What sort of thing are you looking for? AE is deceptively powerful and you can do many things with the tools that come with it.
You're right, I'll be lucky if I can explore its possibilities.
Here's how you place a value on plug-ins. If the manufacturer offers a demo version then download the demo and give it a try. Just about anything that can be done with the plug-in can be done with the tools that are included in After Effects. The first step is to see what the plug-in can-do. Let's take Magic Bullet for color grading as an example. This tool gives you the opportunity to explore and create different "looks" for your shot in just a few seconds. Any look that you can create with Magic Bullet can be created with the color tools and a few other tricks using the standard AE effects. It just takes longer. A lot longer. Try to duplicate the effect without the plug-ins, figure out how long that takes, multiply that by what you're worth per hour (that's a lot different for a hobbyist than a professional but you still should be able to place a value on your time), do the math and figure out if purchasing the plug-in will save you money. That is all there is to it. I own a bunch of plug-ins and every single one of them has saved me, or rather made me more money and given me more time with my family and so they have been worth it. Because of the style of my work there are also a bunch of plug-ins that I have not purchased even though the things they do look really cool and I would like to play around with them when I can.
I was just taken aback at how expensive they all were. Like $300 bucks a pop. Seems like video editing has a particularly high threshold for entry.
Seems like video editing has a particularly high threshold for entry.
It depends on how you view it. After Effects is a professional-level video tool. I make my living using Adobe's video products. It's going to cost money to start a company. The software, computers, and plugins cost a bit. However, they cost a lot less than stocking a garage with the appropriate tools for opening a car repair business!
The Creative Suite used to cost thousands of dollars (before the subscription model) and it costs hundreds of hours in education before you can be proficient at After Effects too, so $300 is nothing compared to that. You should have a solid foundation in AE and it's built-in tools before you go buying plugins - so you'll have already invested thousands in it in person-hours alone. Besides, a good plugin will pay for itself in one job.
After Effects isn't for video editing, by the way. Editing is cutting together shots to tell a story. If you want to do video editing, you want Premiere Pro.
After Effects is for adding visual effects, motion graphics, animation, and compositing.
I'm learning Premiere Pro and find it quite straightforward, actually, at least after spending years on Illustrator, Photoshop and Dreamweaver (Flash is another matter, fuggedaboutit!). I just want to be able to offer my web design clients video for their websites and be able to add some effects using AE, if only to enhance their logo (animate with sparkles, for instance). So whether I would need a plugin to do this or would be able to come up with a handful of "gimmicks" in AE that suit my needs remains to be seen.
High threshold??? When I bought my first video camera, an Ikigami HL79 and the BVW deck to to with it I had just bought a house. The camera package cost twice what the brand new 2500 sq foot house in Kirkland WA did. Throw in the lighting kit and the truck it took to carry around the stuff and I had invested nearly 3 times the value of my house in enough gear to shoot but not edit broadcast quality video. When HD was first introduced a friend of mine with post production houses in Seattle and Los Angeles put over a million dollars into one of the first HD editing stations in the country using Sony HD decks, a Sony Edit Controller and Switcher. Two years later that editing suite was nearly dark due to the release of Avid and Final Cut editing solutions that would handle HD video. Today my iPhone 6 shoots better video in lower light than anything you could get at any price when HD was introduced and for some reason that I don't understand most folks expect that the ability to do visual effects the likes of which required millions of dollars worth of equipment just a few years ago should be free or nearly free. The plug-in developers are not becoming billionaires selling their products, they are making a reasonable amount of money for the effort involved in creating their product. If their products are saving a bunch of time and the "look" becomes popular they will get rich in relative terms but they will never become excessively wealthy because they overcharge for their products.
Let me give you a financial breakdown of one of the most used 3rd party effects, Red Giant | Trapcode Shine. When it was introduced everybody was using it. The ability to duplicate the Shine Effect is pretty easy in AE. It involves duplicates of layers, blurs, maybe some masking and blend modes. What I can set up using shine in 20 seconds I can exactly duplicate, and I did so on a few occasions, in AE in about 20 minutes. Using Shine I need 1 or 2 layers, without it I would need 5 or 10. Instead of animating 1 or 2 or 3 properties I would have to animate 20 or 30. For me the cost of not having Shine in my arsenal is about $80 every time I want to a light ray coming from behind something.
Creating video that you could distribute to the world and make money with used to be a very expensive proposition. Now anyone can do it. The quality of your story and the profitability of your production is never going to be limited by the number of fancy effects you can throw at it, it's going to be limited by how well you can tell a story. If you can't tell a compelling story in a single shot made on a smart phone then you can't tell a compelling story by throwing a bunch of effects at a shot or a bunch of edits at a sequence. Take the time to learn AE but more importantly take the time to learn why some shots and some scenes work and others just don't. Learn how to guide the viewers eye and touch their emotions through composition and lighting then learn how to intensify those emotions with performance and audio and you'll be on your way to becoming an artist that can make a living with your craft. Spend your time only figuring how to add sparkles to your video and you'll be the same flash in the pan that Video Toaster was in the 90's. Everybody had to have Toaster Effects in their commercials until folks realized that sparkles, fancy wipes, and quad splits don't sell products nearly as well as story does. I was tagged with the "gotta have it" virus and bought a Toaster, realized the junk it was adding to my portfolio and sold it while it was still worth something to someone else. My little experiment cost me about a grand. The moral of the story - try the demo's if you really want to try an effect, then see if you can figure out how the effect is doing what it does, then try and duplicate it using the tools that come with AE. Given enough time and enough layers you can even duplicate something as complex as Trapcode Particular though it may take you a week instead of an hour.
Yes, I fully realize it's ultimately all about the quality of the narrative. My PhD in literature (now useless) can hopefully help me out there (diegesis or mimesis?)...
Thanks for sharing, I really appreciate it (just saw the 90s ad for the Video Toaster!).