Autodesk Flares Up

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All manufacturers are looking for the best way to deal with these challenging economic times. The Autodesk Media & Entertainment division has managed to hold up well at the high end, with signature products like Smoke, Flame, Inferno and Lustre; but its customers, like everyone else, are certainly clamoring for cost-effective solutions. Autodesk has offered software-based effects products, like Toxik and Combustion, but what’s the best way to offer a lower cost version of the high end system products? That answer came at NAB 2009 in the form of Autodesk Flare 2010.

Autodesk Flare differs from Toxik and Combustion in several ways. Toxik is a complete visual effects pipeline designed for the type of collaborative workflow used at motion picture visual effects houses. It doesn’t really replace the “hero” finishing and compositing suite that a system like Inferno or Flame is known for.  Combustion was a desktop software application acquired from another company. Although it gained a number of features from Flame, Combustion could never be used to take a share of the work off of a heavily-booked Flame room.

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Creative companion

In looking for ways to satisfy demanding Inferno and Flame owners, Autodesk realized that it couldn’t release anything short of the full Flame toolset. Flare is really envisioned as a “creative companion” to Flame or Inferno. It can fit into the same Flame workflow, because it uses the same tools – mainly Flame’s Action (part of Flame’s node-based, Batch procedural compositing environment). All the effects tools are the same as a full-blown Flame system.

Flare is sold as a software-based system to existing Flame and Inferno customers who are willing to handle their own hardware integration on a qualified system. Autodesk doesn’t quote prices and customizes system solutions to the needs of the purchaser, so in loose numbers, Flare is positioned as costing approximately one-fifth the cost of a Flame. Since Flare uses a floating license, customers can install the software onto a number of machines and then authorize any one of these machines to be the active Flare system when needed. This includes laptops, which means that for the first time, a visual effects supervisor can bring the Flame toolset on location to test composites. When those shots are brought back to the facility, the same project can be opened in Flame and the work continued without changing compositing tools.

Autodesk Flare 2010 differs from Inferno and Flame in several ways. The flagship system products are built as turnkey workstations designed for speed and performance in client-supervised sessions. They use an AJA hardware card for SD and HD video capture and a high-end NVIDIA graphics card for broadcast-quality display and video output. In contrast, Flare is a Linux application and it’s up to the customer to configure the workstation and storage according to their performance and budget requirements. There is file i/o, but no video i/o through hardware. There is no broadcast monitor support and Flare doesn’t use the desktop module portion of the Flame GUI. You can see full-screen images, of course, but that’s on a standard computer monitor using the monitor’s color space. Essentially Autodesk took the complete Batch compositing environment from Flame, added file i/o with GigE and Infiniband support and turned that into a separate product – Flare.

Autodesk Flare 2010 solves several customer issues, which are mainly cost and efficiency. A customer who has shied away from purchasing an additional turnkey Flame system, because of the higher cost, can now build up the throughput in his facility by adding seats of Flare. There’s an obvious savings, but more importantly, the owner has increased the capacity to turn out billable work in a timely manner. Most Flame suites are well-booked at successful facilities, so it’s hard for owners to make systems available to junior artists for more mundane tasks. By installing Flare, up-and-coming Flame artists can be assigned to tasks that don’t necessarily require client supervision, but still use the same toolset. Thus more work gets down and at the same time, the staff becomes more experienced on the tools that bring in clients.

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Flare in the real-world

I recently spoke with Jeff Beckerman, President/Creative Director of BOND, a New York creative post house, about their decision to purchase Flare. “Our shop uses a mixture of tools, including Avid Symphony Nitris DX for editorial finishing and Adobe After Effects for design work. The Flame suite is where we tackle complex visual effects. It simply has the best toolset when you need to create seamless effects shots with a high degree of finesse. We were bidding on two effects-heavy projects around the time of NAB. These jobs would have put us in a situation of having to run two Flames to meet the schedule. Renting a second Flame in New York would have cost us about 10-15 grand a month in rental expenses. When we saw the demo of Flare, we knew we had the solution, since the projected rental costs would have been a large chunk towards owning Flare.”

Beckerman continued, “As part of this whole purchase, we upgraded the HP workstation for our existing Flame and installed the Flare software on the older HP model that had been part of the Flame system. This has really boosted the high-def performance of the Flame. Our new Flare station is currently being used for a lot of rig removal, rotoscoping and clean-up work on a standard-def project and all the interaction is in real-time. On an SD job like this one, Flare is giving us the same speed as we previously had on the Flame.”

I asked Beckerman if BOND had taken advantage of the floating license aspect of Flare. He replied, “Not really. I see where that might have advantages in the future, but in our shop we have configured it so the Flame is the ‘host’ system, handling video i/o and media storage. The Flare is networked to the Flame and its storage, so media is moved between the systems in a push-pull approach. We couldn’t have justified the purchase of a second Flame right now, so adding Flare is like having one-and-a-half Flames. BOND’s selling point is creativity. Our strength is in our talented people, so it’s important to us that the technology lets our editors and artists turn out great work for the clients. Flare uses the powerful Flame Batch toolset and we are running it with experienced Flame artists. Now we can respond more quickly when schedules are accelerated or when additional visual effects shots are added to a job at the last minute. There’s no compromise in the quality of the work or the efficiency in getting it done.”

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New Flame and Flare 2010 Tools

If you take a look at the many ways that a Flame system is used, it’s easy to see how such tasks as basic compositing, rig removal, mask creation and more can be prepped or even finished on a Flare. For example, the lead Flame artist can assign several shots to other artists. They would work collaboratively with the lead Flame artist to complete these shots on Flares. Time and resources are maximized without a compromise in the tools. Flare also allows a Flame artist to take a project on the road or home when there’s a need to do so. Flare can handle the same file formats as Flame, which now includes support for REDCODE raw, multichannel OpenEXR and Avid DNxHD with Apple QuickTime.

Flare and Flame share the same tools, so new Flame 2010 features are also included in Flare 2010. It’s already a rich toolset that includes particles, paint, tracking, keying, color correction, morphing and warping tools. Flare, like Flame, processes all content in 4:4:4 RGB and all compositing operates in 3D space. The applications both utilize a 64-bit architecture for fluid interaction. Some of the new creative tools include Normal Mapping, an enhanced 3D text tool and a 3D Blur tool.

Normal Mapping lets the artist access multiple render passes typically generated by 3D animation programs, such as Maya. This is made possible by the OpenEXR format. By controlling these layers, the Flare artist can relight rendered scenes without going back to the 3D application. The enhanced 3D text tool permits the designer to create extruded text within Flare and create expression-based animated text. For example, individual characters can be controlled and text can be animated along a 3D path.

It’s worth noting that Flare and Flame also share the same Sparks filter plug-in architecture. Plug-ins designed for Flame will also work with Flare, but they don’t use a floating license and third party Sparks vendors have yet to produce special versions for Flare. This creates a bit of a dilemma since Autodesk can restrict the functionality of Flame in producing Flare, but plug-ins are different. You can’t really limit the functionality. You get 100% of the benefit of the filter, even if the host application costs less money. I spoke with the marketing folks at GenArts, makers of the popular Sapphire plug-ins. GenArts is presently trying to develop a pricing strategy for Flare customers. They expressed an interest in talking with Flare customers who also wanted to purchase Sapphire for Sparks. This will help them evaluate how to address the situation in the future. Naturally Flare owners are hoping that the third party Sparks vendors will offer a reduced price on Flare Sparks, but for now the product is young enough that any such strategies are still being worked out.

Along with Flare, Autodesk has added another way for users to increase productivity and that is the launch of the new Area website (area.autodesk.com). This is a new user community site for content showcases, blogs, tutorials, tips and discussion forums. All of these moves provide opportunities to move the Autodesk brand into new markets, such as smaller creative shops and broadcast graphics and promotion. Flare now makes this more approachable than ever.

©2009 Oliver Peters

Written for NewBay Media, LLC and Videography magazine

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