By Neil Bennett | on April 18, 2002
Price: £3,845 plus VAT
The price might have been hiked, but Discreet’s video-effects and compositing tool Combustion 2 is more than worth the little change you get from four grand it now costs. This is the second version of Combustion – which sold itself on its 3D tools and workspace, and its integration with 3DS Max – and the update focuses more on conventional 2D-compositing tools. This is a great move, as the major criticism leveled at version 1.0 was that the flashy 3D-features were not fleshed out with everyday compositing tools. Some of us forgave Combustion for this, as what it could do, it did well. However, Discreet has listened to its detractors and filled the gaps, rather than piling on headline-stealing features. Go with the effects flow Combustion’s new pricing isn’t the only thing that brings it closer to the likes of Digital Fusion or Shake. Combustion has had its high-end looking artist interface from the beginning – which is flexible and modifies itself based on the tool you happen to be working with – but version 2 adds a complementary flowchart view. Similar to that found in the other tools, the schematic view – as Combustion calls it – allows compositions to be built by connecting nodes containing media to operator nodes that represent additive or manipulative nodes such as filters, text or particles. These can be built up into a web to create the final composite. The schematic view is an excellent addition, allowing complex composites to be kept under control and multiple output versions to be rendered off the same set-up easily. It takes a while to get used to if you know the layered approach, and even users experienced in the composting method will take time to work effectively with it and Combustion’s 3D space as one, but it’s a great way to work faster and more efficiently. Particle pride Another major addition is the 2D-particle system, which is excellent. Anyone who’s used Impulse’s Illusion will be familiar with the particle system – as it’s the same technology. Discreet acquired it last year, following the company’s trend of buying in its software assets (Edit, Paint, Effect and 3DS Max were all purchased from other companies) – and this one is up to the company’s usual standards. It fakes 3D particles in a 2D environment – providing smoke, fire and water that’s good enough for most background, and even some foreground, applications – and comes with both a plethora of well-defined presets and a responsive set of controls. Being 2D and accelerated by OpenGL, it will run in real-time on most workstations – a definite bonus over true 3D systems. My only gripe with the particle system is that, being a bought-in technology, it can’t keep up with some of Combustion’s high-end features such as 16-bit colour, so your entire composite must be 8-bit. The last of Combustion 2’s biggies is the vector-based text and rotoscoping features. The redesigned text system (now in a separate operator), while only just about as good as AE’s and below par next to Boris’ text system, is a much-needed addition. The paint/rotoscoping system is better, especially when combined with a Wacom tablet. Being vector-based makes editing easy, if intensive, on your processor – but Combustion’s superior RAM-cache management system and the ability to commit operators to disk (like a pre-render with only certain operators rendered) allows you to keep things under control. If rotoscoping is your thing, it’s not going to drag you away from Pinnacle Commotion, though. High-end features There was another problem with Combustion 1.0: alongside pitching for AE, Commotion and Digital Fusion users, Discreet was also trying to sell the system to Flame and Inferno. It pitched Combustion as a cost-saving way to perform less intensive tasks without paying the huge per-hour rates of those suites. However, Combustion’s core engine wasn’t quite up to the task – so for version 2, Discreet has added 16-bit colour per channel I/O and processing, and support for high-end formats such as 10-bit Cineon log files and LUTs (Look-up Tables). While the high-end formats won’t tempt most Digit readers, they could be the beginning of something good. Hopefully we’ll see HD cameras come down into the high-end DV price range in the next few years, and Combustion will be there to work with the high-quality output. Many of the best features of Combustion have been taken from 3DS Max, and Combustion 2 adds another one – network rendering. Based on 3DS Max’s render system, Backburner (again following Discreet’s Dante-infused naming convention) is a free network rendering environment that comprises of a central hub (the Manager), which can be controlled over a network by client machines (through the Monitors), and which controls any number of Servers that do the actual work. Macintosh users will be disappointed that the entire Backburner system is Windows only. There is another networking rendering system that’s cross-platform, using a standalone version of Combustion’s Render Queue and a Watch folder facility. This works well, but it’s not in the same league as Backburner, which allows you to quickly knock together a render farm using a bunch of aging Pentium IIs lurking in your basement. As you’d expect, the headline-grabbing new features are backed up with a whole host of important extras. These range from speed upgrades across the board – with OpenGL-based 3D rendering to support for QuickTime capture and QuickTime Streaming. Missing standard features such as interlace/de-interlace and broadcast-safe colours filters have been added, as has support for Apple’s next-generation Mac OS X. A stable solution The OS X version is amazingly stable and, sensibly, Discreet hasn’t decided to Aqua-fy the interface. It’s even kept the shortcuts the same as the Windows version (apart from the obvious Ctrl/Cmd keyboard difference) – overriding OS X’s system defaults. The artist interface has been given a spring clean. There are still a few things missing, however, such as an equivalent to After Effects’ motion math. That said, Combustion 2.0 is an amazing package, and easily the best compositing software in its class. The particle system is a joy to use, vector-based paint is great, and workflow is simplified thanks to the schematic view. The price rise is disappointing, but this really is a case of you get what you pay for.