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Editing and Effects Combined and Intertwined: Looking at Autodesk Smoke 2015’s Expanded Abilities

Smoke 2015 is targeted at editors who want a strong compositor but are most comfortable with track-based NLEs that run on Macs

After last year’s NAB Show, Autodesk released the 2015 version of Smoke, its Mac-based editing application. This version marked Autodesk Smoke’s shift from perpetual licenses to a subscription model. Any new Smoke users must subscribe for an active license, with monthly, quarterly and annual plans available. In order to attract new users, Autodesk also introduced a free student license, which is active for three years. This is part of a companywide initiative to make all Autodesk software available to students worldwide.

I wrote an in-depth review of Smoke 2013 two years ago. Following its launch on the Mac in 2011, Smoke 2013 was the first significant optimization to convert Smoke from the look and feel of its IRIX and Linux roots into a predominantly Mac-oriented application. Much of Smoke 2015’s interface and operational style remains unchanged from 2013.

Smoke’s FX ribbon enables easy control of effects attributes, such as color correction, without ever leaving the timeline.

In the intervening two years, Autodesk has decided that Smoke and Flame no longer need to remain 100 percent compatible or locked into the same development cycle. Each product has evolved from a core toolset and increasingly is being updated for a specific audience and user need. Smoke 2015 is targeted at editors who want a strong compositor but are most comfortable with track-based NLEs that run on Macs. This new release is even more Mac-friendly, with improved performance on Mac hardware including the new Mac Pros, iMacs and Retina MacBook Pros.

The hallmark of working with visual effects inside Smoke is the integration of a node-based compositing tool. That can also be the most daunting part of the learning curve for new users. Building on the 2013 version, Smoke 2015 has increased the amount of effects control available in the timeline, without touching any nodes. It uses a “ribbon” of common effects that can be applied to a clip and adjusted without ever leaving the timeline display. The ribbon offers 14 effects modules that include most of the text, transform/DVE, color correction and speed change effects commonly used by editors. For instance, you can apply a color correction to a clip or an adjustment layer, and then alter the look by numerical entry (keypad or mouse slider). You get a lot of correction control within this ribbon interface, including access to master/highlight/mids/shadows and RGB/red/green/blue parameters. If you want more control with color wheels, then simply enter the effect editor for the selected clip.

Smoke can import and apply third-party color transform LUTs, such as this Fuji film stock emulation from the Koji Color package that was developed for Apple FCP X.

Autodesk previously offered a third-party effects API (Sparks) for Smoke, but never found many takers in the development community interested in rewriting their Sparks Linux plug-ins (originally developed for Flame and Smoke on Linux) into Mac versions for Smoke on the Mac. And not many users bought the ones that were available, primarily from GenArts. As a result, Autodesk has moved away from this API for Smoke, even though the effects tab is still there. Instead, Autodesk engineers filled in the gaps through additional effects that now come with Smoke. The bottom line is that although there’s a Sparks tab in the ribbon, it’s a legacy item with no functionality without third-party plug-ins.

Smoke has undergone a big performance improvement since its Mac introduction. In the past, you could usually play a timeline clip in real time only when the clip had no more than a single effect applied to it. Add more effects and you had to render first. Now it’s possible to apply several effects to a clip and play through it without rendering. This is based on my testing on a 2009 8-core Mac Pro with 28 GB of RAM and an AMD ATI Radeon HD 5870 GPU card.

To enable new users to adapt more quickly to complex composites and to add effects not supplied by third-parties, Smoke 2015 includes a number of presets. For example, if you add a lens flare, there’s a wide range of preset styles accessible from a pull-down menu. When you set up a chromakey, you can start with a preset selection of nodes that’s designed to be a good starting point. Autodesk also added 3D camera tracking into Smoke 2015, which had been developed previously for Flame.

In an effort to position Smoke as a finishing tool that works well with Apple Final Cut Pro X, Autodesk has improved the compatibility with FCPXML lists generated from that application. While the function works reasonably well, I did have problems relinking to clips with frame rates that differed from the main sequence rate. For example, 60 fps clips from a Canon EOS 5D that were cut into a 23.98 fps timeline and slowed did not properly relink when I imported the sequence into Smoke.

LUTs can be applied to footage when accessed through the MediaHub. In this example, an ARRI Log C to Rec. 709 LUT is being added to ARRI Alexa footage.

Overall, Smoke 2015 is a good upgrade. With a subscription, you get updates as they come out. Unfortunately, the update process is not as easy as with Apple, Adobe or even Avid products. My software went from SP1 (service pack) to SP2. When I tried to download SP2, I could only find SP3. (I tried to install SP3 but it was incompatible with my system because it is designed for legacy perpetual license owners.) I finally got SP2 installed, but only through the help of tech support. On the plus side, I’ve found Autodesk’s support personnel to be very helpful and knowledgeable when I’ve needed them.

Smoke does not support dual-display systems in the same way as its competitors. You can run the broadcast monitoring signal to a second display, which gives you full-screen video or a duplicate of the node tree in some modes, but the user interface is not configurable across two screens like other NLEs.

The Smoke 2015 user interface presents a familiar starting point for editors who prefer a track-based NLE.

Smoke also accesses media differently than other NLEs, which conflicts with some of the Mac’s internal networking functions. I typically run with my internal Mac OS X firewall set to block all connections. This works fine with all creative applications except Smoke. Set that way, all of the media is unlinked. Rather than reconfigure my settings to run Smoke (since my main use is for demo purposes), I simply turn off the internal firewall before launching Smoke.

The long-term success of the subscription software business model among creative applications is still an unknown. Adobe and Autodesk are primarily on the vanguard—with Avid offering it only as one option. Among users, it’s still a love/hate thing. It will take a few years yet to see whether it’s the right move. Nevertheless, if you have the business to justify the cost and want to stay current with a top-notch editor/compositor, then a Smoke subscription might be right for you.

If you are serious about Smoke 2015, then I highly recommend Alexis Van Hurkman’s book Autodesk Smoke Essentials, which may be purchased through the Autodesk web site and from online booksellers. It’s the ideal quick start guide for users committed to learning Smoke. 

Product:Autodesk Smoke 2015


Pros: Improved optimization for the Mac. Increased effects control directly from the timeline.

Cons: Subscription licensing only. Relinking issues when importing sequences that use mixed frame rates.

Bottom Line: A powerful finishing NLE that combines editing and compositing strengths into an all-in-one package.

MSRP: Subscription only. $185/month, $460/quarter, $1,470/year