Totally ToasterizedBy John Jackman
It’s said that lightning doesn't strike the same spot twice. However, the programmers at Nova Design are allowed to strike as often as they want to! The new release of Image FX, version 2.6, raises the level of Amiga-based image processing another notch. Enhancements include Toaster Flyer 4.1 support, CyberGraphX support, new scanner and printer modules, and many new or expanded effects.
For many years, there was a neck-and-neck race between Adpro, ImageFX, and ImageMaster. Each had strong points and weak points. But development of AdPro and ImageMaster have virtually halted, while steady progress has continued on ImageFX. The new release 2.6 adds a number of professional features which truly make this software the standard in Amiga image processing. Though Amiga users still can't process images at the speeds available to PPC or Pentium machines, the processing and special effects available through ImageFX are comparable to, and in some cases more effective than, the video industry hotshots, Adobe Photoshop and After Effects.
The primary feature of interest to Flyer users is the fully integrated support for Toaster 4.1. Flyer clips can be loaded transparently as sequences and complex processing effects applied with no conversion. Preview modes allow the user to draw directly on the Toaster frame buffer, using the Toaster as a realtime 24-bit display—and giving a great alternative to the clunky ToasterPaint! ImageFX is indeed totally "Toasterized," as the ads say. Full CyberGraphX support is included for display boards which use that standard. Enhanced printing is available through the new "SuperPrefs" Printer Module. The new Fargo FotoFun printer and Fargo PrimeraPro printers are supported. Additional scanner modules have been added.
A new and powerful "Wire Removal" feature has been added which can process out puppet or model wire supports. The trademark "Lightning" effect has been enhanced, with more options. Other new processing modules include "Bubbles," "Distort", "Film Grain", "Remove Grain", a realistic and complex "Fire" effect, "Gaussian Blur", "Liquid" distort, "Sparkle", and a new "Sponge" drawing mode. A full-featured color balancing operator has also been added. The JPEG modules have been updated. Because of the general legal problems with the GIF format, the GIF load & save modules have been dropped from the package, and are now available as public domain addons which must be downloaded from your online service or from the Nova Designs BBS.
ImageFX 2.6 is a very powerful and complex set of programs which will take some time to learn well. However, the interface is simple enough for even beginners to do simple processing right away. The program is very stable and reliable. Documentation is above average. A fat glossy manual was produced for release 2.0, with lots of illustrations and examples. Additional features for 2.6 are documented in a 46-page addendum, which could use some expansion. Overall, however, the documentation is well done.
Technical support is excellent. The tech support phone number is actually answered by a real human being who is expert in the program! Try to find that in a PC or Mac software company. Tech support is also available by FAX and online through Portal, Compuserve, and Genie. Nova Designs maintains a BBS, an FTP site, and now has a nicely turned out Website athttp://www.novadesign.com/. There is an active mailing list which serves as a forum for users to share tips and ideas.
The ImageFX interface is comprised of a preview screen and a lower third overlay which contains the "nested but-tons" control panel. I should say right here that I tend to dislike every image processing program interface I've ever seen on any platform what I really want is a 'thought recognition" interface! The problem, of course, is that a program like lmageFX is so incredibly complex. The programmers have two choices: simplify the interface by limiting user control, or provide full control and a complex interface. Nova Design has chosen to provide the user with almost complete control over every effect, and has still done a pretty good job of streamlining the interface. Every effect can be reached in two mouse clicks, or can be activated from a CLI-style command line. Simpler effects may have a single panel of controls; more complex effects such as "Fire" will have a whole series of control panels.
Complex effect panels have several "cycle" gadgets for various options. These gadgets work a little differently from the standard Amiga "cycle" gadget. Clicking on the right end on the gadget will cycle to the next selection; clicking on the left end of the gadget will cycle to the previous selection. Some of the gadgets have so many options, however, that clicking through every option will give you carpal tunnel syndrome in a single sitting! Hence, clicking on the center of the gadget pulls up a scrolling list with all options. With all these options, it's easy to get lost at first. Fortunately, each control panel is provided with a thumbnail "Preview" so that the changes can be quickly viewed without a full render. The rendering engine is quite fast for most effects. Images can be rendered to standard Amiga screens, most graphics cards, and directly to the Toaster framebuffer. Output can be saved in twenty-seven formats, including direct Toaster FrameStore and other platform formats such as Wavefront, TIFF, Targa, SunRaster, BMP, PCX, and Abekas.
The main program includes "hooks" to a number of external modules which include a new "Wireless" processor, the IMP and AutoFX multi-frame processors, the CineMatte bluescreen processor, and Nova Design's excellent morphing program, CineMorph. Just do me one favor don't use CineMorph without proper motivation! I think we all overdosed on random acts of morphing in 1994. Perhaps there should be a Morphing Board of Review to supervise the unregulated use of the effect? Well, maybe not. A little self-control will do wonders.
Some of the enhancements to ImageFX have come just at the time many of us are entering the Brave New World of non-linear editing. Flyer or V-Lab Motion users can now apply the full range of ImageFX processing features and effects to an entire video stream, rather than just using the program to process a single still FrameStore. At first this may not seem that significant, but in reality it opens up an entire range of high quality Hollywood-style special effects to smaller producers. At its simplest level, transitions which display ragged edges and blockiness in the Toaster can be rendered with superb definition and razor-sharp antialiased edges in ImageFX. And if you're tired of "Falling Sheep" and KikiWipes, an almost unlimited range of transition effects can be created in ImageFX.
The price of this power, of course, is rendering time. Toaster Flyer pros will continue to use the best of the Toaster transitions in real time, and will use rendered ImageFX transitions only when the equivalent Toaster effect doesn't quite cut it. A prime example would be an "over-the-shoulder" graphic insert, where the fast scaling algorithms of the Toaster create a very blocky appearance. ImageFX can effectively add a classy frame, scale smoothly, generate an alpha shadow, and compose the insert over your talent's shoulder and it will look as nice as an insert generated on Quantel or Ampex equipment. It just won't happen in real time.
Rendering time will be less of an issue for users of the other Amiga-based non-linear editors, the V-Lab Motion and the Broadcaster Elite; they must render all effects, anyway. ImageFX is somewhat slower than the optimized VLM rendering engine, so even here there will be some additional rendering time. ImageFX is not quite so smoothly integrated with the V-Lab Motion system as it is with the Toaster Flyer, however. Directly exported V-Lab JPEGs do not always load correctly, sometimes generating a "Corrupt JPEG Data" warning. This halts processing until the user clicks "OK". According to Kermit Woodall at Nova Design, this relates to the JPEG implementation of the V-Lab. However, Nova Design and MacroSystem GmbH need to communicate on fixing this mismatch. Since the frames appear fine after the user acknowledges the warning, users can simply use the IFX command "Requesters Off" to turn off such warnings during multi-frame processing. Broadcaster Elite files load directly via a loaders and savers written by Applied Magic.
Video streams are processed through the ImageFX "AutoFX" program or through "IMP" ("ImageFX Multiframe Processor"). Flyer users must use IMP, because AutoFX cannot access the individual files in a Flyer clip. AutoFX is the easier of the two programs to use, since it comes with a variety of stock ARexx scripts to apply processing effects over time. However, part of the real beauty of ImageFX is its almost unlimited configuration of effects. Much of this advantage will be lost to those who only use the stock AutoFX scripts. The best, most powerful use of ImageFX is found in using IMP to apply custom ARexx scripts. Through these you can do well, almost anything. Except lose those extra ten pounds or regrow hair!
But if you're an ARexx ignoramus like me, the thought of writing custom Arexx scripts for every special effect has quite a chilling effect. The ARexx-challenged user can be thankful that Nova Designs has integrated a well-implemented and powerful Macro recorder which automatically creates complex and precise Arexx scripts. Just start the Macro learn function, and perform a series of image processing operations via mouseclicks in the main interface. After you turn off the Macro recorder, it will create a script incorporating every step, coordinate, and setting. You can then save this file as a permanent script for use in either AutoFX or IMP. Even beginners can create immensely complex scripts using this feature!
So how does ImageFX really compare to the industry "big boys", PhotoShop and AfterEffects? Quite well, actually. There are a number of film and television effects houses that still use Amigas only to be able to run lmageFX. Numerous current television shows use ImageFX frequently, including such programs as Star Trek Voyager, Animaniacs, Babylon V, and The Tonight Show. These shows use ImageFX primarily due to its flexibility and its ARexx functions. Image FX also operates at any resolution, allowing it to be used on high-resolution digital film work as well as video production. Al Effects, Inc., a video and film post-production firm in Burbank, CA, is one effects house where ImageFX is put to use. According to AI effects wizard Tony Alderson, ARexx is what gives ImageFX its magic. "Batch processing on a Mac is a real pain," Alderson says.
"Automating the effects in PhotoShop can be really difficult. But with Arexx, I can write a script that will do just about anything in lmageFX." He rates PhotoShop as a better paint program, but thinks that ImageFX wins hands down for configurable animation effects. In part, this is because ImageFX has always been video-oriented, while PhotoShop's roots are as a publishing program. "Many of the PhotoShop plug-ins provide very limited control," Alderson says. On the other hand, ImageFX provides fully animatable control over every function in the program, all available through ARexx.
So what about Adobe AfterEffects, the current king of motion compositing? The two programs are different, and really can t be compared on a one-to-one basis. But ImageFX can provide the same high-quality compositing with motion effects as AfterEffects. Each program excels in one area or another. As mentioned above, many of ImageFX processes allow more complex user control and more complete automation through ARexx. ImageFX comes complete with a full array of effects; many of these must be purchased separately as plug-ins for PhotoShop and AfterEffects.
One area where AfterEffects definitely tops ImageFX in ease of use is in its timeline interface. Numerous pieces of art and video can be dropped in a NLE-style timeline, effects positioned and applied interactively, and the final output previewed and then rendered. AutoFX and IMP, on the other hand, work on lists of files. A timeline interface wouldn't be hard to implement in ImageFX; if fact, the now-defunct "MultiLayer" program from Prime Software gave older versions of ImageFx just such an interface. Any programmers out there listening? Another strong feature of AfterEffects is motion-controlled bezier masks, which are not available in Image FX. On the other hand, the ImageFX bluescreen processor, CineMatte, far exceeds the basic bluescreen compositor in AfterEffects. AE users (who have already spent $1,995 on the basic program) must purchase an additional $2,000 Professional Production Pack or the UltiMatte plug-in, also $2,000, to match the ImageFX bluescreening. And remember, we're comparing a single program which lists for $369.95 with a group of programs and extra-cost plug-ins that can easily top six grand! I'm cheap, (read cost-effective/profitable) I'll stick with ImageFX!
All in all, ImageFX 2.6 receives four stars from this reviewer. It is now a necessity for anyone working in Amiga-based digital video. If you don't have it, get it. The list price is $369.95, although the program typically retails for under $250 at Amiga dealers. If you have an older version, upgrade it; the upgrade is $34.95 direct from Nova Design. Though long-term AdPro users will take some time getting used to the interface, this program offers power which is available in no other Amiga image processing program.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
John Jackman is Director of Video Ministries for the Moravian Church. He has been involved in video production since the mid-seventies, and computer graphics for over a decade. He has used Amigas for video production since the early days of the A-5OO. His work has appeared on various cable systems around the country, and on ABC-TV. His video production work has taken him as across the US and as far afield as the jungles of Nicaragua. He also serves as pastor of Battle Hill Moravian Church in Union, NJ.
John Jackman. Compuserve 102623,1457
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