Price: £2,140 plus VAT (base price)
Company: Chrome Imaging
Chrome Imaging's Matrix is a compositing package that looks and acts like a resolution-independent high-end tool such as Shake, but is priced nearer to the likes of After Effects. At a smidgen over either two or three grand – depending on whether you can put up with having it tied to a single machine or not – Matrix seems to be going up against the likes of Discreet’s Combustion, aiming to bring high-end power to mid-range users. When the worlds of high-end and low-end video editing collided not that long ago, packages that wanted to take the best from each could mix-&-match quite easily – both types generally used the same interface (the only real difference being the A/B or single track timeline layout). With compositing, it isn't so easy. Tools such as Adobe After Effects are generally aimed at low-level work on longer clips (the result of lower budgets in both filming and production), and so have an editing-style timeline/layers approach. Node-based Matrix takes its lead from high-end tools, which feature a node-based system more suited for creating complex effects on much shorter pieces, even individual frames. This system works by users building their footage into a flowchart of the creative process. You plug the output of one piece of footage into the input of another and adjust parameters to fit. This can seem quite complex, but it’s much easier to deal with ten or more effects on a single piece using the node system. It’s not just the node-based approach that Matrix takes from its much more expensive brethren. The matte-grey interface borrows as heavily from everything from Shake to Flame as Combustion has. It may seem quite alien to long-term AE or Pinnacle Commotion users, but after a while, you realize that the dark colour scheme fades into the background of your peripheral vision and allows you to work on your footage without annoying distractions. Upon launching Matrix, you’re confronted with the composite window, which is split into four palettes. The largest window contains a view of the footage or process you’re working on, with a palette showing the parameters of any effects to its right. Below these are the media window and the flowchart for laying out your nodes. The media window has two tabs, one for footage, and one for effects. The flowchart window can be changed to show the timeline, spline shape, or audio. The interface is clear – but to use it properly, you’re going to need a monitor with a resolution of at least 1,600-x-1,200, meaning that a 21-inch CRT or 20-inch LCD is the order of the day. You’ll also need a very fast workstation with a nippy hard drive system for your video – as even with DV footage, Matrix can run extremely slowly without serious hardware backup. Central to Matrix are the effects nodes, of which there are well over 100. These are broken down into 15 groups ranging from colour correction and channel operations to composites, from blurs to noise tools, and from light effects to distortion/transformation/warping. The effects are wide-ranging (though a text tool has been overlooked) and powerful – and they’re easy to get to grips with. Coming from proprietary backgrounds, most compositing systems use different terminologies for their tools. Matrix keeps things as simple as possible by using standard tool and parameter names wherever possible, that even a Photoshop-using static artist could understand. The composite screen is only one of five, though, which you move between using five buttons at the top of the screen. The first is the import screen, which has two panes: one shows the directory structure of your computer, with the other showing your media bins. Try to drag some footage from one to other, and you'll find one of Matrix’s irritating flaws – no drag-&-drop. That’s not just here either, but throughout the whole application. You have to select your files and then click on a button on the top-right of the screen. Matrix also comes a cropper as it tries to read all files it comes across, including some poorly encoded video that happened to be floating around our machine. These crashed Matrix as soon as they appeared in the file browser window. High-end users with ordered production structures may never come across this, but it’s a pain for everybody else. 3D formats The upside of the import screen is that it lets you get your hands on just about any format you can think of on top of the usual AVI, QuickTime and MPEG. High-enders will be happy with the likes of Cineon/DPX and VPB Quantel, but most will be intrigued with other 3D formats. Almost all of the main 3D tools are supported including Discreet 3DS Max, Alias Maya, Softimage, Electric Image, and even Mental Ray and Houdini – though NewTek LightWave is notable in its absence. Matrix can work with many of the extra features built into extended formats such as RPF, including channel information and other details. It lets you make changes to single elements without having to re-render, and it’s backed up with 3D effects such as depth-of-field and 3D fog within Matrix's infinitely large 3D workspace. Matrix is not just about formats and effects, though. It features an integrated paint module. This has a selection of responsive and well-rounded paint and retouching tools with the usual animatable stroke properties and Wacom tablet support. However, they're not as flexible as the likes of Commotion or Combustion – though they do have the bonus of being resolution-independent like the rest of the program. Another flaw is that there’s no paint node. You just paint on top of any other effect, which goes against the whole principle of the node-based layout. Next up is the tracking module. This is well done, with support for unlimited trackers and both motion matching and stabilization for one, two, or four trackers. There’s also subpixel accuracy up to 1/256 of a pixel and pattern matching for both RGB and HSL. The last window is the render module, which organizes your render queue. You can select any node to add to the queue, which lets you batch render different versions of a clip for different output media, or for a client to choose between. Actually selecting the render function on a node in the composite screen shows another of Matrix’s bugbears. You select from the context-sensitive menu you get when you Ctrl-Shift select it. But what’s wrong with a simple right-click like every other Windows tool worth its salt? This is indicative of Matrix. It’s what we were worried Combustion would turn out like – a proprietary high-end tool brought down to mid-range without realizing that everyone at that level has conventions to make it easier to switch tools, and has invented usability functions that the big boys haven’t got round to yet. Maybe it wants to take on Shake from a much lower-price point – but against compositing’s real big boys, it doesn’t have the features or level of control to match. It’s obvious that a lot of work has gone into Matrix. It has useful background features such as unlimited undo levels that it remembers from session to session and Wacom tablet support from the off. It’s just a shame that its features haven’t followed its price into the realm of easy-to-use software.