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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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