• Price When Reviewed: 1750 . 500 . 125 . 75

  • Pros: Excellent interface; full set of basic compositing functions; high-grade 3D system, good learning tools.

  • Cons: No Mac OS X 10.5 support; limited plug-in options; poor motion-graphics tools.

  • Expert Rating: We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10 Best Buy We rate this 9 out of 10

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Version 5 is the first edition of visual-effects software Nuke to be of significant interest to compositors outside large post facilities. Originally developed by Digital Domain as its in-house compositing system, it’s now owned by The Foundry, a Soho-based developer of high-end effects plug-ins.

Previous versions were lumbered with an interface that was about as friendly as a rhino with a migraine. It was clearly cobbled together and designed to fit within the pipeline of a very large post house. It was also uglier than a naked mole-rat.

Version 5 boasts a completely overhauled, modern interface. It borrows the best bits from the UIs of other visual-effects and motion-graphics systems – including Fusion, Shake, After Effects, Combustion and Motion, and blends them into
a coherent whole, together with a slickness borrowed from Apple’s Mac OS X 10.5.

The core panels are the same as before – and as other node-based compositing systems – including a Viewer for composites, a Node Graph flowchart, a Curve Editor for animating parameters, properties palettes, and a Script Editor. However, where these were a mess of floating palettes in the past, in Nuke 5 they’re joined into dockable panels, though you can pull them out as palettes if you wish.

There’s a lot of flexibility in how you arrange your workspace – and it’s fast to modify if you need more space for particular controls or just an oversized control. Layouts can be saved to one of six workspaces, which are accessible through shortcut keys – as are most of Nuke’s controls. It also includes tabs for quickly switching between the Curve Editor and Node Graph, for example.

There are well thought-out little touches throughout the application, such as the way that the Node Graph Overview, which shows a overview of your full node tree, only appears when your tree extends past the sides of the panel. When it’s not needed, it simply disappears.

One area where high-end VFX systems often make things fiddly for users in smaller firms is in file I/O. Boutique users are a lot messier with their files than large houses with strict pipelines, so when tools such as Shake won’t let you have quick access to the documents folder or desktop, users end up wasting lots of time navigating folders. Thankfully, Nuke 5 doesn’t have this problem.

Nuke 5 also excels for new users: the inclusion of extensive tooltips for all buttons and drop-down menus is very helpful indeed. That said, picking up the tools isn’t easy – they’re as different in operation from Shake’s as Shake’s are from Fusion’s, and have to be learned through regular use. Still, the included tutorials are well-written, easy to follow and informative – even if they have the odd confusing typo.

Nuke can now be set up without needing an in-house IT team to rig it up, so it’s accessible to many more boutique post houses than before. However, some of the new features are clearly aimed at the larger houses. Only the big houses will be working on stereoscopic projects, as capture and output in the 3D format is still hugely expensive, but if you’re one
of them, Nuke is currently the only visual-effects system with this built-in.

Python scripting is also going to appeal to users as many creatives who’ve worked with 3D animation applications are familiar with it.

The inclusion of a proxy system – where you work on low-res versions of your footage to speed up processing – is great, especially if you’re not using the latest, greatest hardware. The FrameCycler flipbooks system offers powerful high-res playback, allowing full-res playback of HD comps on our eight-core Mac Pro. The new version of Nuke also makes some minor improvements to masks, motion blur, the Viewer and adds an overall undo/redo system on top of the innovate per-tool undo/redo.

For compositors unfamiliar with Nuke – which includes almost everyone on this side of the Atlantic – it’s a top-notch visual effects system than can hold its own against more mature rivals such as Fusion and Shake. It’s a natural successor for current users of Shake after Apple suspended development of the popular tools – and even Combustion users tired
of Autodesk’s sloth-like upgrade cycle – and its cost is more accessible to these users than Fusion. Unlike Fusion, Nuke is available on Mac OS X as well as Windows and Linux – but it’s not currently compatible with the current OS X 10.5 release. As you can’t officially buy Macs with older OS versions, this could cause problems for new users.

The 3D system is excellent, both for compositing footage with multiple-pass output from 3D suites and for working with imported models – though only those in OBJ format can be used. The effects system covers all the usual bases, and can be expanded using OpenFX plug-ins such as The Foundry’s own Furnace and Tinder. Unfortunately there’s no way to utilize the AE plug-ins that Combustion owners are used to. One major missing plug-in set is GenArts Sapphire – whose glows are ubiquitous in VFX work. However GenArts showed a technology preview of an OpenFX version Sapphire at this year's NAB - though not release date as been set.

The keying system is based around two options – the high-end Image-Based Keyer (IBK) and the aging Primatte. The IBKnode is great for difficult jobs where you’ve got lots of time to tweak options for perfect results, but Primatte’s not up to the job for quicker work. Luckily, you can buy The Foundry’s own Keylight for £125 plus VAT – though the Nuke 5 version is still in beta, and it’s not bundled as it is with After Effects and Shake.

While it’s an excellent VFX system, Nuke isn’t a motion-graphics tool. It has nothing to compete with AE’s Shape Layers, and its text system is poor, lacking even basic controls such as character kerning (what it calls kerning is actually tracking).

Nuke 5 could easily be the ‘next big thing’ in the arena of visual-effects compositing – and all current Shake and Combustion owners should at least give it a try.