First Look: Discreet flame 8
Discreet released new versions of inferno, flame and flint, updating its visual effects systems to versions 5, 8 and 8 respectively. Digital Media Net's Charlie White visited the company's Montreal headquarters, where Discreet officials and demo artists offered a close-up look at the new features in its flame 8 effects software.
Even though the emphasis of the demo was on flame, the new features are also present in inferno and flint. Discreet spinmeisters say Beta testers have called this the company's biggest release yet. Well, that's certainly an exaggeration, but still, the new features are worthy of positive comments. Here's our first hand, day-of-release report.
At Discreet's Montreal facility, we took a look at flame 8's Beta 11 build, which was running smoothly with no crashes at all during the time it was presented. At the time, Discreet told us it was the last Beta release before the software was sent to manufacturing on January 11th. It turned out, by the way, that the company went through three more Beta builds before the final release.
flame 8's best new feature is its ability to handle mixed resolutions for the first time. Along with that gut-level overhaul, Discreet also delivers more editing capabilities in this app, which was previously known as solely a serious compositing tool. According to Discreet's Maurice Patel, "There are a few other areas that we'll continue to work on, so it's not an ending process, but we've really bitten the bullet on two major headaches: A lot of engineering effort went into making it resolution independent and the integrating of Action and Batch into one environment."
All along, flame's strength has been its ability to harness the raw power and speed of its mighty SGI IRIX (UNIX)-based hardware lurking underneath. Running on high-end SGI Octane workstations, its learning curve has always been counter-intuitive. But Discreet has gone a long way toward solving that problem with this new release. The overall impression of this new version of flame is that its workflow has been improved on a number of fronts. According to Discreet, the application has been completely re-architected. In the massive project, Discreet engineers took a close look at the code and decided that it was long overdue for a cleanup. Let's dive in and see what's different.
The first thing you notice when you open the flame desktop is that it's now supporting mixed resolutions. This new release is fully format- and resolution-independent. You can now import any resolution into a project and create compositions that include layers of 601, HD, 2K or even 6K images. You're also able to convert files from one resolution to another. Without having to manually create partitions for each format, it's a great way to shave a lot of time off your production day.
Since all the material can possess different frame rates, aspect ratios or bit depths, there is more information added to the clips' proxies, showing their different frame rates, aspect ratios or bit depths. Exactly which attributes you see in these visual representations of your footage is a lot more controllable, too, using a conditional routine developed by Discreet that lets you show only the information you want. For example, you can tell flame to generate a proxy for everything that's, say, bigger than 720 pixels. Another nice touch is its new ability to let you slip to proxy mode for those huge frames, giving you a significant speed increase when you're looking at higher resolution footage. Now, this is integrated into the compositing, and gives you a huge speed increase in Batch, especially if you're working with high-rez files. This new version gives you lots more fine-tuned choices for what your proxies can do, and saves disk space and time and calculating proxies you might not need. The result? A more interactive way of working.
The way the system can effortlessly mix and match these various files is a big plus. It's no small accomplishment to handle, for instance, 12 bit component files, giving you high quality and a high degree if interactivity at the same time. These two attributes, until now, have seemed to be mutually exclusive. Hey, I could get used to this. It works. It plays from one clip to the next, even when they are all mixed bit rates and resolutions. I saw it, and it's for real. Nice.
Another unique feature is something you can do mainly because of the system's awesome SGI-furnished bandwidth. Macs and PCs can't hold a candle to this -- SGIs are the only computers that can synch full resolution playback on the computer monitor while simultaneously showing you the same footage on a broadcast HD monitor. The system gives artists a more visual experience on the computer while seeing the results on an HD monitor at the same time. So, yes, even though other personal computers are catching up, there's still good reason to go with the "big iron" of SGI when there's heavy lifting involved.
Another positive change is that Discreet has decided to prepare for new formats, and new ways to share with other applications. As a result, the software now supports FBX, a standardized format of exchanging 3D data. FBX, the 3D file exchange protocol developed by Kaydara, is now adhered to by almost every major 3D application. At the moment, Maya, Softimage|XSI, Softimage|3D, and Lightwave are supporting the format. The fact that FBX is from a neutral company and not from one of those 3D companies, means it's turned into what is so far a de facto standard. It looks to me like it's turning into the OMF of 3D.
There are four main attributes that you can transfer from a 3D application to flame using FBX: Texture, light, animation and multiple cameras. Beyond that, you can import multiple models, where you could only bring in one before. And, via FBX it's possible to import a whole scene, not just a single model. This is a definite plus, maybe even a breakthrough for the 3D and compositing world.
How did such an epiphany happen? Well, it wasn't started by Discreet. According to Discreet's product manager Maurice Patel, "Socratto was the first to approach Kaydara," and it was that initiative that got the ball rolling -- and now, even though the Socratto compositor was scrapped soon thereafter by parent company Sony, the die was cast and other companies took notice. These companies included Discreet. "We already were thinking about how to expand our 3D," Patel explained. "The challenge we were facing was we wanted to expand our 3DSMax integration, while at the same time our customers wanted us to include Maya and Softimage|XSI, which would have been a real pain to have to do each one individually. In fact, we had to scrap work we did with our own 3DSMax integration to some extent, to move to this, and we got more functionality on the flip side, because it was a richer data format." So, it looks like Discreet made a magnanimous move and decided to play ball with all the 3D developers. Bravo.
Even better, when you import FBX data, you get the option to filter out information as well. So if the FBX is saved with all its information, you can just use, say, the camera information or its lighting. Import an FBX file and it will bring in one camera or multiple cameras as part of the scene, along with all the geometry with their names from the 3D app, the lights -- everything that relates to the 3D from the scene. This is a new level of interoperability that will prove to be a significant timesaver.
There's more to FBX than we see here, though. It's quite a rich format, that can do much more than that which Discreet has implemented so far. Said Patel, "We are hoping in future releases to continue to expand on the functionality of FBX. For example, at the moment, FBX supports nurbs and skeletal deformation, envelopes -- you can get a lot of 3D information into the system but we don't support all that in this version. But already, we have cameras, the animations -- it's a huge step forward from where we were before."
There's also better audio support in this new version. If you're using a clip that contains an audio tack, you can set it as "audio context" so it can easily function as a scratch track. For example, say you're working with an off-lined project with an audio track -- in flame you can adjust the effects while just referencing the audio track, without having it bound to the clips. But you wouldn't really be doing audio editing with this app -- what it allows you to do is line up your effects with audio, so you can match the audio cues with the video. It's usually the other way around where the sound is added later, but with music videos, oftentimes it's better to have the video follow audio. In actual practice, production houses might do the editing in Media Composer, Discreet smoke or Discreet fire, and then tweak effects with the audio track as a reference in flame, which is better suited for short-form music videos and commercials. Even so, there are enough timeline-related features to make it lots easier to edit in flame, especially if you're doing short-form projects.
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