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A Finishing Got a Smoke, Mac?
Tool for the Macintosh Platform
by Barry Goch
Late last year, Autodesk rocked the post-production world by releasing its flagship finishing product Smoke for the Macintosh platform. A high-end, high-performance, nonlinear editor built for finishing the most demanding projects such as nationally aired commercials, television shows, trailers and features, it has a robust toolset featuring advanced keying, tracking and a true 3-D compositing environment.
Autodesk had previously sold Smoke only as a turnkey solution on Linux (and Irix before that). Although Smoke has been popular for high-end finishing for many years, it had not been more widely adopted for two main reasons: 1) On Linux, it required specialized knowledge of how to integrate a Linux-based system into a Mac- and PC-based facility. 2) It was very expensive. Granted, you got a lot of horsepower for what you paid for, but many facilities balked at the extra system and administrative costs. Now those two barriers are gone.
The transition of Smoke to the Mac platform was made possible by porting the 64-bit Linux version to the new 64-bit Mac OS, Snow Leopard. The software-only version of Smoke on Mac is listed at $15,000. This is quite a lot less than the previous turnkey system price offered by Autodesk. The thought behind this release is that if you already have a beefy Mac FCP system (8-core processor, NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 or Quadro FX 5600 graphics card and an AJA Kona 3 video I/O), you can simply install the software and get to work. In fact, for the first time ever, Autodesk has set up a free, 30-day downloadable trial of the software. I’ve even heard reports of people loading Smoke onto 15- and 17-inch Macbook Pros and running the application––although you do need an external monitor for the 15-inch as Smoke requires a screen resolution of 1920 by 1200).
Top, Figure 2: 3-D text with action schmatic.
Above, Figure 3: Original FCP timeline.
With the port of Smoke to Mac OS, Autodesk has also made supporting the system more Mac-like. Smoke on Mac ships with three helper applications to configure and maintain the system. For example, on the Linux version, you have to edit a text configuration file to add additional VTRs that would appear in the capture module. On the Mac version, all you have to do is open the Smoke Setup application and press a button next to the VTR that you want to use (see Figure 1).
The only things that are missing from its Linux cousin are real-time deliverables and the ability to use the graphics card to down- and cross-convert on the fly. Plug-in manufacturer GenArts recently announced the availability of its industry-leading Sapphire Sparks for Smoke on Mac at a lower price than the Linux version––to match the lower cost of the Mac version of Smoke. Sparks is the name of the plug-ins for the Autodesk systems products (Smoke, Flame, Flare, Inferno).
Okay, that’s all well and good, but why finish on Smoke in the first place? Because it functions as a great finishing hub for a facility. Smoke has a broad and deep toolset for getting things done quickly and offers many solutions to those “fix it in post” problems. These tools include an excellent paint module that is wickedly fast for doing touch-up work and dust-busting. It also has a fantastic tracking/stabilizing system––the same as in Autodesk’s Flame. It also sports the Master Keyer for fast and easy chroma key work. The Action 3-D composting environment is an excellent place for doing complex composites and design work too. In fact, it offers over 80 text presets for quickly creating 3-D text animations (see Figure 2).
Effects in Smoke are either “hard” or “soft.” Smoke has a great set of desktop tools, like Paint, which creates new media. Soft effects are like the Resize in Avid or the Motion Tab on the viewer in FCP. They don’t create new media until rendered. Soft effects in the Smoke timeline include Text, Color Correction and Axis––something akin to the 3-D warp tool in Avid. One of my favorite things about the system is the mini editor that appears when you add a soft effect. The main controls for an effect are right there in front of you, so you can scale, rotate and even color-correct quickly without going into the deeper effect editors.
A huge plus for Smoke on Mac is a much wider QuickTime codec support than the Linux version. Smoke on Mac supports ProRes, which currently is unsupported on Linux. This is an important advantage as it makes integrating Smoke into a FCP facility almost painless. In fact, using the soft-importing method (linking to files instead of importing them directly), you can use the same storage and media that you used with FCP.
To help the new user get started, let me offer a short-hand version of how to conform a FCP timeline into Smoke, here are a few quick tips for a successful conform:
In the Smoke 2010 User Guide manual, it says to use XML version 2. Autodesk now recommends using version 4 for its richer XML support. XML is a much better way of conforming an edit than from an EDL. Also, on a system with fast storage, in order to speed the conform process, create a new project with proxies turned to off. Proxy workflow allows Smoke to offer high performance when using high-resolution material, for example, 2K frames. It’s a bit of a throwback to the days of using very expensive storage to achieve real-time playback of 2K materials. Nowadays, you can easily set up a storage subsystem capable of uncompressed HD playback.
Do take heed, however, of the system requirements that Autodesk publishes regarding required throughput per resolution: http://usa.autodesk.com/adsk/ servlet/pc/item?siteID=123112 &id=14961350.
Now for the steps, which augment the excellent online video tutorials for Avid AAF and FCP xml conforms found on the Area website: http://area.autodesk.com/ blogs/discreetuk/avid_aaf_ and_apple_final_cut_ pro_xml_how_do_i_ conform_these_things.
First, create a new library, import the XML file and turn on Linking to Video and Audio Files. If the files are already on the same system that FCP uses for the offline, the file path will be the same. If not, then click on the Directory to set the file path. In the recapture window, set the switch to Soft Import to enable linking to the files instead of importing them.
This next step is the most important. After clicking the Relink tab in the recapture window, go to the Clip Metadata section and set the tape to Tape from Edit List and the time code to Time Code from Edit List. Import all the files. This will import the clips into the library and, with proxies set to off, it only takes a few seconds.
Top, Figure 4: FCP timeline in Smoke, converted into 1080 from P2 sources.
Above, Figure 5: Feathered crop from FCP in Smoke
If necessary, you can reformat the sequence here. Turn on Soft Resize, then clik Relink. Note: Graphics and other imported clips that don’t match the sequence setting are imported with the center/crop reformatting applied. Using this method, I was able to relink all of the clips to my FCP timeline––even imported QuickTime files that were created in an application outside of FCP (see Figures 3 and 4). The timeline in Smoke exactly matched the timeline I had in FCP. Even the timeline markers and a nested timeline with a soft-edged crop came across (see Figure 5).
Free online training is available on the Autodesk website: http://area.autodesk.com/smoke-tutorials/about_ smoke_essentials_tutorials. For the free 30-day Smoke trial go to: http://usa.autodesk.com/adsk/ servlet/pc/item?siteID= 123112&id=14245951.
You can also find a series of free tutorials that I created entitled “Transition to Smoke” at the Smoke on Mac Google group: http://groups.google.com/group/ smoke-on-mac.
This release of Smoke on Mac is really a game-changer. There will still be a place for the larger facilities to do the real heavy lifting, 2K and above DI and stereo finishing, but the trend is now toward smaller shops that offer one-stop post services. And with the shift to tapeless workflows, the entry barrier to doing post is that much lower now.
The last two music videos I cut all came from tapeless sources: RED, P2 and the Canon 5D Mark II. Smoke at this new lower price point fits nicely into this new post paradigm, offering an exceptional toolset for finishing. It’s time to start Smoking!
Barry Goch is a freelance online editor and finishing artist based in Los Angeles. He is also an Autodesk Smoke Certified Instructor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.