capsule review

Shake 4

At a Glance
  • Apple Shake 4

    Macworld Rating

With the addition of some long-awaited features, Shake 4 is a welcome upgrade for existing users, and a great choice for pros who want a high-end compositing tool. Not only does Shake 4 add much-needed 3-D compositing capabilities, but it also offers new stabilization and warping features as well as good Final Cut 5 integration. Like Shake 3.5 (   , July 2005 ), Shake 4 is frustratingly slow in some areas, and frustratingly un-Mac-like in others. But for high-end film and video compositing work, it’s hard to beat.

An unusual interface

Shake delivers compositing capabilities for everything from standard- and high-definition video to 35mm film. Its main competition is Adobe After Effects (although Autodesk’s Combustion is also in the mix). While Shake’s feature set may not differ dramatically from After Effects’, its interface is better-suited to extremely complex compositing work.

Shake uses a unique node-based approach. To generate a composite, you create a tree of nodes that are wired together to define how the program should combine the different media elements. The advantage to Shake’s approach is that you can easily access any part of your composite, unlike with After Effects’ timeline-based interface, which requires you to dig through multiple layers to edit a particular parameter or effect.

While the interface remains mostly unchanged, Apple has added a few features to ease navigation of the node tree. You can now insert new nodes by simply dragging them onto the wires that connect existing nodes. You can also create Favorite views, which help you quickly jump to a particular part of a node tree. New color coding makes it easier to identify expression links, animated nodes, and different bit depths.

In addition to 3-D movement of layers, Shake 4’s new MultiPlane node also provides an animatable camera.
(Click image to open full screenshot)

The downside: Shake’s interface is—and has always been—extremely un-Mac-like. All functions, from saving files to creating final renders—even basic media management—require you to add special nodes, rather than use menu-based commands. This is fine for long-time Shake users, but it can be a real hassle for newcomers.

A new dimension

Past versions of Shake have lacked true 3-D compositing, but version 4 addresses this deficiency quite handily with the new MultiPlane node, which lets you position any media element in 3-D space. To use it, connect any layers that you want to manipulate in 3-D to a MultiPlane node. Those layers remain contained inside of a 3-D space, where you can animate each independently. The MultiPlane node provides a true 3-D environment, complete with an animatable camera.

When editing a MultiPlane node, Shake presents a special Viewer environment, which provides a typical 3-D workspace, with separate windows for top, bottom, side, and isometric views. You can use these views to position your elements and refine your 3-D scene.

Shake’s 3-D interface is very intuitive; positioning your elements and camera is very simple. To ease the creation of match moves, you can even import camera data from any 3-D program that supports .ma (Maya ASCII) files.

Shake still lacks some features found in After Effects’ 3-D arsenal, though. For instance, you can’t add lights to the MultiPlane environment, which means no shadow casting. This is not a terrible omission considering that Shake is tailored more toward compositing than motion graphics—but it’s something I’d like to see in the future.

Unshaking it

While previous versions provided Stabilizer nodes for smoothing out camera shake, version 4 adds Optical Flow technology, which performs complex pixel-by-pixel tracking of each frame in a layer. This allows for several impressive new Shake features, including a Smoothcam node, which provides higher-quality stabilization and an easier interface in which to work.

Optical Flow technology also provides for extremely high-quality media retimings, whether you’re creating straight slow-motion effects or clips with variable timing. When compared to After Effects’ Time Remapping features, I found that Shake’s Optical Flow-based retimings yielded noticeably superior results.

New shape-based morphing and warping tools allow you to use vector-based shapes to apply distortion and warping effects. Because they’re shape-based as opposed to simple pixel manipulations, you can animate these warps and distortions over time. But of all of the new tools, I found these to be the most difficult to learn.

Scripting goods

For complex production pipelines, Shake features an extremely robust scripting language. You can easily automate every aspect of the compositing process, and Shake’s C-like scripting language can incorporate Perl or AppleScript. You can represent any parameter in Shake with a mathematical expression, making it possible to create complex procedural effects that would be extremely tedious or impossible by hand.

Besides adding support for the program’s new nodes, Shake’s scripting and expression engine remains largely unchanged in version 4.

Shaky performance

Shake 4 adds improved integration with other high-end Apple products: You can now send edited clips directly from Final Cut Pro or Motion (both   , October 2005 ) into Shake. Unfortunately, I found these features unreliable.

Shake continues to offer better high-bit media support than the competition, but it still suffers from a number of performance problems. On many occasions, a simple Undo would crash the program. Also, while Shake 4 now provides a Cache node to help you optimize the program’s playback caching, performance can still be poor on very large projects. If you’re working with high-bit 4K media, you’ll probably notice extreme slow-downs once you pass 20 or so layers. There are some workarounds for these problems, but it would be nice to see additional improvements in this area.

Macworld’s buying advice

Shake 3.5 users will definitely want to upgrade for the new 3-D features, and the stabilization and time-remapping tools. As for new users, if your compositing work consists mostly of motion-graphics-type chores, then Shake is overkill. You’re better off sticking with After Effects or a dedicated motion-graphics program like Apple Motion. But if you do serious compositing work—especially projects involving high-bit media with complex color concerns—then Shake is the best option around.

[ Ben Long is a freelance writer, photographer, and videographer based in San Francisco. ]

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating


    • Improved stabilization features
    • High-quality retiming and warping
    • New 3-D compositing tools


    • Performance problems on complex projects
    • Interface remains awkward for completing basic functions
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