Sapphire 6: Sparks with new life

Sapphire 6

GenArts has cornered the market in Sparks – so what are they doing with them?

The Classic Film Damage Spark

Having bought SpeedSix’s Monster sparks, The Foundry’s Tinder spark plugins, and particleIllusion, GenArts really owns the Sparks market at this point. But then the GenArts Sapphire sparks have always been about the most popular Sparks having a huge market penetration for many years now.

The answer is that GenArts has quite an ambitious plan, but one that embraces the high end rather than ignoring it – but not without a price, or rather a brassy price tag.

GenArts has done deals with companies like LucasArts. (copyright Lucasfilm)

The plan can best be summarized as follows: integrate the sparks together, make them easier and faster, then leverage off this Hollywood / Blockbuster image to sell more sparks as plugins to other more consumer or pro-consumer users with not only cheaper plugins but a complete eco system of plugins, tips,  presets, in program tricks, suggested uses and new technology to make it a darn load easier to use the plugins.

The only negative is the price to professional users. It is not that GenArts seem to be aiming to steal from the professional to fund the amateur, but rather it believes professionals rely on these Sparks so much that they will be willing to pay through the nose to have them. A new Sapphire license is $8,499 or 17 iPads at retail pricing. Now, 100 iPads will not be much use in a feature film effects shot, but the question remains is the $8.5K justified? Certainly, this is nothing new – Sapphire Sparks have always been more expensive on a Flame than as an AE plugin, and in the past even more expensive than this, but then back then a Flame cost $500,000 and a Flame artist could easily charge a $1000 an hour in the top suites.

The New Lens Flare Spark

In short, the good news is that Sapphire 6 is not just a few extra marginal new Sparks, far from it. GenArts has invested in some real improvements. This can be seen most clearly by looking at the new Lens Flare module.

This module shows user interface design and clever programing that we have not seen in years in Sparks. To be short – someone who actually uses the product a lot must have gotten together with someone who genuinely cares – no – loves Flame/Smoke users and rewrote the Spark in a truly helpful and sensible way.

Watch our video review of Sapphire Sparks here:

In general, due to maturity of Sapphire and the API it operates from, it is much more granular and tends to have more handles than the newer flame effects. A problem for GenArts will be people questioning whether  the newer built-in flame spark like effects are good enough for 80-90% of the work and that for the remaining jobs, one has a copy of Sapphire for AE nearby.  And while on average the effects are perhaps more customizable in Sapphire, – the new Action lens flares do benefit of being in context in actual 3D space,and thus significantly better in say a stereo composite job.
The new flameFX and other nodes are good batch netizens….unlike Sparks which are limited by Autodesk’s API, using sparks in batch can be rough.

Duo-tone hard to do any other way

The point of Sapphire has always been multi-fold: provide eye candy, provide some very complex but simple to operate effects such as duo-tone or film damage that would take hours or days to hand animate and then also provide some killer building blocks or integration tools that allow you to really sell a shot. Depending on the style of work you do, eye candy may or may not matter, but there is no doubt that on the one job, a spark can sometimes pay for itself in just one session.

GenArts have gone way beyond just integrating some of the Tinder sparks into a broader package. The Tinder technology is built into the relevant Sapphire Sparks in exactly the way one would hope for, and furthermore, the new GenArts approach of providing more presets makes them useful and accessible.

Which is really the Achilles heal of plugins – just knowing what you have and knowing how and when to use them. If you are not an experienced Spark user the menu can be a wall that seems to offer both infinite variety but also little help to offer direction.

This is exactly where the rest of the GenArts R&D team seem to be spending their time. With the Sapphire Edge program for example you can now preview plugins in say FCP and determine what the plugin will look like on your footage in FCP before you even commit to the plugin. In Flame this would be like viewing in the Spark library the sparks on your footage BEFORE you buy them. Of course this is not possible in the Flame/Smoke architecture but it is in Sony Vegas and FCP.

The second thing that GenArts is offering is a central site to explain and show the uses of the plugins – this is called – perhaps obviously, FX Central. The FX Central site is the place to browse looks and view tutorials. You can access the GenArts visual effects gallery presented as pre-built looks and it is sold as being regularly updated.  If you buy the GenArts Sapphire Edge package, for example, you get this free for a year (value $99). You also get FX Central free for a year with Sapphire 6 Sparks – of course Sapphire Edge for FCP is $299 or $8200 cheaper than Sapphire 6. Even the normal Sapphire FCP (when released) which is perhaps a fairer comparison is $1699 which is still quite a difference.

In reality, few companies will be buying Sapphire 6 outright, as most will be upgrading from previous versions, so for most users the real price will be an upgrade at $3,499. There is however one very real advantage of a full Sapphire 6 license that does make a huge difference to this vast price difference. If you have a full Flame or Smoke license then it comes as a universal float, meaning this one price works on any of your Burn, Flames, Flares, Flints, Smokes, Smoke on Mac (Linux 32/64 or OSX 10.5 or higher) – and even to Avid and your AE boxes.

If you are a new Flame/Smoke user, rentals at $850 might be a better option. For Smoke on Mac users the new is a little better, here the price drops to $3,999 new, $1199 for upgrades and $170 for rentals, and for Flare they drop still further to $1699/$499/$850.


Value of effects

VFX generally increase viewer engagement

GenArts is promoting visual effects and really does do significant and serious development work in the area. The company points out in its background material that videos with high quality visual effects show a benefit for advertisers – GenArts sight independent surveys that say that user preference is 10% higher for material with visual effects, the audience stay on it 9% longer and their buying intent increases 12%. This may not seem huge to an artist but to a marketer this is pure gold.

The use of visual effects is a major contributor to engaging a viewer, we all know that the vast majority of top grossing films are effects intensive (44 of the top 50  grossing films) and GenArts estimate that some form of graphics or effects are in 80% of the minutes you watch on television. The message from GenArts is clear – visual effects is the path to viewer engagement, and in the general community video is more likely to get a story higher on a google search than say just a text story or press release.

Nielson, the research company, reported in January of this year that online video viewing had increased by 45% from a year ago in the USA. GenArts want to take their 14 years of experience and apply it to a wider audience, and a wider user base.

GenArts used to provide tools to the post and effects professionals, estimated to be 350,000 artists and editors worldwide. Their strategy is to now move that wider to the YouTube generation, hence initiatives like their Sapphire Edge program.


Sparks verdict

If one was to generalize, in the Autodesk market there are now really two systems products that the company is really selling, Smoke on Mac and Flame Premium, yet in the Autodesk systems community there are still a lot of just stand alone Flame and Smoke system. But for those products that are fully current on their support programs and updates, the new 2012 release offers more ‘spark style’ tools than ever before.

Do you need Sparks like this anymore with so many more tools in say Flame 2012 as standard? After all, there are now great new tools in Flame as standard for doing lighting and flare effects – and these are even able to be controlled and manipulated with Gmasks. Unfortunately the answer is probably a resounding yes. Even with the new blur, and flare tools in Flame 2012 as standard, the vast library of great tools in Sapphire 6 are almost too much to resist, they are fast and creatively flexible.

While the pricing is seemingly unfair, one has to say “they had me at the lens flare.” If you are in a position to afford them or bill in the cost of the Sapphire Sparks on a job, then yes they are great. There is no doubt that this is nothing new, Flame and Smoke users have suffered this price differential for some time, and at the end of the day what would you prefer: no further development of Sparks or expensive Sparks? GenArts are to be applauded for continuing to fund Sparks development and doing a good job at it, but can we also beg you GenArts to consider pricing the Autodesk sparks more reasonably? Like an expensive addiction, I will pay the upgrade, and then try and instantly forget the price sticker shock – which is fairly easy to do with such wonderful creative and finishing tools.

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