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One of the most enticing new features in Combustion 3 is the built in editing capability. The Edit tool exists as an operator (as Combustion calls its effects nodes). Creating edits is easy (see Walkthrough below). However, as an NLE, the Edit operator offers less functionality than iMovie. It has a single track with trimmable clips with support for slip, slide and ripple editing. It offers dissolve, wipe and splice edits – and that’s it.

It might be simple, but the Edit operator can be very useful if you consider it as a more intuitive version of After Effect’s Transition effects. It’s a more efficient way to create a sequence of clips or compositions in the heart of your overall composition, as opposed to using the standard timeline – which is still one of Combustion’s weak points. It can be used to put together a rough cut for clients without having to open your NLE. The Edit operator doesn’t extend the product in the same way as the internal compositing system within Softimage|XSI does, but it’s still a useful tool.

The recently released version 6.0 of After Effects traded in its proprietary Motion Math scripting system for JavaScript-driven Expressions – and Combustion 3 has followed the same path. Expressions are even more important for Combustion though, as it lacked any scripting before.

As with AE, Expressions can be created either semi-automatically using the Quick Pick tool to tie the values of one parameter to another, or by programming directly in JavaScript. As scripting languages go, JavaScript is not the easiest to get to grips with – but it’s a skill you can take with you into other compositing and 3D applications in the future. However, coding has a tendency to make creatives’ heads spin, so if you’re new to scripting, a training course or a good book would be a good investment, especially as the Combustion 3 manual offers much less explanation of the coding process and terms than AE’s.

Where Combustion has a clear lead on AE is through the Expression Browser. This is a script library – something AE lacks – that gives access to the 30-plus Expressions that ship with Combustion. These include sine wave, square root and random functions. As well as providing access to the scripts and their code, the Expression Browser shows the user-modifiable parameters for each Expression – allowing compositors to use Expressions without touching the code. This is great for users who don’t want to learn code, or are just beginning.

Another feature Combustion 3 has that AE doesn’t is the ability to capture DV footage directly over FireWire from any OHCI-compatible card or on-board chip. Just about any post-2000 FireWire port will work. However, the capture tool is so basic, you’re still going to do your main tape log and capture in your NLE. There are no logging tools, scene extraction, or even device control – just a record button to turn on and off while you play with your DV deck or camera. The tool is therefore more of last resort, and unlikely to be an important part of your workflow.

Morphing tools

The one new creative tool within Combustion 3 is the bundling of RE:Vision Effect’s RE:Flex plug-in. This includes three operators for mesh warping, morphing still images, and morphing footage respectively. These are well-known, powerful effects, that offer a huge-level of manual control, and as they used to cost around £350 on their own, their inclusion is more than worth the price of upgrading Combustion alone. However they’re not as intuitive as, say, Digital Fusion’s Mesh Warp tool for simple work, so there’s perhaps little point in their inclusion.

They appeared late in the day on Discreet’s list of features for Combustion 3 – perhaps to make up for the not exactly long list of new features in the upgrade.
It would have been better to have brought in a tool to shore up one of Combustion’s weaker features, as Adobe did by adding the excellent Keylight keyer to AE 6. This is an area that Combustion could do with a more automated approach, with DV-specific tools, rather than a powerful but fiddly tool that will appeal to a much smaller group of users.

The rest of Combustion 3’s additional features are smaller in scope, but most are useful and well implemented. The Stained Glass button turns layers into projection layers, which is the same as the system introduced in After Effects in v5.5. Compositors can work with Open EXR HDRI (high dynamic range image) files, the rendering of which has just been added to Combustion’s sister application, 3DS Max 6 (reviewed here).

Operator presets can be saved and used as a library across teams or multiple projects. Markers can be added to the timeline for notes or cues, but these can’t be exported. Clips can be split into two with a single shortcut, which makes layer control easier.

The custom brush system lets users paint with irregular shapes and even with footage. This works as you’d expect, but the inclusion of some sample brushes would have been good, as the standard brushes are all circular.

Compositors can use Combustion’s paint system to create Flash animations. We liked the Flash Mode button, which locks off tools such as the paint bucket that can’t be translated into the Flash format, but were less impressed with being forced to output animations as finished SWF files, rather than FLA files that you can add interactivity to in Flash. None of the rest of Combustion’s functionality are available to you, which
is a shame considering Flash MX 2004 Professional’s Web video toolset.

Combustion still has a few flaws, too. For example, as well as the keyer, the particle system hasn’t been updated. Bought in from the pre-Wondertouch owner of particleIllusion (then Illusion), it has less functionality than the version of particleIllusion from Digit 64’s cover disc. Being within the Combustion node-structure is good, but its proprietary nature means than you don’t even have access to particleIllusion’s freely available emitter libraries.

More annoyingly, Combustion 3 workspaces can’t be opened in version 2, and v3 can’t save v2 workspaces – so any cross-platform teams will have to wait until the Mac version of v3 ships early next year before upgrading. Any remaining users of Edit, Discreet’s old editing system that was retired last year, won’t be able to use Combustion 3 either, as each stops the other from working.

Combustion 3 is much more DV-friendly than higher-end tools such as Digital Fusion or Shake. Compared to version 6.0 of After Effects, Combustion 3 seems tight on new features, especially as many are already available in AE. However, while After Effects has the edge for motion graphics creation, Combustion’s overall feature set still makes it the leading sub-£1,000 visual-effects package.