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Discreet Combustion 2 for Mac OS 9 and OS X

High-end effects and compositing suite By Kevin Schmitt
When the time comes to get down to brass tacks and write a review, I usually stick with a good ol' tried and true formula: I'll settle in with a product, give the tires a good kick, try to get some real-world work done with it and then write about the hijinks and hilarity that usually ensues. With this product, Discreet's unbelievably outstanding Combustion 2, I'm going to do something a little different.

First, if you read the last sentence, you'll probably notice that I more or less gave away the rating. Well, besides that, I think a product like Combustion represents part of the bigger Mac picture, so I'll be focusing not only on the specifics of what Combustion actually does, but also why Combustion is so important to the Mac platform, as well as why you should try to scrape up the wad of cash needed to purchase Combustion as soon as humanly possible. First thing's first, though. If you haven't already, please head on over to Paulo De Andrade's review of Combustion 2 that ran in this space not too long ago for a more generalized, platform-agnostic look at the package. While I'll be going over some of the same features, Paulo hits on all they key points you'll want to know about. So, without further ado....

What it does
On the surface, Combustion seems to have a lot in common with After Effects or Commotion, with the added multiple bonuses of a higher price tag and a non-standard interface thrown in for good measure. Combustion has motion graphics; After Effects has motion graphics. Combustion has motion tracking; Commotion has motion tracking. Combustion lets you mix 2D and 3D assets; ditto for After Effects. And admittedly, Discreet has its work cut out for it in trying to convince users of the aforementioned programs that Combustion has more to offer and is worth the extra cost, especially as other solutions may be more entrenched in the smaller studio environment. But once you dive in with Combustion (and I strongly encourage you to do so via the free demo version available at, it doesn't take long before Combustion vaults itself to the front of the pack. There are three main ways that Combustion distinguishes itself: the interface (and, by extension, productivity), the availability of painting, animation and visual effects in a single package; and the extremely tight integration with Discreet's fleet of high-end SGI-based finishing options (flint, flame, inferno, fire, and smoke).

I remember my very first "real" compositing session way back in early 1996, I believe. It was to insert bluescreen footage of a host into a virtual set that I had created. I wasn't the compositor; I was just watching. I was amazed by the artist, who strolled up to a an SGI Indy and slapped the composite together in this strange (to me, anyway) interface about as fast as it took Data to generate an encryption algorithm for Captain Picard. The stylus was flying, buttons were being clicked left and right, and the shot was coming together lickety-damn-split, including subtle touches like reflections of the real host in the virtual tile floor and in the polished surface of a kiosk. I asked him how long he had been working in that program (which, by the way, was Discreet's flint), and he replied, "Oh, a couple of weeks now."

Inherent talent of that particular artist notwithstanding, the example above illustrates the power of what Discreet calls the "artist user-interface," an interface brought to the mere mortal desktop with Combustion 2. It's an interface designed for artists, rather than just designed by artists (like those beautiful but, in my experience, largely unusable interfaces found in Poser or Bryce a while back). A subtle distinction, but an important one. Mac users have come to expect their Mac programs to look and behave a certain way, but with the advent of OS X the Apple interface gods don't reign quite as supreme anymore. And while Combustion uses absolutely no standard Mac OS interface guidelines, including but not limited to proprietary open and save dialog boxes (figure 1), all I can say is that it really doesn't matter.

Figure 1: Combustion's open workspace dialog. Other than the title bar at the top, this may as well be a SGI workstation.

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