Tool Chat: Autodesk’s Heather McDiarmid

By Randi Altman

If you had five minutes in a room with the makers of your favorite post production tool, what would you ask? That is the basis of our new semi-regular offering here at postPerspective. We throw a variety of questions — some our own and others submitted by pros out there in the community — at product manufacturers. This time we checked in with Autodesk’s product marketing manager, creative finishing, Heather McDiarmid.

While Autodesk is a public company and therefore cannot share specific information about upcoming products, we had to keep our questions about trends and how they as a company go about delivering products users in the real world need and want.

4K was all over NAB this year, along with rumblings of HDR. How is Autodesk adapting its technology to stay on top of these trends? Which other trends are you currently tracking?
We try to be resolution and format agnostic. Autodesk has a long history of working with the industry to adopt new production standards so that our technology addresses both the current and future needs of our customers, whether that is HD, stereo, DPX, ACES or 4K and Ultra HD.

We want our customers to be able to handle any job — no matter the complexity or resolution required for the job. Our latest release of Flame 2015 is an example of that with updates that simplify 4K post workflows from start to finish. We’ve updated Flame to now monitor and playback 4K formats in realtime, and have added new 4K/UHD color management tools that support ACES and Rec. 2010 color spaces. Even if customers aren’t using 4K yet, we’ve heard they love the 4K/UHD optimizations made to Flame 2015 because it makes the system really fast. So when that 4K job comes through their door, they will be ready.

At NAB, you announced Flame 2015 and Flame Premium 2015, and also introduced Flame Assist. Tell us more about these releases and what post pros can look forward to as they start using the software.
With Flame Premium 2015, high-end post customers get a complete visual effects and finishing solution. In addition to Flame, Flame Premium also includes Lustre realtime color grading software, Flare, Autodesk’s shot-based visual effects companion application, and Flame Assist, our new Mac-based, timeline-centric companion application that is meant to address a range of tasks related to starting and completing Flame Premium projects. Flame Assist is designed to facilitate key tasks such as project set up, media import and export, advanced conform, timeline versioning, revisions and archive/restore.

The software now fully supports 4K and Ultra HD throughout the entire creative process — from ingest and color management to realtime broadcast monitoring and output. We’ve also added new creative tools, including 3D Shape, Replica and Matchbox in the timeline.

Matchbox, which we first introduced in Batch (Flame’s procedural compositing environment), enables artists to access, design and add custom GPU-enhanced tools for image processing to Flame Premium. We’ve also added Background Reactor, a second GPU for local rendering of clips, sequences and batch setups, to make Flame 2015 even faster.

You also announced Smoke 2015 at NAB, which became available in May as a desktop subscription. What new features have been added to the software? How are users responding to the release?
Smoke 2015 really offers the all-in-one editorial and effects workflow we’ve been working towards since we introduced the redesigned Smoke a couple of years ago. The feature that’s received the most attention is the new integrated 3D tracker. Since launching Smoke, this has been a huge request, driven mostly by Smoke’s 3D compositing environment. With the new 3D tracker inside of Action (Smoke’s compositor), you have a seamless workflow for adding objects to scenes, tracking titles into 3D space or completing set extensions.

With the new Timeline FX workflow, we’ve basically worked under the hood to re-architect the effects processing pipeline in the timeline. Essentially, it allows you to edit and add effects or navigate through complex effects without nearly as much rendering. It also enabled us to bring tools like Action right to the timeline.

The Timeline FX workflow really changes the entire Smoke experience, and if anyone has tried a 30-day trial of a previous version of Smoke, they should definitely try it again to see the difference in interactivity and FX power in the timeline for themselves.

What prompted the move to subscription-only pricing for Smoke? How does it work? 
We’re doing this for a couple of reasons. When we look across Autodesk and our term-based offerings, which we introduced last year for our Animation and Suites products, we’re seeing broad adoption by small businesses (fewer than 20 people).

In the pro video space, 70 percent of Smoke users and the prospects we’ve surveyed have told us that they really like the idea of accessing a product like Smoke via term-based subscription, as opposed to a perpetual license and yearly maintenance model. It makes it easier to get started, add capacity for bigger projects and stay current. It’s also easier to see a fairly significant ROI on a professional product like Smoke at less than $200/month.

The professional video space is somewhat unique in that we’ve seen major players like Adobe transition to a term-only business model with much success. A lot of people don’t realize that a subscription-only offering allows manufacturers to be more flexible in how often they update and roll out new versions of software. For Smoke, this means we’re not tied to a traditional “big” release cycle that dictates one giant, yearly update followed by smaller subscription releases. Instead, we can work with the market and our customers to respond quicker and with more agility to their requests by releasing small updates that add functionality and capabilities on a regular basis.

As for how it works, it’s pretty simple. You can subscribe on a monthly, quarterly (three months) or annual basis. The longer you commit, the more you save. For example, right now the monthly price of Smoke in the US is $195 per month. But if you pay for your subscription up front for a year, your monthly cost comes to less than $150/month.

Subscription for Smoke is still very new. But so far people really like our desktop subscription plans. It’s basically a way to move your software costs from a capital expense to an operating expense — something you add to the cost of a project or the cost of doing business. What’s great for Smoke is that it’s allowing new customers to get started with the software, and particularly customers that didn’t want to deal with the up-front costs of a perpetual license. We also anticipate that customers will like this option as a means to add additional editing and effects capabilities on a project-to-project basis. It’s something we’ve seen with all the products we offer on desktop subscription, and I think it’s going to continue to be something that smaller businesses gravitate toward.

When can we expect to see the full-featured version of Flame on Mac?
While Flame isn’t on the Mac, we’ve added the first Mac-based member of the Flame Family with Flame Assist. This move came out of our observations that some Flame and Flame Premium customers had been using Smoke in their workflows alongside their Linux-based Flame Premium suites. For the most part, these customers were using Smoke for assistant type tasks — versioning, timeline finishing, conforming, etc. We realized that we could make some additions to our Flame product line that would align even better with the needs our of our Flame customers, while at the same time, evolving Smoke to better meet the needs of the professional video editing and effects market. Flame Assist now allows Flame customers to integrate a Mac-based assistant workflow into their Flame pipeline.

The new Smoke on Mac doesn’t allow for plug-ins. What was the reason behind this decision?
We’ve removed the Sparks functionality from Smoke, and our logic is simple: Sparks is a legacy plug-in API that is no longer well supported. There are only a few manufacturers supporting it, with offerings that are quite expensive. However, it’s important to note that we haven’t diminished the creative toolset in the 2015 release.

We’ve actually added native tools to Smoke that cover what Sparks had traditionally been used for. And, we’re looking at Matchbox — a modern GLSL shader based architecture (available in Smoke’s CFX node-based workflow) for creating plug-in type effects — as a future path for developers looking to create plug-ins. Matchbox offers additional flexibility as a custom codeable shader architect, and we’ve already seen some users begin to code and create their own effects in the tool.

Last year, you introduced the Flame Award. Please tell us more about the award and what we can expect to see this year?
Yes, the Flame Award is back! The award gives us the opportunity to acknowledge the talent of Flame artists from around the world, and we’re inviting them to submit their most recent, best work.

The submissions and selection process for the Flame Award is quite similar to last year. Flame artists will submit their work, or be nominated by a peer, through our Flame Award web site on AREA. The submission process is now open until June 20, 2014.

Once the submissions are in, we will post the nominee profiles, and the community will have the opportunity to vote. This will be followed by the final selection by a new Flame Award Committee, after which we will host a celebration at IBC 2014 in honor of the nominees and to announce this year’s Flame Award recipient.

How are you training artists that are new to Flame?
We have a Flame Premium Learning Channel on YouTube that features videos of tips and tricks for using the software: http://www.youtube.com/user/FlameHowTos.

Our community site also offers a Flame Premium learning path, which includes links to online help, support and tutorials. Visit http://area.autodesk.com/flamelearningpath to learn more.
Additionally, the Flame community provides excellent support for artists via a dedicated forum on AREA: http://forums.autodesk.com/t5/Flame-Flame-Premium/ct-p/area-c5.

Finally, we’ve seen several successful community groups hold user events, many of which have stemmed from the Logik Facebook group.

What would you say are the biggest challenges post production pros are up against today, and how is Autodesk helping artists overcome these obstacles?
There are so many challenges facing post production pros. One of the biggest, of course, is how a business can remain profitable in the ever-more competitive industry landscape. As tax incentives around the world drive costs down, visual effects and post professionals are often asked to deliver a higher volume of more challenging shots with smaller budgets than they’re accustomed to. Post pros around the world are looking for ways to work more resourcefully to maximize their output while minimizing their overhead. We’re working to deliver ways that help our clients reduce their overhead while working more efficiently through low-cost monthly subscription access to many of our tools, and increased interoperability making workflows easier to manage and allowing individual artists to tackle more aspects of a project from a single machine and application.

In the months leading up to IBC, what can we look forward to seeing from Autodesk?
While we can’t detail specifics about what you’ll see from us between now and IBC, our main focus leading up to the show centers around improving workflows, advancing flexibility and performance, and providing more accessibility to tools through software deployment. Customer requests are also playing a key role in our current and future development efforts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *