We live in interesting times! After an eternity of node-based compositing apps being so expensive you ware barely able to afford them, this year we’ve been blessed with quite a few ones in the free to “Okay, I can scrape together those few dollars.” range. Resolve got a a nodal part, Fusion was “liberated” and is available in a free flavor, Flowbox looks super-sexy and now we have a mini-Nuke to round off the year by ways of Natron.

I’ve been playing with the latter a bit the last few days and while I don’t have a current license of Nuke (nor the money) opening up the program feels all too familiar and brings back memories from when I had a chance to use The Foundry‘s tool a few years ago. That in itself is of course a statement – Natron looks and feels like its commercial brother did around version 4 and 5 after the UI change, but not with all the performance optimizations and other under-the-hood stuff. Obviously as an OpenSource tool it relies on other freely/ publicly available code, libraries, specifications and documentation a lot and some of that stuff is optimized and worked out quite well, other things not so much. This often makes this a bit of a mixed bag.

On the good side of course you have all the natural benefits of a node-based app like relatively fast processing of even large processing trees and easy versioning and testing by simply bypassing, disconnecting or disabling specific nodes. Another of those things is of course loading images. Not only do the various options for dealing with missing frames and other tiny details put After Effects to shame, but also the performance for some formats is a lot better, such as my ever-lasting frustrations with multi-layer EXR files. I even like the snappiness of the Roto node. It makes

Of course nodes to also have their downsides, so things that you would do almost intuitively in After Effects like animating layer positions and all that require extra nodes. Here the program could be a bit more helpful by e.g. automatically creating the right connections or at least not plopping on nodes in already occupied areas. Another thing that I find annoying is the sometimes rather flimsy way to manually connect stuff. It seems they need to create the hit areas of the arrows or find a better way to visualize the connection. Some things like the text node not even providing a pop-up for picking a font are downright atrocious and take a lot of getting used to. And finally, what irks me a bit is that Sapphire plug-ins seem to crash almost immediately. There go my plans for some lens flare experimentation. :-(

Overall these are of course minor niggles. After all, it’s free and for a version 1.0 not bad, just a bit rough around the edges. All the basic tools are there and you just need get into the swing of it. If you do not expect high-end tools like Optical Flow, this can in fact be an interesting and quicker way to do your 3D multipass composites than using After Effects. I’m already looking forward to version 1.1 when they plan on adding Python support and a few other things. I’ll definitely keep an eye on this…

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