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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (And Timelines): Autodesk Smoke 2013 Emerges with New Efficiency and Economy

Thanks to the common Unix underpinnings of Linux and Mac OS X, Autodesk Media & Entertainment was able to bring its advanced Smoke editor to the Mac platform in December of 2009 as an unbundled software product. The $15K price tag was a huge drop from the price of Autodesk’s turnkey Linux Smoke workstations but still hefty for the casual user. Nevertheless, thanks to an aggressive trial and academic policy, Autodesk was successful in getting plenty of potential new users to download and test the product. In the time since Smoke’s launch on the Mac, Autodesk has had a chance to learn what Mac-oriented editors want and tune the software according to feedback from these early adopters.

Autodesk Smoke 2013 user interface

Taking that user input to heart, Autodesk introduced Smoke 2013 at the NAB Show. This is an improved version that is much more “Mac-like.” Best of all, it’s now available for $3,495 plus an optional annual subscription fee for support and software updates. Although this is an even bigger price reduction, it places Smoke in line with Autodesk’s animation product family (Maya, Softimage, etc.) and in keeping with what most Mac users feel is reasonable for a premium postproduction tool. Smoke 2013 will ship in the fall, but the new price took effect at NAB. Any new or current customers on subscription will receive the update as part of their support agreement. Tutorials and trial versions of Smoke 2013 are expected to be available over the summer.

More Mac-Like

Autodesk was successful in attracting a lot of trial downloads but realized that the biggest hurdle was the steep learning curve even expert Final Cut and Media Composer editors encountered. Previous Mac versions of Smoke featured a user interface and commands inherited from the Linux versions of Smoke and Flame, which were completely different from any Mac editing application. Just getting media into the system was a process that baffled many.

With Smoke 2013, Autodesk is embracing editors who come from an Apple Final Cut Pro and/or Avid Media Composer background. The interface uses a standard track-based editing workflow to maintain the NLE environment that editors are comfortable with. There’s a familiar Mac OS X menu bar at the top, and the application has adopted most of the common OS commands. In short, it’s been redesigned—but not “reimagined”—to act like a Mac application is supposed to.

Smoke 2013 MediaHub browser

Smoke now offers a tab structure that allows quick switching between modes (media access, editing, etc.). The biggest new tool is MediaHub, an intelligent media browser that lets you easily access any compatible media on any of your hard drives. It recognizes native media formats, as opposed to simply browsing all files in the Finder. Media support includes RED, ARRIRAW, ProRes, DNxHD, H.264, XDCAM, image sequences, LUTs and more.

MediaHub is the place to locate and import files. Users may drag and drop media directly into the Smoke library, as well as from the Finder into Smoke. Settings for formats like RED (debayer, color, etc.) are maintained even when you drag from the Finder. Since Smoke is designed as a finishing tool, you can also import AAF, XML (FCP 7, FCP X, Premiere Pro) and EDL lists generated by offline editors.

ConnectFX

Beyond the implementation of familiar commands and MediaHub, the editing interface has been redesigned to be more visually appealing and for the easier application of effects. ConnectFX is a method to quickly apply and modify effects right in the timeline. Tabbed buttons let you

ConnectFX

change between modes, such as resizing, time warps, Sparks filter effects and color correction. When you choose to edit effects parameters, the interface opens a ribbon above the timeline where you can alter numerical settings or enter a more advanced effects editing interface. If you need more sophistication, then move to nodes using ConnectFX. Smoke is the only editor with a node-based compositor that works in 3D space. You get many of the hallmark tools of the premium Autodesk system products, such as effects process nodes, the Colour Warper, relighting and 3D tracking.

Smoke 2013 is positioned as an integrated editing and effects tool. According to Autodesk’s research, editors who use a mixture of several different tools to get the job done—from editing to effects to grading—often use up to seven different software applications. Smoke is intended as a “super editor” that places all of these tools and tasks into a single, comprehensive application with a cohesive interface. The design is intended to maximize the workflow as an editor moves from editing into finishing.

Lighter System Requirements

Apple is changing the technology landscape with more powerful personal workstations like the iMac, which doesn’t fit the traditional tower design, and Thunderbolt, which adds advanced, high-bandwidth connectivity for I/O and storage in a single cable connection.

Smoke 2013 running on an Apple iMac with Promise Technology storage

Smoke 2013 has been designed to run on this new breed of system. For example, it will work on a newer MacBook Pro or iMac connected to fast Thunderbolt storage, such as a Promise Technology Pegasus RAID array. A key change has been in the render format used by Smoke. Until now, intermediate renders have been to uncompressed RGB 4:4:4 DPX image sequence files. While this format maintains maximum quality, it quickly eats storage space and is taxing on less powerful machines. Rendering to an uncompressed RGB format is generally overkill if your camera originals are a highly compressed format like XDCAM or H.264. Smoke 2013 offers the option to render to compressed formats, such as one of the Apple ProRes codecs.

Another welcomed change is the ability to use some of the newer Thunderbolt I/O devices. Smoke running on a Mac Pro tower has been able to work with AJA KONA 3G cards, but with Smoke 2013, AJA’s new Io XT has been added to the mix. Io XT is an external unit with most of the features and power of the KONA card. It connects in the Thunderbolt chain with storage and/or a secondary display—as the only current Thunderbolt I/O device with a loop-through connection, it isn’t limited to being at the end of the chain.

While at NAB, I took a few minutes to see how comfortable this new version is. I’ve been testing Smoke 2012 at home, and quite frankly I’ve encountered some of the same issues other FCP and Media Composer editors have experienced. I’ve found Smoke 2012 to be a very deep program that required a lot of relearning before I could feel comfortable.

Smoke timeline

When I sat down in front of Smoke 2013 in the NAB pod, I was able to quickly work through some effects without assistance, primarily based on what seemed logical to me in a “standard” NLE approach. I’m not going to kid you, though—creating advanced effects still requires a learning curve, but editors do plenty of in-timeline effects that don’t require extensive compositing. When I compare doing this type of work in Smoke 2013 versus 2012, I’d say that the learning requirements have been cut by 60 to 75 percent. That’s how much the redesign improves things for beginners.

You can start editing a project from scratch strictly in Smoke 2013, but Smoke really shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for FCP 7. Instead, it’s the advanced product used to add the polish. As such, it becomes an ideal companion for a fast application used for creative cutting, like Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro or Media Composer.

Apple’s launch of Final Cut Pro X was a disruptive event that challenged conventional thinking. Autodesk Media & Entertainment’s launch of Smoke 2013 might not cause the same sort of uproar, but it brings a world-class finishing application to the Mac at a price that is attractive to many individual users and small boutiques. Shops looking for that hero application to shine in front of clients need look no further because Smoke 2013 for the Mac platform fits the bill.

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