Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 8 (August 2005)

Combustion 4

If someone had slipped in one night and upgraded my Combustion 3 to Version 4, it might have taken me a while to notice it. This is good: The enhancements have been worked in smoothly and won’t disrupt existing work flows. At the same time, it presents opportunities for improved work flows.

Take, for example, my favorite new feature: capsules. Capsules allow you to save and retrieve portions of a Combustion project, effectively creating a library of past work that you can easily reuse. Previously, I reused work by importing existing workspaces (Combustion projects) into a new workspace or by using an existing workspace as a template. Capsules are a more straightforward and flexible way of accomplishing the same goal.

As an example, for a children’s book illustration, I created a cloudy sunset using “paint,” “turbulence,” and “lens flare” operators. By saving this work in a capsule, I then re-created the sky on other pages with a couple of clicks, saving me a minute or two each time. Capsules are shared files, so they are a means of exchanging tricks of the trade easily.
With improvements to its features and functionality, this may be the most significant Combustion upgrade yet.

I do wish that capsules could have associated thumbnails, as they all look the same in the file browser. In general, capsules do not contain footage, only operators that you apply to footage, making the automatic creation of thumbnails difficult. Still, a graphic for the kaleidoscope capsule wouldn’t be hard to design, for example. And thumbnails would help me scan libraries of capsules quickly.

Grids, guides, and rulers are handy new features that aid in the positioning and alignment of visual elements. I recently created a 600x800-pixel Web page graphic, with JPEG images, text, and a background based on a painted rectangle. The grid provided the reference I needed to achieve near-perfect positioning quickly. You can snap paint objects to grids or guides. It would be great to have snap for text as well. On the Web page, for example, I ended up adjusting pixel coordinates for text blocks-a time-consuming job that could be eliminated by snapping text blocks to a grid or guide.

Combustion might seem like overkill for combining graphics and text on a Web page. Yet, in this instance-JPEGs with troublesome colored backgrounds that had to be made transparent-I can complete the job much faster using Combustion’s color keying tools than with Adobe Photoshop or Macromedia Fireworks.

Speaking of color keying, one of the big new features in Version 4 is the Diamond Keyer, a quick and easy, yet highly functional, keyer borrowed from the ColorWarper in Autodesk’s Flame/Inferno/Smoke software. Diamond Keyer has six one-click presets, one of which usually gets me close to the result I want. A simple interface makes any subsequent fiddling fairly straightforward. The Discreet keyer does have the advantage of including functions such as matte refinement and spill suppression. To get the same results using the Diamond Keyer, you have to apply separate Matte Controls and Color Suppression operators. Laziness being my constant watchword, I find myself using the Discreet keyer to avoid those few extra clicks. That being said, the Diamond Keyer presets and interface also can be serious labor-savers.

Timewarp, which enables you to get the same effect as in-camera slow-motion (as well as fast-mo and even reverse-mo) using existing video footage, is an elegantly implemented, cool feature.

I regret not finding an upgrade to Combustion’s integrated particle system. The stunning feature is based on Wondertouch’s ParticleIllusion, but Combustion is currently one version behind.

Combustion’s unique user interface, which experienced users tend to love, stymies many newcomers. Third-party video tutorials (by Dwayne Ferguson and Ken LaRue) helped me tremendously in overcoming that initial barrier.

Overall, I highly recommend Combustion 4, whether as an upgrade or as a new purchase. It is easy to install and an unparalleled value, considering the breadth and depth of its functionality

Michael Hurwicz is a writer and animator.

Price: $995 ($249 upgrade from 3)
Minimum System Requirements: A Windows PC with an Intel Pentium III, Pentium 4, or AMD Athlon 850mhz processor running Windows XP/2000 or a Mac with a Power Mac G4 800mhz processor running OS X Version 10.2; a 20gb hard drive; 512mb of RAM; and a video display card.
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