Review: Canopus Imaginate 2.0
Posted Aug 4, 2004

Imaginate 2.0 is a versatile image pan and zoom tool, accessible and attractive to hobbyists with its new multiple image and slideshow capabilities, audio support, and rich motion-path palette, but powerful enough for pros with its 3D controls, new spline editor, and customization options. It deserves a serious look from event and corporate videographers looking to distinguish their work with still images and others integrating lively photography and slideshows into their commercial video and photo-montage projects.

From where I stand, pan and zoom tools are going in all the right directions. In 2003, we had two standalone tools devoted to the task, as Canopus Imaginate joined StageTools MovingPicture Producer in that emerging market. Both tools also competed in the plug-in market with their support for various prosumer NLEs. On the consumer side, Mac users had the "Ken Burns effect" as a built-in feature of iMovie—standard issue in the iLife suite—and early 2004 brought Roxio Easy Media Creator 7, which offered integrated pan and zoom capabilities in its array of consumer media-manipulation tools. And NAB 2004 saw the release of Vegas 5, with enhancements to its own pan-and-zoom features, already, arguably, the best in the prosumer NLE field. [See Geoff Daily's "Still Motion," May 2004, pp. 16-21.]

The consumer tools took a somewhat different spin on pan and zoom than did MovingPicture Producer and Imaginate. Aimed at Premiere-level video editors, these standalones offered sophisticated tools for pinpoint maneuvers around individual images; Imaginate even offered native 3D capabilities. Roxio, by contrast, made pan and zoom an added perk of the slideshow-set-to-music capabilities that have become standard issue in consumer NLEs and DVD authoring tools. Automating the process with six preset moves, applied at random, Roxio was arguably dumbing down pan and zoom, but they also raised expectations. You couldn't do everything in Creator 7 that you could in Imaginate or MovingPicture Producer, but you could do quite a bit quite easily. If you let Creator do all the work, you could have an animated slideshow ready to render in minutes, and if you didn't like everything you saw, Creator let you open up each image and manually maneuver the frame, set new keyframes, and basically tweak it to your taste, with real-time preview, music and all. [See review, April 2004, pp. 34-38.]

Canopus appears to have taken this as a challenge. When they showed me Imaginate 2.0 at NAB, the demo was all about the program's new Project Mode, in which can you import batches of pictures (in my first test project, I dragged and dropped in 66 at once), and turn them into a soundtracked, animated slideshow, replete with dynamic moves and transitions with just a couple of clicks. It turned out to be as easy as it looked in the demo, too—a rarity, to be sure—but also a lot more powerful than it first appeared. Every pro knows that the more you succumb to automation, the more distinctiveness you sacrifice in your work, and the demo suggested Canopus might be sacrificing the pro user to pursue a broader consumer audience that was probably taking an interest in pan and zoom for the first time.

Imaginate is certainly much more first timer-friendly in version 2.0 than in version 1.0 [reviewed by Jan Ozer in March 2003, pp. 44-46], but there's a lot more to work with here than you'd find in a tool like Creator 7—remarkably feature-deep for such a general-purpose product, but nowhere near as specialized in the pan and zoom arts. Imaginate 2.0 ups the automation ante with 43 Construction templates (including 13 3D options) and 132 Theme templates in its enormous palette of preset moves. As in Creator, there's also real-time preview and editing of moves, but with far more sophisticated positioning controls.

What's the Story?
Like most second-generation software, Imaginate 2.0 is a combination of the new and the familiar. Imaginate 1.0 users, who can upgrade to the new version for $49, will immediately find themselves on uncharted terrain with the opening wizard, which quickly directs them into multiple-image, slideshow-style projects whether they choose to work with pre-defined templates or customize their project from the get-go.

Choose the custom path and you'll start importing images, setting durations, and adding audio immediately. The audio you add can simply be used as a reference track (similar to MovingPicture) when it comes time to export your video or integrated into the production and rendered as part of the AVI file you're creating. Reference track (DV with audio mute in the Export settings) is actually the default, which makes sense given the professional aims of the tool; more often than not, anyone integrating Imaginate into a post-production workflow, whether as a standalone tool or a plug-in to an NLE, will simply be creating a segment of a larger project here rather than a free-standing, complete audio/video production. Nonetheless, you can always switch the settings (by choosing a DV with audio format or selecting Config in the Render Video dialog) to include the audio in the rendered file and make yourself a complete, short production.

But first things first. Long before you export your project, you'll spend most of your time exploring the inviting new landscape of Imaginate 2.0's Project Mode and Storyboard view, in which you can work with multiple images, audio, and transitions and see the entire scope of your project. Here your imported images will appear in a familiar storyboard metaphor. You can add preset motion paths from the Construction or Theme palettes, choose transitions, and preview your project in the preview window as the audio plays.

You can also choose to match the duration of the images to the loaded audio clip or not, just as you would in a DVD authoring tool or NLE with slideshow capability.

Making the Scene
When it comes to keyframing and editing the motion paths for individual images, users of Imaginate 1.0 will find themselves on familiar ground. The difference is that the individual image editing tools in this version are elements of the Scene Editor (each image is a scene), whereas before each image was its own project.

You still get the huge preview window; similar scale, camera, and position controls; and the same keyframing capabilities, but version 2.0 also offers a new spline editor. The spline controls enable precise adjustments to motion paths along all three axes (X, Y, and Z), and allows for much smoother movements along curves.

Another useful new feature is the Anchor Point Control, which lets you control your zooming or spinning target; it's a much more intuitive approach than simply moving the frame boundaries. An easily recognizable scrubber bar allows you to move across a scene's timeline and quickly set new keyframes. Imaginate 2.0 also includes a keyframeable Blur filter that can be applied anywhere in a scene. Version 2.0 also retains and enhances its predecessor's alpha channel support (an option at the rendering stage), which enables background transparency that's essential when you're working on images that are headed for a compositing tool.

Finally—and also in the So Doggone Intuitive I Wish I'd Thought of It category—are timeline markers, which let you mark specific points in the timeline as reminders to sync up camera movements to natural transition points in an audio file. Some NLEs and audio editors offer similar tools, but this is the first time I've seen one in a pan and zoom application.

Let the Slideshow Begin
Once you've got your images panned, zoomed, and sync'd to your satisfaction, it's time to render the file, either to a Canopus or Microsoft DV-AVI file. In testing, rendered output quality was outstanding, even working with modest-resolution 2160x1440 TIFFs (if your PC were up to the challenge, Imaginate could handle images as big as 25,000x25,000, a real boon since some NLEs reduce an image to 720x480 before the zooming begins).

All of this adds up to pan-and-zoom slideshow-creation capabilities that should have instant pro and documentarian appeal. Seeing the shifting frame of pan and zoom's appeal, Canopus has also wisely hedged their bets by courting a larger market for hobbyists who may be willing to add a specialized application or Premiere plug-in to punch up their slideshows.

Most of all, Imaginate 2.0 deserves a serious look from event and corporate videographers looking to distinguish their work with still images, as well as others integrating lively photography and slideshows into their commercial video and photo-montage projects.