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Apple Shake 4.1

High-end compositing and visual effects package By Dave Nagel
Summary: Shake is a 2D/3D compositing suite that was once in the budgets of only high-end studios and visual effects shops. Now priced lower than Adobe After Effects Professional, it's within the range of attainability for just about anyone using making a living in the visual arts, especially users of Final Cut Studio. Version 4.1 is the first Universal Binary release of Shake, offering support now for Intel-based Macs, including the consumer-level 13-inch MacBook.
Developer: Apple (
Platform: Mac OS X and Linux
Price: $499 (Mac OS X only; contact Apple for Linux information)
Users: Visual artists, film professionals, effects houses, studios
Recommendation: Must Buy

Generally I don't review point-one software updates. But Shake 4.1 is something different. Not that the program has changed all that much, but it's now available in Universal Binary form, so it runs on Apple's Intel-based hardware (extraordinarily well, as we'll see). And, what's more, the price has been lowered drastically to make it affordable for any visual effects professional using Final Cut Studio.

Then and now
Before we begin with the review proper, let me give you a little perspective on Shake.

When I started here at DMN back in 2000, Shake (then owned by Nothing Real) was in version 2.1, and a single license cost $9,900 plus an annual maintenance of about $1,500. Additional render-only licenses ran $3,900.


The software ran only on Irix and Windows NT. And in order for a reviewer like me even to get my hands on the software, I'd have had to have proved my proficiency with it, or Nothing Real wouldn't even consider sending out a time-limited trial version so that I could have the privilege of giving them some free publicity. In other words, Shake wasn't exactly made for public consumption. It was the province of high-end effects houses and studios doing the effects and compositing on extraordinarily expensive projects (which, by the way, it continues to be used for).

Then in 2002 Apple bought Nothing Real and released a version of Shake for Mac OS X, lowering the price to $4,950 for Mac users with an annual maintenance fee of $1,199. Shake 3 came out in '03 at the same price, adding unlimited render licenses at no additional cost. With Shake 3.5 in '04, the price dropped to a mere $2,999 for Mac OS X. Shake 4 came out in '05 at the same price. Now, in '06, Apple has released Shake 4.1, and the price has dropped to an incredible $499--a twentieth of the original price (considerably lower even than some plugins) with no maintenance and free render nodes. The upgrade price from version 4.0 is $49, which is about one-sixteenth the previous lowest price for a Shake upgrade, which was $799 for Shake 3.5 from version 3.

And so, finally, the once-exclusive, cost-prohibitive Shake is now firmly positioned in the price range of just about anybody who makes a living in the visual arts. Just think: You can now produce wedding videos with the same compositing software used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Of course, Lord of the Rings used something like 80 full licenses and 190 render nodes, but that's beside the point.)

Considering just how powerful a compositing system Shake is and just how exclusive it used to be, this is simply an amazing development. And hence my willingness to write up a review of a "mere" zero-point-one software update.

This being a review of the Shake 4.1 update, and not a full release, I'm not going to spend too much time talking about Shake in general. But I will give you a brief overview of the basics, since most of you are probably unfamiliar with the software.

At the most basic level, Shake is a 2D and 3D compositing and visual effects tool. It's used for things like compositing together a huge number of individual elements into something that can be called a scene; adding effects and corrections to those elements or to the scene as a whole; matching the grain of specific film stocks for blending animated imagery with photographic imagery; stabilizing footage; motion tracking/matching; retiming footage with incredible precision; keying; color correction; warping; morphing; painting; et cetera, et cetera.

Shake's main interface, showing the viewer, some effects, the node window and the parameter pane

Now, obviously there are plenty of tools out there for doing most of these things as it is--After Effects and Combustion, to name a couple. And I'm not going to detract from those by saying that Shake is better than them in every way. Just in some ways. Let me put it like this: Nobody was spending $10,000 for a one-year license of Shake because it was inferior to retail compositing and motion graphics packages.

First off, there's quality. Shake is designed to produce results that will look incredible on theater screens. The color correction tools are superb; the keyers provide a tremendous amount of control;  and the render quality is fantastic. Just take a look at any major special-effects-heavy movie released in the last few years to see for yourself. (You can see a list of the ones that used Shake on Apple's Web site.)

Second, there's control. Shake uses a node-based system for controlling elements in a composition, which means you can control the entire flow of any number of elements by simply dragging connecting lines between nodes and rearranging elements in the Nodes view. And you can see the effect of any branch of a node tree simply by double-clicking on a particular node. (For example, if you have a color corrector and a blur filter applied to an image, you can double-click the color corrector node to see the correction without the blur.)

It takes a little while to get used to a node-based workflow, but, once you do, it's difficult to go back to the "simpler" interfaces used in other programs. (You'll see what I mean. At first you'll be frustrated and confused by Shake's interface, and then things will start to click, and you'll wish everything were designed this way.)

But nodes aren't all that Shake has going in the way of control. Most elements in Shake have a huge number of parameters that can be adjusted to give you maximum control over their effect. For example, with the AdjustHSV color corrector, you have control not only over the hue, saturation and brightness values, but also things like offset, range, falloff and sharpness for each of those elements. And if you want to add more parameters to give you even more control over any given node, you can do so manually by right-clicking in the Parameters pane and choosing "Create Local Parameter" from the contextual menu. You can add sliders and text fields, including text fields that support mathematical formulas and other types of expression.

Which brings us to another point about control in Shake: Every parameter can be controlled by an expression. Every one. For example, you might set the hue offset in a filter by setting its value to the cosine of the current time just by typing "cos (time)" into the parameter's text field, rather than typing in a number, creating a constantly shifting hue effect based on the current frame of the composition. Of you could create a custom camera shake effect by using a float modulus based on the current time and the tangent of the current time, which would be written as "fmod(tan(time),time)." Whatever. If you can type it, it will probably work as an expression.

And, in fact, you can even retrieve the values of parameters stored in one node and use those as the basis for the values of parameters in another node.

And then there's customizability. Pretty much anything in Shake can be customized, including, as I mentioned, adding parameters of your own to a node. You can also record macros in Shake, allowing you to record sequences of actions and hiding or enabling access to various parameters involved in the sequences. In fact, even the project files themselves are really just scripts, which you can open up and edit in any text editor (to change the path of a source video file, for example, without bothering to open up Shake itself and replacing the file through the GUI).

So, in short, Shake's quality is great; it's workflow, while requiring a bit of mental adjustment at first, is just great; it provides a great degree of control; and it's customizable to do pretty much anything you want it to do through the use of scripts, macros and expressions. And, hey, if you really want to go nuts, you can even download the Shake SDK from Apple's developer site and write our own full-featured plugins.

Finally, before we get into the specifics of version 4.1, I should mention that you Final Cut Studio users out there are Apple's new target market for Shake. And so Apple has added in some integration features that will help you work more easily between programs like Final Cut Pro and Motion. With Final Cut Pro, you can select individual elements in your timeline, then bring them into Shake, where the elements are converted to nodes for further manipulation (such as using one of Shake's keyers). Changes you make are then brought back into the FCP timeline as a composite placed over your original footage. (See Apple's Web site for a video walkthrough of this process.) For Motion users, integration isn't as powerful. But Shake does have the ability to import unrendered Motion project files, which is useful, say, when you want to integrate Motion particles into a Shake project. (But really, I think Shake would be better off with its own particle system.)

Okay, so that's it for the basics. I haven't covered much; so, if you want to see more, be sure to visit Apple's site to download a 30-day demo (

What's new in Shake 4.1?
Okay, so now that we have some of the basics out of the way, what's actually new about Shake 4.1? The one major change to the software itself is that Shake is now a Universal Binary, which means that it can run natively on Intel-based Mac hardware, as well as PowerPC-based Mac hardware. What ought to be particularly interesting for you about this for you is that, at the moment, the only Intel-based Mac systems are notebooks and consumer-level desktops (iMac and Mac Mini). So is it feasible even to think about running a program like Shake on one of these systems?

Indeed it is.

I mentioned back in April that I had a chance to see 2k compositing happening in real time on a 17-inch MacBook Pro. That's amazing in itself. What's even more amazing, though, is that Shake 4.1 actually runs on a 13-inch MacBook--and pretty darned well at that. We'll detail the results of our benchmark tests comparing Shake 4.1 on a 13-inch MacBook (compared with a dual 2.0 GHz G5) in a separate article coming this week. Just to give you a little preview, the MacBook trounced the G5 in every test, coming in at as much as double the performance of the desktop system in rendering speeds. Again, more on this later this week. (Update: The Shake 4.1 benchmarks are now available. You can read them by clicking here.)

The other major change to Shake, as I emphasized earlier, is the new pricing. And that's just huge. It can't be overstated. Shake has gone from a $10,000 application with an annual renewal fee to a $500 off-the-shelf software package, while continuing to get better and better with each subsequent release. It is just amazing.

On the minor feature changes front, Shake has also received some minor bug fixes, or so I'm told. At any rate, there seems to be absolutely nothing buggy about the current version, although there is some room for a few enhancements, such as full support for trackpad gestures in the GUI and in Shake's open and save dialogs. (For example, you can't currently use two fingers on the trackpad to scroll in Shake.)

The bottom line
Shake is and always has been one of the major powerhouses in compositing tools. Version 4.1, though, is the best to date, for its ability to run on Intel-based Mac hardware, for the performance enhancements it gains on those pieces of hardware and for its new breakthrough price of $499. At that price and with the kind of power Shake offers, it ought to be irresistible to anyone working professionally in the visual arts. I give it a Must Buy recommendation, making it the tenth application that has received that recommendation to date. (Apple now has three of those 10, including Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro.) To receive a Must Buy recommendation, a piece of software must be the best in its category; it must be a tool central to the workflow of creative professionals; it must be an outstanding application in its own right, apart from what else is out there in the market; and it must be priced within reason. Shake easily makes it on all four counts.

Shake 4.1 is available now for Mac OS X for $499. A 30-day trial version is also available, and I highly recommend you try it out to see whether Shake is right for you. A Linux version is also available. For more information, visit

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Related Keywords:shake 4.1, apple shake, review, benchmarks, intel, macbook, macbook pro, g5, comparison, performance, Visual artists, film professionals, effects houses, studios

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