Plugins for Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom, PSP & others


Plug-Talk #004

An Interview with Jeff Butterworth from AlienSkin

Plug-Talk is a a series of interviews that give you a better idea about the people behind the scenes of the Photoshop plugin business.



Can you please tell something about yourself?

I love Parrano cheese. A good combination is Parrano cheese, and Pumpernickel bread.

I also love the beauty and power of Mathematics.


How did you get into developing Photoshop plugins and how did Alienskin get started?

I dropped out of computer science graduate school to start the company. I didn’t have any money or business experience. What an idiot! The first project failed and I desperately needed to make a product quickly. A plug-in seemed like small product, so I decided to make that. I had no idea how complicated plug-ins actually are and I had never written a Macintosh program in my life. But I figured it out and eventually got the company off the ground. It is amazing what you can do when financial disaster is looming.


Typical dialog of a Alienskin plugin


Does Alienskin do things differently than other companies? In which ways?

I try to keep the atmosphere pretty relaxed around here. Everyone works hard, but not because I yell at them. We just enjoy making great software. If you have fun at what you do then hard work isn’t painful.


Which of your products do you consider the most important?

Eye Candy 5: Impact is our most important product because it is the direct descendant of the product that started Alien Skin Software. It contains our most well known effects, such as Perspective Shadow, Bevel, and Gradient Glow. It will probably continue to be our best selling product because it is needed by a wide range of graphic designers.

I personally enjoyed working on and playing with some of our other products. Some of my favorites are simulations of the natural world, such as Animal Fur from Eye Candy 5: Textures, Rust from Eye Candy 5: Nature, and Lightning from Xenofex. I’m amazed at how well Smart Fill from Image Doctor can erase objects from pictures. It’s great to be able to improve a picture by erasing my ex-wife from it!


Some time ago you gave away Eye Candy 3 for free to promote EyeCandy 4000. It turned out as a bad decision. Can you please tell us more about it?

The idea was to get attention by giving away our old product. That part of the plan worked. Tens of thousands of people downloaded the free Eye Candy 3. The second part of the plan was that we would get a lot of those people to upgrade to Eye Candy 4000. That part didn’t work so well. The problem was that Eye Candy 3 was a great product. Even though Eye Candy 4000 was much better, Eye Candy 3 worked well enough for most people’s needs. We were competing with ourselves and it is difficult to compete against a free product. Like many companies at that time, we learned the painful lesson that giving away products for free is not a good business model. I’m happy to say that Eye Candy 3 is far in the past. It doesn’t work on modern computers.


The lightning effect of Alienskin Xenofex can be seen on the left side.
The less realistic lighting on the right side comes from a non-Alienskin plugin.


What was the idea behind splitting Eye Candy 4000 into three different products?

Eye Candy got larger every time we upgraded it. It went from 6 to 10 to 21 to 23 filters. This made each upgrade take longer to make than the last one. I think that Eye Candy 4000 took over 18 months to create. That is just too long for a little company to wait between product releases. Also, the size of the product was making it lose focus. At first it was all about graphic design, like drop shadow, bevel, and glow. But as it grew it started to encompass textures and natural phenomena. It became harder to explain to customers what the product was about. By breaking Eye Candy 5 into smaller products we are able to get each one done faster, focus each one on a single topic, and sell them at a reasonable price.


Alienskin is a major plugin company and without a doubt produces some of the best plugins that are available. Nevertheless, are there products from other plugin companies that you are impressed with or like particularly?

Sure! There are so many interesting graphics problems out there that one company can’t solve them all. I think that Knoll Light Factory does beautiful lens flares and science fiction special effects. We like it so much that we resell it on our web site. I also like all the products from AV Brothers. They make a beautiful page curl plug-in.


I think you suggested to Adobe to allow filter plugins to access pixels outside of selections. Did you also influence them on other plugin issues? Are there still plugins features you would like Adobe to include?

Yes, we probably did have an influence on Adobe allowing filters to access pixels outside of the selection. We had to do some ugly hacking to make effects like Gradient Glow work before Adobe made that change. Aside from that, I don’t think we have had much effect on Adobe’s development plans.

We would like Adobe to let third party filters work as live effects, like the layer effects built into Photoshop. We would also like them to allow a single plug-in file to contain translations for multiple languages. We have mentioned these ideas to Adobe, but I have no idea whether they will ever implement them. That is ok though. I think that the current plug-in standard is powerful enough for our purposes.


Examples of the 10 filters from Eye Candy 5: Impact


How did the plugin market change during the last decade and how do you see the future of Photoshop plugins?

In the late 1990s some plug-in companies got big because of venture capital investors. Examples are Metacreations, Extensis, Xaos Tools, and Vertigo. They poured money into marketing, magazine ads, and trade shows. This helped bring attention to the plug-in industry, which was nice. All of the self-funded plug-in companies, like Alien Skin Software, benefited from the exposure. However, it gave the incorrect impression that plug-ins are a huge lucrative industry. It is a fun and interesting industry, but it can’t support giant companies that want to go public.

Now that those companies have faded away or become more realistic, the plug-in industry has returned to what it was before the late 1990s. It is again a bunch of small fun companies making specialized products. I think it will always be like that. The big host application companies will never be interested in making the niche products that plug-in companies create. And if we weren’t around, who would come up with all the new feature ideas for the host application companies?


What are your plans for the future?

We are shifting our focus toward digital photography. Our next Photoshop plug-in for the Eye Candy 5 series will make photographs look like works of art created by hand. We will simulate different media such as oil paint and colored pencil.

We are also working on a product that will increase the resolution of images while keeping them clear and sharp. After those products, we will upgrade Image Doctor. The new version will support 16-bit images. I can’t give many details, but the new Image Doctor will do an even better job of touching up photographs.


Anything else that you would like to tell the world?

If I could give one piece of advice to the young people of today, it would be this. If you have been drinking heavily, drink some water before you go to bed!


This interview was conducted by Harald Heim from The Plugin Site in July 2005.


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