Apple’s Shake compositing program has been used to produce special effects for the last seven winners of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. At $2,999, the package obviously isn’t for everyone, but if your work depends on a compositing program such as Adobe After Effects ( November 2004 ) or Discreet’s Combustion, then you’ll want to take a look at the latest version of Shake.,
With new warping and morphing tools, improved network rendering, and numerous workflow enhancements, Shake 3.5 is a valuable upgrade for current Shake users. But because its node-based compositing system is so different from the timeline-based system used by most other compositing apps, new users will need to think very carefully before switching.
All Compositing, All the Time
It’s important to understand that Shake is a dedicated compositing program, not a motion-graphics program like Apple’s Motion ( January 2005 ) or a combination compositing-and-motion graphics program like Adobe After Effects. If you need to create the type of animation required for professional motion graphics, using Shake is going to be very tedious. Similarly, Shake doesn’t offer 3-D compositing or animation tools. (Apple says that Shake 4, which is scheduled to ship in June, will include 3-D compositing features.),
Shake provides a much finer degree of control than its competitors but it also requires you do more work to create even a simple composite. Shake doesn’t do anything automatically, which makes the program a little more difficult to use, but also makes it a lot more powerful than the competition. The good news is that, while Shake will force you to learn some compositing theory that you may not have needed to understand to use After Effects, this theory will make you a better at compositing in the long run.
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Nodes and Noodles
In a typical compositing program, you import media elements and then stack them up as layers in a timeline. Though this approach is very intuitive, it frequently requires complex “pre-comping” steps to control the order of compositing. In addition, tweaking the parameters of a single operation can require digging down through a complex maze of interface elements.
In Shake, every piece of media and every operation appears as a separate “node” in a node tree. These nodes are connected together using noodles—curvy lines that show how data flows into and out of different operations to create a final composite. Shake’s tool collection includes a thorough set of nodes for everything from creating color slates, gradient fills and rotoscoping shapes, to performing color keys, warps, blurs, and much more.
Unlike After Effects, which automatically composites layers as they’re stacked on top of each other, everything in Shake has to be explicitly defined. If you want to composite two layers, you must add an Over node to your project and link your source images into that node. The results can then be linked to other effects or composites.
Because every operation is a separate node, you can quickly and easily get to any filter or operation to tweak its parameters, delete it or replace it, and you never have to perform any pre-comping or nested compositing.
Shake offers incredible scripting power and customization. Providing more than just simple batch processing or automation, Shake lets you create complex production pipelines that span multiple machines. For high-end production workflows, Shake’s scripting is unmatched.
As raw power goes, Shake is not any faster at rendering or outputting than After Effects, but its ability to work in a float-based color space makes it ideal for high-dynamic-range feature film and high-definition video work. Version 3.5 sports better RAM caching for improved on-screen playback, but it is still very weak when compared to After Effects or Combustion. Having to spend a lot of time waiting for frames to cache is just a frustrating fact of life with Shake 3.5.
In addition to improved RAM caching, as well as some improvements to the program’s network rendering, Shake 3.5’s most important improvements are the addition of new spline-based warping and morphing tools.
You may think you don’t need such effects for your projects, but warping and morphing are actually workhorse tools that can help you better composite elements that might be slightly mismatched in size, position or perspective.
Unfortunately, many of Shake’s other everyday tools are still nonstandard and obtuse. Rather than a simple Levels slider like the ones you’ll find in After Effects or Photoshop, Shake provides separate Expand, Compress, and Brightness commands. These are perfectly effective, but Levels is a simple, standardized interface that should be present in Shake.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
There’s no doubt that if you have a complex compositing task, Shake can do it, and probably with greater ease than After Effects. But be prepared for those first projects to take a long time as you get up to speed with the program. Shake is well worth its price—and for projects that utilize high-dynamic-range elements, it’s a must-have—but before you buy, be sure you can budget in some training, in the form of either books or classes.
Version 3.5’s improved caching and new Warp and Morph tools make this a must-have upgrade for dedicated Shake users.
[ Ben Long is a freelance writer and videographer based in San Francisco. ]
5/18/05 - EDITOR’S NOTE: Information added about Shake 4.