Users talk about Smoke on the Mac

Low cost creative software tools are driving the so-called democratization of the post industry and many new players are offering video editing and visual effects services as a result. Yet, savvy entrepreneurs have realized there’s more that affects the bottom line than price alone. Rather than solely building a business on Apple’s Final Cut Studio or the Adobe Creative Suite, a number of new producers have found that Autodesk’s Smoke for Mac OS X has struck the right balance between cost and performance. For these companies, Smoke has provided the right tool to attract and keep clients.

Boogie Studio

Boogie Studio was founded five years ago by Andres Norambuena, Denis-Eric Pednault and Benoit Martel. These partners developed Boogie into Montreal’s leading audio studio for radio and television commercials. When it came time to expand, Boogie brought in Sebastian Dostie last fall as a partner to design and shape up the company’s visual effects and image post production services. According to Dostie, “Boogie thought about establishing a satellite audio facility in another city, but that would have meant one of the founders would have to move away from Montreal. No one was interested in that, so we chose to expand Boogie’s local services beyond audio. I had experience in visual effects and we already had a great relationship with Montreal’s advertising agencies, so the logical next move for us was to offer video finishing services.”

Unlike post houses whose business connections are with the directors or production companies, audio studios generally deal directly with the agencies. Montreal agencies cover a mix of national and international clients, which gave Boogie a nice opportunity to attract some interesting, high-profile projects. Dostie explained why they decided on Smoke as the central tool for this new division. “We could have simply added Final Cut Studio, since the cost of entry is so cheap. But, we knew how agencies really liked the Flame experience in client-supervised sessions. Smoke for the Mac had been out about a year. We had the talent on board who knew how to work with it in a supervised client session, so after a month’s evaluation, we decided to build the division around that as the central tool for client sessions.”

The choice proved to be a good mix for the eclectic Boogie facility. Dostie continued, “Clients have really responded well to our offering of finishing services. It’s great to have the audio mix on Pro Tools and video finishing on Smoke under one roof, because everything can get done in the same day at the same facility, including any last minute changes. We love that Smoke is on the Mac platform, because it makes it easy to bring in the offline editor’s FCP edit list or to use Photoshop on the same computer as Smoke. Performance and reliability has been great and clients feel very comfortable when they hear that you are using Smoke. It’s not just the name, but [Autodesk’s] existing software development that brings proven tools to the Mac platform.”

One example where the investment in Smoke paid off was a set of spots for Canac, a Quebec City hardware store. Working through agency LG2 and production company 401, Boogie had to complete the spots with the visual effect of a dog singing the commercial’s jingle. 401 shot the footage with Canon 7D cameras and delivered the footage and FCP offline edit lists to Boogie. The lists and footage were imported into Smoke. For the dog visual effect, Boogie first had to retime the dog’s movements to match a guide track. Then they animated the dog’s mouth against a reference background of the retimed live action dog, using Matchmover and Maya for the animation. Since the dog and the actors in the scene where filmed separately, Smoke provided an ideal compositing tool, to combine the various plates, rotospline and retouch around the CGI animation, plus all color-correction needed to match and polish the final color and lighting to complete the effect.

Glyph Corporation

Glyph is a Louisville-based, boutique post facility that specializes in custom, large format projects, including visual presentations at the U. S. Capitol Visitor Center, the American Museum of Natural History and the California Science Center. Glyph owner, David Crites, is an established visual effects artist who has made Smoke for Mac OS X his tool of choice.  Crites described his decision this way. “I was looking for a way to streamline and redefine the pipeline. I had used Maya for five years and was familiar with the Flame toolset, which I’d used out-of-house. I would typically build my projects by offlining in Final Cut and then conforming in After Effects with a mixture of Sapphire plug-ins. Smoke became a great replacement for both. I now find that I’m doing my offlines as well in Smoke, which keeps me from having to import an XML from FCP. The integration of Maya and Smoke is great for what I do. I design a lot of visual effects based on natural phenomena in Maya and then composite and relight them in Smoke.”

Crites often works unsupervised on these large projects, although about 10% of his projects are commercials. Crites continued, “Smoke is great when I do have clients in a session, because I can stay within one integrated interface, without jumping in and out of different applications. Unification of the interface is a big deal, because you only have to get familiar with one GUI. I appreciate Smoke’s clean design. Agency clients are very impressed with how things work, but it’s especially suited for the large format projects I do. These have huge amounts of data, such as 10K-wide images as master plates. Artists not familiar with a node-based interface will find the learning curve a little steeper than those who are familiar with programs like Nuke or Maya, but things are extremely well thought out, making it fairly easy to get up to speed.”

One example of a Glyph project is the Advance Organizer at the California Science Center. It’s a three-screen, eight-projector film installation in Los Angeles. Two matching 13′x48′ screens line either wall of a long rectangular gallery, with a 10′x10′ screen at the far end. The three-minute film seamlessly combines organic visual effects with beautiful images representing the diverse ecosystems on earth. The film loops continuously all day, every day.

Crites explained the benefits of using Smoke on this job. “Compared to my previous workflow, Smoke streamlined the assembly of some fairly complicated composites. Having color correction, tracking, sophisticated masking, and a true 3D compositing environment all in one application has done away with my need to switch gears in the midst of the creative flow. I found myself with more time for creative decision-making during the project – and burning less time rendering or translating media for additional work in other applications. Through Smoke’s tight integration with Maya, I have unprecedented flexibility and control compositing my 3D assets. Past projects, where I had to use four applications to accomplish them, can now be created exclusively in Smoke.”

VODA Studios

As the largest photographic studio outside of Los Angeles, Seattle’s VODA Studios is no stranger to imaging workflows. When it came time to add video to the roster of services, Autodesk Smoke for the Mac was a no-brainer. Josh Courtney, VODA Chairman, pointed out that, “For us, workflow is key. We really appreciate the fact that Smoke is geared toward fast turnaround. Its integrated tools mean you don’t have to bounce between applications. The fact that clients don’t have to wait for lengthy renders, means that clients can see tangible savings in time and budget over the course of a week on some large projects. When we compared that to the typical FCP experience, it didn’t seem to us that lower-cost alternatives really provided an efficient pipeline or a quick workflow. Clients have responded very favorably to that. We are seeing more collaboration where clients are bringing us rough cuts with a Smoke finish in mind.”

Take, for example, a recent set of commercials for Brooks Running produced by kontent partners and posted on Smoke at VODA Studios. Director Craig Brooks discussed the experience.  “The scope for our three Brooks Running spots had grown exponentially, while the budget hadn’t moved. I remembered having been briefly walked through VODA’s new Smoke system a few weeks prior for a peek at what was under the hood. So I chatted with Josh Courtney about how we could pull this off. Charged with finding a way to make it still work under the same parameters, the use of VODA and their Smoke system was the only choice for us to pull this off.”

“The concept called for technical callouts and graphical animations highlighting specific Brooks apparel to track, along with the runner filmed in the environment where they would actually run with the gear. Straightforward in theory, but given our timeline and budget parameters it posed a huge problem. Not having the time nor the budget for the usual methods, Smoke made all the difference in the successful implementation and completion of the pieces. We were able to get a workflow that fit into our time frame and budget.  Having known and worked with Josh and VODA for years on a variety of other projects we already had the foundation for a successful working relationship. With Smoke now added to our mix, it creates a whole new creative platform for us to collaborate.”

Autodesk’s Smoke for Mac OS X is a relatively new product, but it brings a level of finishing to the Mac platform that has been out-of-reach in the past. Thanks to a heritage of years of Irix and Linux development, the product starts as a seasoned offering, complete with a very high brand appeal among clients. These ingredients have given the early adopters a definite creative and business edge.

Written for DV and Videography magazines (NewBay Media LLC)

©2011 Oliver Peters

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