Price: £3,450 plus VAT; upgrade £340 plus VAT; DFX+ £690 plus VAT
Everyone talks about the market upheavals and price drops in the 3D market, but it's compositing that has gone through the greatest change in the past nine months. Apple's aggressive price drop of the Mac version of Shake to around £3,200, with rumours of a Final Cut Pro-priced version waiting in the wings, was followed by Discreet dropping the price of Combustion to a reasonable £960 (with Cleaner bundled). It's into this arena that Digital Fusion 4.0 has been released ? and it now shares a price with Shake. This full-spec, node-based compositor is available either as the full application or as DFX+, an 8-bit version with a standard backbone to which modules can be added for visual effects, keying, input/output, 3D tools, network rendering, paint, and particles. Digital Fusion has suffered from a low profile in the UK, due until recently to a lack of distribution. However, the application has an excellent reputation worldwide. It's robust and reliable rather than full of flash, but that's why users want it. The oft-quoted story of Frantic Films compositing 550 layers to complete the opening sequence of the movie Swordfish shows that Digital Fusion is stable if nothing else. That isn't to say that it doesn't allow you to flex your creative muscles, but its main selling point is its efficiency at day-to-day compositing tasks. The additional features found in Digital Fusion 4.0 are more about getting work done than glitz and glamour. The most important (now that the product is positioned alongside Shake) is support for floating-point colour depth, so clips will retain all the colour values of whatever a user does to them until the range of the final output is applied. This avoids colour information disappearing if a tool pulls it out of the standard colourspace and another pulls it back in. Working with floating-point colour puts a strain on the host processor and RAM, but Digital Fusion makes things faster and more usable by enabling the processing of different layers or branches of nodes in different colour depths. Cache in hand Digital Fusion 4.0's greatest speed improvement comes from the dynamic RAM cache. Previously, it kept only the current frame in memory - but now it can hold as many frames as the host computer's RAM can manage. This has been due for a while - even Adobe After Effects has this function - but Digital Fusion's system is adaptive, shunting cache resources around to address different priorities. Linked to this is background rendering, which renders work and places it within the RAM cache whenever the CPU is idle. This doesn't use just the host machine. If Digital Fusion has networked rendering-slaves, these will be used. This happens whenever a work is altered, and can provide a huge productivity boost. Network rendering uses the improved Render Manager. Rendering stations can now be organized into groups, and shared between them. To allow for the fact that most render farms are a mish-mash of old PCs, the network rendering system doesn't have to wait for one project to completely finish on all machines before starting the next - a nice touch. The other major addition that makes the application faster is support for what Eyeon calls concatenated transformations - where physical transformations of layers, such as scaling, rotation, and positioning, are applied only at the end of a sequence of nodes. According to the company, this improves the sharpness of the output image. It certainly makes rendering and previewing much faster. Digital Fusion 4.0 also gains tools that make for faster working. Grouping tools together to make complex flowcharts easier to navigate was possible before, but version 4.0 boosts this by allowing the creation of macro tools. These allow regularly used groups of tools to be turned into a single tool, with only the required controls on show. More powerful than this - though more complicated - is the new scripting language, DFScript. This is designed as an automation system for tasks such as format conversion, but can also be used for other tasks. For example, by using TCP/IP functions, it can control rendering stations or allow the Render Manager to communicate with other applications? network-rendering systems. There are new creative tools and enhancements here, too. Most important among these is the Grid Warp tool - see the walkthrough (right) for more details. This features independent source and destination grids, both of which are animatable along splines. Other new tools include Scale, Change Depth, Fast Noise, Erode/Dilate, and Particle Image Emitter nodes, which fill in a few gaps in Digital Fusion's armoury. Eyeon has also re-written Digital Fusion's tracker. It has combined the Tracker, Stabilize, and Corner Positioner tools into a single node that can track multiple paths. This makes tracking faster, leaving the user with a cleaner flowchart. Stabilization has also been improved, with stabilized motion now supported. Image cloning There are many smaller enhancements within Digital Fusion 4.0, such as the mobile and rotatable splitter bar for viewing A/B split screens; independent preferences for individual projects; and the copy polyline paint mode for copy-&-paste image cloning. Digital Fusion 4.0 also ships with a DVD of 'Courseware'? containing videos than explain the interface to new users, and materials for the printed tutorials. While the content is informative, the production quality is, frankly, appalling and amateurish. The videos are out-of-focus DV clips with bad artifacts and an unedited voiceover. Also, many of the links in the project files are incorrect. You may learn more about the product by working out how to fix the errors, but this is hardly the point. Overall though, Digital Fusion 4.0 is an excellent improvement to an excellent product. The application can happily work with formats from DV to film, and features full toolsets in all of the major areas that a compositor should work in - including effects, rotoscoping, text, tracking, and even a full 3D particle system that kicks Combustion's 2.5D system into touch. The application as a whole is missing a full 3D workspace, but this can be added using Fusioneers' Gaia 3DF plug-in. The compositor's open nature is another of its strengths. Not tied to a major post-production player, Eyeon is free to make deals with whomever it pleases ? meaning there's a huge range of plug-ins available. The application can also use a wide range of video-capture hardware to boost video playback, with bundles including NewTek's Video Toaster already available. If performance was everything, Digital Fusion would be a winner. However, price drops have left this mid-range package looking out of place next to the high-end Shake. And while it knocks the spots off Combustion, it's hard to justify the price. Even the complete £1,720 DFX+ bundle is almost twice the price of Discreet's tool. We can only hope that in the New Year, everyone will have sorted out their prices, and that a lower-priced Digital Fusion 4.0 will justify the Best Buy it deserves.