Smoke on the Mac

The possibility of a new high-end editorial tool for the Mac quickly buzzed around the internet forums. Now Autodesk has made it official, by shipping Autodesk Smoke 2010 for Mac OS X. Unlike Autodesk’s Linux-based systems products (Smoke, Flame), the Mac version of Smoke will be available as a software-only product for $14,995, plus an annual subscription fee (to cover maintenance support and updates) for $1,995 per year. Customers (or resellers) have to configure their own Macs according to qualified system guidelines. The general requirements are a recent Mac Pro using certain NVIDIA graphics cards, an AJA KONA3 for video i/o and fast media storage.

Smoke on the Mac became a reality for the simple reason that Mac OS X and the Apple hardware have both become well-suited for the advantages of the software. Namely 64-bit processing, a 64-bit OS (“Snow Leopard”) and good OpenGL support. Linux is at its core a relative of Mac OS X, so a port turned out to be more than doable. The target for Autodesk is to provide an all-in-one editorial finishing tool to a market that prefers the Mac environment and would never consider the Linux systems products. This makes Smoke an ideal companion to Avid Media Composer or Apple Final Cut Studio. Obviously it’s possible to do much of the same things in Final Cut Studio using Motion and Color, but you have to go into several different applications to do that. Many facilities will find that the same tasks can be done more efficiently and effectively by staying all within one advanced interface.

This makes a lot of sense for mid-tier post houses or broadcast facilities, which might be configured with several FCP bays and Xsan shared storage. Adding a seat of Smoke 2010 for the “hero suite” is an easy integration, since it can live on the same storage. It’s no longer a Linux “island”. Key is the ability for Smoke to handle compressed formats, like Apple ProRes (a first for Autodesk), Avid DNxHD, DVCPRO HD, AVC-Intra and image sequence files, such as 3DS and Filmbox files from 3DS Max and Maya. Plus native support for P2, XDCAM and RED files. Since the Smoke software is installed on the same Mac as other applications, it’s now possible for the Smoke operator to also have Adobe Photoshop or After Effects open on the same computer right alongside Smoke.

Not that many Final Cut Pro or Avid editors are familiar with Smoke, so I decided to run a review I wrote earlier this year for Videography magazine. I discuss the Linux version, which will essentially be the same as the Mac version; although, hardware differences will dictate some variations. In addition, Sparks plug-ins aren’t yet available for the Mac version. For those who don’t know, Autodesk names its versions like model years on cars. There are generally two updates a year (one large and one small), which roughly coincide with NAB and IBC. These would equate to a full-point and a half-point software version update in competing products.

The following article describes the previous version of software, but it should give curious editors a better idea of what Smoke is all about.

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Autodesk Smoke 2009 on Linux

Originally written for Videography magazine, February 2009

Autodesk Media & Entertainment products have long set the bar for high-end editing and compositing. A significant percentage of national commercials and feature films have been touched by an Autodesk system. Posting with Smoke, Flame or Lustre offers more than just bragging rights. Each offers a best-of-class toolset that can give your project a look that is hard to duplicate. At the high-end, Autodesk competes with Avid’s Symphony and DS plus Quantel’s eQ and iQ; however, even at the low-end, the Apple and Adobe software suites configured with the right hardware present a challenge. Autodesk is definitely aware of this, so even as it adds more powerful, advanced features, Smoke, Flame and Lustre are gaining tools that make them even more attractive to small-to-medium market post houses and broadcasters.

2009 Extension 1

The Smoke/Flame 2009 update was introduced at last April’s NAB and 2009 Extension 1 came at IBC in September. Autodesk’s Extensions are like a point-five software release in other products. Both of these updates mark a path where the core systems products are becoming increasingly unified. Smoke, Autodesk’s nonlinear edit system, gains many of Flame’s compositing tools, and Flame, Autodesk’s signature compositor, augments its user interface with more editor-friendly tools. Under 2009 Extension 1, the three principal systems products – Smoke (editing), Flame (visual effects) and Lustre (color grading) – are finally running on the same hardware platform and under the same Linux operating system.

The workstation of choice is currently a Hewlett Packard xw8600 equipped with an Nvidia Quadro FX 5600 SDI card. There is also one of AJA Video’s OEM cards, which is primarily used for video capture. The NVIDIA card is used for both display and actual video output. This permits Autodesk to take advantage of its power for Open GL acceleration and custom LUTs (look-up tables).

Smoke’s new openness

The system of most interest to smaller shops and TV stations is Smoke. This premium-grade NLE offers powerful compositing tools, so all but the most advanced visual effects can be completed right inside the NLE. There’s no need for a smaller shop to also purchase a Flame or an editor to use external applications, like Motion, Shake, Combustion or After Effects. To further address the needs of this market, Smoke can now access both uncompressed and compressed media formats, including QuickTime and MXF media. P2 shooters will find that Smoke can now natively access the cards’ folder and file structure, including media recorded in Panasonic’s new AVC-Intra codec.

Autodesk systems use a soft import feature that rewraps the metadata while still permitting access to the original media files. Modern workstations offer sufficient horsepower to achieve this with a minimal performance drop. Part of this new Autodesk openness includes the use of standard file formats for direct-attached,  SAN and NAS storage, along with Smoke’s and Flame’s historical use of the proprietary Stone file format.  There is also OMF, AAF and XML support, so editors who choose to do their creative cut on an Avid Media Composer or Apple Final Cut Pro edit system can easily bring their files into Smoke for advanced finishing. Autodesk recently signed on to the RED Digital Cinema Camera SDK, which will allow Smoke, Flame and Lustre to offer native support for the RED One camera raw files.

Best-of-class toolset

Here are some of the features that set Smoke apart from other NLEs. First of all, internal image processing is RGB 4:4:4, resolution-independent and can now be handled in 16-bit float. The bottom line is that no other system handles video and the effects pipeline as cleanly. When I speak of compositing tools, I’m talking about most of the full Flame toolset. In the case of Smoke, this means that you can composite shots using the typical NLE timeline approach, but you can also use Batch FX – Flame’s procedural, node-based effects compositor.

There are three aspects to Smoke compositing, which make it unique. First, it is the only NLE where you build effects in a total 3D environment. Place clip A over clip B and move clip A forward in Z-space. With Smoke you are able to move the camera’s view of this composite in 3D space and see that both clips are at a distance apart from each other. Lighting effects that you add will respect proper 3D spatial relationships. Since each clip is truly a plane in 3D space, Autodesk has been able to use advanced geometry to apply a mesh to the image. Points on the mesh can be pulled and warped in 3D space to apply deformations to an image, such as stretching the nose of a character, a la Pinocchio. Add to this, advanced gradients for masking, where you can variably adjust the edge softness of a mask. This comes in handy for special compositing situations, like facial replacements – seen on quite a few national spots these days.

The other two major aspects are an integrated tracking tool and the Colour Warper (the Flame color corrector). In most NLEs, these tools tend to work individually, but in Smoke, tracking and color correction can be used integrally with nearly every effect. We ran through a demo that used clips from the Superbowl Budweiser commercial featuring a Dalmatian and a Clydesdale. Some scenes showing both animals are composites of separate dog and horse takes. Each has some color variation and some camera movement. A typical tracking situation is to stabilize a shot by removing camera movement; or, the tracking information is used to lock a logo onto a moving element within the shot.

In our Budweiser spot, it was an easy matter to track the two clips and use the Dalmatian clip’s tracking data to match it to the Clydesdale’s data so that both clips displayed matching camera movement for a seamless composite. This is further improved through the use of the Colour Warper on each clip to match the tonality of the two separate takes. Although this type of composite could also be achieved in other NLEs or an application like After Effects, it was impressive to see how quickly a Smoke editor gets this done – due to the actual speed and responsiveness of the system – as well as through the efficiency gained by integrating these tools. In combination, Smoke’s toolset performance is very powerful for the editor working in a supervised client session.

More advanced features

One of the newest features found in Smoke 2009 Extension 1 is an improvement to Smoke’s compositing model. It is now possible to use Batch effects pre and post timeline. This means that a composited shot can show up as a single media clip (pre) or you can combine clips on vertical tracks and add additional effects (post). Smoke uses the Sparks plug-in API and you can purchase numerous filter packages from leading vendors like Boris FX and GenArts, but now the built-in effects have also been enhanced. For example, there are additional blur functions, which are accelerated by the NVIDIA card.

Less obvious might be some of the more mundane enhancements that are common on most NLEs. The new graphics card now supports dual-monitor displays. With Smoke, one monitor would be the UI display and the second monitor would show the broadcast output. There are additional on-screen enhancements, like overwrite and splice edit commands.

Autodesk now owns most of the major 3D computer graphics players (3DS, Maya and Softimage). Smoke includes a set of 3DS primitive models, but also supports 3D objects and the Open EXR format generated by Maya. Open EXR files permit high dynamic range imagery – a method by which still cameras can take multiple exposures to effectively extend the actual exposure range of the camera sensor. For example, one image exposes for clouds in the sky, while the second for the darker buildings on the ground.

3D animation applications that produce Open EXR files use the same concept to render a wider dynamic range into a single file. These files can be imported into Smoke and the proper exposure extracted from the files in a non-destructive fashion. Just as in the photo example, composites can be made where different areas of the image are optimized for striking visual effect. Although HDR has yet to really make a mark in video production, it does have an application today in projects based on CGI images, such as automotive commercials. Smoke also supports layered Adobe Photoshop files as long as you first rasterize any vector type and merge all layer effects.

Controlling deliverables

As the broadcast world transitions to HD, the post community will inevitably continue to struggle in a mixed format world – posting in various HD flavors, but delivering a wide range of target formats. Smoke is resolution-independent, so it can easily handle 4K source material to build a 2K timeline and finally deliver both HD and SD broadcast masters. New in Smoke is a deliverables modules that permits presets for batch processing. Unlike other NLEs that might use the AJA OEM card for hardware downconversions, Autodesk has chosen to use the Nvidia card. By doing this, they can support various software scaling and filtering algorithms for optimal conversions, custom display LUTs and color spaces, like log-to-linear conversions. These tools – based on Lustre’s Color Management – are common on many DI systems, but unique for an NLE.

Autodesk continues to lead the charge in defining what a finishing system should be. With its openness to outside formats, Smoke makes the ideal “hero” suite in mixed-system creative shops. Do your cutting on Final Cut or Media Composer, but when it’s time to really “wow” the client, move to Smoke for the final bells-and-whistles. This applies the right tools for the right tasks and is bound to be a winner for the client.

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More information about Smoke 2010 for Mac OS X is available at Autodesk and at area.autodesk.com/blogs/discreetuk and area.autodesk.com/smoke-tutorials. A free 30-day trial version may be downloaded at autodesk.com/smoke-trial . Lastly here’s a another blog that was launched just for Smoke on OSX.

©2009 Oliver Peters

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