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The Big Ol' Compositing Application Rundown

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    When it comes to the world of post production, there are a lot of choices for the tools of the trade. Some are relatively cheap to purchase, and some you might never touch in your professional career. One thing is for sure though, it's not the app that makes the spot, its the artist who finishes. it. Although, having a super fast machine and a toolset to take on the project's massiveness helps too. I have compiled a list of 14 of the leading software options in the post production realm to bring some insight to those of you who think that After Effects is the only option available, or if you are interested in branching out away from our favorite app of choice into the world of nodal compositing.

      Note on the Rating System:

      "Motion Graphics" and "VFX/Compositing" are based upon how often the application is used for that task, not necessarily how well it handles that specific area of work





    • Adobe After Effects

      If you are reading this then you probably know all about After Effects, or at least know enough to know what you are getting yourself into. AE is the main compositing and motion graphics application from Adobe Systems. Part of the Adobe Production Premium Suite, it has proven to be an essential tool of freelancers and big studios alike. After Effects is a layers-based application, where it doesn't use nodes, like a lot of other high-end compositing applications (like the ones we will look at a bit further down the list). This program is made to interact very well with the other Adobe production apps like Premiere Pro, Soundbooth, Photoshop and others. Although After Effects can't do true 3d modeling and animation, the rest of the 3d world has made it a bit easier for you to bring your renders into AE via exporting profiles which embed camera movement, lights and different passes for compositing further down the line. With the abundance of After Effects tutorials on the web, as well as the lower price point, this has become the #1 beginner's app of choice when it comes to starting in the mograph and VFX world.

      Motion Graphics: 10

      VFX/Compositing: 10

      Price Range: $350 (educational) $1,000 (professional)

      Learning Curve: 4 (Moderate, easy to jump in, but very extensive)

      Training Available: 10

    • The Foundry's Nuke

      Nuke has become one of the hot tools the last couple of years, with some huge studios like Industrial Light and Magic, Weta Digital Image Engine and Framestore making the program a part of their post production pipeline. Nuke, now in version 6 and X (X has more features like the new roto paint tools, new tracker and some others), is a complete node-based post production tool. It provides a fast user experience, efficient multi-channel scanline rendering engine, and a ton of awesome tools to make things like keying, roto, and overall working with 3d compositing and imagery a much easier experience. There is also an optional plugin for Nuke called Ocula from The Foundry that aids in Stereoscopic workflow. Now, if you work with After Effects a lot and haven't touched a node-based program this might be a little foreign to you. No fear, The Foundry has a ton of tutorials online, as well as some older DVDs from Gnomon Workshop, and classes offered at fxPHD.

      Motion Graphics: 1

      VFX/Compositing: 10

      Price Range: $3,500 - $6,000 (Nuke 6.0 or NukeX)

      Learning Curve: 6

      Training Available: 5

    • Autodesk Combustion

      Combustion hasn't been updated since 2008, and doesn't look like anything is planned anytime soon. It is a professional application, with a sub-professional price of, that integrates well between Maya, 3ds Max and the rest of the Autodesk line. This program is also node-based (which is the way a lot of compositing applications are), and provides a feature-rich interface with tons of tools to get the job done. Sadly, since this has been seemingly discontinued, it never really caught the attention of the tutorial boom, and there really isn't too much training for it. You can find some on The Area at Autodesk, and some other places littered around the net, but that is about it.

      Motion Graphics: 3

      VFX/Compositing: 7

      Price Range: $995

      Learning Curve: 4

      Training Available: 2

    • Flame, Flint, Inferno

      These systems are where you are going to shell out some serious money. I say "systems" because these aren't just software solutions that you can buy and install on any fast computer. They are built proprietary around running either Flame, Flint or Inferno. The purpose of this, is to have a super fast system that you can work on with a client right over your should asking for edits, tweaks, changes, and for you being able to perform those changes in realtime with realtime playback. No rendering, no RAM previews... you are literally able to work in realtime with feature film material. Now, as for the serious money part of it... Flame systems can be priced around $250,000, but to justify that price point, one hour sessions with a Flame artist can start at $600 an hour. Not too shabby. Of course, Flint is a little less ($85,000) and Inferno prices are more ($500,000), and the higher/lower the technology you go, the more expensive/cheaper it is going to be. Training for these systems are scarce, but they all pretty much work the same way. fxPHD has a couple of Flame courses you can take and Autodesk's Area has a lot of tutorials there as well.

      Motion Graphics: 2

      VFX/Compositing: 10

      Price Range: $85,000 - $500,000

      Learning Curve: 7 (steep)

      Training Available: 3

    • Autodesk Smoke

      Smoke has been a buzz the last few months with it port over to Mac OS coining the name "Smack" (Smoke on Mac), but a lot of us After Effects people haven't had the chance to mess with the program. Smoke is more editing and compositing based, and a software solution rather than the pricey options previously mentioned from Autodesk. There are actually two versions of Smoke available, the new Smoke for Mac is only $15,000, but it lacks some things like the batch tool that is included in its big brother, Smoke Advanced, which is around $40,000. The big difference between the two though is Smoke for Mac is Mac only, and Smoke Advanced is Linux based only. There isn't any in between. Since they are only Software that brings the price down to between $15k and $40k, and more affordable for mid to larger scale studios. Now, don't get me wrong, you still have to have a screaming system to run the software, but these applications provide a solution to compositing that you can spend a lot of time in like Nuke or Toxik to composite shots together. There is another title called Fire that is very similar to Smoke, but deals mostly in film editing and visual effects, and also is no longer shipping. Again, there isn't much training for Smoke, but you can find some random videos littered around the net and personal blogs and such. As with all high end popular compositing solutions, fxPHD has some Smoke courses available.

      Motion Graphics: 3

      VFX/Compositing: 9

      Price Range: around $15,000 - $40,000

      Learning Curve: 5

      Training Available: 3

    • Apple Motion

      Motion has been kind of the secondary option for Apple users who have Final Cut Studio, but haven't taken the leap to buy After Effects. It is a great peice of software with a bunch of training online and DVDs available for purchase, but it isn't used in the post production world as widely as After Effects or Shake is. This is a piece of software that is for the consumer/prosumer market where you need to do some motion graphics, basic keying, and basic compositing... nothing really high end. You won't see this used in any higher post houses, but it stays on top of the game as one of the top motion graphics applications among small companies and Mac enthusiasts. Like I said there is loads of training at places like AppleMotion.net and Zak Peric's Website as well as DVD training you can purchase at stores online. Sadly, there is no way to purchase Motion on it's own, you have to buy Final Cut Studio to get it.

      Motion Graphics: 9

      VFX/Compositing: 3

      Price Range: $999

      Learning Curve: 2

      Training Available: 7

    • Apple Shake

      A discontinued product, Apple Shake is still a favorite application among those VFX artists and compositors that like to work on the cheap, and on their Macs. Users that started with Shake still use it today, and swear by it as the best compositor they have ever used. Although it doesn't let you have all the crazy new attributes that a compositor like Nuke or Toxik provide it still holds it's own in the market. I mean, King Kong was composited in part with this software. It is a nodal compositor, but allows you to work in 3d space for compositing multiple different pieces of imagery together. The sad part is though, that it IS discontinued, and therefore will have no more updates, and other software will eventually (and have) overtaken it as a leader in the compositing market. It's no doubt that in it's day it was a powerhouse of a program, but there are more options out there. Some studios actually purchased the source code and created their own 64 bit versions so that they could keep using it in their workflow, but these won't ever be available to the public. You can find copies of the legit version online throughout stores on the internet or Ebay, and it is relatively cheap if you really want a nodal compositor for Mac.

      Motion Graphics: 2

      VFX/Compositing: 9

      Price Range: Used from $245 (Amazon)

      Learning Curve: 4

      Training Available: 4 (Books and DVDs)

    • Autodesk Toxik (Maya Composite)

      There are a lot of mixed feelings about Toxik, but it is still one of the better pieces of compositing software out there. Some say that it is outdated and unpopular so they decided to stick it as a package with Maya called Maya Composite. Some say that Autodesk is still working on it under the hood making it a powerhouse, but one thing is for sure it is a difficult program to learn. Again, node-based like all high end compositing apps, Toxik takes advantage of being able to work in a 3d environment, camera projection, 3d integration and interoperability, and being able to work in a pipeline of 2k, 4k, and virtually any format you could think of. Toxik is not available as standalone product, but is actually only included with Maya 2010, and renamed Maya Composite, so you are going to have to get the 3d app with it unless you want to buy Toxik 2009 used instead.

      Motion Graphics: 1

      VFX/Compositing: 10

      Price Range: Around $500 for used Toxik 2009 or $3500 for Maya 2010

      Learning Curve: 8

      Training Available: 3

    • Eyeon Fusion

      Fusion, now in version 6 is another one of the more heavy hitting compositing applications on the cheaper end of the realm. When I mean cheaper, I mean it is still around $4,500, but at least were not dealing with a $60,000 price tag, right? Eyeon Software has been around for about 21 years now, and that 21 years of development has created a pretty killer product. Fusion lets you take 3D geometry into its interface, and using a nodal system, allows you to relight, texture and shade for compositing. Mix that with video, camera projections, particle generation and much more make this an amazing product in the sub-$5,000 range. Another plus is that the tutorial scene is moderate for this program, being one of the industry/prosumer tools that a lot of people use... places like CGSutra.com have a lot of tutorials, and even sites like Class on Demand have training videos available for purchase.

      Motion Graphics: 2

      VFX/Compositing: 9

      Price Range: Less than $5,000

      Learning Curve: 5

      Training Available: 4

    • fxHome

      Now, a lot of people say its the skill of the visual effects artist that makes a great film. That being said, this company's promo for their products looks pretty good, but this is a line of applications geared toward hobbyists more than actual visual effects artists. If that's all you are then this is probably going to be a great toolset for you to use. FxHome has 3 layers-based products: The first, CompositeLab Pro is a is the compositing application where they allow you to key, color grade, light wrap, basic roto, and animate the position of different elements. The second, EffectsLab Pro allows you to add special effects like lens flares, lasers, muzzle flashes, and particle effects. The third, VisionLab Studio combines the functions of both the previous products into one, allowing you to composite and add effects all in one application. If you are requiring more from an application, like moving in 3d space, creating motion graphics, and overall more flexibility to use elements other than images, video and the included effects, you will probably want something a little more. But like I said, if you are a hobbyist or just want to dink around with this concept, this is a great set of programs to start with for very little money.

      Motion Graphics: 1

      VFX/Compositing: 10

      Price Range: $150-$500

      Learning Curve: 1

      Traning Available: 2 (included tutorials with software)

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