositions with greatly magnified complexity.

This project is a perfect example. The entire thing is built around one effect, Fractal Noise (anyone who’s used Photoshop a bit would recognize them as Render Clouds). Animating the fractal and then applying a Polar Coordinates effect to transform a linear effect into a radial one…

…and then continuing to stack on effects, duplicate versions of the shockwave; layering on more and more complexity with each pass.

There’s a unexpectedly large room for creativity here even in the subtle modifications on what are basically generative algorithms. I’m quite curious to see how I’ll be able to push creative boundries within this frame as time goes on.