Taking Blackmagic Fusion 9 through the paces

UAE-based post-production compositor and colourist and guest reviewer for BroadcastPro ME, Alistair Rankine.

UAE-based post-production compositor and colourist and guest reviewer for BroadcastPro ME, Alistair Rankine, writes that Blackmagic Fusion 9,  previously known as Digital Fusion, has the potential to reclaim its status as the go-to compositor  for the visual effects industry.

It’s been almost 15 years since I last set my eyes on Fusion. I was working at AV Productions, one of Dubai’s oldest and most reliable post-production houses. The company had acquired a fantastic but short-lived new edit suite, Dps Velocity Q, which came bundled with a light version of Eye on Digital Fusion.

The Fusion software was accessible via a direct timeline link within Velocity Q. To use the Fusion software to its full potential, there was an option to buy individual nodes for $25 each. Basic nodes like scaling and simple colour correction were included, but more advanced nodes like the Chroma Keyer had to be purchased on a pay-as-you-need basis.

At that time, few products offered a workflow like this, with Avid DS the only other that springs to mind. At the time, even Autodesk Flame and Smoke didn’t offer fully functioning round tripping between an editorial timeline and compositor.

Fusion (not to be confused with Autodesk Fusion), like Nuke and Flare (Flame family), consists of a dedicated node-compositing environment. It was developed in the late eighties and for many years was considered the go-to compositor. In many ways, it helped to change the visual effects industry with regard to skill set and workflows.

Over the years, Fusion slowly disappeared and products such as Nuke and Flame eventually dominated the market, with Nuke becoming the industry standard stand-alone A/B compositor. Like many products, Fusion suffered from problems, which hindered its development. It was also only available for Windows, which meant it missed out on a huge number of Mac users.

In 2014, Blackmagic Design acquired Digital Fusion, now known as Blackmagic Fusion 9, and set about redeveloping and marketing it. Nothing new to Blackmagic, which did the same for DaVinci Resolve, turning it into the most popular colour grading system on the market.

Blackmagic Fusion comes in two versions, the free version and the $299 studio version. For the review, I will stick mainly with the studio version.

On opening the box, one finds a memory card, which contains the software and instruction manual. There is also an activation dongle in the form of a USB stick. I like the idea of the activation dongle, as it helps to prevent piracy; however, I also have an activation dongle for DaVinci Resolve. This is great when I am on my HP Workstation, where I have plenty of USB ports, but can be problematic when jumping over to my MacBook Pro, which has only two ports. As soon as my dongle is plugged in, I am limited to using only the Thunderbolt ports. I hope that in the future, Blackmagic provides a single dongle option for dual product users.

For anyone new to Blackmagic Fusion, it is a node compositor. Instead of using layer-like systems such as After Effects, it uses individual nodes to represent individual changeable parameters. This has pretty much become the norm in compositing software, with products such as Flame, Nuke and Mistika all implementing nodes to carry out complex compositing.

Unlike products such as Flame, Fusion is stand-alone software. It doesn’t have its own internal editorial timeline, and the interface strongly resembles that of Nuke. It can, however, work directly in conjunction with DaVinci Resolve via a clip link, similar to the link between After Effects and Premiere or Nuke and Nuke Studio (Hiero). Combine DaVinci Resolve and Fusion, and you have a very affordable highend finishing suite. It can also be used in conjunction with Avid via the Avid Connect plug-in.

I download the software, insert my dongle and jump straight in. At first glance, the interface looks very similar to the version I used back in 2005. I wonder what has changed. Going in deeper, I realise that a great deal is different, not just the toolset but also the under-the-hood performance.

For anyone who has never worked on a node composting system, the initial opening of the software can be quite daunting. It just looks like a blank canvas. As there is no footage loaded, there are no nodes in the flow graph and no parameters open in the controls area. Coming from a Nuke and Flame background, I am not too bothered by this and start to load some footage into Fusion to see where it takes me.

It isn’t long before I start to find my way around the software. If you come from a node-based compositing background, the interface is fairly intuitive and it shouldn’t take too long to figure out the basics.

I think one thing Blackmagic will need to do, regardless of how good Fusion is, is to heavily invest in producing online training videos. In a world where you can go online and learn everything you need to know about After Effects, Nuke and Flame, from the basics all the way through to deep compositing, it is essential that users are able to quickly access learning material in order to easily progress to more complex tasks.

So let’s have a look at what’s new in Fusion 9. The new version is now more stable, faster and less buggy than before. This is most likely due to the fact that much of the Fusion toolset not only uses standard GPU acceleration but also OpenCL, allowing the tools to access the GPU for a faster workflow. This makes a huge difference to the user’s interactive experience with the software, which in turn helps define the quality of the finished output.

Many new video formats have been added, such as MXF, DNxHR and ProRes, allowing seamless workflows between Avid, FCP and Resolve. Fusion is capable of not only importing Apple ProRes on Windows and Linux, but also of encoding ProRes on Windows and Linux. This option is only available in the Studio version.

A whole array of new tools has been added, too many to mention here, but I will cover the most important ones.

Virtual Reality

One of Blackmagic’s selling points on the Fusion software is its ability to handle virtual reality. VR is a little like 3D movies – it seems to have come and gone over the years. This time around, it appears to be here to stay, perhaps not in the film industry but definitely in other areas of entertainment.

Fusion 9 comes with a new panoramic viewer and is able to work in true 3D space by way of a new 360-degree spherical camera, which also supports stereoscopic VR, allowing scenes to be rendered quickly and easily. It works with all major VR headsets on the market. The great thing about Fusion’s toolset is that it is all self-contained, limiting the need to jump in and out of other programmes in order to complete your VR workflow.

Planar Tracker

Like many people out there, my favourite planar tracker is Mocha. Even since Flame included its own planar tracker, I still find it hard to beat Mocha. So how does the planar tracker on Fusion compare?

After a couple of hours of testing, I am fairly impressed. It seems to handle simple to intermediate shapes, and tracks reasonably well with minor tweaks and adjustments along the way. However, when it comes to more complex tracking, I feel Fusion doesn’t quite handle things as well as I would like. This isn’t a criticism in any way. Given some more time to test the tracker and adjust the parameters, it may well prove me wrong. With more complex tasks, I will still probably use Mocha for now. I tend to use it even when I work in Flame or Nuke.

For general everyday and intermediate Planar Tracking tasks, it’s a great addition to the Fusion software that I will certainly be making the most of.

3D Camera Tracker

It takes me a little while to figure out the 3D camera tracker in Fusion – not because of complexity, it works very similarly to that of Nuke, and in all honesty the two products are incredibly similar. But I just can’t get it to do what I want.

Eventually I hunt down a tutorial on YouTube to try and figure out if I am doing anything wrong. Thankfully, this helps a great deal. Unlike Nuke, there are a few parameters in the default settings that need to be adjusted before a good 3D track can be achieved. I do find that strange, as it would make more sense to have the more useable settings as default.

Training session over – back to tracking. I put the tracker through its paces using some footage I have tracked before in other applications, and I have to say it is excellent. I do receive errors along the way, but that is to be expected.

The more I use the 3D tracker, the better I believe the results will be. It certainly holds its own next to trackers in Nuke and Flame, and from the quick tests I carry out, it certainly doesn’t seem to throw up any more errors than I would receive in either of these products.

I suppose the interesting thing is that both Nuke and Flame are vastly more expensive than Fusion and come with large yearly support charges in order to receive upgrades and tech support.

With Fusion, as with Resolve, there is a one-off payment and free upgrades. It will be interesting to see what level of tech support is available for Fusion compared to Flame and Nuke, which both offer 24-hour online and telephone support.

Delta Keyer

Of all the nodes I have mentioned so far, the Delta keyer has to be my favourite for ease of use and initial performance. Having spent years working and teaching on Flame, I have always been exceptionally biased towards the Flame keyer. I just love the way it works and how quickly I can pull and refine a key. Moving over to Nuke and After Effects, I eventually got used to the Keylight keyer, which doesn’t pull as good an initial key as Flame but balances that out with some remarkable refining tools.

I would say from my initial testing on Fusion that the Delta keyer is as good as if not better. It pulls an excellent Initial key, and provides similar parameters to Keylight to help refine the key. It also incorporates the clean plate function, which helps to balance out imperfections and variations in colour of the blue and green, for easier refining of problem areas.

I will be interested to see how it handles more complex keying tasks with badly-lit green screen. That will be the true test of how the Delta keyer holds up. If the initial test is anything to go by, there shouldn’t be any issues.

Studio Player

The studio player has been added to allow collaborative workflows between multiple users by way of Blackmagic hardware. It provides the software with a multi-shot timeline, version tracking and annotation notes. From what I can see, the idea is to match the functionality of Nuke Studio or Hiero, neither of which I have been a huge fan of in the past.

The timeline allows users to create storyboards from the shots they are working on, allowing access to all the metadata information on the shots and letting the user write annotations for either the compositor who will work on the shots or the editor, director or producer who will review. It will basically allow anyone with the Fusion software on their system to review and track the job every step from start to finish, adding comments when needed.

The studio player will come into its own in an environment where there are multiple users and artists all working on the same project, allowing the project to be monitored at each individual step along the way. From what I can see so far, it certainly has the necessary tools to achieve this, but I would like to put it through its paces with a large team of users to see how well it works in reality.

My initial thoughts on Blackmagic Fusion is that it is an excellent stand-alone node compositor. It has an excellent keyer, 3D tracker and VR toolset.

Some areas still need tweaking, such as some of the default parameters on various tools. That said, it is a remarkable product and for a price tag of $299, it will be hard to ignore.

Although the nearest product to Fusion is Nuke, Fusion offers something Nuke doesn’t – the option to connect directly to DaVinci Resolve, combining both products to provide a full editorial, effects and grading system. I certainly plan to incorporate it more and more into my everyday workload.

Do I see Fusion replacing Nuke? Not in studios that already have Nuke Large VFX studios invest a great deal of time and money setting up workflows and pipelines throughout their facilities. It would be counterintuitive to suddenly abandon that workflow. There is also a huge Nuke user base out there with thousands of talented artists, all of whom know the product inside out.

That said, I think Fusion certainly stands side by side with Nuke and I can see it being used more and more in smaller boutique studios or newly opened studios with less established workflows. I can also see it used in a broadcast environment in conjunction with Avid via Avid Connect, or Resolve via the connect tab.

One area where Blackmagic is pushing Fusion is that of 3D motion graphics. This will help Fusion establish itself within a broadcast environment and compete with After Effects for market share.