Combustion 4 Review

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Autodesk Combustion 4 gives After Effects a run for its money.

As a teacher of digital effects and animation at an art school that focuses entirely on Adobes After Effects, I have always been intrigued by the Combustion toolset from Autodesk (formerly Discreet under the new Autodesk Media and Ent. division). I have followed the software since its first release in 2000 and was excited to see the newest revision, Combustion 4, released recently for a price of $995. Autodesk/Discreet has been known to create some of the industrys most compelling and powerful toolsets and their digital compositor/animator/painter/editor software package is no different. This new release focuses on both new tools and revisions to older tools and will satisfy users from casual to hardcore.

Starting off with some brand new functionality is the Gbuffer builder. Traditionally users could impart additional information from 3ds max into renders via the RPF (Rich Pixel Format). Now using the Gbuffer builder, Combustion users can generate simple or complex Gbuffer information from within the software package itself using the new Gbuffer builder Operator. Vfx such as 3D glow, 3D fog, 3D depth of field are now accessible and functional thanks to newly generated Gbuffer information. This in-package solution is one of the concepts that Discreet always got right with this software series. It is really interesting how two companies (Autodesk/Discreet and Adobe) could make such similar products but implement them in such different ways. Combustion users have always enjoyed the in-program, keyboard free style of the softwares interface. Specifically, Combustion is moving further and further into the direction of an all-inclusive, one-stop-shop piece of software. Combustion also has a wonderful workflow that they have designed so that the artist never (OK, almost never) has to move his/her hands to the keyboard. All parameters have a click-n-slide adjustment function (which Adobe has since incorporated into After Effects) and all numerical values can either be slid up and down or double clicked and entered using the super-cool popup calculator.

[Figure 1] The interface for the Autodesk Diamond Keyer. All screen shots courtesy of Ryan Lesser.

There is now a powerful Diamond Keyer included in Combustion 4s keying suite, which is a relative to the keying solutions available in Discreets high end, award-winning Flame visual effects system. The Diamond Keyer (Figure 1) provides extremely fast and highly customizable keying functionality. With just a single click, most keying jobs will be complete. To do this, just click one of the nine presets listed in the keyer (R, G, B, C, M, Y, highlight, midtone and shadow), and you will find that your keying is either done or very close. Next, direct your attention to the color diamond and use the twp editable diamonds to manipulate your color groups to create a very clean key. This color palette and corresponding diamond selections are zoom-able and pan-able to make it easy to make very precise keys.

Forunately, this is all viewable (as are all edits) while in RAM playback mode. This in and of itself is something that After Effects aficionados will drool over since they will be used to the pause/edit/RAM render/RAM preview workflow that they are accustomed to.

[Figure 2] The new B-splines in action about to be grouped.

Moreover, B-splines have now been implemented within Combustion 4. While not new to all users, B-splines will be a new way to work with paths for many. B-splines have always been an excellent tool for creating natural, organic shapes due to their inherent smoothness but not everyone knows just how easily a B-spline can be tweaked for sharp corners and inorganics. For those that are unfamiliar with B-splines, unlike a Bezier curve, which can be click-created for corners and click/drag created for smooth transitions, the B-spline is a single click per point. Each point has just a single handle shooting off of it (figure 2). Unlike Bezier splines, which take a lot of finesse to cradle a complex shape, all you need to do with B-splines is plop a point on each valley and bump and usually you are 85% done. Next, just some simple tweaks to the handles will change the weighting of the curve flowing past the handles resulting in very quick editing of complex shapes.

In addition to the use of B-splines, artists now have the ability to select a group of points in the spline and group them for easy repeat selection/modification. In the accompanying image (figure 2), you can see that I have selected 10 points surrounding the eye of my 3D model. These points are now grouped with a simple Ctrl+G key command or a quick pull-down menu to be accessed at any point and manipulated as a group.

Combustion now also comes with the ability to encapsulate multiple operators (effects) into a single entity called a capsule. This capsule not only helps to create a cleaner UI in schematic mode (figure 3), but these capsules also can be saved and recalled at any point in a similar way to After Effects Effect Favorites. The capsules can be shared amongst teammates and can be further customized by allowing only certain functions of the Operator to be editable by others.

[Figure 3] Capsule as seen from the schematic view.

Another tool that will be a welcome addition to most After Effects converts is the TimeWarp. No, this tool does not bring forth a silly Glam-Rock song with dancing hunchbacks and witches à la Rocky Horror it is very similar to the Time Remapping in the Adobe tool. Time remapping allows the artist to reproduce the effect of in-camera speeding up or slowing down of film to create the illusion of slow-mo or fast-mo but there is more. One can use the remapper to reverse time, etc., by using the standard set of Bezier tools. If your TimeWarped footage has been slowed down too much you might find that there is stuttering or jumping in your footage destroying the illusion of true slow-mo. Combustion has multiple interpolation methods to fix that and possibly the most interesting is the ability to change and animate the PreTrail and PostTrail settings. The typical interpolation settings only function on the single frame before and after the current frame but this setting can work on many frames in a hand animated way or in an adaptive way.

There have also been a few improvements to the overall workflow of the tool, keeping in line with the concepts mentioned earlier. For one, Autodesk has provided artists the ability to dock the Workspace view allowing the user to keep that view open at all times. You may think that this is a tiny thing, but in any application, removing even a single click from a typical workflow could result in literally hundreds of clicks per day. The Workspace view is used so often that this improvement is a pretty realtime and wrist saver. In addition, some tools such as the Paint toolset have been reworked and reorganized to have better flow and be more compact.

[Figure 4] Built-in particle system.

Combustion has adopted some of the After Effects style keyboard shortcuts such as hitting single keys to invoke subset views in your timeline. For example, by hitting the P key on your keyboard, you will refine the listed functions in your timeline to just the positional information. Similarly, S brings up scale, R rotation, C opacity, H shear and E to display everything as normal.

All of this, in addition to the already impressive Combustion toolset makes this $995 package pretty attractive. In fact, when you throw in the terrific Combustion particle system (figure 4), the high-end color correction system and the morphing and warping tools, Combustion gives After Effects a very strong run for its money. This is especially true considering that After Effects Pro will cost you $1,000 plus around $1,200 extra for the equivalent add-on packs needed to obtain the same level of tools in Combustion. On top of that, the powerful Edit Operator allows users to perform many non-destructive editing functions usually found in a separate NLE package while within Combustion. With this fourth release, Autodesk has created a strong product that will be sure to please.

Ryan Lesser teaches animation at his alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). His animation company (Mammoth Studios) has worked on projects for Phish, Sony, MTV, De La Soul, Madison Square Garden and others. Since 1999, Ryan has served as art director at Harmonix, a PlayStation 2 and Xbox videogame developer. Here he has helped produce award-winning games such as Frequency, Amplitude and the Karaoke Revolution series. Ryan also maintains a Providence, Rhode Island-only underground music site,