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.
Click To Enlarge
Alt-tapping a clip on the timeline reveals the properties of that clip. (Courtesy Mad.House New York)
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.
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Color Warper with its 2D Vectorscope (a 3D Vectorscope is also
available), a Luma Histogram, and the highly accurate trackballs that
allow for pressure-sensitive adjustments. (Courtesy Golden Square Post)
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
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,
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.
Click To Enlarge
The DVE Module is a 3D mutilayered compositing tool for complex visual effects. (Courtesy KPBS San Diego)
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
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.
Click To Enlarge
The Smoke 2007 EditDesk with multiple source and record areas. (Courtesy Golden Square Post)
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
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.
What is RGB 4:4:4?
Autodesk's advanced visual effects systems have always worked in
4:4:4 RGB color space. Unlike other so-called uncompressed systems,
this means that you retain every single pixel of color information at
either 8-bit or 10-bit resolution. By definition, 4:2:2 Y'CbCr is
chroma subsampled, resulting in one-third of the information being
lost. In all fairness, the information lost is the least perceptible
part of the color information. It wasn't until 2003 when Sony
introduced HDCAM SR that 10-bit 4:4:4 RGB became a mainstream buzzword.
Today, this truly uncompressed format is fast becoming more and more of
a network high-definition delivery requirement.
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
leading all-in-one solution for editing and finishing. Good
name-dropping cachet. Excellent choice for client-supervised or
Steep learning curve. Basic Linux knowledge highly recommended.
of a system of this magnitude requires a significant and ongoing
financial commitment, but if you can keep it busy, it will reward you
generously. In the good, fast, and cheap paradigm, Smoke is good and