When we talk about plugins, you generally assume we’re talking about Photoshop add-ons. Most people don’t even realize that you can add features to Adobe Illustrator using plugins, let alone name a good one. Phantasm CS Studio 1.0 by Astute Graphics is not only one of those good ones, but it’s a whole suite of good ones.

Where most plugins have the goal of creating artwork for you, Phantasm CS is more of a production tool in that it’s main set of tools involves the ability to adjust colors by Brightness/Contrast, Hue/Saturation, Curves, Levels and more. But Phantasm CS doesn’t completely leave you out in the cold when it comes to cool “design” features. The Halftone tools is uber-cool if you ask me, but I’ll get into that later.

All the color control tools you come to expect of a professional design package are in Phantasm CS. In the past, when you wanted to take your carefully crafted vector art from full color to a spot-color duotone, you had one choice – waste time and hard drive space bringing it into Photoshop to do the conversion, save the file, then re-import back into Illustrator. It was a tedious process at best. I say “was” because with Phantasm CS, you can adjust the levels, curves, brightness & contrast, hue/saturation and more of your vector objects right in Illustrator as though they were bitmaps in Photoshop. And best of all, the vector objects remain editable.

And if you happen to have presets already saved in Photoshop for things like duotones levels, curves, etc., you’ll be happy to know that Phantasm CS can import them just as you can in Photoshop – very handy! Phantasm CS doesn’t stop with vector objects though, you can also apply the filters to text and embedded images, allowing even more time savings and creativity. And if you’re looking to customize only portions of your objects, you can select to apply the filters only to the fill, stroke or both. Now for the uber-cool part. Whereas standard color-adjustment tools such Curves and Levels don’t fundamentally alter the artwork, the Halftone filters and effects reconstruct the artwork to produce some really cool results.

The Halftone filter takes your vector objects and gives you the ability to apply halftone effects such as dots, squares, lines, radials and even letters to your image in a highly customizable fashion. You not only have control over the shape/style of the halftone, but you can set it to be monochrome or full color. You can adjust the size, shape and density of the dots, as well as the angle, scale and blend of the dots. This is one of those filters that you could spend a lot of time just playing around with, and get different results every time.

When you’re finished creating your masterpiece, Phantasm CS Studio provides a great color-checking toolset for anyone who prepares artwork for publishing in print. An Output Preview group of tools, comprised of Quick Separations, Overprint Preview and Ink Coverage give immediate feedback on the technical construction of the color in a CMYK document in much more detail than Illustrator does natively. Once you preview your document and are satisfied with the results, Phantasm CS allows you to separate color plates onto different layers in your Illustrator document and include crop marks, color bars and more – with the ability to choose which color plates you wish to separate. This tool is a god-send for anyone in the screen-printing or textile industry.

Phantasm CS comes in three flavors with a tiered pricing system; Phantasm CS – $45, Phantasm CS Designer – $95, and Phantasm CS Studio – $175. Which version you buy depends on what you want included in the package. The entry-level set includes the basic color-adjustment tools.

Designer includes everything in the basic set, plus the duotone, halftone, temperature/tint effect and swap channels filters.

The Studio version includes all of the above, plus the output preview, separations and in-line image editing capabilities. If your design environment is primarily Adobe Illustrator, the full Studio version is a bargain. If you mostly import your artwork into Adobe InDesign before outputting, then the Designer version is most likely adequate for your needs. If you’re uncertain about what you need, a free trial of the Studio version is available from Astute Graphics.

All three versions of Phantasm CS work with Illustrator CS, CS2 and CS3 for Windows and Mac. Overall, Phantasm CS is probably the most useful plugin set I’ve ever come across for any version of Adobe Illustrator. It’s tools are immediately useful for any designer who works in Illustrator and the pricing is quite reasonable.