Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 6 (June 2004)

Discreet Combustion 3

Discreet's Combustion is a robust, efficient 2D and 3D compositing tool with a host of capabilities that set it apart from the crowd. Among them are intensely cool 2D particle effects, industry-leading color correction and keying, real-time playback, integration with 3ds max, and nondestructive vector paint tools that preserve your ability to tweak and transform each shape and brush stroke. The most recent version, Combustion 3, adds animation using JavaScript functions, output to the Flash file format (SWF), morphing and warping, basic non-linear editing, timeline markers, and a stained glass effect for 3D composites that allows you to use one object like a gel to project light patterns on another object.
Even before its upgrade to Version 3, Combustion 2 was a world-class 2D and 3D compositing program.

Animation using JavaScript functions (called Expressions in Combustion) is a feature with huge potential. Complex geometric animation paths often can be implemented in a few lines of relatively straightforward JavaScript, for example. Version 3 also provides a visual interface to a set of pre-built functions.

The largest block of code is a single JavaScript function, which controls a single channel. A channel, in turn, controls a property—position, rotation, scale, speed, or transparency—in a layer or operator. It is also possible to use one channel to control another channel. Scripted animation can be converted to keyframes (but not vice versa). Expressions can be exported and imported, making it easy to share them. The scripting capability is powerful and welcome, yet limited in comparison with other environments, including Discreet 3ds max, where MAXScript enables you to script almost every aspect of the program's use, in addition to creating new tools and modifying the user interface. Discreet has only scratched the surface of what scripting can do in Combustion.

Artists creating Macromedia Flash content benefit from SWF output, saving time by eliminating the need to render to an intermediate format. It maintains paint objects as vector graphics in SWF, so they remain crisp and sharp at any resolution. Artists importing Combustion SWFs into other environments, such as the Flash MX authoring tool or ToonBoom Studio, can continue to transform and animate each vector graphic as a separate object.

Bitmaps do not export to SWF by default. This means that anything you do with the paint bucket, eraser, magic wand, or text-selection tool will not normally show up in the SWF. The same is true if you apply an operator, such as a distortion, to a paint object. Thanks to the Combustion forum, I discovered that I can output bitmaps to SWF using Combustion's Reveal mode. The new SWF output feature is solid and robust: I have not seen a glitch or an artifact in a SWF created by Combustion.

The new morphing and warping feature adds significant value to Combustion. Functionally, it is not to be underestimated. You never know when a client will want you to morph a beer can into a silver bullet. In addition, morphing and warping can be used for more mundane tasks. For instance, they can accurately and relatively quickly "paint out" an unwanted object that temporarily comes into frame: Just create a morph of a background object, starting on a frame before the unwanted object appears and ending on a frame after it disappears. RE:Flex Motion Morph creates in-between frames without the object. Nothing about morphing and warping appears in the printed manual or the Help files. I had to go to the Discreet Web site to get enough information to start making intelligent mistakes.

The new Edit operator, along with new features like Slip Layer and Split Layer, can save time by eliminating the need to export to an NLE. It's not going to replace NLEs like Adobe's Premiere or Sony's Vegas, but it's great for simple transitions, cuts, and trims.

Combustion is not easy to learn. Yet, once you get the hang of it, the software solution enables you to produce superlative results with relative ease. Version 2 of Combustion was a world-class compositing tool at a reasonable price. New features offer enough sizzle to make Version 3 a no-brainer upgrade for most users of Version 2. For those who have never used Combustion, it's definitely worth a look.

Michael Hurwicz (, is a freelance writer specializing in 2D and 3D.

Price: $995
Minimum System Requirements: Apple Power Mac G4, 800mhz or higher, running Mac OS X 10.2. or later, or an Intel Pentium III, Pentium 4, or AMD Athlon XP CPU, 850mhz or higher, running Windows XP or Windows 2000; a 20gb hard drive with 120mb of free space, 512mb of RAM; and a video display card with 4mb of VRAM.
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