FXGuide recently road tested the latest major release of Combustion on the Mac. Peter Webb a Melbourne visual effects supervisor put Combustions new features through their paces, and examined each in depth.

Peter Webb:
Well - what they actually say on their website is " Discreet combustion 3 offers the creative tools, speed and interactivity that professionals need and artists crave." I have some experience of what artists crave and frankly it doesn't involve sitting in front of a computer but having said that I do think you will find that c3 is a significant improvement over C2.1. The four big new features alone are more than worth the upgrade price or if you are looking to purchase the whole package it is a very capable system.

Editing operator- integrated editing

The new editing function is added to a Workspace like any other Operator. This doesn't quite demonstrate how major this new feature really is. It has transformed Combustion from a clip based system where, despite workarounds, we were restricted to working on one sequence at a time, into something closer to a project based one. It doesn't include project management tools like the bigger discreet systems but we can reasonably hope that will come in future versions. Meanwhile, C3 can import multiple image sequences, work with them as in any editor, trim, slip, cut, even add dissolve transitions. Segments being edited are displayed in a timelline much like any Non-Linear Editor (NLE). They can be footage or composites. You can have multiple edits in a workspace including nested edits. A big benefit of this is that you can see your effects shots in context in an edit but uncommitted. When your clients want changes (notice I didn't say if ?) you can make them and they will automatically be included in the edited sequence. Segments can include different resolutions but the output clip rendered can only be one res. Along with the frame rate, bit depth, field dominance and duration this is set in the Output control menu. This menu has an "auto duration" setting that matches duration to the edit which is nice - Combustion usually expects you to do such calculations yourself ! Piping the edit into another operator in the workspace makes it easy to add film grain, overall colour grades or any plug in for that matter. Multiple audio tracks are not yet supported in the edit operator so we are still limited to one overall track.

RE:Flex warping and morphing tools

One of the shortcomings of Combustion in the past has been the lack of warping capabilities. Though we aren't asked to do full-blown morphs all that often the capability of warping images or blending transitions between images using morphs is far more common. A simple warp can be just the thing to tweak line-up on an image or matte, or transform a still shot of a tree into a gently moving one. Flame's bilinear or bicubic images (long overdue in Combustion) are ideal for this but in their absence the addition of an "inline" warper is fantastic.

RE:Vision warping and morphing plugin "RE:Flex" is now included in Combustion 3. It is quite different to Flame / Flint / Inferno's current warping module. Flame still has a somewhat antiquated mesh based approach while RE:Flex in Combustion is a spline based. This is a much simpler and more intuitive system where you draw spline shapes over features you want to move and then destination splines where you want them to move to. RE:Flex creates the inbetween frames and bingo, you have a transition. Source splines are created and edited using Combustions own tools. The easiest way to create destination splines is to duplicate the source then move them into place. RE:Flex doesn't require source and destination to have the same number of points so if you need to add or delete points to better match the images features go right ahead. It is also smart about how the splines are applied - you can ignore points and just match the shapes or if you want to use points to finely control regions along a spline you can do that too. Both axes and spline points appear in the timeline and may be animated over time and points can be tracked to moving features in a clip using Combustions tracker module. As well as warping, splines can be placed to protect areas of the image from being distorted. Spline warped regions can be animated individually or as a group which is an excellent feature because it avoids one of the signatures of a bad morph - everything changing at once. You can stagger the transitions for a more natural effect and both the shape change and the dissolve between source and destination images can be animated separately . RE:Flex respects Combustions display settings so you can work quickly at preview resolution and the image will "pop" to full resolution if left for a moment. You add RE:Flex as a Combustion operator so warps and morphs can be applied to individual clips, composites or edited sequences.

Flash output

The Export to Flash feature could be very useful for content destined for the internet. Its pretty simple to use, when you're in the Paint operator, enable the "Flash Mode" button bottom left of the toolbar and tools not supported for flash are darkened and not available. Most tools are there but you will be limited to hard edged paintbrushes. Also no magic wand selections, erasers or paint buckets which makes sense given that Flash is vector based. Transparency is OK in all tool types and gradients in most though only the two simplest gradient types are available. Go ahead and do your paint then when you're ready you can find the Flash Export button in the Paint Controls / Settings menu.

Expressions - java based expressions generator

The new expression capabilities are pretty impressive. A right click on any channel in the timeline will bring up a popup menu which gives access to the Expression Browser, Add Expression and Import Expression. If the channel you are clicking on already has an expression you will also be able to edit it from here. This popup contains some useful functionality for modifying channels too. But back to Expressions, I am not a math-head kind of guy so the Expressions Browser is my first port of call.

To invoke the Browser, just select a channel in the timeline and rightclick and drag to Expression Browser (or control click on a mac). There is also an Exp. Browser button on the right hand side of the timeline menu. A floating window will pop up showing the channel you are editing, a range of thumbnails that graphically show what each expression will do and - when you select an expression, you get numeric boxes to enter frame range shown in the thumbnail, and value ranges in the resulting expression. Clicking OK will get you back to the timeline where you will see the start of the expression shown if you are in overview mode, or a dotted line showing the parameter curves if you're in graph mode. You can see the value displayed as well but it is not editable. The expression itself can be modified if you are savvy with the math, just click on it in overview mode and a text edit box will pop up over the timeline. Expressions can be linked to values from other channels via the Quick Pick button in the menu at screen right. Another nice touch is that expressions can be converted into normal channel curves if required.

I love this browser GUI approach to expressions. It still allows editing to fine tune the effect but doesn't require a maths degree to use them. If you can manage simple scripting and understand the math principles C3 has an inbuilt javascript generator for creating your own expressions.

So to sum up ... C3 is a major release in my opinion. The four big new features make the upgrade price of US$199 seem trivial. Full price for a seat of C3 is US$995 which is amazing value for a fully featured res. independent full colourspace compositing system.

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