Autodesk's Media and Entertainment division (formerly known as Discreet) enjoys a reputation for making high-performance creative tools for demanding clients. Autodesk Smoke 2007 is no exception. With the concurrent release of its entire creative product line, including Autodesk Flame 2007 and Autodesk Lustre 2007, the company is moving away from Big Iron and towards a single HP Linux workstation that can support all of these products.
Autodesk Fire 2007, which is essentially the same as Smoke, still runs on a tall refrigerator-sized SGI Onyx 350 supercomputer. Will you notice the difference between an eight-processor SGI supercomputer and a small desktop workstation? Surprisingly, the Linux system is lightning fast and astonishingly quick—so much so, that many of the Smoke operators I spoke with prefer the Linux systems for their fast interactivity over the now-obsolete SGI systems. This is great news for the bean counters, as the price point of a new Smoke system today is a fraction of what it was a few years ago.
However, with this kind of power comes responsibility. Historically, the bane of Smoke's existence was the fact that Apple maintained little to no support for QuickTime in either Unix (SGI) or Linux, the two operating systems that legacy Smoke systems run on. Importing a QuickTime file was a tedious, time-consuming, and often frustrating task. The fact that today's post workflow depends more heavily on media and less on physical tapes made this problem more and more of a stumbling block for Autodesk's products.
The long-awaited answer to this predicament arrived with the release of Extension 1 for Smoke 2007. Importing and exporting QuickTimes on a Linux system is now possible using numerous codecs including PNG, DV, DVCPRO50, MPEG-4, DivX, and AJA's Kona line, among others. Noticeably absent from this list are Panasonic's DVCPRO HD and Sony's XDCAM (MPEG HD). Also missing is support for removing Panasonic's advanced pulldown to restore 24p media from 29.97 DV-based material. Nevertheless, standard pulldown removal has always been available—it's the industry standard for transferring film to tape. In fact, Smoke's workflow for creating a 23.98p master from a 29.97 2:3 pulldown offline is superior to any competitor's solution to this common problem.
Smoke 2007 Extension 1 does not introduce any new groundbreaking features. Rather, it signifies more of an update to the latest hardware, with a few tweaks to the software based on user feedback. The concurrent release of the entire creative product line means guaranteed clip-sharing compatibility. In the past, when only one product was updated with a new file system, the resultant incompatibilities between the products prevented sharing of clip libraries.
Smoke 2007 is available in two configurations. The HD configuration, now the base model, pushes the SD system into history. The preeminent 2K configuration enables features used in a digital intermediate workflow such as keycode support, 3D LUT, and rendering up to 12 bits. The HD configuration renders up to 10 bits. Resolution-independent, Smoke allows you to complete a 4K digital intermediate if desired.
I tested the native 64-bit application on an HP xw9400 with two AMD Opteron dual-core processors running at 2.6 GHz each, an NVIDIA 5500 graphics card, and an AJA video card for I/O with custom drivers optimized for Smoke 2007. The traditional external hardware is still there, including a breakout box and Lucid audio converter.
Local attached storage is proprietary and called Autodesk Stone Direct. Each Stone typically consists of a 1.7 TB RAID array (1.35 TB available) using high-speed 4 GB Fibre Channel technology. The array's RAID 5 configuration allows for an uninterrupted workflow if a drive should fail. Each Stone can hold over 2 hours of 10-bit 1080p24 HD. A high-speed Infiniband network card, offered with Linux workstations, allows for throughput of 400 MBps or more.
You can access the clip libraries of your other Autodesk systems using integrated software called Wire. The software enables you to share clips with other systems on your network without the other user's involvement. There is enough bandwidth using the Infiniband adapter to play back a 10-bit 2K clip from a remote system's framestore—a tremendous improvement over older Smoke systems.
Smoke's single widescreen computer display, Wacom tablet, and on-screen interface make it unique among other editing and finishing systems. The pressure- sensitive pen and tablet bring an additional dimension to interactivity. For example, a numeric value changes faster if you press the pen harder while dragging. Once you have attained the coordination to use the pen and tablet in conjunction with the keyboard, you begin to realize significant productivity benefits. Combine this with Smoke's incredibly fast and responsive user interface, and you have a truly pleasurable working environment.
Experienced users appreciate the interface's ability to keep up with them as they fly though the menus—letting creativity take hold. The interface makes tasks like subtle color correction adjustments easy and much less frustrating than with other desktop systems, greatly improving your workflow and allowing you to do things that you might otherwise hesitate to try.
However, Smoke has a steep learning curve. Autodesk offers classes, as well as follow-along tutorials on its website (www.autodesk.com), should you be able to get your hands on a system. Smoke is by far the most intensive keyboard-shortcut-driven application I have used, with a hot key reference guide weighing in at over 54 pages. Even the space bar acts as a modifier, much like the Alt, Ctrl, and Shift keys. You can, of course, assign even more hot keys of your own.
Smoke's advanced 3D effects modules are what make the system so powerful as a finishing tool. With the ability to composite elements together using keyers and trackers borrowed from the Flame product line, you can easily handle client-supervised sessions.
Anyone who has had to deal with keyframes in other applications will appreciate Smoke's full-screen animation editor, which has enough features that it can take a whole day to understand and master them all. There are two completely different color correctors available (both of which are very intricate) depending on how you want to approach a shot. Once more, it will take even the most experienced users days to master all of the possibilities available in just this one tool alone. Keying and tracking are no exception to this rule. Unfortunately, the tracker is only a 2D point tracker. The DVE module combines all of these into one very powerful compositing tool.
The ability to manipulate clips in any way desired gives the user ultimate control over the end result. This is both dangerous and powerful. Inexperienced users could end up with clips that have field dominance issues among many other problems, while seasoned Smoke users can creatively manipulate and control the outcome of a composite. A strong background in compositing and a good understanding of the multitude of today's video formats will go a long way towards mastering Smoke, and keeping you out of trouble with broadcasters. While there's a good selection of third-party Smoke plug-ins, called Sparks, get ready for some sticker shock. For example, the GenArts Sapphire Sparks will cost you $10,000, versus the $1,699 package for After Effects.
Smoke's unique editing interface makes it difficult to transition from traditional J-K-L editing systems. With above and below Source and Record areas replacing the more typical side by side editing style, new users can find themselves easily frustrated. The small record viewer in the source area leads to confusion, as most new users don't understand why they can't get rid of what they see as a source clip. Luckily, like many other tweaks to the user interface, you can turn it off in the preferences.
There are numerous ways to accomplish the same editing tasks either by hot key or gestural drag and drop. How and where you grab a clip—and where you drop it—have different results. Experience and training are key to mastering this interface. Keystrokes are kept to a minimum, with no annoying and time-consuming pop-up questions. For example, to create a 43-frame dissolve, you press 4, 3, Dissolve. Simple, straightforward, and fast.
Smoke 2007 considers video tracks and layers two different things. Layers stack on top of each other like an Avid timeline, in a process called Vertical Editing. Tracks are separate from each other, so you can split the screen between the offline reference track and the final conform track, which may have many layers. You can even do a split against a timecode chased VTR, should you not want to waste time or framestore space capturing the reference cut. Combine this with Avid's remote play abilities for a streamlined tapeless workflow.
Soft effects bring the power of the effects modules to the timeline, allowing you to add titles, reposition clips, add Sparks, color corrections, timewarps (speed changes), and reformat clips directly in the timeline. You can enable or mute individual soft effects and copy them from one clip to another. Using the filters to uniquely identify clips, you can, for example, copy a color correction to all remaining shots from the same reel between certain specified timecodes. Smoke 2007 Extension 1 has improved this feature even more, making changes to multiple sources or even multiple timelines fast and easy.
The Axis soft effect seems to be where engineers decided to throw in everything they could find, somewhat overwhelming for first time users. There is a one-layer DVE in 3D space, along with the ability to create multiple layers of 3D text, a tracker/stabilizer, full blown keyer, numerous trackable masks, a camera, light sources, bilinear and bicubic surfaces, and more. While this may seem ridiculously daunting, it is really a stripped down version of the powerful external DVE module, available as an ever-changing soft effect on the timeline. One disappointment here is the lack of motion blur in the soft effect.
Capture and Conform
Not too long ago edit decision lists (EDLs) were the standard practice for moving a project from offline to online. Smoke has, by far, the most extensive support for EDLs, allowing the most common issues to be dealt with easily. This includes frame rate conversions (29.97 2:3 pulldown offline to 23.98p online, for example), bad timecode and reel naming issues that come up in the real world (defined as outside of the Las Vegas Convention Center). However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find anyone today who can even read an EDL, much less know how to generate one properly. Limited support of importing OMFs is available, but not much more useful than an EDL in practice.
The engineers in Montreal were not unaware of the need for better support of Avid and FCP projects. In version 7 they introduced the ability to import XML files generated by Apple's Final Cut Pro systems. Many, but not all, effects were imported, and support of embedded multiple layers was a great step forward. This also introduced a new concept of recapturing unlinked (offline) media. You could take an SD sequence and up-res it to HD, allowing you to recapture or relink the media at HD resolution. In my experience, this was very buggy and caused many frustrating and unexplainable crashes that were solved only by dumbing down the FCP project. While I did not have the opportunity to test it, one can safely assume that some of these early issues have been worked out in Smoke 2007 Extension 1.
The system adds the ability to remove redundant frames from footage shot at variable frame rates using a Panasonic Varicam. With highly intelligent tape capture algorithms that save you precious time in online, Smoke keeps tape searching to a minimum and captures all material from a tape regardless of what layer it is used on. With the price of VTRs stuck in the stratosphere, time saved during capture can add up to large savings for smaller houses.
Smoke does not support capture via FireWire, nor does it remove advanced pulldown from Panasonic DV-based footage.
Archiving and media management
Archiving receives a long overdue facelift. You now can archive an entire project, including clips, libraries (similar to bins), project settings, and setups (settings used in external modules) to an attached USB-2 or FireWire drive. This is a welcome improvement over archiving to a videotape and rubber-banding a separate CD-R to the outside of the cassette, as was the tradition for many years.
Smoke 2007 Extension 1 even allows you to archive media that exist only on network-attached drives (called Soft Imported Media). The archive process creates an HTML web page that represents all media stored in the archive. This feature will prove particularly useful when searching for some long lost clip from last year's promo campaign.
Other media management solutions include Autodesk Stone Shared (for shared storage), Autodesk Backdraft Conform (for background capture and assembly), Autodesk Burn (for outboard rendering farms), Autodesk Wire (for clip sharing), and Soft Importing and Publishing (for access to shared network storage). This last feature allows non-Autodesk systems to share their files with the Smoke. For example, After Effects users simply send their results to the shared storage location where the Smoke user can choose to import it onto the Stone framestore or create what is called a Soft Import. Leaving the media on the network drive allows the images to be updated freely. If the After Effects user updates the shared media, the Smoke will see the updates automatically. This proves very useful when graphics or 3D animation are not yet finalized or are expecting changes, for it allows you to go ahead and finish the conform using soft-imported media. You can always move a soft import onto the Stone and make it permanent.
Meanwhile, the Autodesk Wiretap application programming interface (API) allows third-party software like Maximum Throughput's Xstoner and Telestream's FlipFactory to access the Stone framestore directly. Autodesk Lustre, Autodesk Toxik, Autodesk Combustion, and Autodesk Cleaner XL all use Wiretap to access Stone framestores.
A new support model called Autodesk Subscription replaces the old support contracts, combining software updates, support, and training into a single annual package. You get version upgrades as well as feature extensions as long as you remain subscribed. Hardware support and Advanced Parts Exchange still command an additional fee.
Basic knowledge of Linux is strongly suggested if you don't have in-house staff to support you. Certain operations require use of seemingly arcane command line operations. For example, configuration of new VTRs or recovery from severe crashes will involve diving into the command shell. Smoke should not be confused with programs like Final Cut Pro, where users can assume that any DV deck they plug in will work right away. A certain amount of frustration with command lines and config files should be expected when dealing with any of Autodesk's creative solutions. It doesn't have to be that way—it just is. You're sitting at the grown-up's table now.
Autodesk's phone support is one of the best in the industry, putting you on the phone with a Canadian, speaking with a French accent, within minutes (assuming you have the foresight to purchase the pricey annual support contract). Autodesk restricts its free online system news discussion forum to clients only, resulting in a group of experienced users who bend over backwards to help each other out. If you get stuck and don't think it warrants a call to support, you can get an answer within hours, sometimes minutes, of posting a question on the web board. You can pick up many time-saving tips and tricks this way—and you have a chance to be heard by the people who actually create the software.
Dating back to the days of videotape-based online assemblies, Smoke has slowly made the transition to a media-based conforming tool for digital intermediates. However, there is still work to be done. I'd like to see the ability to capture via FireWire with real-time conversion to 4:4:4 RGB and the ability to remove advanced pulldown. There should be support for importing today's numerous tapeless media formats, like P2 and XDCAM. I also would like to see an offline resolution to maximize storage capacity.
While the purchase of a turnkey Smoke 2007 Extension 1 system is still a serious investment, at around $100,000, it is now within reach of smaller post and effects houses, as well as television stations and production companies around the world. This continuing trend of putting powerful tools in the hands of the masses will increase the number of talented operators, and thus improve the industry as a whole. If the past is any indication of the future, then expect great things to come for Smoke and the industry both.
Paul Stephen Carlin is a Certified Discreet Trainer for Smoke 7 and works as a freelance artist using Avid, After Effects, and Final Cut Pro. He also works as a visual effects supervisor for feature films.
Autodesk Smoke 2007 Extension 1
$100,000 approx. (turnkey system)Editing and finishing system
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