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Wacom for Video Post-Production: The Hidden Manual Part 1

by Aaron Williams

I’ve been doing post-production (the computer side of filmmaking) for more 12 years now. You’d be surprised by the number of people in the industry who use Wacom tablets as their primary “mouse”, especially among editors, and maybe not so surprised by VFX artists, motion graphic artists, and colorists who use them.

When I got my hands on my very own Wacom tablet, I dove in right away, googling, reading blogs, and asking questions from friends on Twitter; but what I was really missing was a “bootcamp” of sorts, to give me practical advice on what people felt worked or didn’t work when using one for video production. There were plenty of tips for photographers and illustrators, but what about us post-production guys?!

What I’m going to do here is try my best to fill in that void for anyone thinking of switching to a Wacom. Here are the things I tried, what I experienced, what worked and what didn’t, what stuck with me, and what I never used.


Which One To Buy

My advice on which size to buy mostly depends on you monitor/computer setup:

If youre working on a laptop: Go for the small or the medium size Intuos Pro. Laptops usually have a smaller screen, which works well with the small tablet. It fits easily in a laptop bag and doesn’t use much desk space. If you want more room for detail, a medium will work.

If youre working on a single-monitor desktop: Go for the medium size. A desktop generally has a bigger screen, so you’ll appreciate the extra tablet space. It still fits well in a bag and doesn’t use a huge amount of desk space. The medium is probably the best value and most versatile of the three sizes.

If youre working with a dual-monitor setup: Go with the medium or large size. With a medium, you might be okay spanning both monitors across the tablet, but you’ll want to use display toggle to switch between one monitor at a time. If you go large, you can span both monitors across the tablet and have plenty of space for detailed control. On the down side, it’s way too big to fit in a laptop bag or a backpack, and it takes up an enormous amount of desk space.

When I was purchasing my Wacom, I went with the large size. I have a 27” iMac with a secondary monitor at work, and I knew I would primarily be using it at work and wanted to span my tablet across both monitors.


The Setup

Pen Buttons

By default, the smaller pen button is set up for “right-click” and the larger pen button for “double-click”. The “right-click” button is perfect, but I found that tapping twice with the pen wasn’t a big deal, but grabbing the small, disappearing scroll-bars in OS X was a pain. With that in mind, I’ve changed the larger pen button to “Pan/Scroll”. This enables me to hold that button down and drag across the tablet to scroll.


The one exception to this: After Effects, which doesn’t play nice with Pan/Scroll. Instead of panning around in the comp window, you end up zooming in/out a lot. It also doesn’t work well with the other panels. To fix this, I mapped the larger pen button in After Effects to be “space”. This lets me use hotkeys for zooming in/out and the pen for panning around in every panel. Just be aware that this means Pan/Scroll won’t work in save dialogues in After Effects.



Express Keys

There are six buttons on the small tablet and eight on the medium and large tablets, but I only use four of them regularly:




Touch On/Off: I assigned this button for when my coworkers who aren’t used to a Wacom need to use my computer, which enables the tablet to be used as a giant multitouch trackpad. I’ve actually found myself using this when I have to do a lot of scrolling, or when I’m doing long stretches of typing so that I don’t have to keep picking up and putting down the pen to move around (more on that in a bit).

Mission Control: I’m a big user of the multiple desktops feature in OS X. When I was using a mouse, I relied on the multitouch gesture to move from Space to Space, but that wasn’t practical with the Wacom. Instead, I just hit the one express key on the tablet and tap the space I want.

Precision Mode: I don’t use this a ton, but when I do, I’m very glad it’s there. This maps a small area of your screen to the entire tablet so that you can be far more precise in where your cursor moves. It’s been most useful with masking and tracking in After Effects.




Pan/Scroll: If I had a medium or small tablet, this would probably be set to toggle display. Since I have a large, I keep this button set to Pan/Scroll for use in After Effects’ save/export/import/etc. dialog boxes.

Touch Ring

Honestly, I find myself almost never using the Touch Ring. I saw a tutorial about mapping this to be a job/shuttle controller and tried it out, but it wasn’t nearly responsive enough for practical video editing. For now, the only time the wheel gets used is when I’m adjusting brush sizes in Photoshop, Illustrator, or After Effects.

Radial Menu

It’s a cool feature, and I even took some time to set up some commands. Honestly though, I never use it. I’d probably start using it if I had a pen button assigned to it, but the ones I have assigned are far more useful in my day-to-day work.

More information on setting up Radial Menus here.

Physical Setup

Aside from the features and settings, you also have to figure out what works best from a physical perspective. Here’s what I’ve found:

Desk Layout

I heard a lot of different suggestions on how to arrange the tablet and keyboard on the desk. The two most prevalent were: keyboard on a slide-out keyboard tray and the Wacom directly below the monitor, or keyboard above the tablet and reach across and rest your arms on the tablet when typing.





While both may work with the small and medium tablets, they were abysmal with the large. With the keyboard in a tray, I found myself constantly pulling the tray out or reaching across it. With the Wacom below the keyboard, I found it uncomfortable to do extended sessions of typing while reaching across the large Wacom, and it was too far away to keep a hand rested on the keyboard for shortcuts when editing.

What I eventually settled on as the most comfortable was a side-by side approach. This lets me keep one hand on the Wacom and one on the keyboard for shortcuts and quick typing. Both are easily accessible without a big reach, and when I needed to do extended typing I can just slide over a bit.




Holding The Pen

The big question on holding the Wacom pen is how best to press the buttons. Do you press them with your finger or your thumb? I’ve tried both, and the most natural for me is to use my thumb. With my finger, I have to move it from the small button to the large, and when the grip slips it takes longer to get the buttons in the right place. With my thumb, I use the tip of my thumb for the smaller button closer to the nib, and the joint of the thumb for the larger button towards the back of the pen.







Extended typing was a pain. I asked a ton of people, got a bunch of different answers, looked at gadgets and DIY solutions, and didn’t really like any of the solutions. Here are some of the things that were suggested to me:





What it came down to was the fact that, no matter what, typing with the Wacom pen in hand was incredibly uncomfortable and caused hand strain. So, I ended up putting the pen down. It’s admittedly an extra effort to pick the pen back up, but my hand doesn’t hurt anymore, so I’m calling that a win.



I do keep the pen in my hand when doing short bursts of typing or pecking at shortcuts, with a grip like this:



I’m still refining how I use my Wacom day-to-day in my work, but now you see where the initial experimentation has led me. I hope this makes your transition to a Wacom just a little easier!