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.


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

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

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.


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.


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

©2009 Oliver Peters