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A Chat With Jim Tierney, President of Digital Anarchy

by Grant Friedman

on July 9, 2009

in Interviews

This week I had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Digital Anarchy President Jim Tierney. Jim’s company Digital Anarchy develops many of the Photoshop Plug-ins that have been featured on this website. I’ve used many of them and have really enjoyed his products. In this interview Jim discusses a wide variety of topics including everything from how plug-ins are perceived in the design community to how to start a company in the midst of a recession. This is definitely a good read for anyone wanting to learn more about getting started in the tech industry.

Jim, thank you so much for participating in this interview. I have really enjoyed working with your products and I know my readers have enjoyed them as well. Can you begin by telling us a little about your background? Where are you from? How did you get your start in design and software development?

I started off doing print graphic design, after mistakenly getting a degree in Economics (don’t let your children get Economics degrees). At the time Photoshop was at 2.0 and was just starting to be used seriously. In fact, the head of the graphic design department at Cal State Northridge told me I couldn’t use computers because that’s not what was being used in the real world. Except for the fact my day job was in a corporate design department where we did nothing BUT use Photoshop and Illustrator all day (and PowerPoint… but you know… I was young and needed the money).

Anyways, so I became enamored of Kai’s Power Tools, which was more or less the first set of plug-ins for Photoshop, and started going to conferences where he was speaking. Eventually meeting him and bunch of other folks from HSC Software (which became MetaTools which became MetaCreations, etc.). This lead to getting a job as a QA Engineer for KPT, Bryce, KPT Goo, Final Effects (first After Effects plugin set) and a number of other very cool products, especially for the mid-90s. It was an amazingly cool company with a lot of very smart people that was utterly dysfunctional. So I left after two years to become the 5th employee of Total Training. At the time they were developing a plug-in set for After Effects and that’s what I was working on. They eventually sold that to Adobe and I went to Cycore, another AE plug-in developer. I’ve worked on a LOT of After Effects plug-ins.

Tell us a little about your company Digital Anarchy. How did Digital Anarchy get its start? Where are you based and how long have you been in business?

Digital Anarchy was a description of the internet that appeared in Wired. I forget who the article was about that said it. Seemed like a good name, and, importantly, I got the domain.

After leaving Cycore I did the dot com thing for a short period, working for some absurd company that was paying me too much. After it became clear they were headed for fuckedcompany.com, I hired a friend to write a set of After Effects plug-ins. I got laid off two weeks before we were supposed to ship, which worked out perfectly. We released Text Anarchy at NAB 2001 and we were off and running.

We started off in San Francisco and 8 years later are still here. It’s a good place for Anarchists. :-)

I have often mentioned your products on this website. Can you tell us a little about your line of products? What are they? What are their capabilities? And how can a designer use them to improve their workflow?

3D Invigorator allows you to create 3D Logos and Text. These are the most common things that 2D designers want to in 3D. Invigorator makes it exceptionally easy to create great looking 3D designs. It’s mostly stuff that’s impossible to do in CS4 and the best part is it works in any version of Photoshop. You don’t need CS4 Extended.

ToonIt creates cartoon, illustration, and painterly effects. You have a wide variety of presets to choose from and dozens of parameters allow you to customize it to your liking. You can set up the effect easily and quickly make adjustments and modifications… whether you’re going for a cartoon, an etched drawing, or stained glass. This just recently got 5 stars from Photoshop User, so we’re excited about that.

Primatte Chromakey allows photographers to use one of the leading film/video technologies for doing chromakey (blue/greenscreen work). It’s very powerful and easy to use. The next version which is coming soon is aimed at photographers that are doing high volume where they need automated keying. Look for more info about this in the near future.

Backdrop Designer is designed to work alongside Primatte, but can be used by itself to create cool backgrounds. It simulates the look of muslin drapes, which are traditionally used as photography backgrounds. It’s resolution independent so the textures and backgrounds can be rendered to any size.

You can get more info, trial downloads, and tutorials at our web site: www.digitalanarchy.com.

Photoshop plug-ins and filters can be very useful but sometimes it seems that they have developed a bum rap among the design elite for making things “too easy.” How do you go about convincing people that filters and plug-ins are not a crutch and are ok to use?

It really depends on how you use them. Usually you can go much deeper into them to create things that would be difficult or very time consuming to do by hand. How much is your time worth? If you spend 30 minutes messing around with layers, blend modes, built-in Photoshop filters, etc. vs. 5 minutes applying a filter, I wouldn’t say that’s smart design. Especially if your client comes in and wants changes. But, yeah, some people are a little too reliant on the presets that ship with most plug-ins. There’s a certain level of user that really wants presets, so we always have them… but we always try to give users enough control that they can get in there and create some unique effects fairly easily.

Some filters allow you to do things that are simply impossible with Photoshop. 3D Invigorator is a good example of this. If you want 3D text or logos, your only real options are to get 3D Invigorator or go into a 3D program.

You also have to consider how much time you want to devote to any particular element. If you’re on a deadline or a given element is just a small part of the design, sometimes you can just apply a filter, select a preset and be done with it. Again, it really just comes down to how you use plug-ins. Like almost everything, including Photoshop itself, they can be used for good or evil. (ok, so maybe bad design isn’t exactly evil… but people on the street might look at you askew and say ‘oh, he’s one of _those_ designers’ and shun you. You don’t want to be shunned.)

I discovered Digital Anarchy while searching for alternatives to Photoshop’s Lens Flare tool. I found a YouTube video demonstrating the capabilities of Knoll Light Factory and have loved using it ever since. Can you tell us why Knoll Light Factory is so much better than the default Photoshop Lens Flare tool?

Uh, perhaps because the PS Lens Flare hasn’t been updated since version 0.9? John wrote the original one for Photoshop. After selling Photoshop to Adobe, he didn’t revisit it until he was at ILM and needed a photon torpedo for one of the Star Trek movies. So he wrote what is now Knoll Light Factory.

Aside from Star Trek I’ve noticed Knoll Light Factory used in several television series and featured films. How does it make you feel when you see your product used in so many awesome ways?

It’s always great to see our products being used successfully. Whether it’s a feature film or a photographer telling us how he couldn’t live without Primatte or something. We make the tools so people will use them, so it’s definitely a high when we see great work being created. Of course, the flip side is that we REALLY want feedback. If people aren’t happy with the product, let us know. That’s the only way we can improve them.

Digital Anarchy formed from the ashes of the Dot Com Bubble of the late 1990’s. In your experience, is a recession a good time to start a business? How have you applied what you learned from the Dot Com Bust to the current economic situation? Do you have any advice for young designers/programmers who might be concerned about the future?

It can be. Good resources and talent tend to be cheaper during a recession. There’s no way we could’ve started up in 1999 with dot.coms paying people crazy sums of money to tech support, much less programming.

But each recession is different. The dot com recession mostly just affected the tech centers…. SF, Boston, etc. The rest of the country was doing ok, taking out home equity loans to buy SUVs, software, and whatever.

This recession is different. It’s much broader, in that everyone is being affected. So it may take longer to come out of it. If you do start a company, you may need to have a bit more capital because of potential length of the bottom. That said, things seem to be improving. So we’ll see… folks are taking longer to buy and they’re a little more likely to wait for a sale.

As for the future… things will recover. Persistence and staying on top of your skills is key. If you’re having trouble finding a job use the time to work on your skill set. It’s no harder now than it’s ever been to start a web based business. Find something interesting, design/program a web site around it, and if nothing else you can use it for your portfolio. If you’re going to start a business you need to stay positive and have faith it’ll eventually comes together.

The other key bit of advice is get out there and network. Go to parties where people in your industry hang out, go to tradeshows, hang out in forums and try to set up beer nights for anyone local. Just get out there. The more people you know the more likely you’ll run into someone who’s company is hiring.

What sort of things can we expect to see from Digital Anarchy in the future? Are there any new and exciting plug-ins being developed that we should keep a look out for?

Cool Stuff! ;-) We have a new version of Primatte coming out, some new materials and textures for 3D Invigorator and we have a couple cool things in development that aren’t quite far enough along to talk about yet. But we’ll give you guys a heads up. We’ll be looking for beta testers at some point… perhaps some of your readers might want to help us out.

Finally, can you name 3 other people that you would like to see interviewed on this website?

Lol… uh… let’s see… Corey Barker from NAPP is an interesting guy. As is Colin Smith of Photoshop Café. Rebecca Gurian from Canon, she’s the product manager for Canon’s Studio Solution which is their new application/workflow for pro photographers. Looks cool, be interested to hear more about it. And if you can track down Kai Krause… ;-)

Visit The Digital Anarchy Blog.

About Grant Friedman

Grant Friedman is a graphic design, blogger, and author. In addition to being the founder of this website, Grant is also the editor of Psdtuts, one of the world's most popular tutorial websites.