A few years ago, when Puffin Designs first launched Commotion, I had a hard time trying to wrap my brain around exactly what Commotion was. It seemed like it wanted to be a compositing program, but good ol’ After Effects had plenty more menu choices, effects, filters and goodies. The literature also said something about being a player… what was that all about? Apple’s QuickTime was the only standalone, multi-platform player worth considering, and it was already well ensconced as a fundamental tool in digital media systems. Absent explanations or recommendations from friends and colleagues, there seemed little reason to proceed down the path to Commotion.
Okay… so we all make mistakes.
With a little perseverance, I would have found out that comparisons to either QuickTime or After Effects were totally inappropriate. Instead of
with After Effects and QuickTime, Commotion is the perfect complement to extend their capabilities and fulfill their potential.
Since then, I’ve become immersed in the latest Commotion, version 2.1, and its latest incarnation, one which faithfully re-creates the look and feel of the original Mac OS program for Windows NT users. Puffin also has a $795 version of the software called Commotion DV that is streamlined for video work — I tested the full version ($2,495) of Commotion. Briefly, here’s what I’ve finally learned.
The toolkit approach is fast becoming a favorite in compositing software. The major software developers have admitted that many, if not most, users have more than one program available for their effects and compositing tasks, and have taken steps to facilitate the exchange of files and settings between them. Puffin has wisely positioned Commotion as both a standalone application and as a special-duty program that can extend the capabilities of, say, After Effects. Perhaps the most popular example of this interaction is with tracker data: Commotion is used to develop motion-tracking data, taking advantage of its ability to quickly replay full-motion footage to check and refine track paths. The data, and perhaps a derived alpha channel clip, is exported for use in After Effects, where additional layering and effects are added. Although After Effects includes tracking features, Commotion’s real-time interaction makes all the difference.
Commotion’s foundation is its player technology, which places as much of a selected clip into RAM as is possible. Then, using a graphical set of player controls, the clip can be rocked, looped, played forward and backward, frame-stepped in either direction, and probably more… although I’m not too sure. The tiny icons and buttons on the control window are almost the only program feature for which the functions aren’t immediately and obviously apparent, at least to the novice user.
Any momentary confusion, however, is more than offset by Commotion’s "virtual clip" feature. Rather than truncate clips due to physical RAM limitations, or, worse yet, to force you to split clips, the software allows selection of clips far longer than memory would allow. The portion of the clip which fits in RAM is, of course, immediately available, but the frames before and after are kept ready to be loaded on-the-fly as your working range moves forward or backward. In practice, the delays are only momentary and the process seamless, especially compared to the potential nightmare of dividing, loading and unloading longer scenes.
Commotion’s documentation is worthy of note, too. The supplied reference manual is clear and concise – and complete. The spacious layout never overwhelms the reader despite the phenomenal volume of information presented, and broad page margins are consistently used for helpful information such as keyboard shortcuts and helpful hints. The book is peppered with Mac- vs. - NT screen shots, easing the learning curve for multi-platform users. I never encountered an operating question that the manual couldn’t help with, and I expect the reference manual to be an invaluable tool in everyday use.
A lot of thought has gone into the framework that supports Commotion’s core components. One such example is the system’s near-flawless format agility, which gives clips of all pedigrees equal standing as they’re assimilated. Helpful, too, are the free downloadable extras available at the Puffin web site, such as the Photoshop export extension which speeds interoperability with Commotion.
This is a system that not only supports rotoscoping, but cries out for it, with features like "onion skin" tracing. Pulling mattes from moving footage is second nature to Commotion; a "roto-spline" system helps to create, track and modify mattes from one frame to the next. And speaking of tracking, a fully-featured motion tracker and shot stabilizer also help form the core of the Commotion package. A full set of real-time paint tools are always available to touch up and tweak, something that compositing-only programs don’t often support.
But do you need it? One of the tough tasks is to determine whether you need Commotion in your life. I suspect that it’s a lot like the old tale of the three blind men and the elephant – your perception will most certainly be conditioned by the side that you’re closest to. If you plan to host your clients in a lush, real-time effects suite, complete with sushi lunches and designer furnishings, you’ll likely want Discreet Logic’s *flame. If, like us, you toil in messy workrooms, ducking simultaneous deadlines, and praying the client won’t stay too long… you need Commotion. Is there a difference in features? Yes. Do they have different price tags? You betcha. And the fact is, there are relatively few challenges you can’t tackle when the modestly-priced Commotion is added to your compositing toolkit.
Commotion’s prime function is as a full-speed player for digital media, up to and including uncompressed, full-resolution clips – a little like a disk recorder or ultra-fast disk array, but using only software. By providing a high-quality, real time player framework, Commotion helps you do the things you’d most want to do in real time, things that require live, back-and-forth or single-frame playback.
By stepping through a series of tutorials published in Commotion’s reference manual, I can safely report that I can make the program work – I can successfully complete a range of common tasks. Now comes the hard part, trying to expand, feature by feature, until I’ve used each variant and each keyboard shortcut at least once. It’s not that I want to memorize the keystrokes; instead, I’m hoping that I’ll remember most of Commotion’s myriad capabilities at times when I might need them most. Hard work or not, it’s a pleasure to progress through this learning curve, knowing that I’ve got the power of Commotion waiting to assist.