Autodesk Smoke 2013

df_smoke_1_smAutodesk attracted a lot of attention last year with the revamped version of Smoke for Mac OS X. I had originally been working on a review with the earlier version (Smoke 2012), but held off when I found out Smoke 2013 was just around the corner. Indeed, the more “Mac-like” refresh wowed NAB attendees, but it took until December to come to market. In that time, Autodesk built on the input received from users who tested it during this lengthy public beta period. Now that it’s finally out in the wild, I’ve had a chance to work with the release version, both on my own system, as well as at a client site where Smoke 2013 has been deployed. Both of these are on recent model Mac Pros. Although Smoke 2013 is a very deep application, I would offer that the learning curve for this new version is a mere 25% of what it used to be. That’s a significant improvement.

Getting set up

There are several ways to install and operate Smoke 2013. Most users will install the application in the standalone mode. The software is activated over the internet and works only on that licensed machine. Facility users can also purchase license server software, which allows them to float the Smoke license among several machines. Only one at a time is activated, but any of the machines can run the software, based on the permission assigned by the license server application over the internal LAN.

df_smoke_2_smSmoke 2013 operation is tied to the media storage, so the first thing to do after software installation is to run the Smoke set-up utility. This allocates which drives are accessible to Smoke. You can grab media files from any connected drive, but specific locations must be assigned as library locations for media caches, proxies, render files and so on. These can be internal drives, SAN volumes or externally-connected drives. The key is that when you create or launch a project, it is tied to a specific library location. If that drive is unmounted, any projects associated with it won’t show up and are not accessible (even in an offline mode) to the operator.

You should approach Smoke operation with a media strategy in mind. Smoke 2013 handles more native codecs and file formats – and in a more straightforward fashion – than Smoke 2012. If you are working with ProRes media, for instance, no conversion is necessary to get started in Smoke and files can be rendered as ProResHQ, instead of the previous default of uncompressed DPX files. This means drive performance requirements are less than in the past, but it’s still a good idea to use fast RAID arrays. Even two 7200RPM SATA drives striped as RAID-0 will give you acceptable performance with ProRes media. Naturally, a faster array is even better. Smoke will let you render intermediate proxies for even better performance, but if you want to simply drag in new media from the Mac Finder, then Smoke 2013 now performs on par with other desktop NLEs.

Smoke uses OpenGL and not CUDA or OpenCL acceleration, so performance from ATI or NVIDIA cards is on even footing. If you run a dual monitor system, like my set-up with two 20” Apple Cinema Displays, you can enable dual-screen preview. This will let you mirror the UI or display a selected viewport, which is most often the current clip, but can also be the ConnectFX schematic. You are best off with two 1920×1080 or 1920×1200 screens. The scaling function to reduce the full screen viewer to fit my 1680×1050 resolution introduced artifacts and affected the performance of the card. Smoke 2013 can work with screen resolutions starting at 1440×900, but it’s better to stick to one higher resolution screen like a single 27” or 30” Apple Cinema Display or iMac screen. It’s best to run a broadcast monitor connected to an AJA KONA, IoXT or Blackmagic Design card (in a future version). In that configuration, you can’t use a second computer display to extend the real estate of the Smoke user interface, but could display the UI from another open application, like Adobe Photoshop.

The editing experience

df_smoke_3_smThe reaction to Apple Final Cut Pro X kicked up interest in Smoke. Users who wanted a 64-bit, track-based application that didn’t stray too far from FCP 7’s operational style, felt that Smoke 2013 might be the hypothetical “FCP 8”. Autodesk indeed sports an editing workspace that is closely aligned with the look and feel of Final Cut Pro “legacy”, as well as Adobe Premiere Pro. It even defaults to FCP 7 keyboard shortcut commands. If you can edit on Final Cut (before FCP X) or Premiere Pro, then you can be productive on Smoke with little relearning.

df_smoke_6_smThe user interface is divided into three panes – a browser, a viewing area and a workspace. Across the bottom are four tabbed interface pages or modes – MediaHub, Conform, Timeline and Tools. MediaHub is where you search drive locations for files. It is analogous to Adobe’s Media Browser within Premiere Pro. Locate files and drag or import them into the editing browser window. Conform lets you reconcile imported media with edit lists and is also a place to relink media files. Timeline is the standard editing workspace and lastly, Tools holds clip tools and utilities, such as deinterlacing, pulldown, etc. Each pane changes the information displayed, based on the context of that mode. In the Timeline mode, you see viewers and a timeline, but in the MediaHub mode each pane shows completely different information.

df_smoke_4_smEditors will spend most of their day in the Timeline mode. This interface page is organized into the standard editing view with player windows at the top and a track-based timeline at the bottom. Smoke always loads at least two timelines – the edited sequence and the selected source clip. Effects can be applied to the source clip, as well as to clips on the timeline. The viewer pane can display clips on a single, toggled viewer (like FCP X) or traditional source/record windows (like FCP 7). There’s also a thumbnail and a triptych view. The latter is helpful during color correction, if you want to display previous/current/next frames for shot matching. The browser displays all imported source clips for a project. It can be placed on the left, on the right or hidden entirely. Within it, clips can be organized into folders. You may have more than one sequence in a project, but only one project can be open at a time. As you select a clip, it immediately loads into the viewer and timeline window. No double-clicking required.

df_smoke_5_smSmoke is a good, fast editor when it comes to making edits and adjusting clips on the timeline. There are some nice touches overlooked on other NLEs. For example, it uses track-based audio editing with keyframable real-time mixing. There are a set of audio filters that can be applied and the output has a built-in limiter. Formatting for deliverables is built into the export presets, so exporting a 1080p/23.976 sequence as 720p is as simple as picking a preset. The edit commands include the standard insert, overwrite and replace functions, but also some newer ones, like append and prepend. Ripple and snapping are simple on/off toggles.

While editing is solid, I would still categorize Smoke 2013 as a finishing tool. You could edit a long-form project from scratch in Smoke, but you certainly wouldn’t want to. It lacks the control needed for narrative long-form, like detailed custom bin columns, a trim tool, multi-camera editing and more. On the other hand, a scripted short-form project, like a TV commercial – especially one requiring Smoke’s visual effects tools – could be edited exclusively within Smoke.

df_smoke_7_smThe better approach is to do your rough cuts in another desktop NLE and then send it to Smoke for the remainder. You can import various edit list formats – EDL, XML, FCPXML and AAF. Cut on Final Cut Pro 7/X, Premiere Pro or Media Composer and export an edit decision list in one of these formats for the sequence. Then import and link files in Smoke and you are ready to go. In my testing, XMLs from both FCP 7 and FCP X worked really well, but AAFs from Media Composer were problematic.  Typically Smoke had difficulty in relinking media files when it was an Avid project, most likely due to issues in the AAF.

Come for the effects

The visual effects tools are the big reason most editors would use Smoke 2013 over another NLE. There are four ways to apply effects. The first and easiest is the effects “ribbon” that flies out between the viewers and the timeline. It contains eight standard effects groups – Timewarp, Resize, Text, Color Correction, Spark, Blend, Wipe and Axis. (Spark is the API for third party filters. GenArts Sapphire is the first effects package for Smoke 2013.) The “ribbon” effects are always applied in the same order and some are multiple purpose tools. For instance, the Resize effect is automatically applied for format correction, such as a ProRes4444 clip in a ProResHQ timeline. When these effects are added to a clip on the timeline, a reduced set of parameters appears in a fly-out panel at the top of the timeline. You can immediately apply and adjust effects in the timeline without the need to step deeper until you’ve mastered the simpler methods.

df_smoke_11_smThe last effect, Axis, is a “super tool”. It’s the 2.5/3D DVE effect, but you can enter its effects editor and do a whole lot more. Axis lets you add text, lighting, 3D cameras, plus adjust surface properties and surface deformations. Once you enter any of the effects editors, the mode changes and you are in a new user interface specific to the context of that effect. The controls flow left to right and change options according to the selections made. For instance, picking “object” within the Axis effect editor gives you controls to adjust the scale, position and rotation of the clip. Pick “lights” and the control parameters change to those appropriate for lighting.

The third way to build an effect is to select ConnectFX. This brings you into Smoke’s world of node-based composting, where you are presented with a flow chart schematic, a viewer and a set of filter tools. An effect like Color Correction may be applied directly to the timeline as a single filter or as a filter within a ConnectFX build. It’s entirely up to the comfort level of the editor and how many additional effects will be applied to that clip for the final look.

df_smoke_12_smOne of available tools within the set is Action, which is a separate compositing method. It forms the fourth way to build effects. You can composite multiple media clips in an Action node, such as a title over a background. Once you step into an Action node, you are presented with its own schematic. Instead of a flowchart, the Action schematic shows parent-child links between layers of the composite, such as a light that is attached to a media clip. Action is where you would make adjustments in 3D camera space. Some tools, like the 3D lens flare effect are only available in Action.

df_smoke_9_smSmoke detractors make a big deal out of the need to render everything. While this is true, I found that a single effect applied from the FX “ribbon” menu to a clip on the timeline will play in real time. If you’ve applied more than one effect to a clip, then usually the last one in this string will be displayed live during playback. When rendering is required, the processing speed is pretty quick. If you export a sequence with unrendered effects, then all effects are first processed (rendered) before the finished, flattened master file is exported.

Conclusion

df_smoke_14_smSmoke 2013 is likely to be one of the deepest, but powerful, editing applications you will ever encounter. It’s deceptively simple to start, but takes a concentrated effort to master the inner workings of its integrated, node-based compositors. Nevertheless, you can start to be productive without having to tackle those until you are ready. In an editing world that’s gravitating towards an ever-growing number of canned, one-button preset effects, Smoke 2013 unabashedly gives you the building blocks needed for that last 5% of finesse, not available from a preset effect. You can even build your own complex presets to be applied on future projects. That takes time and talent to master. Fortunately Autodesk has gone the extra mile with good tutorials available on their Area community site and the Smoke Learning Channel on YouTube.

df_smoke_10_smSmoke is ideal as a finishing tool in a multi-suite facility, the main system in a creative media shop or the go-to system for broadcast promotion production. It is designed to fulfill the “hero” role and is targeted squarely at the Adobe suite of tools. The sales pitch is to stay within Smoke’s integrated environment rather than bounce among several applications. While Smoke 2013 largely meets that objective, it still gets down to personal preferences – compositing in nodes versus a track-based tool like After Effects.

Installation is easier than it was, but I’d still like to see Autodesk improve on the activation process – especially for those interested in using more than one machine. Smoke uses a Unix-style file structure, so project files (other than media index and render files) are hidden from the user. This makes it difficult to move projects from one computer to the next. Smoke 2013 lives up to the commitment made at NAB 2012, but now that it’s a released product, Autodesk has a chance to hone the tool to be more in line with the needs of the target user.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters