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September 2014
Issue: May 1, 2013

Review: Autodesk Smoke on the Mac

By: Barry Goch
PRODUCT: Autodesk Smoke 2013 

WEBSITE: www.autodesk.com

PRICE: $3,495. A 30-day free-trial & educational versions are available at: www.autodesk.com/smoke-trial

- toolset for creative and finishing
- node-based compositing environment
- elegant new UI

At last year’s NAB, Smoke 2013 for Mac was announced with much fanfare. It really rocked the post community with its radical user interface (UI) redesign, the addition of node-based compositing with ConnectFX, and its much lower price point. 

It seems that the Autodesk Media & Entertainment division was listening to feedback from the release of its first-ever Mac-based creative finishing product Smoke 2010. 



Smoke Advanced on Linux has been the finishing tool of choice for many high-end TV shows, commercials and features for years. With the introduction of Smoke 2010 on the Mac, Autodesk hoped to bring the experience of using a high-end tool to a wider audience. 

While the release of Smoke 2010 was very successfully in expanding the number of seats of Smoke, it faced headwinds in becoming more widely adopted because of the price, $15K US, as well as its steep learning curve. Although the UI has worked for many years, many new users could not simply sit down in front of the software and start to get things done. 

In addition, some folks had some networking and configuration issues, and Smoke 2010 had steep system requirements. Autodesk formed an editorial advisory committee and listened to the feedback of industry leaders in an attempt to improve the user’s experience while making the product more affordable.

The result was Smoke 2013 — all the power of Smoke 2010 and it’s following releases in a new wrapper — with even more compositing power, and at a much lower price, $3,495. They released the software as an extended public beta shortly after NAB 2012, providing users the chance to kick the tires for an extended period while providing Autodesk with valuable feedback. Autodesk released six pre-release beta versions fixing bugs and adding features. For example, the first pre-release had no desktop paint, in my opinion one of Smoke’s key features, which was implemented in a later pre-release version.

A NEW LOOK

Now that Smoke 2013 is finally shipping, it’s a good time to sit down and do a formal review. And what better way to do a review but with a real project? I produced and shot an educational “how-to” video. Except for the talent, this was a one-man-band type of job — shot in an afternoon on greenscreen and posted in Smoke 2013. I was keen to try out the new UI with an edit from start to finish. So how did it go?

Although I am not new to Smoke, I tried approaching the software as if it was totally new to me and review it from that point of view. I really like the new design. There is now a tabbed structure to the program to quickly switch between your main tasks, Media Hub (media input/output), Conform (loading sequence from other systems), Timeline (editing) and Tools (paint and some other utility type functions). 

I also like how the UI can be resized by dragging on the edges of windows. Also, getting media into the system is a breeze. You can even drag and drop files from the Finder! The timeline layout is simple and familiar. Editing is now easier to get started by color-coding the editing buttons: yellow for insert, red for overwrite, and blue for replace. You can set in and out marks with keyboard short cuts and also by clicking on the grey in and out buttons underneath the player. 

They also have added color-coded actions when dragging and dropping clips from the media library directly from the timeline. Adding effects to clips in the timeline can be done using the menu bar, right clicking or selecting the effect from the FX Ribbon. The effects can be copied to other clips and saved in the Library for later use.

Autodesk has added a menu bar across the top of the application to make it easier to access many functions throughout the application. They’ve made installing the software painless compared to before — it installs just like any other Mac application. They have also reduced the system requirement in terms of screen resolution, necessary graphic cards and added the ability to render and transcode to a lighter codec (ProRes), rather than uncompressed DPX frames. 

Autodesk has vastly improved the conform process in Smoke 2013 with the new conform module. It makes conforming a lot easier and a visual process. It’s easy to see missing shots and then find matches. Smoke conforms from EDLs, AAFs from Avid, and XMLs from FCP 7/X.

REAL-WORLD TESTING 

My project got off to a bit of a rocky start, unfortunately. My camera is a Panasonic GH-2, which shoots AVC-HD. Although it is a supported video codec, Smoke 2013 was not able to import the audio from the file as well as video. I checked the same files in Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro and they both were able to load the audio and video without a problem. I later found out that Smoke supports PCM audio with AVC-HD but not AC-3 audio, which is recorded by my camera. I transcoded the footage in FCP 7 to ProRes and that worked fine in Smoke 2013. 

I found editing the program in the new UI fun once I got the hang of it. It’s easy to work fast using a combination of keyboard shortcuts and right clicking. Yes, that’s right, the entire program is right-click aware, from importing footage to the deepest level of compositing inside of Action — a very welcome addition indeed. It was very easy to get to the cut I wanted using a combination of insert and overwrite edits, lifts and ripple trims with drag-and-drop edits automatically adding layers to the timeline. I figured out how to change audio levels by adding edits and using the gain effect to boost the volume of the VO.

With the edit locked, I moved forward to the main dish, compositing the greenscreens. I really wanted to push the software to see why I would want to use Smoke rather than another NLE. In fact, I found I got great results using the AVC-HD footage in FCP X and Premiere running a key, color corrector and a resize on the background and this played in realtime in Premiere but dropped frames in FCP X. 

How did Smoke do? Smoke doesn’t have a realtime effects engine so as you add effects, you have to render as you go. The keyers in the other apps picked up on the high compression in the source footage right away and pulled a decent key with little trouble. Smoke’s Master Keyer, a very deep but older tool, took a bit to deal with the compression artifacts but was able to keep up. Where Smoke really shines is in the ability to add a deep node-based composite to any clip in the timeline.



For the first time, ConnectFX allows many more folks to experience what Flame artists have been using for years, the node-based compositing environment (called Batch in Flame), which was recently upgraded to function in full 16-bit float. For example, I didn’t have a very stable rig for the overhead shots so there was a bit of a camera wobble. 

Using the ConnectFX pipeline, I was able to stabilize, key, correct layers for lens distortion, color correct the foreground and background plates, add a light wrap and a vignette inside of one ConnectFX pipeline. Even better, once I got the look I wanted, I was able to drag and drop this set-up to all the shots from the same camera angle in the sequence.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Autodesk has done a great job of building many avenues to get started with the software, foremost among them is the Smoke Learning Channel on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/SmokeHowTos). There is also AREA, where you can post your questions (http://area.autodesk.com/smoke).

It really takes a lot of courage to take a successful product and rethink it from the ground up. Autodesk has rewrapped most of the old tools, while adding new functionality at a lower price point. What’s not to like?

Barry Goch (barry.goch@gmail.com) is a Smoke Editor at Modern Videofilm (www.mvfinc.com) in Hollywood.