Smoke: A Journey and a Look Ahead
COW Library : Creative Community Conversations (was FCPX Debates) : David Jahns : Smoke: A Journey and a Look Ahead
As a person who recently made the switch from Final Cut Studio to Autodesk Smoke on Mac, I thought I'd share some of my recent experiences.
I learned Avid editing in the 90's at film school, and I've been an FCP user and enthusiast since version 1.0. I am currently the in-house colorist and online editor at a post facility housed within a well known ad agency in the NW. Most of our work is top-tier national campaign TV ads, which is mostly offlined in house, and finished in LA with some of the best colorists and VFX artists in the world. But for the medium and lower-tiered work, we try to finish as much in-house as we can, including some national spots for prime time broadcast.
Six or seven years ago, that meant "Broadcast TV = shot in film, and finished in LA", and "non-broadcast pieces = shot on camcorders, finished in the NLE" - whatever you could do in your Avid or FCP. But as Final Cut added more tools to the suite, we expanded our capabilities as well - and by 2009 I was finishing HDTV spots from my Mac & Kona 3 card directly to HDCAM-SR tape and off to the TV stations. The HD digital camera revolution also blurred these lines between broadcast & non-broadcast projects, and soon enough, everything we did was being finished in 1080p.
During this time, my finishing workflow was always a mish-mash of FCP, Color, Motion, Cinema Tools, various plug-ins, (I even learned a bit of Shake!), etc... I was always hopping around apps for various tasks, as I'm sure many of you do, and I quickly found the limitations of the FCS as a finishing tool. (We also still had Avid in house as well, but FCP was so much easier to work with for HD & finishing, that Avid was relegated to those "old school" film projects, offline in SD, with an HD finish in LA.)
You're probably wondering... Umm, After Effects? No, I don't know After Effects. For this, I blame Yan Schvalb, a brilliant VFX artist in NYC. I took a workshop from him at NAB years ago, and he said something to effect of, "I have 3 tools I use - Shake, when I need to do photo-realistic compositing; Motion, when I need to do flashy graphics quickly; and After Effects, when I can't get something done it in those other 2 programs, but I absolutely hate the interface and it takes me three times longer, so I avoid it unless absolutely necessary." I, too, in my limited experience with it, hated the interface, and since we have people on staff that know After Effects, I focused on learning Color & Motion instead.
After hearing the rumors of the wildebeest FCP-Extreme, I had longed for that more elegant, integrated finishing solution - the power of Color, Motion, Shake, Cinema Tools - all based on an FCP workflow? Hell yes!!!! The idea of FCP-Extreme sounded amazing. When FCP 7, came out - I was quite disappointed. I thought that should have been 6.1. ProRes LT and 4444 are great, but colored tabs and a timecode window? Bug fixes for Color? That's what we're calling a new Studio version? That kind of made me wonder what was going on with FCP. I told myself it was the 64-bit re-write that was taking most of their time, and that FCS 4 would be freaking awesome. Alas, it was not to be.
In recent years, Avid has made quite a come back, and we are currently about 50/50 in the shop. When FCP-X dropped, I obviously finally gave up hope for the FCP Extreme, and started looking elsewhere for a finishing solution that wouldn't break the bank - the all-in-one tool, capable of taking projects from Avid, FCP 7, and whatever came next. New tools started to emerge... Scratch seemed interesting, and of course, Smoke on Mac had been released - both in the $15k range. Not cheap, but a far cry from a 6 figure Flame or Pablo system.
As most of our high-end finishing work ended up in a Flame, I was hearing about workflows where those facilities would use Smoke-Mac (Smac) for conforming projects before sending to Flame for finishing. This was a big plus for us, and while Scratch looked very strong in grading, Smac seemed to have better compositing and finishing tools, and the Mac/Kona compatibility sealed the deal.
I downloaded the 30 day demo of Smac, and spend every free minute I could with it. The learning curve was quite steep, so 30 days of banging my head against the desk only scratched the surface. Sure, I could follow along the tutorials, and "Click this button now", but even after doing all of the available tutorials, I still had no clue how to actually operate the application. The workflow was SO DIFFERENT, not just from other editors, but from every computer I've used for 20 years. File -> Open/Save/Save As... Copy/Paste, highlight something, then modify it - Smoke used none of these Mac/Windows protocols - it was an entirely different beast.
"Ok. Found some clips. Now what?"
Once I got footage in, and found my way to a timeline, the FCP keyboard layout helped a bit, but my jaw about fell off when I moved a clip from the "source area" to the timeline - and then it wasn't in the source area anymore! WTF?? Where's my clip? Oh, silly me! Smoke's attitude was, "If you want it to stay in the source area as well, then you really want 2 instances of that clip, right? So you need to COPY the clip before putting it on the timeline, dumbass!" Have you ever wanted to slap a piece of software? WTF?? Are we working with film prints here? Of course I want to keep a copy of the source material in the bin/reel/browser, right?? I love this one.... Where is the QUIT button? In the Preferences, as in "I'd PREFER to quit now, Smoke." I could go on an on about various things that drove me crazy...
Check out "Exit Smoke". Silly me - how could I have missed that? Or Alt-F12 for the Smoke Keyboard command?
But wow - once you actually got into the modules with the footage you wanted, it was amazing!
A pretty simple composite, done in the "Action" Module.
So, I was very impressed with the toolset, but not AT ALL comfortable with the workflow. Even basic project management and organization was a completely different animal. Smoke & Flame worked on a different project metaphor - there was a Library, with your footage, and you'd load footage to a Desktop, where you did most of the work. You'd work on sequences from the desktop, but then save them back to the library. And it was a very tricky relationship. Certain tasks had to accomplished from the Library, and others could only be handled from the Desktop. And you could save things from one to the other, but I'd often end up with duplicate versions with the exact same names, and I had to develop strange habits such as saving a clip from the desktop to the library, and then deleting the clips from my desktop, so I would not wind up with duplicates. Every time I jumped back and forth, I had to think about what I was doing, it never became automatic.
Examples of some of the different Desktop Tools, and Library Tools.
And the rest of the learning curve was pretty steep as well. I wound up taking a 3 day Autodesk training course that came with a 90 day trial license, and that was great. After the training and 90 days of trial (using it in my free time), I started to feel comfortable with the interface and workflow. (Of course, I'm still doing my paid work in FC Studio, and trying to learn Smoke on the side.)
I'm also very interested in DaVinci Resolve for $1000 at this point, but color grading is just one piece of the puzzle - what's the big picture solution? Trade my KONA for a Blackmagic, and use FCP & Resolve instead of FCP & Color? I certainly didn't want to plan a finish pipeline around FCP 7. I started hearing good things about CS6, and when Adobe purchased Speed Grade and brought on Wes Plate from Automatic Duck - hmm, now this is getting interesting! But more of our editors are choosing to work in Avid now, so I really want something that can work in both worlds. No easy answers...
So... a job comes up that is beyond our normal scope of work for in house finishing. A client wants to update 2 old SD spots, retransfer the 35mm film to HD, and replace the old product packaging with new packaging. With FCS or Avid as our toolset, we would always send this out to a VFX house using Flame. But could Smoke (with me as the operator) get the job done?
We decided to pull the trigger and buy the license for $15K. (18k with "subscription", re-seller support, etc...)
One of the new spots is quite complicated for the VFX to replace the packaging, so I decided on a shared workflow. I would handle all of the prep/transfer/conform, and one spot's worth of VFX (the easy one!), and simply farm out the other complicated VFX shots to an experienced Flame artist in town. He estimates it's about 30- 40 hours of VFX work. I was also eager to explore the Flame/Smoke collaboration. The whole process went perfectly. I handled all of the setup/conform/output, and we simply sent each other DPX files for the FX shots, and it went smooth as glass. No color or gamma shifts - pixel for pixel, exactly as it should be. I'm starting to like this Autodesk world!
Tools for Pros - with the Smoke 2012 Viewer, you can easily see all sorts of useful info - compare against the offline cut, add letterboxing or Center Cut & Title safe guides, even know which frame and pulldown pattern you are on in both 24p and 29.97 outputs.
I did my portion of the VFX work unsupervised, and things that would have taken an experienced artist one hour took me 4 or 5 hours, but that's ok, I worked nights and on the weekends at my own pace, and showed our Creative Director on Monday, and everything was ready for delivery to a national show's Thursday night season premiere. Boom! First real job done in Smoke!!!
SIDEBAR: Over the years of debate about "which edit tool to use?" - I have always said, "Whichever one works for you. Our clients never ask us to edit in Avid or FCP - all they care about is what is on the big plasma screen in front of the couch." When the Creative Director was seeing the VFX work I did using Smoke and the crazy interface it has, I expected him to say, "Wow - what program is that you're using? You guys have a Smoke here? That's awesome, etc.?" He did not say a single word about it, or even notice! He simply looked at the images on the plasma and said, "Nice work. Looks great. Ship it!".Over the next few months, I used Smoke for every possible job that I could, even simple color grading jobs - I wanted to spend as much time as possible building muscle memory and habits based on Smoke's workflow. I kept learning the tools, getting more comfortable with each project. And I started offering VFX work that we wouldn't normally have tried to tackle.
Sometimes I would say, "Give me your footage and come back tomorrow." And every time, I was able to make it work. I may have stayed until midnight reading the online manual (not helpful) and watching Grant Kay's tutorials (very helpful), but I got it done, generating quite a few "Wow! That's amazing! You can do that here?" from my clients.
My rig, with Avid Color Panel, Blackmagic Ultrascopes, Scopes, Tablet, and iPad to keep up on emails. (Smoke 2012 is always a full-screen app.)
Then, literally, just a few weeks ago, I did my first "real" finish session, where I felt comfortable enough to have clients sitting on the couch, a firm deadline, and I could execute the basic tasks of broadcast finishing - compositing/cleanup/color, etc... And it went great. We delivered a spot for a national client that otherwise would have been done at a dedicated VFX/Finishing facility in LA. I was pretty damn proud of myself, I must admit. I felt like I had joined the club of Flame/Smoke artists that knew the secret dark art of Autodesk VFX (a freshman member of the club, but still). And I learned it without the benefit of learning from a senior artist in an established facility, with help from the magic interwebs. Then, literally just a few days later, I read that... "Smoke is Changing. Everything."
Smoke 2013 was one of the biggest stories of NAB this year. A completely new interface that editors can understand, expanded toolset, and 1/4 of the price. Wow - is this The SuperApp to rule them all?
So, what do I think about the new version? Quite honestly, this is not the version I was hoping for. I wanted some Lustre integration (Autodesk's flagship color grading program - sold only now as part of Flame Premium), planar and 3D tracking, a million little fixes to things that still drove me nuts, and in my wildest dreams, I wanted Batch FX - the nodal compositing environment that was the main difference between the $75k Smoke Advanced on Linux, and the $15k Mac version.
A small example of the nodal pipeline in the Linux version of Smoke 2012.
That being said, Smoke 2013 is EXACTLY the product I was looking for 6 months ago - after banging my head against the desk for 30 days of the trial. Which means this is exactly the product that thousands of other users out there are looking for! How many of you downloaded the demo, did the gladiators tutorial, and bailed when your 30 days ran out? Or never even got past the start screen? I don't blame you - it was HARD to learn!! (It would be interesting to know with the old version, how many people downloaded the trial vs. how many seats they sold. I would not be surprised if that's 1000:1 or more.) And Autodesk finally understood this.[euro] After learning the old interface, I can say that is a different way of working - not better, not worse, but EXTREMELY different.[euro] But if Avid had worked this way back in the 90s, then FCP and Premiere & Vegas and all of those would have worked this way, and everyone would be able to launch the old Smoke and know how to operate it.
But that's not the world we live in. The reality is that EVERYONE who learns editing learns the Avid/FCP/Premiere way of working, and it's a brilliant move for Autodesk to concede that they lost that battle, and make their app work according to the standard conventions. It's almost like Autodesk had a car that you drove with levers and buttons, and now they have re-designed the UI with a steering wheel and pedals...
Smoke 2013 - much more editor friendly.
This new version makes Smoke INFINITELY more approachable for a new user.
But what about us "experienced" users? I haven't been using it long enough for the old way to become ingrained in me yet, so I think it will be fantastic for me as well. I'm a little concerned that being more "timeline centric" might make for some clunkier workflows for certain tasks, but adding the power of Connect FX (the nodal compositing environment) more than makes up for anything we may lose by not having the Desktop Tools in the new interface. (At least, that's my hope...)
So - more powerful, easier to learn, and cheaper. Wow - the Holy Freaking Grail of video applications is here for the cost of a decent DSLR camera! $3500 certainly isn't cheap, but for anyone in the video finishing world, and currently bouncing between between 6 apps to do their work, this is, in my opinion, an absolute no-brainer.
Some questions you may have for the SuperApp:
So, ok - even the SuperApp isn't perfect - but all of the buzz and excitement about this product is well deserved, and you should be drooling to get your hands on the trial version. I certainly am!
But, don't expect it to be easy. It's easy to get on the playing field and the new interface gives you the first 20 yards for free, so you won't have that frustration of not even being able to get started. But once you get into the FX modules, the learning curve is just as steep as it was. It will still take a substantial amount of time to get comfortable with Action, adding secondary color corrections, etc. You'll ask yourself things like, "why is the mask tool buried 2 levels deep in the Axis tool? Wait, here's a mask in the Wipe tool? - which one should I use when? How does this all work together?, Who the hell still uses WIPES anyway? etc..."
Connect FX: Nodal compositing pipeline is now in the Mac version.
And, boy, is it deep! After using it six months, I can certainly find my around the application pretty well, and I know how to do what I need to do, but I still feel like I'm only using 40-50% of it's capabilities. I've even heard some of the top Smoke artists in NY say things like, "Yeah, I have no idea what that module does." So, don't expect to be an expert any time soon!
It also remains to be seen how great of an "editor" it is. They've shown the basics at NAB and on their website, but let's be real, it's easy to show drag & drop editing and a source/record/timeline/file browser layout. (Premiere Pro CS3 could have looked ok in a 5 minute demo, right?) Avid/FCP 7/Premiere - these are all basically the same, but the details make a world a difference, right? How are the trim tools in Smoke? There does not appear to be any multi-cam support. Could it be used as offline editor? How does it work with camera native codecs? (Smoke 2012 crawls using Canon 5D footage.) What about project sharing over a SAN? Etc...
I'm awfully curious to know how well it plays with others - namely XML output? I'm 95% sure this will not be in the Beta release (although different sources have been saying different things on this), but I do recall people at the booth saying the were well aware of its' importance in the pro video world. Will it make it into the fall release? We don't know yet.
I could see a workflow of editing in Smoke in ProRes, setting up your FX work, but wanting to send out the footage to Resolve for grading, and then relink to the new colored frames and re-render FX in DPX for finish & output. I do like the Color Warper, but sometimes a dedicated grading tool can be a better choice, especially for client driven session - and not everyone is a talented colorist, either! We still do most of top-tier national broadcast spots in 4 steps, FCP-Avid creative cut / Resolve (or Baselight) / ProTools / Flame. Could that become Smoke / Resolve / ProTools / and back to Smoke for finishing? Maybe...
It certainly goes against their positioning as the "end of round tripping", but they have to know (or will soon find out) that many people will still want to use a dedicated grading app.
So, why not add in XML output? Easier said than done!
Current Smoke does support EDL output for individual tracks in your timeline, but the problem starts once you build a complicated effect in the compositor, and then put it in the timeline. In the current version, there is no way to maintain those timecodes from all of your sources. You certainly could if you only worked in the timeline and did layer-based compositing, but that's like working with one hand tied behind your back - ignoring Smoke's real potential.
Smoke2012 - Limited metadata output options.
And lastly, I'm quite curious how they "dramatically lowered the system requirements" without losing any of the power of Smoke. I have a 12-core MacPro with 32 GB of Ram, a CalDigit Raid, and an NVIDIA Quadro FX 4000 - and I'm quite surprised how much rendering is still necessary in my workflow. But they were showing Smoke on iMacs and laptops at NAB. Can working with ProRes media be that much easier on the system? Were they able to throw out thousands of lines of legacy code to make the software more efficient? How exactly are they boosting performance so far past the 2012 version? Or was that NAB footage optimized for demo use, and your mileage will vary in the real world?
A few more thoughts on the color grading capabilities within Smoke.
This seems to dominate the discussion I've been hearing about Smoke, so I want to expand a little bit on that topic.
Smoke has 2 different grading tools readily available, the Color Corrector (which Smoke/Flame has had for many years), and the Color Warper, which is a newer tool that works more like a grading application, with 3 trackballs, etc... I can say without a doubt that the Color tools inside Smoke are far and away better than any other color tool you will find in any other editing program.
Smoke's 2 color tools - different ways of working. (I'm much better with the Warper, personally!)
And in a world without an affordable Resolve, that might be saying something. But in our current world, Resolve is the new standard, right? If you can't be as good as Resolve, then we may have a problem.
So - how does the Color Warper stack up against Resolve?
As mentioned earlier, there's very little (if anything) that you could not do with Smoke's grading tools, but with a dedicated app, I think it's fair to say you can do grading more efficiently and more elegantly, especially when using secondary corrections.
The biggest limitation with the Color Warper, in my opinion, is that its' secondaries are qualifier secondaries only - no built in masks. So adding a vignette, or highlighting a face, or any region, etc... - this always requires a duplicate media layer or adjustment layer.
For example: You do a primary grade, then want to highlight an actors face as he moves through the shot. In Resolve, that's like 3 clicks of the mouse & sliders (or knobs/buttons on your control surface) - I've literally seen it done in 10-15 seconds. In Smoke, that means doing the primary grade, then stepping out of the grading module, duplicating media (or adding an adjustment layer) on the layer above it, drawing a mask (no quick & easy soft oval preset), tracking the mask (hoping it tracks well on a face, not a given), and then rendering. So, maybe it's a 2 minute process. Does it look just as good? Sure.
But by now, your client on the couch has started checking her e-mail, and then when she re-engages, she says client says, "Ok, that's good - save that and let's try a different look..." Here's where even Apple Color is more flexible. In Color, you could Click Add New Grade - try out new things, easily switch between Grade 1, 2, 3, or 4.
An old friend - Apple's Color easily recalls 4 different grades per shot.
Smoke would require a lot more management to be able to quickly show a client 4 different looks. You can save "setups" and even "sub-setups", but doing all of this quickly and maintaining your organization is challenging.
Having Connect FX might make some of this quicker and easier - but again, you're stepping in and out of Color Warper mode to jump into compositing mode just to add a secondary mask effect. I would much prefer to work in "grading mode" and go through my whole piece, adding masks as needed, and then go back and start doing compositing work. And using Smoke's qualifier module - the Diamond Keyer - I don't find as intuitive as the traditional HSL keyers. I can usually get it to work, but I've not developed the intuition and muscle memory that I had with Apple Color's HSL keyer.
Smoke's "Diamond Keyer" showing a qualifier of pure green. The inner diamond is the chroma selection, the outer one is falloff, and grayscale and sliders at the bottom control the luma selection.
Compared to my Smoke 2012 system, a properly configured Resolve system will have much more real-time performance than a Smoke. I still have to do quite a bit of rendering for complicated grades. And my grading control surface is not quite as snappy and responsive in Smoke as it is in Color and Resolve, either. This slows me down a little bit, but not nearly as much as bouncing between apps would.
So - what's the takeaway? Will I be grading in Smoke, or Resolve?
I usually work on 30-120 second pieces, and for this kind of short form work, I still find it much faster to work entirely in Smoke, rather than round tripping. That being said, for something longer - a 10 minute film that primarily needs grading, not FX & compositing - for that, I might still use Color, and either finish directly in FCP, or grade in Color, then send to Smoke for finishing - or maybe just send a few shots to Smoke if that's all that's needed.
You're thinking, "Apple Color? What about Resolve?", right? Seeing as my system is built around AJA hardware, I can only run Resolve as a software only app, meaning I can't output to a broadcast monitor. (Remember when Blackmagic announced Resolve on Mac said they'd work on AJA compatibility? I guess they gave that up when starting giving it away for free.) I'm currently experimenting with running Resolve from a remote computer - my MC Color control panel can connect to any system on the network, and I can see the GUI through the Mac screen sharing, so if I can just route the Resolve/BlackMagic system to my broadcast grading monitor, I'm good to go, right? (If this works, that will be a follow up article!)
And how does this compare to the CS6 suite, which is not quite all-in-one, but with tight integration - is that just as good? Honestly, I haven't had time to check out CS6 very thoroughly yet. My initial impressions are that Adobe is certainly on the right track, and once SpeedGrade gets better integrated (and solid AJA Video Output!), then it might be approaching the same ballpark as Smoke 2013, but it still has a ways to go... Another thing to consider is that Autodesk has a rich heritage in pro video - and dealing with all of the pro video complexities like frame rate & color space conversions, proper pulldown, downconversions, etc. In 11 years of FCP, Apple never got this right, but Autodesk has always gotten this right. Like I said, CS6 is a step in the right direction, but currently not even close to Autodesk's support for the needs of high-end video professionals. Will Adobe put the energy & development resources into those aspects? Who knows...
What about the Mac?
With many people (myself included) questioning the future of the MacPro and Apple commitment to high-end machines, is Autodesk crazy to be putting all of their eggs in the Mac basket? I certainly do not know. But I find it hard to believe they would make such a commitment without knowing some insider info about Apple's future plans.
Is this your next workstation?
At NAB, they publicly said something like, "at this time, Smoke 2013 works on Macs, and with AJA hardware, but we will continue to monitor customer interest in other platforms and devices." Translation: Windows & Blackmagic compatibility: Not any time soon, but if that's what we have to do, we'll do it. I wouldn't expect either of those before the 2014 version at the earliest, and even then, only if Apple officially kills the MacPro without a replacement, and high-end users start to abandon the platform. WWDC starts June 11 - hopefully we'll know more after that.
Is Smoke for you?
Smoke certainly generated a lot of interest at NAB, and they're doing a fantastic job of promoting the new release.
The price points of Smoke/Flame mean that 99% of potential users out there have never used either one, but they have certainly heard about it and its reputation, and maybe seen it in action. And 5-6 years ago, making this high-end tool affordable would have been an absolute Gift from the Gods. But in today's world, many of the users out there have used fantastic high-end tools like Resolve, Mocha, Nuke, etc...
Those high-end tools do one their one specific thing very well, and while Smoke is one app that can do all of these things, I think people may be disappointed if Smoke doesn't do ALL of them better than everybody else.
In my opinion that's a completely unrealistic expectation - the "everything tool" can't be the absolute best at everything - but it can be pretty damn good at most things, and I think Smoke is.
Is it a better compositing tool than Nuke? Is it a better tracker than Mocha? Is it better at Grading than Resolve? Is it a better editor than Media Composer?
The answer is no to all of these things. And if you have all of the time in the world, why not use the best tool for each task? When you have a timeline and a budget that allows for specialists and specialty tools for each step of the process, then sure - that workflow makes sense.
But when I have a 4 hour client supervised session for a TV finish that has to do all of these things and create HD & SD tape masters before the Fedex pickup - Smoke is absolutely the tool that I want to be using - even when it was $15k.
But let's remember, everything I have been discussing has been in terms of Smoke being a Finishing Tool - can this really be an editor, too? A complete all-in-one solution? Maybe. What I saw at NAB was quite impressive, but there are still many questions that can only be answered with real world trials and real-world workflows. (I am quite curious to see how Project Sharing among 2 editors and an assistant might work, for example.)
The fantastic news is that we'll soon be able to find out for ourselves, as they will be offering a public Beta on June 4th, and we'll all have 90 days or so before the real release to experiment and see if this fits our workflow. And Autodesk appears to be genuinely interested in hearing what we want out of the application.
(I will guess that XML output will be one of the top requests. Personally - I would rather they embrace the all-in-one idea, and they put their energy into improving the Color Warper to make Resolve unnecessary. There are very simple fixes they could do quite easily before the fall launch that would help tremendously (adding masks to the built in secondaries), and then maybe for 2014, add in some Lustre features that could truly make round tripping unnecessary. If you're going to be using multiple apps, why not start in Avid, then bump to Resolve, then to Smoke as a finishing tool?)
Starting in just a few days, I'll predict they will get many thousands of users downloading the app. Tahere will be much frustration at first. The forums boards will explode with posts, asking "How do I ...?", Grant Kay's new tutorials will get many thousands of hits, and after a couple of months, many, many people will be absolutely hooked on Smoke.
Then, sometime in the near future, you'll launch the app and it will say, "License expired. Please insert $3500 to continue... or go back to round tripping with 5 different apps. Your call."
Brilliant move, Autodesk. Bring on the Super-App!
Images from "The Mansion", courtesy of Passerby Films.