Commotion Pro 4.0

Commotion began life as a proprietary compositing and rotoscoping tool used in-house at ILM (a famous effects facility on the West coast of America owned by George Lucas). It was created by digital-effects guru and programmer Scott Squires. Commotion eventually became a commercial Mac product produced by Puffin Designs. A few versions ago it was bought by the big video-solutions company Pinnacle Systems, and it’s now available for both Mac and Windows PCs. It comes in two versions, Standard and Pro; and it’s the latter we have on test here. Commotion Pro is a complete effects and retouching tool for anyone working with moving images, and version 4.0 adds some decent – though not world-shattering – new features. The most interesting aspect of Commotion, though, is its steady migration into the territory of digital effects and multilayered compositing, a stronghold of Adobe After Effects. Commotion has a solid toolset for creating mattes and compositing footage, and it can also perform some sophisticated video-painting that After Effects cannot. It has a comprehensive set of natural-media brushes for just such a purpose, and a friendly, intuitive interface. Until version 3.0, it didn’t have layers – so it was not really a threat to Adobe’s big effects package. Since then, Commotion has become more and more like After Effects; it even looks like it with it’s Project window and layered timeline. New to version 4.0 is the ability to import layered Photoshop files. These files retain layer-blending modes, masks and transparency. You begin with a Photoshop image file, then bring it into Commotion to add animated effects. Adjustment layers don’t come in, since Commotion doesn’t have them, but layer masks can be problematic too. Any of the other Photoshop 6.0 layer features such as Folders, Layer Styles will also be discarded or imported as blank layers, but live text will at least come in as a rendered text-layer. A problem we found is that, with a Photoshop file imported into Commotion, you can’t save changes to it back in Photoshop. You have to close all the layers relating to the file in Commotion (or save them as new footage files), and resave and re-import – which is a real pain, and limits the claimed integration between the two programs. Layering it on
However, Commotion has its own layer grouping system that allows you to create nested compositions just like you can in After Effects. It uses folders to group layers, so you can more easily manage a multi-layered composite, and you can add a single matte, effects or colour adjustments to a group folder. You can also export a layer or a group of layers as a separate file that can be re-imported and used again in different projects. This also allows you to create libraries of animations or effects settings by exporting single layers – a handy feature. Time remapping is another new feature. It allows you to stretch a clip so that a 100-frame sequence can span 200 frames, or, conversely, shrink it to 50 frames. To prevent stuttery clips, new frames are created by blending existing ones. Clips can be stretched to any value, not just double or half the original length. When viewing your clips – stretched or otherwise – Commotion uses RAM to play them back in real time. To maximize speed, you should try to load only as many frames as will fit in available RAM. You can access frames beyond your RAM capacity, but Commotion will start spooling frames to and from the hard disk, slowing things down. When working with multiple layers, things get even more complicated, since Commotion must render the composite and load frames to RAM to maintain real-time playback. With many layers and effects, it can get very slow. Where Commotion excels, though, is in cleaning, retouching and stabilizing footage. It includes tools for removing wires from effects shots, creating composites, and has some advanced chromakeying. Its matte tools are exemplary, and for blue (green/red, etc) screen work there’s little that can touch it. The Pro version includes the world-class Primatte Keyer for extracting a subject from any colour background, and Composite Wizard filters – for refining mattes and suppressing colour spill – result in perfect mattes, even from less than perfect footage. Commotion has some excellent features for effects work, such as the Image Lounge plug-ins. These include the True Camera Blur filter that can accurately recreate the iris artefacts of a camera-lens system, and Real Shadow that can create a realistic graduated shadow at any angle – essential for compositing green/blue screen elements onto backgrounds. The Average Frames command that can create a high-quality still image from video or film footage (as long as there is no movement in the shot). Commotion has become ever more reliant on fast hardware. You need bucket loads of RAM, and if you try to use it on anything but the fastest, most capacious Mac it can become leaden. This is not so much of a problem these days with memory being dirt cheap, and G4 towers capable of containing 1.5GB of the stuff.

OUR VERDICT

Creating sophisticated and seamless composites and retouching is Commotion’s primary purpose, and it does so brilliantly. If you tend towards the effects and 3D side, then After Effects or Discreet’s Effect* may be a better option – but for dealing with real footage, there’s little to beat it.

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