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Review: Commotion Pro- Software Review

October 2003

-What's All The Commotion?-

Description: Desktop application that offers compositing, painting, keyframing and other tools for creating visual effects.
Cost: About $495-$995, depending on the version; Upgrades cost $249-$349; Upgrading from Commotion DV to Commotion Pro 3.1 costs $749
Available from
Puffin Design


Reviewed by Charles Roberts

-Its Gonna Take Two Monitors, Folks...

This review will focus on Pinnacle Systems' Commotion Pro, which retails for about $995.00. There are currently three versions of Commotion available: Commotion Pro 3.1.1, Commotion DV 3.1.1 and Commotion DV 1.0. The DV 1.0 version should be familiar to Final Cut Pro users as the free version that comes bundled with FCP. It can be upgraded to either Commotion Pro 3.1.1 or Commotion DV 3.1.1 for a fee. The DV 3.1.1 version, which retails at about $895, is very similar to the Pro version but there are a few significant differences:

  • DV 3.1.1 does not come bundled with the Primatte Keyer, Composite Wizard or Image Lounge -- three effects bundles with some nice whiz-bang features
  • DV 3.1.1 does not contain the Motion Tracker
  • DV 3.1.1 lacks the ability to apply motion blurs to Rotosplines

The price/feature difference between the two verions is comparable to the difference between the Adobe After Effects Standard and Production Bundles.

Current advertisements for Commotion 3 limit the DV version to DV resolution/frame sizes (DV PAL being the largest) but the unlimited frame size feature was added to the DV version with 3.1.1. The manual shipping with Commotion does not state this, nor is it mentioned anywhere on Pinnacle Systems' Web site.

I'm stoked about certain features and effects that are available in the Pro version but not the DV version because I do an enormous amount of green screening and rotoscoping. Commotion users will likely augment their system with a second monitor, a video card and more RAM so the price of the software might not be the total cost. Judge for yourself and balance what you need against what you want but can't afford.

-Enough About the Money, Tell Us About The Application-

It's rare to find an application that offers superior functionality as well as an intuitive interface but Commotion succeeds on both fronts. Any number of programs have great tools, but they are often organized in ways that put limitations on how the artist works. Commotion was designed with the specialized tasks of compositing in mind and it would be hard to improve on the interface. Not impossible, but hard. After all, Commotion was originally put together by Scott Squires, a visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic.
Adjusting Commotion's RAM
The first version of Commotion was being used in production prior to the release of After Effects so it has been around for a while and it's benefited from the perspective that only perfectionism and tight deadlines will deliver.
My copy of Commotion Pro was easy to install. It comes with a USB dongle about the size of a stick of Juicy Fruit, which is necessary to prevent software piracy, but I have a couple of issues with it. On the older Macs with ADB ports, software dongles were large chunks of plastic or at least they had a bit of cable identifying them. The new USB dongle that ships with Commotion Pro is a little piece of plastic and metal that very nearly got tossed with the wrapper. That's pretty scary when you know your $2,000 application can't function without it.

That aside, after installing the application (without the dongle attached), rebooting (with the dongle attached) and then registering, Commotion took off and hasn't come down since. Commotion is a very RAM-intensive application, so I took advantage of the temporary drop in RAM prices to boost my G4 up to a respectable 700+ MBs and set the RAM allocation for Commotion up to 650. Commotion works much more efficiently at intensive operations when video is actually loaded up into RAM, so the more you have, the better.

I would also consider looking into a second monitor if you don't presently have one. With all its menus, Commotion takes up a lot of desktop space, more than After Effects or Final Cut Pro. I'd recommend a nice 17" monitor just for the menus and another monitor for the image windows.

-Say, this looks familiar...

Anyone who's spent any time at all with Adobe After Effects will immediately feel at home with the project flow and tool/window configuration of Commotion. This should reassure the throngs of After Effects users who are looking for new possibilities but are afraid of losing weeks of work time learning a new tool-set and functionality. Commotion takes the best traits of the After Effects interface and embellishes them in ways that satisfy the effects artist's soul.

Adobe After Effects was a watershed for the digital film and video experience. What PhotoShop did for the world of printing (making limitless the possibilities of manipulating and representing the still image), After Effects has done for the world of film and video. The most recent After Effects upgrades have been quantum leaps beyond their previous versions but After Effects doesn't always offer straightforward options for simple tasks. I found that Commotion addressed some of these issues in truly innovative ways. The biggest difference between After Effects and Commotion is their visual interface. After Effects' has a cut-and-dried editor interface based on numbers, lines and cold, hard, digital facts. Commotion, while capable of processing and producing all manner of video and film media, is all about the craft and vision of the composite and not the "workbench." Both After Effects and Commotion are solidly built houses, but Commotion is also a comfortable home. While it would be difficult to say that either application is better, it is apparent that they take different approaches to creative production.

(cont. on page 2)

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copyright © Michael Horton 2000-2010 All rights reserved

copyright © Michael Horton 2000-2010 All rights reserved