Illuminating a new special effects tool

Illuminaire Composition stole the limelight at the National Broadcaster Show in Las Vegas, Sutherland Lyall discusses the merits of the latest special effects application

Looks like the Exponential CPU has had its, er, chips: the company closed down in the middle of last month. Think now in terms of either or both the Mach 5 and the new PowerPC Arthur for new machines. Newton is being cast adrift and Apple is rowing with cloners about hikes in licensing fees which, a week before, Steve Jobs had argued in public, should be free. Still, as everybody is saying brightly, there must continue to be an alternative to Microsoft.

In the process of everybody going multimedia, designers are looking less askance at such things as animation – whether hand-crafted or camera shot. Avid popularised non-linear, Mac-based video editing – search the editing suites of Soho and find someone who doesn’t use Avid. QuickTime 3 will incorporate the Avid codec. And now Media100 is offering an equivalent for non-linear, fully QuickTime-compatible, on-line editing. Next year there will be Macromedia’s long-awaited Final Cut, which will take into account all the new bits in QuickTime 3 and a lot more besides.

Until then you make your cut in Media100 or Avid or Premiere and then export a QuickTime movie and use After Effects to add special effects and the sexy stuff to it. You would also use plug-ins such as MetaCreations’ Final Effects or Studio Effects.

Now to rival After Effects there is Denim’s new Illuminaire Composition. This latter was the application rather a lot of people were lusting after at April’s National Broadcaster’s Association show at Las Vegas. Illuminaire Composition is half of Illuminaire Studio, the other bit being called Paint. The snap judgement on Paint is that it is a bit like Painter for QuickTime movies, in that it allows you to use vector-based strokes and alter them over time. It’s quite a mad, and potentially powerful, animation effects tool. It seems to be more useful in single video layers.

Composition is a heavy duty 3D video compositing, special effects and animation application for multimedia, websites, broadcast video and film. Compositing, incidentally means taking different video clips and putting them together like layers in Photoshop with all the functionality of transfer control and filtering. Think of Composition as After Effects using a 3D metaphor. You can actually use plug-in filters designed for After Effects, Photoshop and Final Effects. Our reviewers liked it so much they spent nearly 1500 on an Illuminaire suite of their very own.

Illuminaire Composition offers you a choice between working in 3D or 2D mode. I say 3D, but it’s actually 21/2D. For example, you decide on a ripple effect in Flint – the 30 000 to 40 000 high-end SGI application to which Illuminaire had been favourably compared and a true 3D application – the flat plane of the video frame itself is turned into a warped 3D mesh. In Illuminaire it’s more like a bump map: you’re applying something which gives a 3D effect while the video frame actually remains a flat 2D object.

Unlike Flint, you can’t import a 3D object and map a surface on it – you can’t import 3D objects full stop, except as QuickTime movies and you can’t cast shadows or lights on them. So it’s a 3D environment for video clips, not objects. You pays your money…

One of the things our reviewers particularly liked was how Illuminaire casts shadows. Think of it as being able to place video clips in a 3D space and move them around in 3D and then move a camera around them. In After Effects, because it’s 2D, it’s quite tricky to fake the movement of one frame orbiting another.

With a 3D application, like say InfiniD, you could fake up some flat planes and map a QuickTime movie on to those planes. But you couldn’t then add filters or add transfer controls as you can in Illuminaire. You have camera controls which allow you to scale, rotate, pivot, show velocities, add effects, perform blue-screen keying and targeting automatically so that you can target and link two objects so that one always parents another. You can have real-time previews for all the animated filters you have used, so you have immediate visual feedback on tap. There is key framing for all parameters.

Another great thing about Composition and Paint for our reviewers was the interface. It looks very like Flint and that’s no bad thing. Small things, like a grey rather than a white background and graphs are represented in a clearer way.

There are floating rather than drop-down menus which our reviewers liked. And when you are making motion paths, Illuminaire gives you a real-time, wire frame view of 3D motion. Great.

So do you throw your copy of After Effects away? As ever, no. However excellent it is, you’d always have a copy of it (now also in a Windows version) to hand, because Illuminaire had a more restricted range of activities and, bizarrely, doesn’t seem to have a batch rendering facility. At least we couldn’t find one.

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