Nuke, Shake, Flame - Part I

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As per a reader request, I've decided to write up several short entries containing my thoughts on these three very powerful compositing packages. Why did I choose these three? Well, they are the only ones which I have extensively used in a production environment.. Fusion, Combustion and the defunct Composer are no longer in my memory, and there are newer versions out there. There are numerous reviews of these softwares on vfxtalk, fxguide, and cgtalk, but I'll be going into detail on the differences these contain, and how I've used them in the past, and where I think they will be going to in the future. The scope of these entries may change over time, as newer versions appear and software becomes obsolete. I'm going to start by writing about my experiences with Flame, and in the following days will go over Nuke and Shake.

The versions of software that I'll be going over are Nuke 4.5, Flame 7.7, and Shake 4.0. There are possibly newer versions that will be coming out or are already out right now, and certain features of the above packages I have not used (simply because I don't need that feature, haven't found a use for it, or haven't used it yet in production). As well, my experience on Nuke is not as advanced as the other two, as I've only been using it for close to six months, with four of those actually in production. I'll start with Flame and it's brothers, Flint and Inferno.

Read the extended entry below!

While Flames are often rare in the wild, there are several studios which actively use this powerful software/hardware compositing package. Because they are fairly robust and quick, they are used most often in a commercial environment, or in an environment where look development and speed is a primary concern. They are often used in rooms called Suites, where a client (or several) sit in comfort and watch the Flame operator work their magic on the client's commercial spots, and actively contribute to the development of a look, a sequence, or a shot. The times I've worked in a Flame and Inferno suite there were several people present including the visual effects supervisor, DP, VFX producer, and VFX coordinator. Often these client sessions would last half a day or more, and at the minimum, 15 minutes. Even though I have worked on a Flame and Inferno, I've never worked on them for the production of a commercial, only for the production of television series, TV movies of the week, and feature films. We routinely finished 20-40 shots per week among three to four artists for series TV, and a little longer for movies, depending on complexity and preliminary look development. I worked on the discreet boxes from 1999 to 2003. Anything I write about Flame below can be used in Inferno and Flint, unless otherwise mentioned.

The advantages I've found that Discreets FFI packages have over other ones include a fully 3D compositing environment, excellent and speedy keyers and trackers, integrated 3D particle systems with robust environmental scripting capabilities, advanced camera depth of field and motion blur, and a very nice paint system (as compared to other packages I've worked on). It is also the only package of the three which extensively uses the tablet and pen as the primary form of input, with the keyboard coming in second, and the mouse a distant third.

Flame has several modules which make life easier for the compositor. There is the primary desktop environment, known as, the Desktop. This is where you organize your sequences, shots, masks, clips, and the like. It is also where you edit sequences together. Flame has the capability of bringing in an EDL, and allows direct and background importing of online footage. Once you have your footage on your desktop, you can apply any number of operations and filters to them to aid in your look development process. It's a nondestructive environment, so anything you create will be added to your desktop. Flame's primary compositing module is called Action, which allows you to import clips and files from your desktop and use them. Within Action you can track, key, and roto, import 3d objects, and light. The maximum number of layers possible is/was 99. I'm sure that number has been increased! Previously you were limited to a set resolution, but that has since changed, and Flame now allows you to have multiple images of different resolutions. In Action you have the ability to view your images as nodes, and you can attach different operations to nodes to allow off center transforms and other image modifications. You also have the ability to deform your images in 3D space using bicubics and extended bicubics. In addition, the inclusion of a particle system allows you to attach an image to a particle and use it. So you could have a flock of birds, with each particle as a sequence of images of a single bird flying.

Flame's tracker is naturally powerful and quick, and allows the ability to track four points at once. Inferno contains the same tracker, but also has the capability to track in 3D.

Keying in Flame is utter bliss, as much as keying can be! It has several different methods which you can use to pull keys, from the basic luma, difference and chroma keyers to plugins like Primatte and Ultimatte, and even the powerful MK, Modular Keyer. Using a combination of these keyers, you can key pretty much everything you wouldn't think possible. All at a reasonably quick pace. From selective keying patches to a 3D color histogram view and selection, Flame has it all. It also allows you to apply different keying techniques within the same module. The work I did for Barely Legal (shown in my Gallery) illustrates the power of Flame's keyer on standard def footage. She was shot on bluescreen.

Another of Flame's important modules is called Batch. This is a node based layout environment where you can import image operators and Action modules, and render it all at once, instead of applying an image operator in the desktop and waiting for a short render. This is a powerful section of Flame, and one where most of the rendering takes place (especially at night or over the weekend). Often when working on a shot, I'll do look development in Action and the Desktop with a client, and once they're gone and happy with that look, I'll go into Batch and render the shots with that Action file. The second Ghost Ship shot in the Gallery was created using Inferno's Batch and Action modules.

Flame now has motion estimation and retiming (for a while, only Inferno had this), which allows for slowdown and speed up of image sequences. Flame will interpolate images and create inbetween images. It also has the standard warp and morph capabilities that desktop comp packages are now starting to have.
You can always read more about Flame in this PDF.

Discreet Flame (now owned by Autodesk) is at version 9.5. While the last version I used, 7.7 is three years old, it is still the most powerful compositing package, in my opinion. It comes at a steep price tag, and it's artist base is much smaller as a result, but the artists that use Discreet's FFI suite of tools will undoubtly be talented.

After reading through this, I hope to have covered parts of Flame which I find useful and necessary, but I may have missed a point here or there. If that is the case, that's what the comments section is for! Please let me know if you found this interesting.

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