By Neil Bennett | on January 12, 2004
Price When Reviewed: $895 . $349
Mirage has been built upon the bones on Aura, the compositing tool sold by NewTek, though both packages were developed in conjunction with TVPaint, the French developer which created much of the underlying technology. However, Bauhaus has turned an also-ran compositing tool into a paint-&-animation suite that attempts to mix the best technologies of Commotion, Painter, and a 2D cel animation package such as Toonz. We looked at the Windows version, as at the time of writing the Mac OS X was still in beta.
At the heart of Mirage is the paint system. The other main compositing packages have paint toolsets that feel just like any other effect, but Mirage’s paint tools are in your face from the moment you fire up the application. AE’s Photoshop-style Paint palette feels paltry next to Mirage’s, which is loaded with different paint tools, and more akin to Painter’s. For Mirage, a Wacom tablet is a necessity, rather than a bonus.
The breadth of Mirage’s paint toolset is far beyond its competitors. Application tools begin with the conventional airbrush and paintbrush, but there’s plenty more. A mechanical pencil produces schematic-style single-pixel lines, the oil brush mimics a three-dimensional liquid with variable viscosity, the charcoal pencil can produce lines between fine particles and granular streaks, the wet brush mimics watercolours, and the warp brush distorts other paints. A special brush allows users to smear, shift and mix paints, plus use an impress function to combine rub-through and smear effects to obtain an impressionistic result. There’s a text brush for painting with a single line of text, plus classic paint tools such as fill and the usual effecting vector drawing and spline tools.
The Paper palette is impressive, allowing the user to select the texture of surface to which the paint is applied. Previously only seen in static art and animation tools, this provides the user with an instant mental picture of the results of certain effects, enabling the user to more quickly and easily produce creative results.
The main difference between Mirage’s system and that used by the likes of Adobe and Boris FX is that Mirage uses a ‘true’ paint system, while the others use a vector-paint system in their applications. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Vector paint provides
a more flexible output that is easier to manipulate using traditional compositing methods after the strokes are laid down, but can be processor intensive. True paint systems offer a wider and often more naturalistic range of application methods (and surfaces), but rely much more on the manual dexterity of the user, with post-stroke manipulation limited sometimes to mere undo/redo. Which system is better depends on the individual user, their background and skills – though the first application to manage to put both together is onto a winner.
Mirage’s video-paint toolset is the best on the market. However, the nature of its paint system makes the rest of
the application less flexible than many of us have grown used to. Mirage keeps separate undo/redo lists for different tools, engaged through the re-apply command, but an Adobe-style history list would have been much better. The otherwise charming ‘What’s done is done’ message that appears when you’ve reach the bottom of the undo/redo list is often indicative of the application as a whole.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with the effect application system, the FX Stack. With this, you add single or multiple effects to a list and edit them with single frame-only preview. When you hit Apply, though, the results are fixed. You can immediately remove the effect/s, alter them in the FX Stack and reapply – but once you clear the stack to start on a new effect, there’s no going back. Users of high-end suites may be used to this, but it will aggravate long-term users of After Effects and Combustion. The effects are powerful, and we were especially impressed with the great results achieved with the volumetric lighting effect – but the list is hardly extensive. Photoshop filters can be added as plug-ins, but After Effects filters can’t be used.
The plug-in that’s bound to garner the most interest is the Particle Generator. This is a faux-3D particle system a la Wondertouch particleIllusion (and the system inside Combustion uses the same technology). Again, this suffers from a lack of editability and the number of presets isn’t huge, but the plug-in does offer a powerful toolset with a very wide set of variables.
Other plug-ins include the colour factory for altering colour channel attributes using mathematical equations; a cross keyer; a star field creator; and motion blur. They’re not in with the rest of the effects because they’re built on other technologies, for example some are a legacy from Aura. Bauhaus says that some plug-ins will move to the effects menu, though it has only confirmed the Particle Generator.
There is even a bizarre solar-powered calculator, an analog clock, and a function that takes the current frame of your composition and make it into the Windows background. We don’t know why they’re there, but we like them nonetheless.
Can’t put a price on comedy
This kind of humorous charm pervades the application, though it’s most useful in the manual – where the section on the history of particle systems actually had me laughing out loud, annoying everyone else on the tube carriage I’m sure – as it encourages you to enjoy learning the application, which should make you better at using it.
However, Mirage won’t always leave you with a smile on your face. Installation has to be performed carefully or you’ll install drivers for video-capture cards from Matrox or NewTek that you don’t have, and be harassed with otherwise-irrelevant error messages when Mirage is loading. Other niggles included the application opening new projects automatically if you closed all of the others and some hard-to-decipher typos in the provided tutorials
Within its niche, Mirage is an excellent tool. For static art, it hasn’t the feature set of Painter for faux-craft painting or Illustrator for traditional illustration. For effects compositing it’s not a patch on After Effects or Combustion – and both include paint tools that will satisfy many users. For example, there’s no 3D workspace in Mirage, and while the Text brush is a creative tool, a more traditional text engine would have been better. The inclusion of features such
as variable italicism is impressive, but it needs the likes of individual kerning of letters to be really great.
Where it comes into its own is for video painting and 2D animation. Animation specific tools such as a light table for seeing ghosts of previous frames, TWAIN-support for directly scanning in your drawings make Mirage into a great tool for the single animator – though it lacks the organizational, collaborative and faux-3D tools of the high-end, high-price 2D cel animation suites, as well as SWF Flash output. And if you find the paint tools of AE and Combustion too limiting, Mirage may well be the package for you.