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Phantasm CS Studio review

Verdict:

Needs Illustrator CS or later

Review Date: 25 Jul 2008

Price when reviewed: (£89 ex VAT)

Reviewed By: Keith Martin

Our Rating 4 stars out of 5

The power of Adobe Illustrator CS3 is undisputed, but for all its prowess there are things that can be difficult or even effectively impossible to do with it.

Most of its colour separation processing happens away from the page, keeping it out of the hands of print-savvy designers. Phantasm CS, a relatively low-cost Illustrator plug-in, changes this by adding a range of effects and controls, all revolving around managing colour separation in many different ways. Some help you adjust the balance of inks in subtle or dramatic ways that will be familiar to Photoshop users (curves, levels, hue/saturation, invert and so on), while some others generate copies of your artwork pre-processed for separations.

Phantasm CS works either by altering the colours in the selected elements directly or by creating complete new vector graphics from your artwork, using a range of sophisticated processes to produce the final effects. While this does have an impact on the subsequent editability of the graphics and also potentially the file size and processing time of the press-ready output, it takes advantage of Illustrator's core powers and produces very high-quality results. It also helps ensure greater reliability and transportability of the output, as the results are true recoloured and rebuilt elements rather than the original items as seen through filters.

With the various features on offer, you're able to mix and swap individual CMYK colours around, create duotones and more. It handles vectors and bitmaps set in RGB, CMYK and spot colours without fuss, and a Safe CMYK option makes sure the final ink levels will follow your current CS3 settings for colour, overprint, black conversions and so on. If a colour change is applied as a live Effect, the alterations remain fully adjustable and remixable. Additionally, a slightly different feature provides Edit Image and Update Image commands that lets you open bitmap images from your Illustrator document directly into Photoshop, streamlining the overall editing process.

Vector halftones is an area where Phantasm CS turns the impossible into the fairly simple, creating custom halftone separations using techniques such as a radial dot screen, with adjustable dot size and other characteristics - just select your graphic and choose Halftone from the Phantasm CS list in the Filter or Effects menus. You can choose a halftone-style grid, FM or radial, the latter having its radial origin set wherever you like, within or outside the graphic. You even have curves-style control over dot gain. The effects can be stunning, when used appropriately. This feature brings back colour separation abilities that haven't really been available since PostScript took over the long-hand process of manual photographic separations. It goes further than this too, with the ability to use characters from any font as the dot-elements in the separations, selecting random characters or applying your own chosen string of text.

Working at high dot-per-inch values in order to produce separations without a graphically-obvious dot structure will slow Illustrator down, as the halftone feature has to generate a huge number of dots from your selected graphic. The default DPI is 18, which produces powerful results, but will obscure details in the original graphic. This is unavoidable, but you're most likely to use this near the end of the design process.

For more prepress-orientated needs, the Separations feature, available in its own floating panel, produces true colour-separated artwork, each ink in its own layer, with optional colour bars, registration targets and cropmarks, placed around the Illustrator artboard (page) or artwork bounds. This creates a completely new document, with each separated colour put into its own layer, and each different kind of printer's mark put into its own layer too. Using the layers options in Illustrator's PDF export controls you can even produce pre-separated artwork.

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