By Neil Bennett | on August 21, 2006
Price When Reviewed: 280 . 30 . 2700
Pros: High-quality effects tools. Fast and efficient for visual effects work. Integration with Final Cut Studio.
Cons: Inappropriate for most desktop compositing work. Ignores many modern OS interface conventions. Lacks breadth of effects.
When Apple announced that it was slashing the price of Shake for Mac from £1,700 to under £300, it received online hyperbole equating this to a Ferrari being offered for the price of a Skoda. However, to continue an automotive metaphor, Shake is more like a Formula One car: it’s fantastic at what it does but it’s no good if you’ve got two kids and a bundle of shopping – regardless of the price.
The price drop was timed for the release of version 4.1. This update adds no new creative features, just a series of tweaks and bug fixes – and a version compiled to run on Macs with Intel processors. This is largely irrelevant until Apple ships Intel-based workstations. As such, we’ll be reviewing the Mac version of Shake 4.1 here as a completely new product. To most users of After Effects and Combustion, as well as editors with Final Cut Pro/Motion workflow, it’s a new potential addition to the toolbox.
Shake is a visual-effects compositing application that’s ideal as the day-to-day workhorse of post-production houses working on film or high-end broadcast projects. It enables such facilities to take a large portion of a compositing project away from Flame suites with extortionate by-the-hour rates, or even do away with the Discreet kit completely. Its open architecture allows it to slip easily into the workflow of a post house’s production pipeline, with R&D teams quickly able to build plug-ins to automate any process.
None of which matters to most desktop-based editors and compositors, where there’s no R&D team and the production pipeline often consists of a series of named folders on a server. What these users want are a wide range of high-grade tools in an efficient environment – and Shake is lacking in both these areas.
Shake it up
Load Shake for the first time and you’re in for a shock. The application uses node-based compositing as its core, where you build effects through a flowchart of media and effects instead of an AE-style layered timeline. This isn’t new to the sub-£1,000 market – Combustion has been offering this for years – but if your previous experience is with Final Cut and/or After Effects, it takes a while to get used to.
The nodal system is great for building and organizing complex visual-effects shots, combining tens, even hundreds, of elements and filters without losing track of where everything is. It provides little assistance to shots with three or four filters, or motion-graphics work.
This requires a clear and functional timeline, and Shake’s is very basic. Instead of keyframing from the timeline though, Shake has the Curve Editor (below). This is a separate palette that shows a graph of parameter values over time, providing fine control over how the values change through support for different types of bézier curves. The user selects which parameters appear here, and parameters from different effects can be shown next to each other. It’s an excellent way of working – and Shake introduced it to desktop compositing – but After Effects added an easier-to-use version in the 7.0 release. AE’s nodal system is still poor, though.
Shake’s interface is dated, and feels as though it was tagged on as an afterthought. Essentially, it was – the first time we saw Shake was in Smoke & Mirrors’ machine room in 1999. It was a batch-processing tool and didn’t even have a GUI, as it was run from the command line. The interface still barely covers the scripts that make up the application – and many standard OS interface conventions have been ignored. You have to slog through a Unix-style dialog to load files and there’s no support for your mouse’s scroll wheel. Worse, there are no context sensitive menus. Shake often relies on you knowing the keyboard shortcuts.
The interface isn’t a problem for Shake’s traditional audience. It’s focused on high-end visual effects where asset management is taken care of for the compositor, and it’s very easy for programmers to modify. For everyone else though, it can get in the way.
Most potentials users will want Shake to take care of visual effects – and there are less than you’d expect. Shake sets the bar high with its 32-bit floating point colour space, resolution independence, and swift processing that makes quick work even of HD using the flipbook previewing system – especially on our Quad 2.5GHz Power Mac G5 test system.
Each individual effect is of the highest quality. From Gaussian blur and optical defocus filters to warp and morphing tools, the output quality of Shake’s tools is a grade above the likes of After Effects and Combustion. Like AE, Shake is bundled with The Foundry’s Keylight 32-bit keying plug-in (right) – but Shake also includes the 32-bit version of the Primatte Keyer. Between the two you should be able to deal with even the most difficult keys.
Shake’s colour correction tools (below) are incredibly powerful but can seem daunting if you’re used to visual controls such as colour wheels.
The suite is missing whole swathes of effects in areas such as lighting, particles, and psychedelic-type effects. It also lacks many of the timesaving, single-purpose filters that After Effects and Combustion include. Unlike AE, Combustion, Boris Red, Fusion, and most NLEs, Shake doesn’t support AE format plug-ins – so you can’t bring them with you if you’re switching from AE to Shake.
Shake has its own plug-in format, with GenArts Sapphire (reviewed in Digit 103) and The Foundry’s Furnace being two of the most popular sets available. Most Shake suites for visual effects creation will include one or both. Sapphire is most affordable at $1,699 (£920) and it includes some unbeatable effects, but the value of Shake and Sapphire together won’t match that of AE or Combustion for most users.
Integration with Final Cut Studio is limited, especially when compared to After Effects within Adobe’s Production Studio. The ability to bring Motion projects into Shake (below) is the most useful function, as you don’t need to render and projects are automatically updated – allowing you to use Motion as a titling or particle plug-in for Shake.
When Apple released version 4.1, it said that “no further software updates are planned as we begin work on the next generation of Shake compositing software”. Speculation based on this is rife, with rumours circulating that the “next-generation” of Shake will have a completely different interface nearer to the Final Cut Studio applications.
What is certain is that no further maintenance updates will be released before the next full upgrade – which is why Apple is letting post houses buy the Shake source code for $50,000. With a new version of Mac OS X on the way, this is a concern.
Shake 4.1 may seem like a bargain, but considering how little it offers most desktop editors and compositors, it’s probably best left to the niche from whence it came.
The high-end post production industry has been largely unmoved by Apple’s slashing of Shake’s price.
“The new pricing really doesn’t affect us as such,” says Chris Burns, co-head of 2D at Double Negative, which has used Shake on films such as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (below). “What it will hopefully do is encourage more people to learn Shake and compositing techniques in general as it is more accessible to the consumer and education markets.”
Neither is Burns concerned by Shake’s insecure future. “Shake becoming discontinued doesn’t affect us for the near future,” he says. “Shake is a mature product that has been used on over 50 feature films at Double Negative. It’s a core part of our pipeline and it will continue to be so until a viable alternative is available.”
Some experienced Shake compositors though have privately expressed concerns about what the next-generation of the software will focus on. Some are worried that it will expand to become a more general-purpose compositing tool for a wider audience (to sit alongside Final Cut Pro and Motion), making it less appropriate for feature film use.