Matrox Parhelia with Adobe After Effects 6.0
COW Library : Adobe After Effects : Barend Onneweer : Matrox Parhelia with Adobe After Effects 6.0
Just a warning, the Matrox Parhelia is Windows only...
Note: this article focuses on the functionality of the Parhelia with After Effects, for in-depth evaluation of the 512 bit GPU and 16x Fragment Antialiasing and the performance in Unreal Tournament, take a look at other reviews.
After a period of silence from their graphics-boards division, Matrox released the Parhelia some time ago. Matrox has been quite successful in the graphics board market in the past, in particular with the G400 which was very popular amongst designers as a dual-head display-adapter that offered 2 monitor outputs with unrivalled image quality.
Although the G400 initially didn't do bad as a gaming card, in terms of raw 3D speed it was quickly overtaken by the nVidia TNT chipsets. A couple of other boards followed in the same series, but no dramatic improvements were made, while at the same time nVidia and ATI were engaged in full-on competition for domination of the 3D games market that had exploded.
Years of wild rumours about the next hot thing from the Matrox R&D labs followed, until finally the Parhelia board was released halfway 2002. It features triple-head functionality allowing the connection of up to three (!) displays in several configurations.
The Parhelia currently comes in several flavours, with either 128 MB or 256 MB of DDR video RAM, and slightly different clock speeds. At the moment the street price is little over US$ 300 for the basic model.
The first reviews on various websites and magazines showed that in terms of 3D gaming power, the Parhelia can't compete with the nVidia and ATI flagships. In some cases this would be a show-stopper but there's more. Matrox has developed special wysiwyg (what you see is what you get...) drivers that offers added functionality in conjunction with Adobe After Effects, Photoshop and Premiere, Avid Xpress DV, Discreet 3D Studio MAX and NewTek Lightwave 3D.
I had already begun testing the Parhelia with After Effects 5.5 when I got the chance to work with After Effects 6.0. One of the major additions in 6.0 is OpenGL accelerated previews. Since OpenGL rendering relies solely on the graphics board to process geometry transformation and lighting, this adds new aspects to the choice of graphics boards for use in After Effects workstations. Up to version 5.5 of After Effects, raw 3D power wasn't much of an issue for graphics boards, apart from Zaxworks Invigorator which was already OpenGL accelerated.
Out of the box, into the case
I want to focus the rest of this article on the integration of the Parhelia with After Effects, so I'll keep the details about installation to a minimum.
The Parhelia is equipped with two DVI outputs that can be connected to displays with digital inputs. By means of an adapter and a splitter cable these two outputs can be converted to three (!) VGA outputs of which one can be converted to a composite video or S-Video connection. Resulting in 2 VGA outputs and an S-Video output.
Setting up was really simple, and the Matrox drivers are augmented by the Matrox Powerdesk display management system which makes it really easy to set up your multi-display workstation. I chose to work with two Iiyama 19" CRT's and a 14" Sony Trinitron video reference monitor.
The first thing I noticed, was that even at 1600 x 1200 resolution with billions of colors for both VGA monitors, the image was of a very high quality, very crisp and defined. Previously I had a Geforce 2 MX board in the machine, and although image quality wasn't bad at all, the Parhelia looks somewhat cleaner.
The Powerdesk software also allows you to calibrate the S-Video output separately with hue, brightness, contrast and saturation filters, while it outputs color bars to the S-Video output, although the supplied color bars don't seem very accurate to me - which initially made me cautious about the color fidelity of the S-Video output.
So what's the deal with After Effects? Well, from the Matrox website, I downloaded the free wysiwyg plugins for After Effects, and dropped them into the After Effects 6.0 plugins folder.
After Launching After Effects, there's a new option in the Edit>Preferences menu: Matrox WYSIWYG plugin. This leads to a menu where the wysiwyg output can be enabled, and the settings can be modified. Depending on your output format you can choose to either output full-screen, or maintain the aspect ratio for a wide-screen comp.
Immediately after this, the content of the Composition Window popped up on the video monitor. So testing could begin...
Color fidelity and image quality
The first thing I was curious about is how accurate the S-Video output is in its color representation. I imported colorbars into After Effects, and checked what they looked like on the calibrated video monitor. After my worries about the colorbars that came with the Matrox software, this looked very good. Subjective comparison between DV output and the Parhelia output shows that the Parhelia board is quite accurate. If necesary the S-Video output can be independently calibrated using the Powerdesk software.
Next I did a couple of tests using different gradient ramps generated in After Effects, and the video monitor showed some subtle banding: discrete steps of different shades of colors where the original in the Comp Window didn't show any signs of that. This leads me to believe that the S-Video output supports only 16-bit color. With 16 bits per pixel (16-bit color) you get 2 to the 16th power worth of color combinations -- 65,000 color combination. For reference, when working in 8 bits per channel, After Effects uses a 24-bit color space, and when working with 16 bpc, it's a 48-bit color range.
For most of the projects I've been working on it didn't look like the limited color space was such a big deal, as long as you don't use the Parhelia video output as your only reference before putting your material to tape or DVD. Make sure you also have your VGA monitors well-calibrated, and use the Parhelia video output as an extra feedback on what colors will look like on a video monitor.
The resolution of the S-Video output looked good. I tested a couple of test charts and patterns, showing that the output resolution is perfect for PAL or NTSC output. For standard definition material you'll be able to see all the details in your footage.
The only thing you need to realize is that the S-Video output delivers an exact mirror of the Composition Window, which is non-interlaced. RAM Previews in After Effects aren't interlaced, so the video output on the Parhelia won't be interlaced either.
So how does it feel?
When I started working on a project with the Matrox preview option enabled, it immediately felt very natural. Everything that happens in the Comp Window is directly mirrored to the video monitor. It's great to be able to judge typographic elements, thin lines and colors directly on the video monitor, if you're working for broadcast. The video output provides direct visual feedback on the color levels, great for judging what your graphic elements will look like, and essential for color correction.
Scrubbing the timeline with adaptive resolution enabled shows the low-resolution image directly on the video monitor. The only elements that are not replicated on the S-Video output are the UI elements like anchor points, paths, mask outlines etc. Which is a good thing.
Since the wysiwyg-drivers have not been updated for After Effects 6.0 yet, the new 6.0 features in the Layer Window cause a couple of minor issues with the video output. In After Effects 5.5 the Layer Window showed masks, but did not render the effect in the Layer Window. So when the Layer Window is active in 5.5, the video output just shows the plain image seen in the Layer Window. In 6.0 the user can define what elements are displayed and rendered in the Layer Window, but although the video output will show a short flash of the Layer Window when it's selected, as soon as a mask vertex is edited, the video output updates the Comp Window.
This is the behaviour that I would prefer for most situations, since even when working on a mask shape in the Layer Window, I like to keep an eye on the final result the Comp Window, and would prefer to have the final composition on the video monitor. Apart from the occasional short flash of the Layer Window on the video monitor when switching between views or windows, I have not engaged any problems running the existing Matrox drivers with After Effects 6.0. It's probably a minor issue that can be fixed in the next revision of the Matrox drivers.
Now that After Effects 6.0 has been officially announced, I can freely discuss the newly added OpenGL features in After Effects. OpenGL can be activated to speed up previews. The Parhelia currently doesn't support shadows in OpenGL where the latest nVidia and ATI chipsets do. But to be quite honest, over the last months of working with various beta-versions of After Effects 6.0 I haven't found OpenGL acceleration to be of that much value for my work in After Effects. For projects with hundreds of simple 3D layers where most of the workflow consists of geometric transformation and lighting, you'll see more benefit in OpenGL preview.
Most of my work in After Effects consists of compositing, color corrections and special effects where lots of different layers and effects are stacked on top of each other. I found that as soon as a project grew into more than a couple of layers I disabled the OpenGL preview, and stuck with the dynamic resolution preview accelleration as found in previous versions of After Effects. OpenGL is excellent for fast screen-redraws in 3D applications, but for complex visual effects there's not much that OpenGL can do at the moment, with very limited support for transfer modes, blurs etc.
Another downside of OpenGL is that it doesn't store the rendered pixels in the framebuffer, and thus the OpenGL accelerated previews aren't sent to the video output. When scrubbing the timeline the OpenGL rendered images will show in the Comp Window but the video output remains idle. When the mouse button is released, the Comp Window renders the frame, at which point the video output is engaged again.
Again, I personally didn't find this to be problematic, since the video output is most valuable for color correction and judging of graphics and colors for broadcast. Those processes don't benefit from OpenGL anyway.
After my experiences with the After Effects drivers I got curious about the Photoshop drivers, also a free download. The Photoshop drivers are different than the After Effects drivers in that the video output isn't updated in real-time, but is an export function. When you're working on graphic elements in Photoshop there's a new menu item in File>Export>Matrox WYSYWYG preview. When you select this function in the menu, a new window opens, with a couple of options. After clicking OK the Photoshop image is routed to the S-Video output. Or at least, it should be. If After Effects is also running with the wysiwyg drivers activated, After Effects doesn't want to release the framebuffer and the Photoshop image won't appear. This makes running the Photoshop wysiwyg plug-in next to After Effects virtually impossible, since you'd have to close the After Effects project for Photoshop to be allowed to output to video. It's not a bad feature to have in Photoshop, but I don't use it much.
There isn't a special driver for Premiere, it's simply a matter of activating the PureVideo overlay in the Matrox Powerdesk software, which routes the video overlay to the video monitor. It works pretty well, but Premiere 6.5 doesn't use video overlay for real-time effects, so there is nothing to display when Premiere tries to give real-time feedback on effects and transitions. Only clips that aren't effected, or areas that have been previewed to disk show up on the video monitor. I guess this is mainly a result of the way that Premiere deals with real-time processing. I can't tell at the moment if Premiere Pro will change this.
Synthetic Aperture Echofire
What are the other options for people looking for their After Effects previews to be output to video? The first thing that comes to mind is Echofire by Synthetic Aperture which costs around US$ 255 for the downloadable version. Echofire is a plugin that has been around for quite a while, first on the Mac platform and now also for Windows. It's software solution that outputs the After Effects Comp Window to a standard firewire output (which you'll probably already have), with the option to overlay waveform monitors and vectorscopes. You can't go wrong with this plug-in, but you'll need the firewire board and a converter such as the Canopus ADVC to convert the digital output to S-Video.
Canopus Video Out plug-in for After Effects
Canopus also offers a plugin for After Effects preview to video. This plugin only works in conjunction with their DV Storm and DV Rex video capture boards, and in that respect is rather pricey at US$ 249. Canopus has started to bundle the plugin with some of their highly acclaimed capture boards though.
For a long time Digital Voodoo offered After Effects preview functionality for their high-end uncompressed SD and HD capture boards on the Mac platform. The Windows versions of the same hardware, Bluefish444 inherited the same functionality. This is a completely different price-range though, with the really basic boards starting around US$ 1500 and going upwards to 15k.
I found the Parhelia to be a really nice piece of hardware, providing excellent VGA outputs with very clean image quality, and simultaneously delivering video output from After Effects at very decent quality. The Parhelia video output is not a high-end reference tool, and is no match for specialized hardware like the Bluefish444 boards. I wouldn't use the Parhelia for output to tape in a professional environment, but now I'm comparing apples and oranges.
I especially liked the Parhelia in conjunction with After Effects, it felt very natural and responsive. For my occasional project in 3D Studio Max the Parhelia's OpenGL performed more than adequately, although for extremely complex scenes a high-end 3D artist will probably tend towards the more specialized hardware.
If you work with After Effects for video output, at little over 300 dollars for the cheapest version the Parhelia is a great solution for VGA and cost effective video preview. If your standards and demands are beyond this, you'll need to look into real high-end solutions like the Bluefish444 range of hardware.
If you already have dual displays and an OHCI compliant firewire board (and a DV to analog converter...), you could try downloading the demo of Echofire.