By Neil Bennett | on August 07, 2000
Price: £2,295; £495 upgrade
It used to be easy to differentiate the two sides of Discreet’s product line. If it had some fire-related name (such as flame*, inferno*, flint*) it was a super-high-end, effects-specific workstation with a price tag in the tens of thousands of pounds. If it had a name from the Ronseal school of product naming (paint*, effect*, edit*, 3D Studio Max – or 3D studio Max* as it’s no doubt soon to be), it was a software- only package for Windows and/or the Mac. So now Discreet has thrown this concept to the wind with the release of its new compositing and effects system, combustion*. A software-only package for the Mac and Windows, it has more in common with flame* than it does with effect*. Combustion’s interface will be familiar to users of flame*, inferno* or one of Discreet’s other high-end boxes – or may be easy to pick up if you’ve used analog production control rigs – but, it’s nothing like conventional Mac or Windows application environments so born-&-bred desktop editors may feel a little lost at first. That said, the interface is excellent. Its main strengths include the matt dark-grey theme, which gives prominence to the most important component of any editing system – the video itself – and the context-sensitive nature of the whole interface. Click on a tab and the whole interface configures itself to best suit whatever you need to do. It’s not just the interface that has taken a serious leaf from flame’s book. Combustion* benefits from the same high-end approach to compositing, animation, paint and effects work. It’s a feature set you have to pay for, but for almost two-and-a-half grand you get a package that streaks ahead of anything in the same price range. At the centre of combustion* is the process tree. This maps out the structure of compositions, starting with the original background footage and extending the layers in chronological and bottom-to-top order above it. Each layer can be expanded to show its constituent elements and their settings using a conventional expandable/collapsible branching system. Each layer can be moved up or down the tree by dragging-&-dropping – showing that Discreet hasn’t completely ignored the systems that combustion* sits upon, but have used their best parts to enhance the higher-end workflow system. The results of this can then be rendered in real-time – as long as you have enough RAM. Combustion’s handling of hardware resources is excellent as well. Both Windows and Mac versions are completely multi-threaded – allowing full use of the power of multiple-processor workstations. Users with lots of RAM can take advantage of the advanced memory-caching capabilities to allow as much as possible to be previewed in realtime. A handy RAM gauge sits in the corner of the screen at all times, letting you to see just how much you can do without exceeding memory capabilities. However, the sheer power of combustion’s features mean that breaking this barrier on even a high-spec machine is quite easy to do. Put on your compositing hat and you can get your hands on true 3D positioning with real-world cameras. Chuck in a light with unlimited sources and a raytracing engine, and realistic scenes with shadows and reflections are within reach. Swap to a painter’s beret and you’ve got vector-based, non-destructive tools with interactive rotoscoping and more than 30 draw modes. Change to your effects hat and true 3D effects from particle-based, fog and smoke to a fully-harnessed motion blur can be yours. These tools may be standard for a professional-level compositing package, but the combination of the ultra-powerful back-end engine with the intuitive interface allows stunning results to be achieved. But the usefulness of the package doesn’t stop there. Discreet seems very aware that there’s a whole world of workflow beyond combustion* and has done a lot to integrate the package into the production studio as intelligently as possible. The application has a long list of Discreet and Adobe media that it can absorb. Photoshop and EPS files can, for example, be imported with their layers intact. Even better, many Photoshop and After Effects filters can be used within combustion*. On the Discreet side, combustion* can import and export clips to and from edit* – as well as being able to work with projects from the company’s older paint* and effect* desktop packages. It can even take scenes directly from 3D Studio Max with much of the 3D information still intact. This includes z-axis (depth) information about everything that the camera in a Max scene can see, making compositing live action with animated elements a lot easier. To get the most from this import you need to tie combustion* to version 3.1 of Max, as this has the export option for the 16-channel RPF format. Users of older versions will have to stick to the eight-channel RLA format. As RPF is an open format, users of other 3D applications may be able to export to combustion* at some point in the future. It’s features like these that place combustion* is in a league of its own. It combines powerful creative tools with efficiency-boosting utilities that should allow you to keep your late nights at the edit suite down to a minimum.