NewTek Aura 2.0

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Faced with competition from products such as Adobe After Effectsand Pinnacle Systems Commotion, NewTek fires back with Aura 2.0, aspanking new version of its paint and compositing program. It'sbeen a long time coming — I was assigned this review latelast summer when word of the software first surfaced.

The package is worth the wait, as it improves upon the previousversion and inches into the realm of serious, professionalsoftware. The competition may be AE and Commotion, but NewTekmarkets Aura 2 directly as a video paint package. While it doescompositing work, it is primarily a program for artists who want topaint and then animate those painting effects.

Aura 2 presents you with a blank canvas when you load theprogram. The configuration can be saved. You could create a settingfor DV work or a setting for multiple users. Save the configurationupon exiting, and the next time you open the program the paletteswill be waiting where you left them and the resolution will be asyou predetermined.

Painting on the canvas is a dream — the natural mediabrushes flow fast and smooth. The paint never has to catch up withthe brush. Paint in modes such as oil, pencil, pen, wet, mechanicalpencil, and even a warp brush that distorts the underlying image.Every style and brush can be customized in several ways, and youcan activate specific painting modes such as light, shade,colorize, tint, grain, saturate, multiply, and many more.

Animated brushes paint over time on a sequence of frames. Youcan even paint a gradient onto your video frames. This new versionof Aura lets you paint on the specific color channels red, green,or blue, and you can now preserve the project's transparency whenpainting.

The navigation window is a welcome new feature. Similar to thatof Adobe programs, the navigator satisfies the valid need to movearound the image quickly, which is imperative for detail work.Light table support shows the previous seven and the next sevenframes. When freestyle painting, you can incorporate such variablesas speed, fade, direction, rotation, and pressure. The many papertextures included with 2.0 let you paint in modes beside solid. Ameaty text tool features variables like scale, size, opacity,outline, glow, and italic.

The timeline screen below the main canvas works like mostediting programs — it creates effects or motion over a spanof time.

The program does a great job of manipulating stills. I importeda series of 200 sequentially numbered stills from a photo shoot anddragged the timeline out to make it longer. Aura brought up aprompt to confirm interpolating the stills, and it quickly rendereda short dissolve between every still! This would have taken an hourto set up in other programs. Not only did Aura make it a one-stepprocess, it rendered the effect remarkably quickly.

Besides stills, you can certainly import and manipulate video,and that's where the real fun of this program lies. Any layer orbrush can be animated on the XYZ/HPB axis with special effects likemotion blur and opacity. Everything is keyframable, and Aura 2provides a wealth of Photoshop-like filters that can change overtime. There is a stroke recorder for realtime handwriting orpainting, pixel tracking from one to four points, animated masksand stencils, realtime element time changing, an extensive buteasy-to-use scripting language for macros, export of motion tracksto LightWave 3D, and hardware support for Wacom, NewTek VideoToaster, Matrox Digisuite, and DPS Reality.

One of the more notable improvements to this version is thegeneral tidying-up of the interface. Random panels of all differentsizes made the previous version of Aura seem more scattered than itwas. Aura 2 makes the panels smaller, matches the widths, and pumpsmore realtime interactivity into the tool settings.

This new version supports audio — import a .wav audio fileand play it along with your video. Aside from some dead-on realtimescrubbing, however, there is not much else available in the audiodepartment. You'll have to wait for future versions for audioeffects. But since this is a paint program, audio should be less ofa concern.

Thankfully, Aura now features both grids and guidelines. Theguide tool, however, is not very intuitive and doesn't let you dragguides off rulers — instead there is a separate coordinatewindow. I also could not figure out how to move guides I hadalready laid down. This is a nice start, but this feature could usesome fleshing out.

Filled shapes offer new options such as edge smoothing,anti-aliasing, gradients, texture-mapping, and opacity. Many othersmaller new features go a long way toward either improving theusability or streamlining the interface. Beefed-up inline help, forexample, means that when you mouse over items, a full descriptionpops up along with tips (and you can turn this feature off).

Aura 2 has a few quirks annoying enough to mention. The includedvideotape is too rushed and serves only to advertise other trainingtapes. It's kind of a tease. Changing temp directories requires arestart of the program — difficult when you run out of spacein mid-project. While working on the aforementioned animated moviecomprised of stills, I received a prompt midway through renderingthat said, “No memory for disk map.” I assume thismeant I was out of hard-drive space, but my temp directory and maindrive had several gigabytes of storage. On top of that, therequester would pop back up every time I clicked OK, so I had to doa hard exit out of the program.

Other than that, things went very smoothly in Aura 2. I lovedloading and working on multiple projects. Aura 2 will load in a PSDfile and place every PS layer onto a separate timeline layer— good news for anyone who works in Photoshop a lot. If youdo video paint work, this program offers much to love, but enoughsolid professional compositing features should attract other typesof video producers. NewTek created a downloadable demo so you cantake Aura 2 for a test run. (Shouldn't every program have a demo onthe Web?)

The first version of Aura was a solid effort, but I didn't useit much after some initial investigating. Aura 2 on the other handis fast, fun, polished, and professional. It's matured in severalways and makes compositing a breeze. The inviting interface is easyto dive into.

While it may not do everything its competitors do — andthey're well beyond version 2.0 — Aura 2 beats the others inthe arena of video painting.

Frank McMahon is a media artist specializing in directing,editing, animation, and graphic design. He can be reached via hismedia company at www.fmstudio.com or via Portland Media Artistsat www.mediaartist.com.

Feedback

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QUICK FACTS

Company: NewTek San Antonio; 210-370-8000
Product: Aura 2.0
Features: Strong paint features including fullycustomizable, animated brushes; redesigned interface with newnavigator palette; supports audio for realtime scrubbing.
Price: $895; $295 upgrade for Aura 1.0 or LightWave 6users
Website:www.newtek.com

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