Video / Hands-on Review

Thoroughly Modern: HitFilm 3 Pro Visual Effects Software

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Not more than a decade ago, the power to create Hollywood-style effects was exclusively the domain of highly specialized artists using expensive software that ran on workstation-class computers. However, in the last few years, inexpensive compositing software has become available, offering visual-effects artists and motion-graphics designers the ability to create powerful visual effects. HitFilm 3 Pro from FXHOME is one such piece of software, built from the ground up to deliver modern visual effects and motion graphics. Now at version 3, its key features are a robust video-editing environment, true 3D compositing, a 3D particle system, camera projection, tight integration with the Academy-award-winning tracking software Mocha, from Imagineer Systems, and more than 180 effects. Also included are 130 plug-ins for use in After Effects, Premiere Pro, Vegas, Final Cut Pro X and Motion—giving the user several workflow options. This feature set rivals software priced several times higher. With any software, the decision to purchase should not be based on features alone, but rather on the results it enables you to produce. This review will evaluate HitFilm 3 Pro's strengths and weaknesses as a tool for creating visuals effects and motion graphics.

Click here to read about a new software compatibility update

Ease of Use

While I am no stranger to compositing software, I was new to the HitFilm line of products. However, my lack of experience with the software didn't stop me from creating VFX shots within minutes of opening it for the first time. I hadn't expected such ease of use from software that offers tool sets for both editing video and 3D composting. When I write a review for software with which I’m unfamiliar, before reading the manual or watching any tutorials, I try to see if I can learn to navigate the interface on my own. Usually, within a short period of time, I'll hit a wall and turn to the manual or YouTube to guide me the rest of the way. Working in HitFilm 3 Pro was different. Tool after tool and technique after technique, the very thing I was looking for happened to be in the exact place I assumed it might be. Despite never having used the software, I found I had an uncanny degree of fluency. I realized that the layout felt familiar. There were some of my favorite video-software packages. I don't mean to suggest it is an exact copy, because there is as much innovation as there is integration of familiar interface elements. Still, users of Final Cut Pro (pre-version X) and After Effects will find working in HitFilm quite comfortable. New users should also be able to get up to speed quickly with recognizable icons, clear labels, and a wealth of professionally produced tutorials offered within the software. I really have to stress the quality of these tutorials. While I tend to avoid them when first getting started, I absolutely rely on video tutorials to get up to speed with the more sophisticated aspects of a software package. The videos provided in Hitfilm 3 Pro are clear, concise, and provide helpful tips for adding effects to enhance the feature they are explaining.

Performance

Far beyond the ease of use, I was truly floored by the performance HitFilm offered. All too often, inexpensive software sacrifices performance to include features or effects so they can be listed on the back of the box, but don't work exactly as advertised. I didn't find this to be the case with HitFilm 3 Pro. I feel it's worth mentioning that the system employed to test this software didn't have a workstation-grade graphics card, but rather an ASUS GTX 970 graphics card, designed for computer gaming. With this setup, video editing in HD was smooth and responsive. The experience of manipulating objects in 3D space was especially fluid. I continued to stack 2D effects onto 3D objects and experienced only a minor slowdown in performance. This allowed me to experiment with different settings and positions in 3D space faster than I would have been able had I waited for the software to catch up to my mouse movements. I was curious about how the software engineers accomplished this feat, so I asked a HitFilm developer about the technology driving this performance. He told me HitFilm 3 Pro uses OpenGL acceleration to allow it to “run on a wider range” of graphics cards.

I was especially impressed with the quick 3D “smoke” and “fluffy cloud” effects. Using these effects, I literally set up the scene (in the video, below) in less than thirty minutes, and it took only three minutes to render. Doing this type of work in my favorite 3D software using a smoke simulation would take hours of setup and days of rendering, and I would still have to composite this footage over the background plate in another step. I was absolutely stunned. The success with the quick 3D effects piqued my curiosity about HitFilm's particle system. Again, I found a massive amount of control in an easy-to-use interface. The inclusion of deflectors and forces allows artists to create natural-looking particle effects that react to their environments without manual animation. This can help to sell the illusion of a VFX shot by providing the sense of reality in the scene. Virtually any type of particle-based effect can be emulated with this system. If it can be imagined, it can be executed.

Compatibility

Compatibility is an important component of compositing software that has to pull in so many elements to create something greater than their sum. In this area, I was again truly impressed. At one point midway into building my VFX shot, I realized that the background plates I had used for the shot were originally encoded as Apple ProRes footage on a Windows PC. For those unfamiliar with ProRes, it is a codec created by Apple for use in Final Cut Pro, and it doesn't always play nicely on Windows systems. Being able to use it on a Windows desktop without having to install any additional tools took me by surprise. This type of seamless compatibility is truly an indicator that you are working with a professional tool. Also impressive was HitFilm 3 Pro's nearly seamless integration with an included version of Mocha. This version of Mocha allows artists to track video footage with amazing accuracy to recreate the motion of the camera used to shoot the video. This animated virtual camera can then be imported back into HitFilm, so 3D elements or titles can be added back into the shot, and they look as though they were shot with the original footage.

This integration with Mocha is made possible by a clever little thing called the “HitFilm Compositing Shot.” These are self-contained compositing timelines that can be imported and exported between HitFilm project files, or allow for footage to make a round trip to an external program for processing or manipulation. This is especially useful for motion-graphics designers who want to build small reusable templates that can be easily imported into editing projects with video footage attached. It is this integration with Mocha that really opened up HitFilm 3 Pro for me. The ability to track a scene and create a virtual camera is the secret sauce of the VFX industry, and Mocha is, hands-down, the best and easiest tracking software I've ever used. Hitfilm is also able to import 3D models directly from Lightwave and Autodesk 3ds Max, as well as the industry-standard .obj file format, so artists can integrate 3D elements from most popular 3D software packages and libraries.

With all these features and performance, I still found myself wanting for a few minor features. The video editor does not follow the industry-standard shortcut configuration of using the J, L, and K keys for playing backward, pause, and forward, respectively. This can be overcome using an editing controller like the Contour Shuttle Pro 2. In the compositing timeline, there were no shortcuts allowing you to open only one property. To access a single property, something like opacity, you had to twirl down the entire property list, revealing other elements that you might not need. Also absent was a graph editor for making small adjustments to the interpolation of motion in animations. I should mention, however, that there were settings to ease and smooth animation curves, which can effectively emulate the effect of a graph editor. I have to admit that complaining about these minor points after being so impressed with the features, ease of use, compatibility, and performance feels a bit like being buying a sports car at the price of a compact car, and then pointing out the lack of cup holders.

Conclusion

In reviewing this product, it felt as though every element of HitFilm seems tuned for outputting outstanding shots with ease. Anything that might interfere, confuse, or slow down the artist was omitted because it might distract them from the goal of creating impressive visual effects. This kind of stripped-down approach would account for the lack of a graph editor for tweaking interpolation between keyframes. Most hybrid editing/VFX software packages on the market have a far more complex interface. Still, the speed, the feature set, the performance, and the ease of use of HitFilm don't feel like qualities that were built to merely look impressive on a specifications list, but rather they enable individuals and small teams at all levels to create outstanding visuals quickly and easily. I also see how HitFilm 3 Pro would be equally useful to a wedding videographer or someone producing music videos.

This leads me to think that HitFilm 3 Pro's mission is to give people powerful, effective tools while removing any obstacles that might get in the way of an artist and the outstanding work they produce, and will then advertise the product for FX. This software seems intended to bring the power of 3D compositing to anyone working with video. 

HitFilm 3 Pro Now with Red Giant Universe VFX Plug-Ins

Those working in the non-linear field will almost certainly have at least heard of Red Giant, even if one is not a regular user of one of the company’s products. The company produces a comprehensive collection of VFX plug-ins that work with popular NLEs, including Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects, Apple Final Cut Pro X, Sony Vegas, Blackmagic Design, DaVinci Resolve, and more. Well, now you can add HitFilm to that list. The Red Giant Universe collection can be installed on HitFilm 3 Pro. Universe features more than 40 free effects and transitions, and over 40 more become available with a Premium subscription.

The integration of Red Giant is possible thanks to the introduction of OpenFX compatibility in HitFilm 3 Pro. This means the same plug-in will be supported on any host application that uses OpenFX. The great thing about this is that you can keep using the same FX tools, even if you change editing applications. 

Within the Universe collection, HitFilm specifically recommends the "free billowed background procedural effect," which they believe will pair nicely with HitFilm's built-in fractal and cloud generators. Whether you agree or not, there is sure to be plenty of opportunity to greatly expand your effects palette, thanks to the combination of HitFilm's 3D workspace and Red Giant's libraries.

2 Comments

Super! I would love to get my hands on this.

  

I have been collecting a 'Wish List' for sometime, in the hope that on my way to visit my son in Canada , I could stop over in New York ,and make my purchase  of all the items I have set aside. Obtaining video software in Southern Africa is very difficult, and to have the items posted would probably cost as much the airfare in government taxes.

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