Tutorial Review

April 17, 2001

Commotion Complete
A six VHS set of training tapes for use with Pinnacle Systems' Commotion Pro

Produced by Matt Silverman and distributed by Toolfarm.
Price $ 295 dollars NTSC or $ 335 dollars PAL.
Six VHS tapes and two CDs of tutorial material.

Reviewed by Charles Roberts


Commotion Pro is a very deep application. In a lot of ways, its potential is only limited by the familiarity with which the user approaches it. Like any great tool, Commotion Pro requires that the user be capable of actually exercising its subtle functionality. A Formula One racer can't perform to its limits in the hands of an inexperienced driver. This is where instruction comes in. I have yet to see the software application that doesn't prompt some instruction from a professional user. There are just too many angles and possible uses. It is often worth hundreds of dollars and hours of time to have someone else point out the pitfalls and illuminate the options for you.

That said, I am not the biggest fan of training tapes. I find all too often that they are poorly produced or that they don't cover enough important material to justify the expense. Several hundred bucks is often an amount better spent on your system when the training tapes do not reveal more than a bland recitation of the manual that came with the software.

A further complication is that training tapes are often very cagey about their target audience. The market significance of this is understandable. If you don't make the user level specific, more people will purchase the thing, even though it may only be useful to a very limited group. Too many times in the instructional sessions I offer, I hear lamentations from users who purchased books or videos that either go completely over their heads or never make it above their knees. The attempt to provide relevant instruction material for all user levels in a few hours of tape is pretty futile.

As will be made clear, Matt Silverman's Commotion Complete series addresses all these issues satisfactorily. The material, including the tutorial media on the CDs, is relevant and useful to all levels. The lessons are well structured so that the progression of the material's complexity is easy and natural. Silverman is incredibly thorough and obviously a master of the application. And this series departs from the usual trend in training tapes by simultaneously being cheaper than the average software training tape (295 dollars) as well as containing far more material, clocking in at a staggering nine hours of useful instruction.

The series of six VHS tapes is divided into twenty individual lessons, each of which covers an increasingly advanced concept or goal. The first five are mostly concerned with an introduction to the interface and tools. Although the more impatient are liable to skip this section, I highly recommend watching them even for more experienced users. Matt is highly knowledgeable and stresses particular importance on keyboard shortcuts for managing the enormous number of windows in Commotion. A man after my own heart, he frequently stops the action and presents a big graphic overlay on the screen whenever he uses a shortcut. My wrists exhibit their satisfaction.

The following fifteen lessons cover tools and processes. This is where the series really shines. The product ships not only with the six VHS tapes but two CDs that contain the same media Silverman uses in his projects. Simply copy the files to your drive, start up the tape and a new project and follow his instructions as he moves through the lessons. It's uncannily similar to having a real instructor because the materials are so well prepared and thought-out and Silverman is so thorough in his commentary as he moves you through each project.

Another reason that the series is so successful is that it mimics the classroom style rather than the reference book style of instruction. In this, I refer to the manner of teaching through concept and completed projects that have explicitly stated aims rather than simply pointing out where tools and items are in the menus. At the beginning of each lesson, Silverman describes first the concept to be covered. He then briefly examines the footage involved and points out what will be corrected using Commotion. Only then does he walk the user through the most efficient process of arriving at the desired results, all the time suggesting variant possible methods for working out the same end results.

And what does he cover in the tapes? Just about everything. Although he starts at a very basic level, he quickly moves on to cover much more advanced material. By the end of the second tape, he has thoroughly explained the crucial concepts of compositing. From there on in, it's project after project that really flex Commotion's muscles without moving too quickly for the new user.

One thing I particularly like about the series is Silverman's informed but nearly agnostic approach to possible hardware and software configurations used in conjunction with Commotion Pro. I really detest it when I see training tape producers obviously using very high-end equipment and working with high-resolution media on-camera but meanwhile targeting their tapes at the many users out there working in DV footage. The user can't get the beautiful results they see on screen and the tapes make little mention of the differences. The user comes away wondering what they did wrong. Silverman on the other hand makes frequent reference to other possible systems. While he is working with a nice Digital Voodoo uncompressed card in the series, he points out the issues that relate to other systems like DV or web-based codecs.

He also understands that many of us are not babes in the forest when it comes to compositing applications. I myself have been using Adobe After Effects for many moons and, like it or not, I have much of the After Effects toolset hard-wired into my brain. Taking Pinnacle Systems' own perspective on the matter, Silverman addresses how Commotion Pro integrates with After Effects in functionality and workflow rather than trying to develop any sort of competitive contrast between the two. He recognizes that some processes are more effective in one or the other application and that in most professional situations the two applications will have to work together. Where they converge, he provides information on interfacing them safely and properly.

He also periodically mentions important differences between Commotion Pro and After Effects functionality, such that old users of AE can quickly understand what a tool does or doesn't do. Silverman is aware that many of us are tempted to treat Commotion Pro as if it were After Effects with a Clone brush and he makes sure we don't limit our productivity to this shortsighted perspective.

If it sounds like Silverman is doing nothing but toot Pinnacle's horn, be surprised to find that he does yank their chain at times as well. Silverman is a professional with professional concerns, and if Commotion inhibits his creativity or workflow, he points it out along with an expression of desire that Pinnacle address the shortcoming. He also wants to make sure that users are aware of such issues, so you will find him mentioning rare issues in the series. These don't come across as slams though; they sound more like a proud parent helping a kid improve its swing on the baseball field.

There are some minor complaints I have with the series. As with all VHS tape series, the resolution is relatively low and the video quality suffers a bit. If you are not following the lessons on your computer as you watch, it can be difficult to see what Silverman is referring to onscreen, particularly with reference to text. That's not his fault, really; VHS is a lousy video format and you can't expect too much from it. The screen shots are pretty good though and he uses them more to display visual results than direct you to textual menus, knowing that you will find them on your own computer monitor as you follow him.

Using the CD material and having a VHS deck next to your workstation alleviates this problem, but I can't help wanting to see this series on DVD. The ability to quickly move from lesson to lesson and to watch it on the desktop of my Mac instead of from the VHS deck I had to haul into my studio would make this already great series into an absolutely fantastic one. To Toolfarm's credit, an enclosed sheet gives an index in hours, minutes and seconds of the location of each individual lesson on the tapes. But in practice, this is only useful if you rewound each tape at the end of each viewing (are we all so thorough?) and have the patience to fast forward and rewind through many minutes to get to the right moment. I once actually forgot the question by the time I got to the answer. A DVD edition would solve this perfectly, as well as take care of visual quality issues. Toolfarm, you listening?

Another minor complaint I had is that the effects plugins aren't covered as thoroughly as I would have liked to see. Commotion Pro ships with three heavy effects plugin suites: Primatte Keyer, Composite Wizard and Image Lounge. Where certain plugins converge with his lessons, Silverman does cover the material, but there is little coverage of some of the more confusing plugins that I was hoping to have explicated. Given the awesome amount of material included in the series, this is a petty complaint. Frankly, if he had to ditch some material in the tutorial, I'd rather see him ditching plugins any day. Any good compositor will tell you that reliance on plugins is a crutch. Better you should learn to composite before you learn to rely on WOW! BANG! BIFF! KAZOOM! filters to make your work interesting. Still, in a future release of the series, I'd like to see time spent on the more advanced plugins, especially the ones that relate to 3D and Z-buffering.

Ultimately who is this series appropriate for? The good news is that it really is useful for a wide range of users. Newbie users with zero experience in compositing will find the first seven lessons an excellent lesson in both Commotion Pro and the concept of compositing. Learning these concepts early makes the whole application that much more transparent when the new user approaches more advanced ideas later in the series. Also Silverman provides important information, strategies and good habits along the way that build positive working methods for new users. Its an excellent introduction to compositing as well as Commotion Pro, though the new user will likely need to work through the first seven lessons a few times before moving on to the next thirteen. That's the beauty of training tapes. Play, rewind, and play again.

There is so much material here that the series' usefulness does not stop at the newbie-level. Over two thirds of the series is covering material that exists solidly within the range of intermediate to relatively advanced. Intermediate users who already understand many of the tools will get a comprehensive walk-through and vivid demonstration of the tools they don't yet understand. Silverman seems to cover just about everything here, including even thorough coverage of high-resolution proxy use and 3:2 pulldown for the film folks.

And for those approaching advanced levels, it's still pretty useful, because Silverman integrates workflow and process discussion into his projects. Even though you may already get the toolset and the functionality of Commotion Pro, there's nothing like working through a set of complicated tasks towards a specific goal to get you thinking about the way you use the tool and how you could expand your own flexibility with it.

The series is a real winner all-around. I find it thorough, easy to use, comparatively inexpensive and completely worthwhile for anyone coming to Commotion Pro from beginner to intermediate experience levels. Even advanced users will find something.


Charles Roberts   (AKA Chawla) teaches Digital Video and Audio Production at Fitchburg State College in Fitchburg, MA. He uses his long tedious rendering times to generate content and tackle hard hitting issues on the discussion boards of 2 Pop (www.2-pop.com). His house seems to shrink with every passing day...

copyright © Charles Roberts 2001

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