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Combustion 2.1: Desktop Compositing with All the Trimmings

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The history of combustion has more twists and turns than a Cornish country road. Way back in 97, the world leader in high-end compositing, editing and image manipulation systems for visual effects, Discreet Logic, forced its way into the NT market with the acquisition of Denim Software. The cost effective reliability of NT was making it the platform of choice for many studios, and Discreet Logic could no longer afford to ignore this. At the time, Denim was paving the way forward in compositing solutions on NT their prize offering Illuminaire Studio was an instant hit with smaller effects and postproduction facilities.

All Images © Discreet.

All Images © Discreet.

Within a year Illuminaire Studio became two separate packages: paint and effect, each retailing at around £1,500 (2,153 Euros, $2,000). Not only was this Discreet Logics bold journey onto the NT platform, it was a step into the world of desktop visual effects software. Previously Discreet Logics high-end systems such as flint, flame and inferno had been restricted to the domain of the specialist SGI workstation. But now one of the leading developers of compositing systems in the world was releasing a more accessible package. These were exciting times!

A couple of years passed and by the new millennium Discreet Logic had been acquired by Autodesk, and was now known as Discreet. By the end of the year, paint and effect were no more, and a new package combustion had taken their place (are you still with me?). combustion promised to be the holy grail for desktop compositors and it certainly was as close as wed ever been! The integrated paint and compositing tools improved workflow dramatically, and it was even made available on the Mac... but this powerful tool came at a price. Discreet had released combustion at a whopping £3,845 (4,995 Euros, $4,995). Adobes solution to desktop compositing, After Effects, looked far more appetizing at less than a quarter of the price!

Then, halleluiah! Its 2003 and Discreet drop the price of combustion to a mere £745 (995 Euros, $995) with the release of version 2.1. Windows and Mac-based effects and postproduction studios the world over finally have a reason to crack open the Dom Perignon. It seems there is a desktop compositing god after all!

Decisions, Decisions

combustion is now situated bang in the middle of a fiercely competitive market dominated hugely by After Effects and, well, After Effects. These must be worrying times for Adobe a quick glance at combustions feature list and AE starts to look rather pale in comparison. 3D compositing, particle effects and motion tracking as standard; strong integration with 3ds studio max; an award-winning industry standard interface and workflow; not to mention the lure of the high-end market-leading Discreet brand. combustion shapes up like a brand new Mercedes Benz with all the trimmings for the price of a second hand 98 Honda Accord. Decisions, decisions indeed

The combustion interface is very similar to that of high-end systems such as flint, flame and inferno.

The combustion interface is very similar to that of high-end systems such as flint, flame and inferno.

Tuition and Intuition

Like all of Discreets compositing software, combustion has a very unique interface and workflow unlike any other package on the market. This means pretty much anyone purchasing a copy of the software will be treading on new ground. Luckily the user guide and tutorials are extremely well written and comprehensive, and once you start poking around youll find that combustion is extremely intuitive. If you have a basic understanding of compositing workflow and know what youre looking for, finding it shouldnt be too much of a challenge even without referring back to the manuals.

But what should make combustion all the more appealing to students, hobbyists and smaller studios is the fact that this award-winning interface is carried on throughout all of Discreets products. Moving from combustion onto an industry standard high-end system such as inferno or flame shouldnt be too much of a struggle. This is a huge selling point that is often overshadowed by combustions impressive feature list.

High Class Performance

Like most video, graphics and animation packages, combustion can be very demanding. To make the most of the software, youll need to be running a decent spec machine. combustions playback performance is very RAM dependent, and youll probably need at least 512MB to preview your work in a timely fashion. Of course, combustion has a few tricks to speed up performance, such as variable playback quality and the ability to set in and out points so that you can preview only a small part of a clip. But if youre working on complex composites with deadlines to meet and need close to realtime playback (which you probably will), it would be wise to invest in at least 1GHz of RAM. But with or without oodles of RAM, combustion is fast.

Industry Standard Features as Standard

combustion boasts the kind of features weve come to expect from high- end systems such as flame and inferno as standard. The comprehensive tracking tool can track as many points in a shot as you like, making it extremely versatile and useful for everything from tracking a particle effect or paint element into a shot, to stabilising a camera shake, to working with 3D elements and more. Control over position, rotation and scaling means that this tool can be used to track just about anything to anything, in either 2D or 3D space.

When it comes to bread and butter compositing work such as blue/green screen composites and making, combustion shines. The Linear Keyer can be used to pull a single color with ease, taking care of blue/green screen composites in minutes. For those more intricate shots that require a fine level of control, the Discreet Keyer provides tools to associate transparency with a range of colors, it allows you to work directly onto the matte to tweak your key, and even allows you to use color correction tools to remove color spill.

Particle effects such as explosions can be created quickly and easily using combustions extensive library of emitters.

Particle effects such as explosions can be created quickly and easily using combustions extensive library of emitters.

combustions vector-based paint and text tools can be used to create anything from cartoon style animations to flying logos to photo-realistic wire removal and matte paintings. The tools are very different to that of other popular paint packages such as Photoshop, but are just as powerful if not more so when used with combustions tracking and masking tools. Text can be manipulated in much the same way as any paint object in combustion, however attributes such as face, softness and outline can also be animated giving even greater control.

And combustions color correction tools really set it apart from After Effects. Whether youre making a slight adjustment to the brightness of a shot, changing the color of a particular part of a shot, creating a unique look or treatment or color matching different elements of a composite, combustion has it covered. The Discreet Color Corrector lets you do all this from one place without having to apply numerous filters to your footage to get the right look.

The Discreet Color Corrector can be used to create everything from subtle lighting corrections to a unique treated look.

The Discreet Color Corrector can be used to create everything from subtle lighting corrections to a unique treated look.

Added Extras... As Standard

Previously, if you wanted to create impressive particle effects youd either be spending hours slaving over your favourite 3D animation package, or youd be investing in a no doubt pricey plug-in. But combustion features an integrated particle system as standard its powerful, streamlined, versatile, and a lot of fun! This isnt the same kind of 3D particle system youd find in a package like max or SOFTIMAGE; combustion creates particle effects on 2D layers, giving you impressive 3D-looking results with minimum effort. The software comes with dozens of particle emitters stored in a library everything from heavy explosions to water spray, smoke, comet trails and even falling leaves. All of the effects can be previewed quickly, modified to suit your needs, and then tracked into your shot. And of course, if you cant find what youre looking for in the extensive library, you can always create your own effects from scratch.

The Bottom Line

This article has merely touched on combustions range of features. The software boasts an impressive range of filters and image processing tools, unparalleled control over every aspect of your composite, support for a wide range of image formats including QuickTime, Cineon, AVI, Targa and more... The list quite literally goes on and on! combustion packs a far bigger punch than After Effects, for about the same price. It dwarfs it in features and performance, and for those wanting to break into the visual effects industry doing compositing work, understanding combustion and how it works will score you big brownie points with most of the big studios. Whatever your needs, if youre serious about producing high quality paint and compositing work on a desktop computer, combustion is the only way to go.

Paul Younghusband has been writing about all things visual effects and animation-related for about six years. He previously served as editor of Visual Magic Magazine, and has contributed to other publications, including Animation World Magazine and VFX PRO.