Combustion 3

Though the Mac-based compositing market is dominated by Adobe After Effects and Apple’s own Shake, Discreet’s Combustion has earned a loyal following, thanks to its unusual interface and powerful features.

Version 3 offers many improvements and important additions, such as the ability to perform simple edits within a composition. Combustion has high-end features like vector-based painting, pro-level particle effects, and smooth integration of 2-D and 3-D compositing (features derived from Discreet’s high-end video-compositing apps such as Inferno, Flint, and Flame). But the program still has its weak points; its performance is uneven and it’s difficult to learn.

Something Completely Different

Combustion’s strongest feature has always been its unique interface. The program takes over your entire screen, filling it with a neutral-gray background so seeing colors accurately is easier. The upper two-thirds of the screen displays your work while the lower third contains context-sensitive tabs, buttons, and sliders.

Though Combustion eschews typical floating windows, its Viewport mechanism (which is really a window) lets you quickly and easily see multiple views of your project. The program’s excellent RAM playback (for playing back video) lets you view your video in real time while you work, an essential tool for complex rotoscoping jobs.

The theory behind Combustion’s interface is that you won’t have to expend much effort navigating and managing it. In practice, this is largely true. But Combustion’s approach is so far from the mainstream Mac interface that even experienced graphics pros will need time to get up-to-speed.

Special Operations

To create an effect in Combustion, you apply operators to a layer. Operators include color corrections, special-effects filters, and geometric transformations, and you can apply them to single layers or a group of layers. The advantage of this approach is that you can go back and redefine, remove, reorder, or tweak any operator at any time.

The most impressive of Combustion 3’s new features is its Edit Operator, which lets you edit film clips together—complete with transitions—within the application. You no longer have to return to an editing application to adjust the timing of an edit within an effect. (Most other compositing programs require a separate editing program for this task.) You can even capture clips from any QuickTime-supported device directly into Combustion—a handy shortcut for quickly grabbing additional media such as video, animation, or stills. But make no mistake: Combustion’s Edit Operator is rudimentary, and it’s not a substitute for a real editing application.

Animation Assistance

Animators often create complex motions by using simple mathematical expressions to define how a layer should move. Combustion improves this process with its Visual Expressions Browser, which lets users alter and customize expressions with visual sliders and controls.

Other new operators include Grain Management, which allows you to add or remove grain and noise from a layer; new feathering controls, which let you feather different sides of a selection by different amounts; and the ability to output your projects as Flash animations, which is convenient.

The most impressive things about this program, however, are its price and its helper applications. Its $995 price is competitive with that of Adobe After Effects, but Combustion comes bundled with Re:Vision Effects’ Re:Flex plug-in, an excellent morphing and warping tool that would cost you $500 to add to After Effects.

Performance Issues

While Combustion 3’s performance is an improvement over the previous version’s, it still feels uneven. Most operations clip along just fine, but you might be surprised to find the program slowing down from time to time, especially while you’re using the painting tools. I was surprised that the program’s Grain Management tools felt a little sluggish, especially as I added more layers to my composite.

Though After Effects plug-in support has improved in version 3, it’s still not flawless, so you might find that some of your After Effects plug-ins won’t work. Where Combustion really scores over After Effects is in its support for high-bit images (including 16- and 32-bit images). And its support for Cineon files and look-up tables (LUTs) makes Combustion a practical tool for high-end broadcast and film finishing.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

If you already use Combustion, the $200 upgrade is a no-brainer. And if you’re looking for an inexpensive alternative to Discreet’s high-end products, or if you need to work with high-bit media, Combustion is an excellent choice. Once you get used to Combustion’s interface, you’ll be sold on it. But if you’re already an experienced After Effects user, the program may not offer enough advantages to convince you to switch. Combustion is also a good choice if you’re a beginner; however, because of the program’s small user base, you won’t get the plug-ins and support that you get with After Effects.

Combustion eschews the usual Mac look-and-feel in favor of a custom interface derived from Discreet’s high-end compositing products.

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