Paint, effects, animation and rotoscoping suite

Summary: Studio Artist is unique in the worlds of graphics and motion graphics. It offers paint, rotoscoping, effectsprocessing and animation all in one package and with a level of depth you’d be crazy to expect in four separate applications, let alone one. The new 3.5 release expands the creative potential even further with new painting capabilities, an infinite variety of new effects and more.
Manufacturer: Synthetik Software (http://www.synthetik.com)
Platform: Mac OS X and Classic
Price: $379 for the full version; $99 for the upgrade from version 3.0 (introductory offer); and $179 for upgrades from versions prior to 3.0.
Users: Graphic designers and others who require precision from their input devices
Recommendation: Must Buy

I’ve been using Synthetik Studio Artist since version 1.0, and I can characterize its progress over the years in a single word: generosity. With each successive release of Studio Artist, Synthetik gives its users abundant new tools, new ways to paint, new presets, new effects, new ways to control effects, new ways to animate, new ways to be creative—well above and beyond any reasonable expectations. Studio Artist 3.5 is no exception. Though it’s only a half-version update numerically, it could easily have been sold as a full-version release.

This program’s ever-more-expansive development is especially incredible when you consider that Studio Artist started off its life conceptually as an extraordinarily complex graphics tool. It was designed to fulfill four primary functions that easily could have resulted in four separate applications:

1. A complex paint engine allowing for maximum flexibility so that users could generate literally an infinite number of varieties of painting tools. To this end, Studio Artist is built around something called a «Paint Synthesizer,» which is basically a paint engine modeled on audio synthesizers. (The program’s chief developer, John Dalton, was also the creator of the original version of Pro Tools and Deck, so it makes sense that you’d see an audio metaphor incorporated into a graphics program.) Like an audio synthesizer, Studio Artist’s Paint Synthesizer allows you to work with any of the hundreds (maybe thousands by now) of preset tools/instruments/paint patches included with the program. And it allows you to go in and work directly with the literally hundreds of parameters to create new and completely unique painting tools. Here’s a very small sampling of some of the preset brushes in Studio Artist. The examples below show just a single stroke of various types of presets.

 


2. Rotoscoping of video and still images. It was designed to let artists paint directly over video footage and to automate the rotoscoping process to produce painterly effects. To this end, Studio Artist’s paint engine includes an automatic rotoscoping feature. When used, it goes far beyond the kinds of paint filters you’ve probably seen in the past. It actually paints each stroke on the canvas individually based on parameters that you set up, though those parameters are also built into many of the program’s presets. Furthermore, the program can combine paint strokes, effects and other adjustments into fully recordable action steps. The containers for these action steps, called Paint Action Sequences, can be saved and applied to any number of video or still image files, each time producing results that are unique based on the footage being rotoscoped.

 

Studio Artist’s main interface, showing paint presets on the left.
The image on the main canvas has been rotoscoped from the
source image on the top left using a sketch effect brush and
color wash preset, as well as a color compression effect.

3. Animation. Studio Artist can also be used to create 2D animations from scratch. You can work frame by frame, just as you would in any 2D animation program, or you can let Studio Artist interpolate your paint strokes to draw in between frames for you. You can even record what you do onscreen directly to a QuickTime file, which is fantastic for producing paint-on or write-on effects that aren’t effects, but actual paint strokes. Here are two examples of paint-on/write-on effects.

That is, to say the least, a very tall order for any graphics program. But Studio Artist doesn’t even come close to stopping there. Those are just what I see as the program’s four primary purposes. Beyond these are tools and features that include things like vectorization of raster images (including movie files), texture synthesis (for creating custom textures that can be used stand-alone or incorporated into the painting tools), batch processing of images and movies and many, many other features that you’ll discover on your own as you explore this expansive tool.4. And, finally, Studio Artist is also a full-fledged image processor, with its own suite of filters, image adjustments and expandable plugins (even more expandable in version 3.5, as we’ll see below).

I make this last statement on the assumption that you will, in fact, explore this program. You simply have to. If you work in the visual arts, you must—absolutely must—at the very least download a demo version of this program and start playing with it. Since the day I first tried this program, Studio Artist became my favorite software tool out of every piece of software I’ve worked with. Since that first day, this program has done nothing but expand to offer even more of what it already had, plus more unique and innovative features.

If you have any creative spark whatsoever in you, have have no excuse not to try out Studio Artist (unless, of course, you don’t have a Mac, in which case it’s time to get one). I do not give out my «Must Buy» recommendation freely. Studio Artist is one of only nine programs in the last six years to receive this recommendation, and it’s with good reason.

Now, I’ve covered Studio Artist quite extensively in the past, so what I’ll do this time around is focus on what’s new in the latest release: version 3.5. If you’re new to Studio Artist and would like more general information, here are some links for you:

• Review of Studio Artist 3.0 (10-page review, with plenty of examples, covering all of the features)
• Links to tutorials and feature explorations (in-depth articles covering specific individual elements of Studio Artist)
Those ought to tide you over for a while.

New features in Studio Artist 3.5
I mentioned that Studio Artist 3.5 could easily be considered a full-version update. It includes several major and minor changes, which I’ll attempt to detail to some degree in the following sections. (We’ll look at the new features in more depth in separate articles in the coming weeks.) Before we get into the specifics, here’s a brief look at what’s included in the latest version.

• MSG Evolver. This is probably the most significant addition tot he Studio Artist suite. Evolver is a stand-alone program that, in its own right, allows you to process videos and still images in new ways, quite independent of Studio Artist’s heavy bent toward painting. What’s more though is that it also lets you make plugins that can be used directly in Studio Artist.
• Supersizer. This is a new algorithm incorporated into Studio Artist for interpolating images. In short, it lets you make images bigger while preserving as much quality as possible (certainly more quality than is preserved by other methods, like bicubic interpolation).
• More Paint Synthesizer features. As with all Studio Artist releases, the depth and complexity of the Paint Synthesizer in Studio Artist 3.5 has been expanded even further.
• More image processing. Image processors in Studio Artist behave much like effects filters in other programs—blurs, color manipulation, etc. The new version offers more of them, plus expanded functionality for those that were in previous releases. Also related to this category, Studio Artist 3.5 incorporates more warp effects capabilities as well. (These are interactive functions that allow you to spherize objects, create kaleidoscope effects and perform other types of warps and distortions.)
• Improved animation and rotoscoping capabilities. These include enhancements to sequential keyframing, which is one of the methods you can use to create animations from key frames that Studio Artist will use to generate in between frames. And it includes a new batch processing command for working with Paint Action Sequences.

Workflow and interface have not been tweaked to any appreciable degree in Studio Artist 3.5, except in terms of how the new features listed above will impact the way you work with the program. This is also not a Universal Binary update. Studio Artist will run on the Intel Mac boxes, but the software is written for PowerPC. (Note that there are two versions of both Studio Artist and MSG Evolver included with this update: one for Mac OS X and one for Mac OS 9.)


MSG Evolver
First and foremost, I want to give you an overview of the fabled MSG Evolver. As I mentioned, this is a stand-alone application that’s now included with Studio Artist 3.5. I refer to it as «fabled» because it has, in fact, been around in the development stage for quite a while; it’s been talked about a lot, but few people have ever seen it or used it. Now, for the first time, you have your chance.

Essentially, Evolver is a special kind of effects processor in which you are able to organize chains of processes that can be applied to still or moving images. The program gives you a vast array of possible commands to work with; you apply these commands in a sequence of your choosing, along with various customizable parameters; and you wind up with a complete effect.

 

MSG Evolver’s main interface, showing presets and a grid of evolved effects.

What’s critically important about all this is that the resulting effect can then be saved as a filter that conforms to Studio Artist’s plug-in specification. So you wind up not just with presets that can be used in Evolver itself, but filters that can be used and adjusted just like any other effects filter within Studio Artists. Imagine if Adobe Photoshop came with a complete tool for creating Photoshop plugins in a graphical environment! (Photoshop used to come with Filter Factory, which did allow you to create Photoshop plugins, but it was extremely limited in what it could do, and it was in no way graphical. You entered up to four equations that affected individual color channels, and that’s it. MSG Evolver is truly a complete plugin generation environment. The only thing it doesn’t let you do is create truly customized interfaces for the plugins you generate, and I would love to see something like that added eventually.)

And not only can these filters be applied like regular effects, but they can also be incorporated into other areas of the program, such as the paint engine. Imagine, for example, that you create an effect that turns your source image into a sketch, then you add that effect to a charcoal-like brush back in the paint synthesizer. So not only then are you drawing with a chalk preset, but, at the same time, you’re blending a sketch of your source image into your drawing. The possibilities are endless. Here’s an example of that: a regular brush that patches into an MSG plugin that generates a sketch effect from a source image.

In terms of editing and creating chains, Evolver allows you to select them from a menu of commands, which will add entire pre-configured chains to the Chain Editor, allowing you to to start with a set of commands and modify them to suit your needs. Or you can drag commands individually from a window containing a library of commands.

Besides allowing you to create processing chains manually, Evolver also has a feature that allows you simply to work with variations of a preset. So you can load up a preset, then see variations on that preset in a grid representing those variations. If you like one, click on it, and you can save it. Otherwise, you can continue evolving the ones you like interactively just by clicking on the little icons. Whichever one you select will become the basis for subsequent evolutions. And that way you can start off with something you like and produce many, many variations, all of which can be saved as presets for future use or incorporated directly into Studio Artist, so you can play around with them on your canvas.

 


It also includes a number of other methods for evolving or otherwise altering effects processes and manipulating images/video directly. You can, for example, set up image tiles to create a larger image from a series of smaller images.

You can also do something called art mapping, where you apply effects to sections of your complete source image.

And, again, all of these things can be applied to still or moving images directly. So MSG Evolver isn’t just an environment for developing Studio Artist plugins.

Beyond this, I’m not going to go into too much description of MSG Evolver here because there’s really too much to talk about within the confines of a review. The manual for MSG Evolver alone is about 650 pages, so there’s a lot to cover. We’ll look at specific features that I consider important in forthcoming articles. MSG Evolver is, it should be mentioned, a complex program. Probably too complex to grasp in its entirety within a reasonable period of time. But it’s quite simple to use in some of the ways I’ve talked about. Just keep evolving effects until you get something you like. Start with one of the presets, add commands and see what happens. It’s really not difficult to get into; it’s just difficult to learn everything that you can do with this program. As I say, the packed manual is about 650 pages, so there’s a lot to learn.


Supersizer
In contrast, one of Studio Artist’s other major new features is quite simple to use and has only a single purpose. The new feature is called «Supersizer,» and it’s designed to enlarge images (still or video) at the maximum possible quality. To this end, the function uses some proprietary algorithms that I’m not in a position to understand, but suffice to say that the result is, indeed, much better than some of the other technologies I’ve used that serve a similar purpose.

We’ll start with an image at 640 x 480 and blow it up to 1,920 x 1,440. Here’s a portion of the image blown up in Photoshop using Bicubic Interpolation.

And here’s the image blown up in Studio Artist using Supersizer.

The differences are pretty dramatic. In the first, you clearly see the «pixelization» that occurs along the edges of the branches of the tree in the foreground. But with the Supersized image, the edges are pretty clean, and detail has not been sacrificed.

Obviously something like this isn’t going to work as well in every case. If your image is junk to start with—heavy noise, heavy JPEG artifacts or whatever, the artifacts and noise are going to be blown up along with the rest of the image. But if you have a photo of reasonable starting quality, you will very likely be able to use Supersizer to enlarge it with decent results.

Supersizer functions as a command within Studio Artist. And, as such, it can be incorporated into Paint Action Sequences, meaning that you will be able to batch process images with it, apply it to video (to blow up footage to HD resolution, for example) or otherwise incorporate it into your effectswhen you wish to work with a higher-resolution source image without introducing the kinds of artifacts you normally get when you blow up an image.

Paint Synth features
Now, in the department of the Paint Synthesizer, a lot has changed since version 3. Most of the changes are minor and difficult for me to identify, particularly since I’ve been beta testing all along and have experienced the changes gradually.

Let me start with a brief overview of the Paint Synthesizer. This is, essentially, the paint engine in Studio Artist. It includes all of the parameters that can go into the making of a brush, from the shape of the brush nib to the lighting on the brush (3D lighting, for example) to the way color is blended with the brush. You’re familiar, I’m sure, with the brushes in Adobe Photoshop and the various parameters you can adjust to affect the way the brush is applied to the canvas. Picture that in Studio Artist, but with a few hundred more parameters and several thousand different ways to control those parameters. That’s the Paint Synth in Studio Artist. It essentially allows you to create literally an infinite variety of paint brushes, from simple things like chalk, charcoal, watercolor and oil paint emulators to far more complex splattering, turbulence-generating, canvas-smearing, particle-trailing monstrosities that will really get your creative juices flowing. There is no paint engine in any program out there that can do more than the Paint Synth in Studio Artist.

There are 27 categories alone of parameters that can be used in the creation or modification of a paint brush. Each one of these categories has a slew of parameters, and, depending on the options you choose, more parameters will become available for adjustment. Here, for example, is the pane for the «Brush Source» category of parameters. This is where you define the basic shape of the brush, in the case of the screen shot below a computational brush (as opposed to a nib generated from an external image or QuickTime movie).

As you can see, parameters range from size to bias and gain to randomness in the shape of the brush.

Then you can go into the next category of parameters and really get down into the nitty-gritty of computational brush creation, defining aspects of the pattern of the brush like its bristle qualities, mask, turbulence, the algorithm used to generate the brush, etc., etc.

And those are just two of the sets of parameters. Others deal with the behavior of the brush as its applied, the interaction between the colors in the brush and the canvas, the way multiple nibs behave, the way particle behave and much more. In all, I got a quick count of about 300 individual parameters in the Paint Synthesizer that could be adjusted. But many of these parameters will spawn their own new parameters when certain settings are used, so it’s tough to tell the total number of possible parameters available when creating or modifying brushes. Plus most of the parameters are affected by other parameters, so there’s really no way of numbering the possible combinations that can be used. Suffice to say it’s a lot. Certainly enough to last you your viable working lifetime in experimentation.

The changes in the Paint Synth in version 3.5 fall, primarily, into the category of more options within the parameters that existed previously: more color modes, more path modulation options, more displacement options, more ways to modulate brushes interactively (including support for the latest Wacom hardware), etc. So there was a lot before, and now there’s even more.

Image processing effects and warps
Image processors in Studio Artist are roughly equivalent to filter effects in other graphics programs. They include things like blurs, geodesic effects, color manipulators and the like. In Studio Artist 3.5, the available image processors have increased from 59 to 64, including the new filters Adaptive Convex Hull, Displacement, Line Screen Regionize and Rank Multiscale.

In addition to the new filters (and remember, these are in addition to the hundreds of MSG-based filters that are included), the image operations have also been improved in several respects. Chief among these is the new ability to use Studio Artist’s Texture Synthesizer as a modulation option with the effects. The Texture Synthesizer is, as its name implies, a tool for creating procedural textures—clouds, blobs, canvas textures, etc.). The Texture Synth isn’t as deep as the Paint Synth, but there’s a lot there that you can work with. Now when you create a texture in the Texture Synth, it can be incorporated into some of the Image Operations effects. So that means that if, for example, you create a canvas texture in the Texture synth, you can have that texture blended into the effect you apply to an image. Other improvements to Image Operations fall into the category of more options for the ways the effects can take shape and can be applied to the canvas. Many of the changes are specific to individual effects, and there are too many of those to get into here.

Warps, on the other hand, are effects that are applied interactively to the canvas.. You select a type of warp, then click and drag on the canvas until you have the desired result. There’s a ton of different warp types in Studio Artist, and now, in version 3.5, that number has expanded even further—up to 56 from 38.

Here’s a montage of some of the warp effects being applied in real time. (The quality of these warps is much greater than what you see here, as this movie’s quality is hampered severely by compression for the Web.

To use a warp like this, you just select it from the list of available warp types, then click and drag on the canvas until you have the effect you desire. Note that warps are keyframable and can be incorporated into Paint Action Sequences for processing movies.

And the rest
I’ve glossed over a lot of the new features in Studio Artist because so many of the new features would be virtually unintelligible for those who have never used the program (or even for many who have). What it comes down to, basically, is that there’s a lot more you can do with Studio Artist 3.5 than you could with 3.0. MSG Evolver is, of course, the major new component to Studio Artist. But the changes and improvements in other areas of Studio Artist are so numerous that a simple list of them would be prohibitive and, in large part, meaningless to you until you have a chance to work with the new features yourself.

We will get into some of the new features in future articles, including some of the major ones I haven’t talked about here, like improvements in the area of sequential keyframing (a process of automatic keyframing when drawing animations from scratch) and new batch processing capabilities.

The bottom line
Do I really need to tell you what to do with this software? Go out and buy it. Start playing around with it. Some aspects of it will confound you at first because of the depth of this program, but you will immediately get a sense of the importance of Studio Artist as a creative tool from the first time you apply paint brush to canvas. There are hundreds of presets for you to work with right from the start, and there are hours of training material included to help you find your way around when you want to get into customization. I can’t imagine anybody who works in the visual arts not being amazed by this program. Studio Artist 3.5 gets my unreserved Must Buy recommendation, a recommendation that, once again, fewer than a dozen programs have received in this decade.

Studio Artist 3.5 is available now for Mac OS X and Mac OS 9 for $379 for the full version; $99 for upgrades from version 3.0 (for a limited time, after which the price increases to $129); and $179 for upgrades from versions prior to 3.0.

For more information, visit http://www.synthetik.com.