Once mentioned only in the realm of action-adventure or science-fiction films, visual effects are now a part of many other genres. Whether it’s to achieve a special look, create set extensions, track, stabilize or simply add atmosphere to a scene, effects work these days can be just as important in a romantic comedy as it is in a space epic. With this change also has come a change in accessibility to visual-effects software. Previously, effects work was accomplished with expensive—and often custom—software running on specially tuned workstations. Now there are tools available to achieve your vision without breaking the bank.
When Blackmagic Design acquired eyeon Software, Inc., last fall, they brought into their product portfolio Fusion, an application with a long history of use in blockbuster films, from Avatar to X-Men. Much like their history with their Resolve color-grading software, Blackmagic Design has made Fusion accessible to all filmmakers.
Blackmagic Design released Fusion in two versions—Fusion Studio for purchase and Fusion for free download. I recently had the opportunity to test-drive Fusion 7 Studio. For the purposes of this review, unless specifically noted, I’ll refer to both software versions as Fusion.
Fusion is a node-based compositing system. If you’re used to working with timeline-based or top-down layer-based software, as soon as you open the application, you’ll notice that things are different. Instead of a default timeline where you lay in the scene you want to work with, you see a Flow Editor where you place your scene and add tools or effects as required.
The tools and effects are displayed as “nodes”—icons that can be wired together to achieve complex visual effects. You can add nodes easily in several ways, including using a large toolbar with buttons for commonly used tools. Each node has one or more inputs (determined by the type of node) and an output. For example, a Blur node has a regular input (for your footage), an Effect Mask input and a node output. To use the Blur node, once you’ve added it to the composition, you simply wire the output of your Clip node to the Blur node’s input.
Wiring is done by clicking on the Clip node’s output and dragging a connecting line to the Blur node’s input. Or, if you highlight a node before you add a tool, Fusion will wire that tool to the highlighted node automatically. If you want to create a mask for the Blur, grab one of nearly a dozen masking tools and add it to the Flow Editor. Then take its output and wire it to the Effect Mask input on the Blur node.
I found Fusion’s Flow Editor easy to work with. Fusion has two default display windows so you can view two nodes at anytime. This was useful when I was hand-animating masks: I could see the plain matte and also how it affected the composition. Additional floating windows, including output via an I/O card, can be added.
When working node-based, I found I was able to concentrate on the work I was doing and on fine-tuning the tool I was using. I wasn’t trying to work on the whole shot.
When I worked with masks, I found myself making use of the convenient toolbars, under the display window, that offer quick access to various masking tools. Additionally, I found the ability to make an “instance” of a node very useful. A node instance differs from a regular copy because all instances share the same settings. For example, I had several instances of a Color Corrector node. When I adjusted one Color Corrector node, all of the instances changed.
Even though Fusion is a node-based system, animation isn’t sacrificed. I had full access to keyframes and a timeline. The Fusion Spline Editor makes keyframe modification fast and easy, and I could also use motion paths to guide object animation on screen.
The toolset is overwhelming, at first, but that’s not a bad thing. By my count, there are over 200 tools to choose from. There are the compositing tools that you would expect to see: blurs, glows, color effects, masks and several keyers, including Primatte. There are also 2D and 3D text tools with a “follower” feature that allow you to create text animations quickly. Warp and transform tools allow you to correct for lens distortion so composites can become seamless.
The paint tool is vector-based and can be fully animated. Combine that with some great rotoscoping tools, and you have a remarkable system for creating custom masks. There are even Flow Editor tools to help keep you organized when doing complex effects.
The Fusion particle generators work in 3D space to create effects like smoke or rain and allow you to apply force tools to simulate gravity, wind and even particle collisions. An expression tool allows for mathematical control of the properties of particles.
In addition to particle generators, there are procedural creators that are useful for creating shimmers, clouds, water caustics (e.g., reflections) and plasma-style effects.
Trackers are built into Fusion so you can do tracking and stabilization, but you also can import tracking data from popular tracking applications like mocha and SynthEyes. For retiming, Fusion Studio can analyze and create optical flow data for use in speed changes. Once the optical flow data is created, tools like Time Speed and Time Stretcher improve the quality of pixel interpolation when retiming shots, making motion more fluid.
WORKING IN 3D
Fusion has a full range of nodes for working with 3D objects. You can create 3D shapes within the program, but just as importantly, you can import 3D objects, then turn to Fusion’s 3D tools to light the object and work with 3D cameras to render the final composite. File import support includes FBX and Alembic geometry files. You can bring in camera data created in 3D applications like Maya or 3ds Max, and point cloud data can be imported for advanced tracking and camera moves.
Beyond lighting and cameras, Fusion has a number of 3D tools to make integration of 3D objects more realistic. The deep pixel tools include depth blur, fog, render, ambient occlusion and a (re-) texture tool. It’s beyond the scope of this article to explain each one of these tools, but I’ll give you one explanation. Depth blur can read Z-depth data in imported 3D objects and then apply depth-of-field-style blurs that automatically adjust blur, depending on how far an object is from the camera.
Fusion also supports OpenEXR files so you can add volumetric effects like mist and fog without having to go back to the original 3D project and re-render.
COLLABORATING AND SCRIPTING
Fusion 7 Studio includes Generation, a collaboration tool that allows shots to be parsed to different users. And if you’re on Avid, you can send a layered clip from Media Composer right to Fusion. Scripting tools are built in for specific workflow customization.
FUSION7 STUDIO VS. FUSION 7
While there’s a difference between Fusion 7 Studio and Fusion 7, it’s surprisingly minimal. Fusion 7, the free download version, doesn’t have network/remote rendering, optical flow and stereoscopic tools, and third-party plug-in support. It works in resolutions up to UltraHD.
As you may expect, Fusion has a lot of advanced 3D features that may make you think it’s geared to a specific kind of compositing work. However, I found it to be a very powerful tool that can tackle a variety of tasks, both simple and complex.
Currently a Windows application, the next version (Fusion 8) will be available on Windows, Mac and Linux later this year. Fusion 7 Studio retails for $995, and Fusion 7 is available for download at the Blackmagic Design website, www.blackmagicdesign.com.