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Review: Autodesk’s Smoke 2015

By Chris Hengeveld

The newly released Smoke 2015, which had been a long time coming, has been shipping since May of this year. The current release includes Service Pack 1, which adds some engineering updates. As Autodesk often releases updates around NAB and IBC, look for some software improvements to be released mid-September.

Many changes have been made to the application itself, the supported hardware platform and the purchasing model. The application now has many of the new features that had been added to Autodesk Flame during the interim. A new pricing model is being offered to add flexibility for customers needs. Smoke 2015 is not a radical departure from the 2013 release, but it does build upon the previous version in hardware compatibility, software stability and feature set. Software capabilities continued to be developed along with Autodesk Flame until it was released this year.

Smoke 2015 now is compatible with the new Mac Pro! There are additional hardware configurations available, including support for Blackmagic UltraStudio Express, UltraStudio 3D, UltraStudio 4K, UltraStudio Mini Monitor Thunderbolt devices as well as Decklink 4K, Decklink HD 3D and Decklink Studio 2. In addition, AJA Kona, Kona 3G, and the AJA IO xT Thunderbolt device for video I/O are supported.

Recommended platforms include the iMac, MacBook Pro and, of course, the new Mac Pro workstation. What does all this compatibility give you? Well, essentially an editing system with many of the Flame’s capabilities — minus a few nodes and outputs — on a Mac.

Beyond Basic Editing
Although I don’t think of Smoke as a replacement for Avid or Final Cut Pro, Smoke has basic capabilities that equal many of the features in these programs. Projects can be done from start to finish. However Smoke’s strength is in its ability to move beyond basic editorial. Going from conforming to VFX to finishing is more fitting for this application.

Avid and Final Cut Pro have long been the go-­to software for editorial. Each have their strengths but both have their limits for VFX, color grading and finishing. Smoke’s ability to read an XML, EDL or AAF makes compatibility with Avid and Final Cut Pro more seamless than in the past. It has more accurate translation of Avid’s and Final Cut Pro’s speed changes, position, rotation, scaling, blend modes and transparency than before.

Finishing is definitely one of Smoke’s biggest strengths. There is little that can be accomplished in Flame that can’t be accomplished in Smoke. Whether it is working in a scene in a linear compositing environment or simply adding titles to clips, there is real depth here. For my own workflow this is where Smoke shines. Most of my work is finishing, and Smoke is the application that can do most of what I need on a day-­to­-day basis. Still, it doesn’t have all the answers. For example, I use Mocha Pro from Imagineer Systems for many of my planar tracking needs. The results from Mocha translate very easily into Smoke, but for most tracking shots Smoke covers it.

What’s New
New features include 3D scene tracking. Long a feature not found in either Smoke or Smoke Advanced, 3D tracking enables one to accurately translate scene space into something easily understood by Smoke or third-party programs. Whether one needs to add a 3D model to a scene or to create an FBX camera for export to Autodesk Maya, 3D tracking is becoming faster and more easily solved. Expanded Matchbox effect presets translate many of the effects, which GenArts Sapphire Sparks plug-ins are known for into many near real-time processes for Smoke in the ConnectFX environment.

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On the Flame­Users Logik Facebook page there are over one hundred Matchbox Shaders free for download, and more are being created everyday. These include shaders for everything from wire removal to page turns to cloud generators. All the shaders are written in GLSL and are customizable by the user. Many of these shaders have been created by long-­time users in conjunction with the shadertoy.com website.

Support for video codecs is added for Sony RAW, RAW 2K, SStP (MXF) and XAVC formats; OpenEXR multi-­part files; Blackmagic Design 10-bit uncompressed Apple QuickTime format; and footage shot with the 6K Red Dragon sensor. I’m sure support for the new Apple ProRes 4444 XQ will be out shortly. This format supports a wider dynamic range than REC 709 and is visually and multi-­generationally imperceptibly lossless. You also have the ability to play many types of clips without processing. Add text or color correction and play it down in real-time. In addition, it has an improved rendering engine. Each layer of effects doesn’t need to be rendered; only the top most layer.

Of course, where Smoke and Flame diverge is in the Batch environment. In Smoke it’s called ConnectFX, in Flame BatchFX and just plain Batch. Smoke is meant to be a start-­to-­finish box, where all effects (ConnectFX) are done in the timeline. Effects are not built externally from the timeline except for painting, reformatting, etc. Those are available in the tools and utilities tabs. To build effects for re-tasking easily one needs Flame, Flame Premium or Flare, which is the effects-­only version of Flame. These apps are more useful in a high-end VFX workflow. In addition, Flame Premium is the application that includes the color grading software Lustre. This is one of the big limitations of Smoke but one that few will probably bump up against.

Another one of Smoke’s biggest strengths is the extensive knowledge base. Through the Smoke Learning Channel beginners through advanced users can add to their knowledge and push their editorial, effects and finishing to higher levels. Autodesk instructor Grant Kay has created tutorials from the simplest “getting started” to advanced camera projection.

Inuitive workflow

In addition there are Autodesk University Master classes showing common workflow with different types of media and conforms. Here’s a list that Grant put together in the AREA, a user forum for Autodesk products.

● The Smoke Learning Channel ­ http://www.youtube.com/smokehowtos
● AU MasterClasses ­ http://area.autodesk.com/masterclasses ­ Select “Smoke” Software
● The Premium Beat Smoke Blog ­http://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/category/smoke­2
● Joel Osis Tutorials ­http://joelosis.com/category/tutorials
● Tutorials by Joel Osis and Julik Tarkhanov  http://fishbowl.tv
● FXphd.com ­ http://www.fxphd.com
● Digital Tutors­ http://www.digitaltutors.com/software/Smoke­tutorials
● Larry Jordan Smoke basics ­http://www.larryjordan.biz/smoke­3d­animation­lights
● SmokeTutorials.com ­http://www.smoketutorials.com
● Lynda.com ­http://www.lynda.com. Every time Grant puts out a new tutorial, I learn something new and I’ve been on this software for the last 15 years.

Pricing Model
Just as many manufacturers are moving to subscription-­based pricing, so is Autodesk. Monthly, quarterly and annual subscriptions are available. So whether you need one seat for a year or many seats for a short amount of time, there is a pricing model available.

Monthly Desktop Subscription plan is US $185; Quarterly Desktop Subscription plan is US $460; Annual Desktop Subscription plan is US $1,470. 
Smoke is available as a subscription license with these different terms.

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Flame Assist
Another version of this Mac-­based editor was released at the same time as Smoke 2015. It’s called Flame Assist. It’s the same as Smoke 2015 is today however it is more fully compatible with the Flame suite of software. Flame Assist will continue to fill the void that has opened with the change in software direction. Both applications will be available but Flame Assist will only be available if you own Flame or Flame Premium. At that point only Flame Assist will be able to round trip with Flame and Flame Premium, Smoke will not — definitely an important point going forward.

Moving forward, it seems Flame Assist is being designed to focus on specific tasks as part of a Flame workflow including conforming, versioning, project setup, archiving/restoring and media outputting. This seems to be a more narrow view of Flame Assist’s capabilities. In many companies, Flame Assist is more than powerful enough to handle most compositing needs. All in all Smoke 2015 is an application that brings together more features than any other out there and is why I’ve chosen to use it in my editing/compositing/finishing workflow.

Chris Hengeveld

Chris Hengeveld is a Smoke, Lustre and Flame artist focusing on finishing — everything from editing, VFX and color grading to delivery. He’s been at Northern Lights for seven years. He can be reached at chengeveld@mrwonderful.tv.

2 thoughts on “Review: Autodesk’s Smoke 2015

  1. Hola

    You should point out the pain it is to be able to import or export something. It’s something so shaky and unstable right now. That i think is something that needs to be fixed ASAP.

    Reply
  2. Cliff W

    Also, flame Assist does not support sapphire fx. smoke 2015 will be the last version to support Sapphire. This is a big deal if you are conforming a project with Saphire effects, which you will eventually have to re-create.

    Also, in Smoke, when you import an AAF or XML where clips have speed fx, the sequence timing is thrown off.

    Reply

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