Studio Artist Puts the 'Fine' in Fine Art
Ground-breaking graphics synthesizer elegantly turns still of moving images into a work of art

by Erik Holsinger

Studio Artist
$329, Synthetik Software

Pros: Powerful, unmatched tools for still and motion graphics; easy to use
Cons: Slow render times

Synthetik Software: 30 Sheridan Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 - Phone: 415- 864-6582

Turning a still image into a work of art is not a new concept; plug-ins such as Xaos Tools Paint Alchemy or DigiEffects Cyclonist or Aurorix were early examples of programs that processed still images with a "painterly" look (whatever the blazes that means).

Today Adobe Photoshop 5.5 has many of these built into its Styles section of the filters menu, where one selection will process the current image to look like it was sketched with charcoal or painted with wet oils. Unfortunately, most of the time the results are less than realisticoften you get the graphic equivalent of playing a saxophone part using a MIDI-sample keyboard sound instead of recording the real thing. Close, but no cigar.

Yet every so often, when the planets align and the White House makes a rational decision, something extraordinary like Synthetik's Studio Artist comes along that takes a somewhat cynical reviewer like myself and turns my head. No, let me restate that more pragmatically: Studio Artist enthusiastically spins my head clean off my shoulders.

This standalone program can beautifully process still and moving images to look like traditional sketched and painted images with

a complexity that hasn't been seen on any platform or without rotoscoping an image for days. So have I finally found Graphic Nirvana, a program that properly aligns all my aesthetic chakras so I can create great art with a push of a button? Well, yes and no.

The Main interface to Studio Artist looks familiar, but the program doesn't use tool icons. (Click image for larger view.)

Yes, Synthetik Studio Artist lets you do amazing things at just the touch of a command button and a space bar, but great art still lies in the hands of the artist. The program has enough feature automation to allow even the most ham-fisted computer artist to create some very interesting still or moving art. However, real artists will have a field day finding the seemingly endless variety of features and tools within what is an incredibly complex graphic tool. Even with the Web's unlimited capacity, there is still not enough time to go into every feature of Studio Artist.

The graphics synthesizer
When you first open up Studio Artist, it looks similar to other graphics programs: The main window is devoted to the image, while a separate palette holds most of the tools. However, instead of tool icons, you have a palette of image styles. Synthetik repeatedly calls Studio Artist a
"graphic synthesizer," where you have access to hundreds of different preset image styles that you can use as-is or edit to your heart's content. Each of these presets applies a different style to your image; you can either apply the preset to the entire image or use a mouse (or graphics tablet) to apply the preset to sections of the image. You can even use a solid color and use the paint styles as you create an image from scratch.

To start adjusting your image, just select a paint preset and hit Command+Space. The program immediately begins processing the image a bit at a time. Pressing the space bar again allows you to stop the image and the amount of processing done to the image. By combining different paint presets and adjusting the level of processing you can create some amazing images.

Layers and custom presets
Studio Artist also uses unlimited layers, so you can create a variety of paint styles or effects and have each one of them on a different layer. Each layer (as in Photoshop) has a transfer mode that allows you to blend the layer using lighten, difference and so on. You can create your own presets using the Paint Synthesizer, a feature in the Operations pull-down menu that allows you to set everything from the brush shape and size to the global evolution and path shape of the preset. This is one area that you can get into some serious time spent tweaking your "ultimate" preset, but you'll find it's time well spent: Not only can you fine tune presets, but you can save these presets onto the main for quick retrieval.

The program also enables you to create warps, morphs and particle effects on still images. This last capability, using a feature called Time particles, is an interesting way to add diverse noise patterns and transitions to a still image.

Last but not least, you can save any sequence of image presets, paint synthesizer settings or distortion settings (warps) and apply them to each frame of a QuickTime movie. In other words, spend as much time as you need, add as many steps as you need to get just the right effect, and then Studio Artist will apply your effect sequence to every frame of the movie automatically. This feature alone is worth the price of admission, an auto-rotoscoping capability that can't help but add a significant enhancement to otherwise dull footage.

While you can create some impressive imagery, using the one-finger processing automation is Studio Artist at it's most simplistic. The program has a depth that after weeks of working on the program I feel I'm just barely scratching.

Some rough edges
So what didn't work for me? I found the biggest strike against Studio Artist for motion graphics was speed: If you plan to compress full-size video images, you'll find Studio Artist painfully
slow. On a 400 MHz G3 with 256 MB RAM I had to wait more than seven hours for a 10-second 720 X 480 pixel DV clip to render. True I had added at least four different presets and the image compressor to every frame of this image, but this is still a bit too long.

The Layers palette lets you blend different layers together to form a composite image. (Click image for larger view.)

According to the company the program should be faster, but they have primarily tested Studio Artist on smaller files pulled from the Web (which, coincidently were already compressed). Still, the important thing to keep in mind is that the only alternative to waiting for Studio Artist to render is to pay Mr. Pricey A.S. Hell motion graphics animator to rotoscope the sequence one frame at a time or to do it yourself (that is, if you have both the time and talent).

The other irksome point was Studio Artist's inability to import alpha channels. While you can do some crude masking within the program, these tools don't begin to compare to Photoshop's masking capabilities. I'd like to see future versions not only import alpha channels, but also provide alpha tracking in the transfer modes.

Finally, you should be able to move layers up and down in the image hierarchy, which you can't currently. This is important, as different transfer modes will affect an image differently depending upon where it is in the composite hierarchy.

Click image for QuickTime movie showing raw versus rendered motion graphics.

The bottom line
As the first program of a new company, the folks at Synthetik have a lot to be proud of. Studio Artist is a fascinating program that can offer novice and seasoned artists equal opportunities to create interesting and evocative artwork. No, this will not replace Photoshop or After Effects, yet it provides a level type of graphics processing that neither of those venerable programs can touch. Studio Artist's speed issues can put a huge cramp in production deadlines, but a newer version and faster CPUs should eventually take care of this problem. However, this is much is clear: If you create graphics on a Mac, then you must add Studio Artist to your graphics arsenal.

Erik Holsinger is the Vice President of Rich Media Production for Digital Media Online Inc. and a long-time digital media production crash test dummy. While he agrees that the pen is mightier that the sword, he points out that's only true for pressure-sensitive pens. You can reach him at [email protected].

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