(Published in NewMedia December 15, 1997 Contents)
Puffin Commotion 1.0.5
Photoshop for Video
By Mike Jittlov
Created by Scott Squires, an Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic, Commotion is another great reason for film and video artists to buy Macintosh. The interface is familiar, with paint and drawing tools like Adobe's Photoshop and Illustrator, compositing tools like After Effects, and cloning tools resembling MetaCreations' Painter. The big difference is Commotion's instantaneous, real-time playback of once-unaffordable CGI miracles on a desktop Mac. Its two CD-ROMs, 193-page manual, and dongle weigh in at a hefty $2,495. But remember that same amount of money buys only two or three hours of cleanup time in a $1,000,000 Quantel or Flame edit suite. Commotion lets you work that same magic, and you keep the wand.
Installation's easy; just drag the 4MB icon to your hard drive. Also, make sure you have plenty of RAM because Commotion's image processing works by buffering footage in and out of RAM, and uncompressed D1 video (720-by-486 pixels per frame, 30fps, millions of colors) needs about 30MB of storage per second.
Puffin recommends a PowerPC-based Mac (8500 or better) with a video accelerator card and 48MB of RAM for full-resolution video playback (100MB for film). But many effects-houses still have 8100/80s with only 24MB of free RAM, so Commotion's Auto Frame Spool allows painting and playing a movie segment and frame-swapping as needed, with playback range increased by variable subwindows and other options. It loads QuickTime, numbered PICT, or Electric Image animation files -- no TIFF or JPEG (JFIF). Puffin's claims of handling 16,000-by-16,000 pixel files could not be confirmed, however, since the Mac OS limits PICTs to 4,096 across (big enough for hi-res film work).
If you buy Commotion, go the distance and get extra memory as well; 540MB of RAM will smoothly stream your special effects-packed D1 at full NTSC for 16 seconds -- longer than most producers' attention spans. It plays forward, backward, in continuous loop, or rock-and-roll at presets of 30fps, 25fps and 24fps, including 60-field NTSC and PAL. Variable and Max can play back from 1fps to a dazzling 600fps, contingent on frame size, bit depth, and having an IXmicro TwinTurbo card.
Commotion unfolds seven floating palettes of creative resources in seconds. Opening your footage files can take a few minutes longer, depending on their resolution and depth. But when a Clip window appears, every movie frame becomes an instantly accessible canvas. There's the standard Paintbrush, Airbrush, Pencil and Erase, as well as image-filtering Dodge, Burn, Sharpen, Blur, and image-distorting Smudge. All those tools utilize any of the default brush tips; there's also Wacom pen tablet support for size and opacity. The Real Time Brush Maker feature lets you instantly size and feather new tools to suit. Or you can quickly make a brush shape from any PICT scribble and even paint and erase with your own signature.
Grab colors with the Eyedropper, vary them with Color Palette sliders and numerics, or import a Photoshop Swatch. Then paint right on the RGBA (red, green, blue, alpha) image, on any of its color layers, or rotoscope just an alpha matte in Overlay mode. Onion Skinning summons adjustable ghost images from preceding or following frames, for an animator's X-ray of drawn dynamics. Specially geared for the movie industry, a Wire Removal tool, with adjustable width, offset, and noise, erases all visible support from flying actors and props. It's also excellent for erasing film scratches right away.
Got an intrusive boom microphone or a jet plane in a medieval sky? This is a job for SuperClone, which can copy images and textures from up to four sources (from the same movie or from others) with variable offsets, auto advancing both source and target footage to easily paint appropriate pixels over the problem. The same trick is perfect for erasing video dropouts, giving Hi8 artists the power to salvage priceless shots.
Every touch-up is possible, from changing a single pixel's tint to painting or cloning new characters and entire oceans of action. Most importantly, Commotion plays that action at its proper speed -- because corrections can look fine in still-frame mode, while mistakes jump out when the segment is played in real time. If you see an error, just freeze it, zoom in (up to 16X), retouch, and play back immediately. There's no render time for painting, nothing to slow that creative flow. The Calculate menu contains channel duplicate, channel invert, vertical and horizontal image flip, and many compositing options. A 3:2 Pulldown with selectable phase and auto-detect allows matching video and film frame rates.
Filters include Brightness, Contrast, Hue, Saturation, RGBA Levels, and Color Balance; BlueScreen, GreenScreen, and Luminance keys; RGBA and Gaussian Blurs; Sharpen, Dirt Removal, Noise Addition, and more -- most with an option for immediate full-frame preview. The Average Frames feature rapidly distills a clean plate from a locked-down shot, for use as a difference matte to separate moving parts.
If a matting screen is unavailable, Commotion's powerful Rotosplines tool can blaze new pathways for isolating and transferring image elements. Click a string of splines around a dancer, add Bézier curves for a snug silhouette, then frame forward, easily adjusting, rotating, and scaling to make a traveling vector outline. Commotion allows up to 49 layers of independently animatable, keyframable splines, and holes can penetrate an entire stack of intersecting masks with an icon click.
Tap Playback, and all the splines are elegantly interpolated between their keyframes, each controlled by a velocity curve editor. Spline lines can be procedural paths for any paint tool -- including a snaky Smudge. Spline shapes can be separately stroked, colored, and filled, and will cut moving alpha mattes with adjustably feathered edges. They save singly or in sets and are easily imported and auto-sized to other clips. Rotoscoped paths can also be used for fascinating spline-based animation -- you'll probably see them all over next month's music videos.
Note that on our real-world Power Mac 9500/132 with 96MB of RAM, real time playback of larger formats (D1) is only in normal RGB viewing. Rotosplines can slow playback by three to seven times, Onion Skinning by six-and-a-half times, and Overlay (RGB+A) by 15 times. Processing time is still needed for filters (1-4 seconds/frame on this computer), spline strokes (2-7 seconds/frame), spline mattes (3.5 to 86 seconds/frame for all 49 layers), and Revert (3.5 seconds/frame). Commotion outputs at rates from .5 seconds/frame for uncompressed QuickTime and PICT formats to 6-7 seconds/frame for High Data Rate Media 100 and Cinepak files, with options for embedded alpha and QuickTime layers.
These timings are file- and hardware-dependent; smaller QuickTime formats for CD-ROM and Web use will play and process much faster. Uncompressed results will be as close to broadcast quality as your original footage, without artifacting.
On the downside ... QuickTime audio elements are lost on input, so effects can't be synched to a soundtrack. Commotion is intended to complement After Effects, but it allows no plug-ins and can't yet bring aboard wonders like Chroma Graphics' MagicMask to snap a Bézier tightly around a figure. It saves splines in its own format, but won't import Illustrator or EPS files. Filters don't interpolate along footage, and the spline's default gray sometimes vanishes into the image. There's only one level of Undo (like Photoshop) -- but you can use any brush for erase-painting to the latest stroke or the latest saved version, or you can do an overall Revert.
Version 1.0.5 had some glitches, standard for a hot new program. Marquee, Move, Gradient, Paste, and Frame Rotate didn't quite work. Warning boxes required scores of consecutive clickouts. Prefs didn't recall all settings and layouts. Spline Color changers are too close to their layer names, which sometimes clear when paths are worked on. There are simple tool tips, but there's no online help.
Commotion's tech support gets an A, however. We received an e-mail response to our long list of questions in just two hours. With a phone call we got a live technician, who confirmed that Puffin's Web page will soon have a free upgrade with many new features, including field support and motion blur on rotosplines.
External plug-in support, Copy and Paste, shortcut tool-tolerance selection, image-tracking, motion-tracking, faster filter rendering and an updated manual are "in the works." Onionskinning splines, preserving soundtracks, reverting single frames, interpolating filters, and controlling digital disk recorders are "on the list." A new keyboard shortcut guide is already online.
Bugs aside, Commotion is a ground-breaking paradise for effects industry pixel-pushers. It's inviting, exciting, fun to work with, and could easily become the favorite in your MacWizard toolbox.
Hollywood director-producer Mike Jittlov writes reviews because it gets him cool free stuff to complete his special-effects epics.
Puffin Designs (415) 331-4560
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