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Cycore Effects HD 1.0 Review

Cycore FX HD Review
A CreativeCOW Product Review



Barend Onneweer Barend Onneweer
Independent Producer, raamw3rk studios
Instructor, Art Academy, Rotterdam, Holland

©2004 by Barend Onneweer and CreativeCOW.net. All rights are reserved.



Article Focus:
This article by Barend Onneweer investigates the improvements and new additions in Cycore Effects HD and tries to evaluate whether the new additions and improvements are worth the price. Although Cycore seems to aim for After Effects users at this point in time, the article might be of interest for Discreet Combustion users, too.

A little background

When Adobe After Effects 6.5 was released, one of the most exciting new additions was the bundling of Cycore Effects. Cycore Effects breathed new life into the almost legendary Final Effects Complete (FEC) plug-in set. If this doesn't ring any bell, here's a little history (partly taken from my original review of After Effects 6.5).

Cycore is a Swedish software developer (based in Uppsala) that produced a couple of very popular plug-in sets for After Effects. As a matter of fact, their Final Effects set was one of the first 3rd party plug-in sets ever released for After Effects, just after Knoll Lens Flare.

Cycore went on to develop Next Effects and Studio Effects, but in the mean time the sets had been bought by Metacreations, who instead decided to release all three under the name of Final Effects Complete. Metacreations later sold it to ICE (the manufacturer of now obsolete accelerator boards for After Effects) which in turn was acquired by Media 100.

Even though this set contained a couple of the most popular plug-ins for After Effects to have ever been produced, Media 100 didn't really support the package well. I don't think it was ever updated for OSX, and added a very flaky licensing scheme which put off many users.

But, apparently the original deal with Metacreations gave the original developers all rights to use the code for anything they wanted, including After Effects plug-ins, after a certain amount of time. Which is why it was possible that most of the plug-ins that were in FEC are now revived and updated in Cycore Effects.

WHAT'S NEW IN CYCORE EFFECTS HD?

In the summer of 2004 Cycore released Cycore Effects HD™ as an update for the bundled Cycore Effects for the price of $349.

So what's new? The 'HD' in the name may cause some confusion. It doesn't refer to the image resolution -- the plug-ins bundled with After Effects were already capable of working at any resolution. Instead, High Definition in this case points at the higher bit-depth that the plug-ins now operate at.

On top of that, both particle plug-ins have been seriously improved, there's three brand new plug-ins have been added to the set.

My first thought was that $349 might be a bit steep for an update to a plug-in set. Although on the other hand it's easy to underestimate the amount of work that goes into reworking old code into 16-bit support.

Below I'll try to summarize my experiences and views on the new additions and improvements in this edition.

16-bit

As I mentioned above, the biggest new feature for Cycore Effects HD is 16-bit support. This is not a very glamorous improvement and if most of your work is regular SD broadcast, you may not be very excited by the extra dynamic range that 16-bit offers. If you work with film-originated material, you can't work in 8-bit anymore -- since you'd lose all your precious latitude. You can use 8-bit effects in a 16-bit composition, but everything that passes through the 8-bit effect is clamped to 8-bit bit depth. Scary huh!

Or closer to home for most of you: Digital Betacam records at 10-bits, and if you capture that to a machine using a 10-bit codec using a for instance a Decklink, or Kona board, you would want to preserve that dynamic range when working on it in After Effects. And if you think those two bits can't make a lot of difference: where eight bits offer 256 steps from black to white, ten bits gives you a 1024 steps.

And even if your source material is 8-bit, processing it at higher bit-depth doesn't hurt. In my experience, I prefer to work in 16-bit even after de-interlacing and removing the artifacts from DV, to make sure I don't lose any more of the image than has already been lost in-camera. Effects like displacement mapping and heavy distortion effect tend to render smoother results when processing in 16-bit. And if you like to stack color correction effects on top of eachother, 16-bit is almost a must.

DVCProHD and HDCAM are both 8-bit -- but HDCAM SR is 10-bit so that makes 16-bit support sort of an issue for the future.

Non-square pixel support

Another improvement that may not sound too glamorous, is non-square pixel support. In many cases this isn't a big deal, but occasionally it is, and it's a good thing that this set is now completely supporting this.

The plug-ins

There are more than 60 plug-ins in the set, so I won't dive into in details for each and every one of them. But for those of you that haven't experienced Final Effects Complete, or Cycore Effects, at the risk of sounding like a Playstation game reviewer: these plug-ins stand for hours and hours of fun, guaranteed. The plug-in set contains a huge amount of unique tools that can be tuned for naturalism, or instead a more stylized or cartoonesque result. Most of the effects seem to be most valuable for motiongraphics, but I've used them in more realistic effects.

It's an eclectic bunch of tools, but just browsing through them again for the purpose of this review gave me new ideas on how to use them. CC Split, for instance could be a great tool to animate mouth shapes in a simplified way.

Blobbilize and Mr. Mercury are almost classics but very valuable for animating liquid effects. And there's a whole bunch of warping, bending and distortion tools. CC Sphere simply wraps an image around a sphere, but sometimes that's a very valuable tool to have without the need for a full-blown 3D application.

The particle systems can easily create many different looks and spray types. There's a snow effect that comes with Cycore Effects, which I didn't particularly like - but creating my own snow in CC Particle System was a matter of minutes.

Below there's just a couple of quick examples of my playing around with some of the tools - they're GIF-animations, so the image quality compromised a lot. I'm not attempting to give a wide overview, since that would be almost impossible. But hopefully you'll be intrigued enough to give the set a test drive yourself: there's a downloadable demo on the Cycore website.

Flo Motion, Mr Mercury and others
Split 2
CC Particle World

 

CC Particle World
CC Particle World
Fractal Noise and CC Vector Blur

For the explosion example I started out with a very small piece of explosion stock - and within minutes I created a more impressive explosion in Particle World - and after some more tweaking, I ended up with the more expressionist fireworks in the example on the center bottom.


NEW EFFECTS

Three completely new effects have been added to the set: CC Environment, CC WarpoMatic and CC Plastic.

CC Environment

CC Environment can load spherical panoramic images and project these as environment maps for your compositions. This is a very cool new tool that I've been wanting for a while. Spherical environment maps are generally fully panoramic images, such as seen below.

CC Environment can map a spherical image using a comp camera, giving you a seamless all-around panoramic background. Environment takes into account the field of view of the comp camera, and the orientation. It's very much like QuicktimeVR, but now fully keyframeable within After Effects.

Since a spherical map is normally shot from a tripod, you can't really move the comp camera's position around too much, because it would give you a strange perspective shift for objects close to the camera. But depending on the image you use, it can be a great seamless background map, that is controlled by the comp camera so that it matches the rest of the

The industry standard tool for making these panoramic images is Realviz Stitcher (on this site you'll also find a lot of background information on panoramic images) -- but there are also cheaper solutions around, sometimes bundled with digital still cameras, such as Canon's Photostitch.


CC WarpoMatic

WarpoMatic is a transition, that warps a layer based on a selected property like brightness or contrast differences between two layers, during the dissolve between the two layers. Depending on the amount of warp this leads to very fluid and funky results. Depending on the material and settings it can have a seventies feel to it, but it could probably be used in more realistic special effects too, where you want to blend two fluid moving layers together.

CC Plastic

CC Plastic reminds me of Alien Skin's Plastic Wrap filter for Photoshop. It renders a sort of, well, shaded plastic cover on top of the video. Actually it's more like the bump-map features that can be found in most 3D applications, where the luminance or a channel value is translated into relief, resulting in a shaded map, that can be adjusted with many parameters like the softness and ambient light, speculars etc. The results can be simple bevels to yucky goo and anything in between.

CC Plastic
Roughen Edges and CC Plastic
CC Vector Blur and CC Plastic

IMPROVED PARTICLE PLUG-INS

But there's more. Cycore did some work on the two particle plug-ins in the set: CC Particle World and CC Particle Systems II. Especially Particle World has a lot of cool new parameters that really allow you to tweak and customize the particle flow. There are more particle types, and more options for the way particles interact with the environment. And the particles can now have a screen or add transfer mode when overlapping. All in all I find especially Particle World a very easy to use particle system. It's no competition for Trapcode Particular, when talking about features. But for quick results and a lot of fun, Particle World is great to have around.

CC Particle Systems II is a bit less advanced in many ways. It doesn't work with the comp camera, like Particle World for instance, and it can't use any custom textures. Both particle systems support motion blur when it's enabled for the layer, which is very nice.


CONCLUSION

Cycore Effects was a great plug-in set before, and it's even better now. Every time I use the set it shows a new face, and new possibilities. There are a couple of very plain and maybe outdated transitions, but most of the over 60 tools are great assets. The new improvements were very welcome to me, since I do most of my work in 16-bit these days, and the particle systems have become more useful.

It's hard to write a single conclusion to this review. It's probably best if I split my advice for the different types of users.

If you are an After Effects 6.0 or even 5.5 user, I'd recommend upgrading to version 6.5 before considering Cycore Effects HD. The upgrade from 6.0 to 6.5 is 99 dollars and it comes with Cycore Effects although it's the 8-bit version -- minus the new additions. The upgrade price is well worth it. If you insist on staying on an older version of After Effects... well, then Cycore Effects HD is a very good buy.

If you already have After Effects 6.5 -- it's a tough call. If you're doing film work, or seriously need to work in 16-bit, and use Cycore Effects a lot, then it's money well spent. But if you're happy working in 8-bit for now, 350 dollars is probably too much to pay for the other improvements and new additions. Although considering we got the bundled Cycore Effects pretty much for free...

If you are a Combustion user it's a completely different story. Cycore Effects HD isn't officially supported on Combustion, but my quick tests show that over 50 of the more than 60 effects seem to work flawlessly within Combustion. The other plug-ins are using a newer version of the After Effects plug-in API - that isn't supported in Combustion 3.0.4. But over 50 plug-ins for 350 dollars isn't a bad deal at all. I made up a list of the the plug-ins that work in Combustion here. If you are using Combustion, and are looking around for a very versatile set of plug-ins, I strongly recommend downloading the demo for Cycore Effects HD on the Cycore website. If you decide to purchase, it's quite easy to remove the offending plug-ins from the folder to avoid accidentally selecting them.

 

COW Rating:
Like I said before, I find it hard to rate this set, since the added value depends so much on whether you have After Effects 6.5 with the bundled Cycore Effects.

If you already have Cycore Effects 1.0, I'd give the upgrade three-and-a-half cows.

If you don't have the set, the value for money is completely different, and I'd give the set four-and-a-half cows.



More information and a downloadable demo can be found at the CycoreFX website.


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