Autodesk Smoke for Mac OS X 2011 Beta Sight

Scott Malkie, finishing artist, The Martin Agency

One of the main concerns in any facility when installing a new suite is downtime, or how often the room will not be making money. Downtime can occur for a number of reasons: technical issues, lack of operators, or in the worst case, lack of jobs appropriate for that room. Flexibility is key, and being able to switch a room on the fly from editorial to graphics to finishing is the key to finding the most billable hours and maximizing return on investment.

Our facility, Running With Scissors, has seen explosive growth over the past two years as part of The Martin Agency, Adweek's U.S. Agency of the Year 2009. The Martin Agency represents clients such as Discover, Expedia, Tylenol, Sun Life, Geico, Pizza Hut, and Walmart. Running With Scissors started as just a couple of old Macs in converted offices along with an ancient ABVB-based Avid Media Composer. Today, we have eight offline edit suites, Apple Final Cut and Avid, as well as an Autodesk Flame finishing bay. Most recently, we added Smoke for Mac OS X.

The Smoke suite was an easy choice for us. We are currently running Final Cut Pro (FCP), Avid Symphony, and Autodesk Smoke all on the same Mac workstation, and this has changed the way we structure our creative process. When a project comes in, it's delivered as a full FCP or Avid project. This gives us the ability to open the original project and see exactly what the offline editor did. Then the finishing artist can export the appropriate timelines and consolidated media as metadata-rich XML or AAF files for conforming in Smoke. And because Smoke, Avid, and FCP are all running on the same Mac workstation, it's as simple as Alt-tabbing between applications to ensure the conform matches the offline perfectly.

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All the visual tools that Autodesk is known for— a true 3D compositing environment; great color-correction tools; multiple, powerful keyers; and amazing trackers—are there in Smoke on the Mac. Image processing quality is really what sets Autodesk software apart, and Smoke is no exception. It makes great-looking, beautiful images. Having a true 3D compositing environment, great color-correction tools, powerful keyers, and super-accurate tracking all within the same software is a major workflow accelerator, and this is really what makes Smoke shine above other creative applications on the Mac. The traditional "app dance" between editorial software and multiple creative applications and plug-ins is a slow and inefficient workflow and a media-management nightmare. Smoke's proven, integrated finishing toolset just makes everything, from ingest to archiving, easier and faster.

Is it possible to get the same results from combining other software offerings? Sure. But it is inherently inefficient and very taxing on the artists and engineers. We tried for a while to get by doing just that app dance between an NLE, Adobe After Effects and Photoshop, Maxon Cinema 4D, Apple Shake and Color, and, of course, all the various plug-ins for all of those apps. It was a nightmare.

We got the jobs done, but the media management alone was horrendous. Constantly exporting, importing, re-rendering, switching apps— not only were we having to remember where we saved everything, but there were also four sets of hotkeys to remember. And of course, when the client asked us to change something, it was always, "Sure, let me open up that program, and make the tweak, then re-render and re-import it back into this one." Neither the fastest nor most efficient workflow. Having a proven, integrated finishing toolset in one application just makes everything easier.

We recently finished a round of spots for Pizza Hut, and having Smoke was tremendous for us. We actually offlined and finished the spots on the same machine. Starting in Final Cut from ProRes QuickTimes, we did creative editorial. When we got approval, we simply exported an XML and linked back to the ProRes QuickTimes for our reference picture. We duplicated that sequence and then batch-captured from tape to conform in Smoke. Once it was conformed, we used Smoke to retouch and dustbust, added graphics and supers, dropped on the final mix, and shipped. The speed and power of the workflow—and the scheduling flexibility doing an entire job in a single room—really confirmed that adding Smoke was the right choice.

That for us is the real benefit: room flexibility— having Final Cut, Avid, and Smoke on the same Mac hardware. The ability to adapt to ever-changing scheduling needs is really what sold us on the software. If the finishing work ebbs, the room can happily be an offline bay, running FCP through its AJA Kona 3 card or Avid through the Nitris DX. When high-quality editorial finishing is needed, the room is instantly repurposed as a Smoke suite. Regardless, the room and hardware is still billing by the hour and the facility is making money. In this economy, that may be the most important consideration of all.

Scott Malkie is finishing artist for The Martin Agency, based in Richmond, Va., which offers unified advertising, strategic planning, media, direct response, interactive, data analytics, design, and content creation.