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6 Common (but not Obvious) Nodes for Nuke Beginners

6 Common (but not Obvious) Nodes for Nuke Beginners

These 6 Common nodes for Nuke beginners are essential for your VFX compositing.

The Foundry’s Nuke is a node-based compositing software. This, as the same states, means that your primary tools for compositing CG sequences, keying footage, removing rigs, and all other functions are nodes. Nodes are essentially small mathematic machines. You put your input through them (with its given channels red, green, blue, alpha, and many more in some cases) and it manipulates these pixels in some way. 

The Foundry’s reference guide is a library of nodes and one of your most valuable resources when learning Nuke. It separates nodes into four categories: 2D Nodes, 3D Nodes, Utility Nodes, and Plug-in Nodes. Altogether there are around 375 nodes listed on The Foundry’s website. A tradeoff of Nuke’s incredible power is its complexity. 

For beginners, it oftentimes comes down to learning what tools you have at your disposal before you can achieve a given composite. The capstone nodes such as read, write, merge, transform, constant, roto, keyer, etc. are like your hammer, nails, and measuring tape. They aren’t on this list because knowing them is as given and necessary as being able to save your script.   

1. Shuffle

Among the list of Nuke’s strongest capabilities is the way it handles channels. If you’re coming from After Effects, you’ll be pleased to hear that track mattes don’t exist. Instead, you have complete control over your alpha channel (and any other channels) just as you do your red, green, and blue.

The shuffle node is one of the first steps to working with channels in Nuke. You can rearrange and swap your data between eight different channels, fill channels with black or white, and even create new channels from scratch. That final bit is one of the great powers of the shuffle node. With it, you can sort and filter around CG render layers and passes or certain components of a scene you might want to use later such as plate.red, plate.blue, and plate.green.

2. Ramp

Ramp is very simple: it’s the rectangular gradient node of Nuke (radial is its obvious cousin). Though it’s a basic node with a basic function, its application is very broad. Especially when used as a mask on nodes such as grade or glow to fade them across a direction, ramp can often give you a quick and dirty extra level of control.

Ramp is one of the nodes where you’ll find people say, “just throw a ____ on it”. This is how you know a tool in Nuke is great for a really simple touch to bring a composite home without overcomplicating things.

3. Premult

When learning Nuke in college, premult was always this unknown and mystical force. Something look funny? Try a premult. Your edges are off? Maybe a premult. It’s a node that everyone uses yet can be difficult to fully grasp. 

In lay terms premult explains itself: it’s pre multiplication. What premult does is multiple an inputs rgb by its alpha. So, if you have an alpha of 1 which is fully opaque and multiply your rgb (0.9,0.7,0.6) by it, then nothing changes. On the other end, if you have an alpha of 0 and do the same, all the values become 0. The rule of the thumb is to premultiply your images before merging and unpremultiply (using the unpremult node) them before performing any color operations. 

4. Card3D

Card3D should really be called Card2.5D. It’s a transform node which unlocks the z-axis and places your input on a card without the need for a full 3D scene. This is a node that will be very familiar to After Effects users as it behaves similarly to all of the “3D” inside of After Effects with the layers on their own free transforming planes.  

Card3D is used to cheat 3D effects such as parallax and zooms with 2D layers and even stock footage like you’d find here on ActionVFX. Once you start working with more complicated scenes, however, with matte painting layers, stock footage layers, and cg elements, you’ll want to build a full 3D scene within Nuke.

5. Profile

On the surface, the profile node seems advanced and like a under-the-hood consideration that beginners may not want to worry about. If you get your hands dirty with script optimization and the inner-workings of Nuke, however, you’ll find it easier to learn proper habits with advanced techniques. 

The profile node is a full-on visual diagnostic tool that drops right in your node graph. As with any other node in Nuke, wherever you place it is the input it will read. If you have a portion of a script that’s really bogging down your composite, you can drop a profile node in and analyze which components are the most resource intensive. This can help you optimize your project and know what nodes you may need to toggle on and off in order to work faster when focusing on other elements.

6. Time Offset

One of the most difficult things to get used to in Nuke is the absence of a true timeline. Where some visual effects and compositing programs take from non-linear editing software for their UI and keyframing especially, manipulating time in Nuke comes down to your dope sheet, curve editor, and a single frame graph for your viewer. 

When it comes to adjusting in and out times, for example, it’s not as simple as dragging starts and ends of individual layers. There are several nodes dedicated to time in Nuke, but one of the best places to start is time offset. The theme at this point should be clear: Nuke node names are usually very simple and self-explanatory.

Time offset lets you shift clips back and forth by a set number of frames. This is important to adjust timings of elements in your comp, especially when used in tandem with either frame range or your read node’s built-in range controls. The biggest takeaway from this node and using time in Nuke is that you need to get used to frames instead of time as a beginner.
Nuke has so many nodes to choose from and many with overlapping functions but they’re all worth a look. The best approach is one of extreme curiosity. You can flip through The Foundry’s reference guide and read about ones that sound cool, or just start dropping nodes down in a comp and see what they do in different situations. If you’re ever unsure, there’s even a question mark icon in the top right of every node’s properties panel which will take you to the reference guide, so get comping!  

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