Posts Tagged ‘autodesk’

The Rise of Toxik…

The answer to my Combustion 2008 woes… may come from the release of Toxik 2008 (which shipped in October 2007). Few people have any real experience of the Toxik product line, and with good reason: it has always been pushed as a collaborative visual effects tool, rather than a standalone one, and requires its own database server to be installed. With that in mind, it requires a conscious decision by the facility to invest in the infrastructure: great for start-ups, but not really that useful to anyone else.

Until now. The great news for 2008 is that Toxik can now be run as a standalone application. It runs on both Windows (32-bit with 64-bit support expected soon) and Linux (32-bit and 64-bit), although currently only NVIDIA Quadro graphics cards are supported (ATI support is in the works). The former Oracle database has been replaced by an XML file, so you lose all of the collaboration options, but keep everything else, like the gorgeous “Touch” user interface.


The result of this is that as well as the node-based schematic view synonymous with applications such as Shake, you get a lot of workflow and production management tools that you’d only expect to see in editing systems, such as customisable “pick lists”, render and archive scripts, user-generated metadata (which can actually be used to generate slates), and the often overlooked lynchpin of visual effects creation: version control. There’s even a desktop mode, mimicking Flame’s approach to clip management. Of course these are things that many Shake users would scoff at, mainly because it’s someone else’s job to worry about mundane things like that, but then these are also the same Shake artists that run into problems when they have to work on someone else’s shot.

It uses a whole slew of tricks to optimise performance: large images are tiled to fit the current display, and RAM and disk caching are combined to get decent playback. Everything is open: the interface can be scripted, plug-ins can be created (there is support for openFX), and shots can be processed from a command-line. As you’d expect, it ships with lots and lots of nodes to play with (I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow account of those here though). In short, it seems that it will at least do everything Shake will do.

It also does something that nothing else does: integrates completely with Maya. In addition to loading the standard layered Maya renders, it can also read the Maya scene file, and automatically hook to things like the cameras, lights, groups and locators, using them in the Toxik composition. It will also create the initial composite of the layers based upon this information, which is just the way it should be (although not everyone is in the privileged position of designing the structure of the Maya files in addition to creating the compositing software to deal with it).

There are a couple of areas that still need work: there is no vector-based paint tool in the current version, just a raster-based one (they apparently decided to err on the side of speed rather than flexibility). The tracker is nothing to write home about, particularly after having born witness to the toolset of the latest version of Lustre, but it’s certainly no worse than most of the other trackers out there. There’s no timeline editor, but the provided track view is probably more than adequate for most purposes. It’s also a little lacking in tools specific to video-based material, which will hopefully be addressed in a future release. Similarly, let’s hope we get to see a release for Mac users.

There’s also something of a learning curve to Toxik. While the Touch UI provides a very fast way to work once you’re used to it, it is different from conventional systems and doesn’t seem as intuitive to new users to begin with. Even trying to load footage into a composition can require a lot of leafing through the help system or user guide before you have the “Ah-ha” moment. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but it the UI just doesn’t feel as “solid” as Combustion’s. It reminds me a lot of when I first started using Maya after years of using 3D Studio; when I was overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of differences in the interface, from the hotbox, to the tool shelves, and the overall scriptability of it all.


Toxik 2008 is 2,500GBP per license and all render nodes are free. A subscription to receive updates and new nodes is an extra 470GBP per year.

It seems that Combustion is having a bit of an identity crisis at the moment. And given that Toxik is approaching its price-point whilst boasting superior capabilities, it’s not really that surprising. What I foresee happening is that either there will never be another Combustion release, or that it will undergo a bit of a facelift to make it targeted to 3ds Max Design users, and that meanwhile Toxik starts to get the recognition it deserves.

Posted: March 6th, 2008
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The Fall of Combustion…

I need to get something off my chest: I’ve always had a soft spot for Combustion, as if it’s the neglected step-child of the visual effects world. I guess it goes back to my days as a Smoke/Fire operator, but I’ve always preferred the design and interface to its contemporaries such as Shake and After Effects. So I was excited when Combustion 2008 was released at the end of 2007.

It’s been a few years since a major Combustion release (4.0), and I was worried the product line was starting to go stale, as it seemed that there were dozens of bugs and compatibility issues piled up. So I was really looking forward to the new version. I was relieved to discover two things: firstly, that there were lots of bug fixes announced in the latest version, and second, that another jewel in Autodesk’s high-end effects crown, the Colour Warper, was to be included.

However, when I started up the demo version, I couldn’t have been more disappointed. There was a new splash screen, a new licensing method, a shiny new Colour Warper operator in the Colour Correction category, and — actually, that’s about it. Combustion 2008 seemed exactly the same as its three-year-old predecessor (albeit with all the hot fixes and service packs installed). And it wasn’t fully compatible with Leopard upon its release.

I spoke to one of the product managers about it in January, who confirmed my suspicions: the major new things are the Colour Warper and roll-ups of bug fixes and hot fixes. Then there are the following UI improvements:

1.        Improvements to scene footage import (you can specify things like the imported frame-range, timing, and duration)
2.       Menus and windows can be expanded
3.       Operators can be dragged into viewports
4.       Synchronize playback of multiple viewports using shift+click
5.       Schematic enhancements inherited from the Toxik and Flame workflow

Combustion 2008 is approximately 850GBP (165GBP to upgrade from version 4.0). Toxik 2008 is 2,500GBP per license and all render nodes are free. A subscription to receive updates and new nodes is an extra 470GBP per year.


Although the Colour Warper is a notable addition to the suite, it doesn’t really seem to justify the upgrade fee. The Combustion development team, I’m told, is currently focusing on Leopard compatibility. So what’s going on here? Where is Combustion headed? Why do I get the feeling that this is the beginning of the end for this wonderful application?

Posted: March 6th, 2008
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Run 3DS MAX 2008 on a Mac…

The latest version of Parallels Desktop for Mac runs 3D Studio Max 2008 in OS X.5 (Leopard), seemingly without any problems (well no additional problems that the two products don’t have independently). It also works in Parallels “Coherence” mode, so you get a seamless experience, for example dragging and dropping files from the Finder into the 3DS Max interface.


The catch? DirectX rendering doesn’t seem to work, so you’ll have to use software rendering for the viewports.

Posted: January 30th, 2008
Categories: Tips & Tricks
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Lustre 2008 and Brett Manson…

Earlier today I met with colourist Brett Manson from Video Lab, South Africa, to talk about his approach to grading and take a look at what’s new in Autodesk’s Lustre 2008.

Brett doesn’t have what you might call a typical colourist’s background: rather than learning the ropes as a telecine assistant or the equivalent, he started out a Flame operator. The first major difference was that he approaches grading in a very different to many of his contemporaries. Rather than work almost exclusively in the primary controls, he instead uses them to get a very rough balance, and then begins pulling luminance keys for highlights and shadows, working on them independently. He says that this approach is not necessarily better or worse, but more a matter of personal preference. Watching him do it though, I’m not sure I agree. It takes a little bit longer to pull the keys (by a matter of seconds) than to dive straight into primaries, but the results look much more pleasing to the eye in a very subtle way. Furthermore any tweaks are made much more visually, and he exploits Lustre’s ability to grade both the inside and outside of the keyed regions. He also points out that this method also gets around a current limitation of Lustre which is that detail destroyed by the primary corrector cannot be subsequently recovered by the secondaries (though stacking secondaries together is a completely non-destructive process). I asked him about the common perception that working with secondaries increases the level of noise in the image, but he points out that what actually increases the noise is what were traditionally called “secondaries” on analogue systems; namely vector changes, or sharp hue changes, rather than overall manipulation. He then went on to prove the point in front of me, though I’m sure that Lustre’s robust softness algorithms also play a big part in the fact that it was very hard to break the images.

Lustre 2008 Screenshot

Another unique trait he seems to have is that he really likes to get his hands dirty. In several of the shots he showed me, there were some really complex mattes that had been drawn by hand, adding the effect of rays of light for example. In one memorable case, he’d created a matte by tracing the outline of wire mesh on a previous shot, and used that to simulate a shadowed light source. This thing had probably 200 or more bezier points to it, and when I asked that it must have taken ages to create, he told me that it didn’t, and then went on to prove the point by going through the whole process right there and then. He then recreated a very stylised opening sequence from shot footage, turning a foreground actor into silhouette and then flooding the frame with graduated colour. One other, more subtle effect he uses a lot is to create what he calls “paths of light”- bright regions to lead the viewer’s eye to the point of interest. One technique he uses a lot is to add a lot of softening to a rectangular shape which creates a kind of star pattern at the corners. When he grades using this shape, it produces an almost subliminal focal point, with four streaks of light literally pointing at the item or person in question.

So what of the new version of Lustre? When I looked at Lustre 2007… I complained that it was lagging behind in the feature department, and to be perfectly honest, I suspected that it was starting to go the way of combustion. However, I’m pleased to say that the last year has seen a lot of improvements. I was most impressed to see the addition of Smoke’s timeline at last, since I’d been bemoaning its absence since version 1.0. And I’m pleased to say that it’s integration is not half-hearted at all. You get pretty much all of the editorial capability of Smoke, with thought put into automatically locking certain timeline tools during grading, and the ability to copy grades across tracks. If I was going to fault it in any way, it’s that there isn’t any option to blend between tracks. At least not yet- the 2009 release promises more timeline features, so it’s likely we might see this functionality implemented in some way. Either way, an outstanding development that I’d all but given up on seeing.

Lustre 2008 Screenshot

Brett was eager to demonstrate another new feature: Lustre has a new 3D tracker. It is really outstanding, and I could have sworn we were looking at Imagineer’s tracking technology. Basically you draw a shape around the object you want to track, and it will then go off and track every pixel in the region, adhering to both scaling and rotation of the image content- and pretty quickly too. And that’s not all- it will even track through crossing objects. Brett showed me a shot that trucks sideways, tracking a girl sat on a window ledge. When a tree in the foreground obscures the girl for a few frames, Lustre happily picks up the tracking smoothly without any issues.

Everyone should buy Lustre just for this

says Brett. Other new features include GPU improvements, CDL support and general performance tweaks. Though there’s nothing new in terms of colour manipulation (fingers crossed for some sort of blending modes in the future), this latest release will surely reaffirm Lustre’s status as a heavy-duty grading system.

Posted: January 11th, 2008
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Combustion Alive After All…

I’d previously written off Autodesk’s Combustion as being dead in the water, with seemingly no development having taken place for a long time, and a seemingly endless list of bugs (on the Mac version at least). Today however, Autodesk announced Combustion 2008 for Windows and Mac (with a whole slew of features), so maybe there’s still competition for After Effects.

The popular Colour Warper tool, found in the Autodesk Flame visual effects system, has been added to Combustion 2008. The new release also includes improvements to the schematic view.

The Colour Warper in Combustion 2008 performs primary and selective colour correction. It also allows for precise fine-tuning with multiple levels of adjustment in a single pass. Colour Warper features include:

·         Interactive adjustment of gamma, gain, offset, hue, saturation, and contrast

·         Intuitive hue shift and a tint colour wheel for fast, accurate colour balancing and a visual colour sampling palette for precise colour matching

·         Interactive Histogram and curves editing modes for subtle, precision tweaking of colour components

·         Independent controls for colour correcting the image’s shadow, midtone, and highlight regions

·         “Match” feature for fast scene-to-scene colour correction

·         “Selective” feature for sampling up to three different colour regions for isolated correction

·         User interface features: high-quality RGB vector scope, and a 3D histogram for precise colour monitoring

Pricing and Availability

Autodesk anticipates that Combustion 2008 will be available in December 2007. The 2008 release will be supported on Macintosh and Windows operating systems. Autodesk suggested retail pricing is £850 or EUR 1,200*. The suggested upgrade price from Combustion 4 to Combustion 2008 is £165 or EUR 235*.

Posted: November 29th, 2007
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