By David Cox
At Siggraph in August, Blackmagic Design released a new version of its compositing software Fusion. For those not familiar with Fusion, it is a highly flexible node-based compositor that can composite in 2D and 3D spaces. Its closest competitor is Nuke from The Foundry.
The raft of new updates in Version 9 could be categorized into one of two areas: features created in response to user requests, and a set of tools for VR. Also announced with the new release is a price drop to $299 for the full studio version, which, judging by global resellers instantly running out of stock (Fusion ships via dongle), seems to have been a popular move!
As with other manufacturers in the film and broadcast area, the term “VR” is a little misused as they are really referring to “360 video.” VR, although a more exciting term, would demand interactivity. That said, as a post production suite for 360 video, Fusion already has a very strong tool set. It can create, manipulate, texture and light 3D scenes made from imported CGI models and built-in primitives and particles.
Added in Version 9 is a spherical camera that can capture a scene as a 360 2D or stereo 3D image. In addition, new tools are provided to cross-convert between many 360 video image formats. Another useful tool allows a portion of a 360-degree image to be unwrapped (or un-distorted) so that restoration or compositing work can be easily carried out on it before it is perfectly re-wrapped back into the 360-degree image.
There is also a new stabilizer for 360 wrap-around shots. A neat feature is that Fusion 9 can directly drive VR headsets such as Oculus Rift. Within Fusion, any node can be routed to any viewing monitor and the VR headset simply presents itself as an extra one of those.
Notably, Blackmagic has opted not to tackle 360-degree image stitching — the process by which images from multiple cameras facing in different directions are “stitched” together to form a single wrap-around view. I can understand this — on one hand, there are numerous free or cheap apps that perform stitching and so there’s no need for Blackmagic to reinvent that wheel. On the other hand, Blackmagic targets the mass user area, and given that 360 video production is a niche activity, productions that strap together multiple cameras form an even smaller and decreasing niche due to the growing number of single-step 360-degree cameras that provide complete wrap-around images without the need for stitching.
Moving on from VR/360, Fusion 9 now boasts some very significant additional features. While some Fusion users had expressed concerned that Blackmagic was favoring Resolve, in fact it is now clear that the Fusion development team have been very busy indeed.
First up is an embedded camera tracker and solver. Such a facility aims to deduce how the original camera in a live-action shoot moved through the scene and what lens must have been on it. From this, a camera tracker produces a virtual 3D scene into which a compositor can add objects that then move precisely with the original shot.
Fusion 9’s new camera tracker performed well in tests. It requires the user to break the process down into three logical steps: track, refine and export. Fusion initially offers auto-placed trackers, which follow scores of details in the scene quite quickly. The operator then removes any obviously silly trackers (like the ones chasing around the moving people in a scene) and sets Fusion about the task of “solving” the camera move.
Once done, Fusion presents a number of features to allow the user to measure the accuracy of the resulting track and to locate and remove trackers that are adversely affecting that result. This is a circular process by which the user can incrementally improve the track. The final track is then converted into a 3D scene with a virtual camera and a point cloud to show where the trackers would exist in 3D space. A ground plane is also provided, which the user can locate during the tracking process.
While Fusion 9’s camera tracker perhaps doesn’t have all the features of a dedicated 3D tracker such as SynthEyes from Andersson Technologies, it does satisfy the core need and has plenty of controls to ensure that the tool is flexible enough to deal with most scenarios. It will certainly be received as a welcome addition.
Next up is a built-in “planar” tracker. Planar trackers work differently than classic point trackers, which simply try to follow a small area of detail. A planar tracker follows a larger area of a shot, which makes up a flat plane — such as a wall or table top. From this, the planar tracker can deduce rotation, location, scale and perspective.
Fusion 9 Studio’s new planar tracker also performed well in tests. It assessed the track quickly and was not easily upset by foreground objects obscuring parts of the tracked area. The resulting track can either be used directly to insert another image into the resulting plane or to stabilize the shot, or indirectly by producing a separate Planar Transform node. This is used to warp any other asset such as a matte for rotoscoping work.
Inevitably, any planar tracker will be compared to the long-established “daddy” of them all, Mocha Pro from Boris FX. At a basic level, Fusion’s planar tracker worked just as well as Mocha, creating solid tracks from a user-defined area nicely and quickly. However, I would think that for complex rotoscoping, where a user will have many roto layers, driven by many tracking sources, with other layers acting as occlusion masks, Mocha’s working environment would be easier to control. Such a task would lead to many, many wired up nodes in Fusion, whereas Mocha would present the same functions within a simper layer-list. Of course, Mocha Pro is available as an OFX plug-in for Fusion Studio anyway, so users can have the best of both worlds.
Blackmagic also added a new keyer to Fusion called the Delta Keyer. It is a color difference keyer with a wide range of controls to refine the resulting matte and the edges of the key. It worked well when tested against one of my horrible greenscreens, something I keep for these very occasions!
The Delta Keyer can also take a clean plate as a reference input, which is essentially a frame of the green/bluescreen studio without the object to be keyed. The Delta Keyer then uses this to understand which deviations from the screen color represent the foreground object and which are just part of an uneven screen color.
To assist with this process, there is also a new Clean Plate node, which is designed to create an estimate of a clean plate in the absence of one being available from the shoot (for example, if the camera was moving). The combination of the clean plate and the Delta Keyer produced good results when challenged to extract subtle object shadows from an unevenly lit greenscreen shot.
Studio Player is also new for Fusion 9 Studio; it’s a multi-station shot review tool. Multiple versions of clips and comps can be added to the Studio Player’s single layer timeline, where simple color adjustments and notes can be added. A neat feature is that multiple studio players in different locations can be slaved together so that cross-facility review sessions can take place, with everyone looking at the same thing at the same time, which helps!
Fusion 9 Studio also supports the writing of Apple-approved Pro Res from all its supported platforms, including Windows and Linux. Yep – you read that right. Other format support has also been widened and improved, such as faster native handling for DNxHR codecs, for example.
All in all, the updates to Fusion 9 are comprehensive and very much in line with what professional users have been asking for. I think it certainly demonstrates that Blackmagic is as committed to Fusion as Resolve, and at $299, it’s a no-brainer for any professional VFX artist to have available to them.
Of course, the price drop shows that Blackmagic is also aiming Fusion squarely at the mass independent filmmaker market. Certainly, with Resolve and Fusion, those users will have pretty much all the post tools they will need.
Fusion by its nature and heritage is a more complex beast to learn than Resolve, but it is well supported with a good user manual, forums and video tutorials. I would think it likely that for this market, Fusion might benefit from some minor tweaks to make it more intuitive in certain areas. I also think the join between Resolve and Fusion will provide a lot of interest going forward for this market. Adobe has done a masterful job bridging Premiere and After Effects. The join between Resolve and Fusion is more rudimentary, but if Blackmagic gets this right, they will have a killer combination.
Finally, Fusion 9 extends what was already a very powerful and comprehensive compositing suite. It has become my primary compositing device and the additions in version 9 only serve to cement that position.
David Cox is a VFX compositor and colorist with 20+ years experience. He started his career with MPC and The Mill before forming his own London-based post facility. Cox recently created interactive projects with full body motion sensors and 4D/AR experiences.