Combustion 4.0

Product: Combustion
Version: 4.0
Manufacturer: Autodesk
Price: $995

Performance & stability: 7/10
Expected return on investment: 10/10
Support: 9/10
Longevity: 8/10
Flexibility: 10/10

Pros: Seems as though it can do anything

Cons: No Linux version available, performance not really suitable for client-attended sessions

Bottom line:The most versatile motion picture software available

Combustion 4.0

Combustion has been around for a long while, now at version 4, released last year. Since this is the first version for review at digital intermediates .org, I’ll focus on the package as a whole, rather than just the new features, and examine how well it can fit into a typical digital intermediate pipeline.

Combustion is designed first and foremost as a compositing tool, no doubt intended to rival products such as Adobe’s After Effects or Apple’s Shake in the desktop computer market, running on either a Windows or Mac-based workstation (sadly there’s no Linux version). The primary difference between Combustion and the other compositing systems, is that it (like Autodesk’s higher-end Flint and Flame systems) has a considerably more graphical feel to it. One cannot help feeling more in touch with images than the underlying digits, especially compared to the more node-orientated Shake.

In terms of the interface, you get multiple viewports, and pseudo-dockable toolbars. It’s not quite as flexible as say, 3DS MAX, but it won’t lead to much frustration or wasted time. You can look at footage pixel for pixel or at 1/2 resolution, 1/4 resolution and so on. There are guides- for action and title safe regions- but also customizable guides and rulers, accurate to hundredths of a pixel. Combustion will read in image sequences (and even has a pseudo-proxy browser for doing so, reminiscent of the Flame’s library view) or formats such as QuickTime and AVI, and these can be stacked together in the timeline. Already a use for Combustion becomes apparent- you can use it for QCing footage, and making conversions, without any hassle at all. You could take this a step further, and use it to read in a DPX sequence and produce a QuickTime movie for review. There’s the added capability to capture DV material directly from firewire, but to be perfectly honest, if you need this feature, you probably have a method set up already. At least it’s there for convenience.

combustion interface

Effects and the like are applied to footage by stacking “operators”, such as glows or text modules, and more mundane things like resizing and repositioning (even in 3D if you want) can be acheived by adjusting controls on the footage layer itself. Any third-party plugins (this includes a large number of so-called “After Effects-compatible” plugins) show up as extra operators in the list.

To really get into the guts of a shot, Combustion provides a schematic view. This gives a flowgraph layout, of the sort appearing more and more in digital intermediate systems. Within this view, it is possible to create “capsules”, groupings of effects and operations which can be saved to a library for re-use elsewhere. There are already plenty of websites featuring Combustion capsules, which provide easily creatable effects such as the ubiquitous bleach bypass and film look effects.

Combustion features a very useful “compare” mode, which allows split-screening between shots. When I say “shots”, this includes different points in the same shot, different layers of a shot, or even between unrelated footage elsewhere on the disk. When I say “split-screen”, this includes the ability to draw a region, rather than just a horizontal or vertical design. This again makes Combustion useful as a QC tool.

It does timewarping, which is ideal for most optical effects, but for better quality (i.e. motion-based), you’ll need a plugin such as Twixtor. Almost any parameter in Combustion can be animated. Animation can be accomplished by keyframing, or by using “expressions”– which are either coded scripts, or library presets for more mathematical motion. You could in theory use this feature to automate certain optical effects such as non-linear fades or wipes.

combustion timewarping

Combustion includes a fully functional text editor, which works very well for applying titles (in fact the interface in this regard is better than the equivalent interface in Flame), although I experienced a loss in performance when trying to use it to generate an entire credit roller. One of the most useful functions though, is the paint module. I recommend to people wanting a cheap, non-automated dust-busting should definitely take a look at Combustion. And even if you already have a system in place, then the paint module comes into its own once again if you use Combustion as a QC station, and just want to apply a quick fix.

combustion paint

For those of you who have read my book, you’ll know I’m a big fan of the potential of depth recording. This allows an extra channel to be embedded into an image, whereby the z-depth (the distance from the camera lens) of each pixel can be stored. The problem of course, is recording this information, unless you are working with CG images, or you have a special camera setup. With Combustion though, it is possible to manually paint this information in the form of gradients, and then use that information as the basis for applying effects such as depth of field, or virtual relighting. It takes rather a lot of work, particularly on shots with a great deal of motion (though the process is a little more forgiving than creating mattes for colour correction), but the results can be fantastic.

A small digital intermediate boutique could potentially use nothing except Combustion to complete a film. Bigger facilities could use Combustion to create mattes for grading, apply effects or opticals, and possibly even do some restoration. There is no doubt in my mind that every facility should have at least one copy. Even if it only gets used once, I’d bet it would pay for itself.

Performance is generally pretty good, you can run Combustion on a laptop with no ill effects, and if you install it on a beefier machine, you’ll definitely see the benefits during playback and rendering. You probably won’t be using it during client-attended sessions, it’s not really designed for that (I scored it low for performance, because I don’t want people to think of it as a replacement for a dedicated system). However, it is fairly stable. There were a few occasions when I pushed some effects parameters a little too far, which completely drained all the memory on my machine, but experience gives you an idea of the settings you should use. It’s integrated nicely with other Autodesk systems too. If you’ve splashed out on Cleaner XL, you’ll be able to submit jobs directly to it for quick conversions. If you’ve got Flames or Infernos, you can even send tracking or chroma-key data from the lowly Combustion to them (and vice versa). This provides endless workflow opportunities to allow a number of Combustion artists to be able to support the Inferno or Flame artist. As with all Autodesk M&E desktop products currently available, network rendering is possible, in this case using Backburner 3.0, which ships as part of the package.

combustion keying

I’ve focussed on Combustion for its usefulness within a digital intermediate production pipeline. That’s not strictly what Combustion was designed for. It’s designed for making composites. There are a whole host of tools in Combustion for things like chroma-keying and tracking (as well as that favourite of the 90s, morphing), things that don’t crop up very often in a digital intermediate pipeline, unless you’re a colorist (in which case you’d be using something else anyway). I mention that only because if you think you’ll need the extra features for some reason, they’re there. And even if you don’t, well they’re there anyway.

All reviews are based upon the principle that the hardware or software reviewed is to be used within a commercial digital intermediate environment; as such the review may not necessarily reflect the product’s intended purpose.

About the reviewer: Jack James has been working with digital imaging technology for 10 years. He has worked within a number of digital intermediate environments since joining Cinesite (Europe) Ltd.’s Digital Lab in 2001 to work on HBO’s Band of Brothers. He has a number of film credits, and has published the book "Digital Intermediates for Film & Video" with Focal Press.

The reviewer’s opinions are his own, and not affiliated with any third-party.

Posted: March 27th, 2006
Categories: Uncategorized
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