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How To Set Up Your Project in Smoke

How To Set Up Your Project in Smoke

Autodesk Smoke has many options available to set up your working environment. The ideal workflow is to set your project with your final deliverables in mind.

It’s also key to remember that setting up your project lets you specify default specs. You can still use multi-resolution sources and render to different formats within the same project, or even change the project itself mid-stream. Keep in mind, however, that if you change specs for a project already started, you may need to render or resize your footage which could incur render time, storage space, and composition issues.

Even if you have multiple deliverables, or you want to future-proof your project, then you may choose to set up the project in multiple mastering format so that you can easily migrate your output to other formats from there. The format that is near universally acceptable is 24 progressive frames per second at a resolution of 1920 x 1080. Staying with HD also means you can more easily view the output through your broadcast monitor, and is the workflow Smoke is optimized for.

If your deliverable is lower resolution than HD, such as a web video at 1280 x 720, I recommend going ahead and doing it in HD resolution and scaling it down from there. The quality will be better and you will have the option of going full HD if you need to in the future.

If the deliverables are drastically different from each other, then you may consider setting up multiple projects. That way you can switch between them when you want a different default working and viewing environment.

A word of warning: if you’re working with clients, you will need to ask the right questions and specify your deliverables from the very start of the project. Don’t assume anything here. If they balk at this, or can’t tell you, that should raise a red flag. In this age of drastically divergent output mediums, a skipped step here can spell doom for your budget, schedule, and sanity.

Fortunately, disaster can be averted by taking a little bit of time to ask the right questions. Here are the main questions you might ask about your final deliverables:

  1. What is the Framerate?

    (such as 23.98 fps for U.S. broadcast, 25 fps for European broadcast, or 24 fps for film output)

  2. What is the Scan Mode: Progressive or Interlaced?

    (example: film is always progressive, sports broadcast is usually interlaced)

  3. What is the Screen Resolution?

    (example: 1920 x 1080 for full HD)

  4. What is the Output Medium and Delivery?

    (i.e., HDCAM SR Tape or digital files such as a .DPX sequence and .WAV files delivered via FTP)

  5. What is the Bit Depth?

    (Usually depends on output medium… tape usually 8 or 10 bit, files can be higher such as 12 or 16 bit for color work.)

  6. What is the Aspect Ratio?

    (For example, HD is usually 16:9, SD is 3:4, but you can do anamorphic SD at a 16:9 aspect ratio).

Depending on the technical expertise of your client, you may have to find the right person to give you the answers. Some things are pretty cut and dried, like if you’re working for a commercial client that does broadcast work, or for film.

Be on the lookout though, for ‘oddball’ projects with strange output resolutions such as special venues (like a multi-screen video for a tradeshow booth or a Times Square video spanning multiple, differently shaped screens.) These projects may require an extensive (but worthwhile) research and testing phase so that you can ensure that the design is successfully implemented through to approvals and delivery.

Times Square

A dizzying array of deliverable formats are out there… be cautious!

Once the time is invested in nailing down the proper specs, then you can more easily accommodate revisions. You will also have fewer surprises on the last day of the project, when everything’s trying to come together. Your clients will appreciate your professionalism and attention to detail, and want to work with you again.

So with all that said, let’s get started with the PROJECTS PANEL.

You will see the Project and User Panel upon starting Smoke. But if you’re already in the application, then here’s how to access it:

  • click in the top Menu Bar: “File > Project and User Settings“.

Screenshot_FileToProjectsWindow

Getting to the Project Settings from Autodesk Smoke

Screenshot_CreateOrEditProject

  • To create a project from scratch, select the “New” button under the Project area.

You are presented with a host of options with which to set up your project.

  • In the “Name” field, type a name for your project. We’ve named ours “MyProject“.

Notice the Setup Directory automatically changed to [MyProject]. Smoke creates your setup directory for you, which is where all your individual setups are stored by default. For example, if you save your setup in the Color Correction module, the software will automatically start you in that location on your filesystem.

Project settings

The well-endowed Project Settings panel.

The Setup Mode selector lets you decide if you want to copy your setups from a project already on your machine, or create new setups. It’s best to leave that at the default setting.

The Config Template dropdown selector lets you specify your default timecode, framerate, and monitor refresh rate (also specifies settings for any external monitoring hardware). What you select in this dropdown will load a text based configuration file in your project directory that will be initialized every time the project is selected. This is why you may see your screens on your broadcast monitors flicker when a project is changed, as it reinitializes. By default, it is set to the universal mastering format of 1920 x 1080 at 23.976 progressive frames. For the vast majority of projects I come across, this is a fine setting to use.

The Resolution dropdown lets you select from a large array of default resolutions. This allows you to also select a default image resolution independent of the config environmental setting above. You can also specify custom resolutions in the fields below the dropdown. The default is 1920 x 1080, which has an aspect ratio of 16:9.

Below that, you have the pixel Aspect Ratio selector. Note that it conveniently gives you the number expressed as both a ratio using a colon as as well as a decimal value. (The ratio 16:9 corresponds to 1.7778, and you may see it expressed either way in the oft-confusing world of production and formats.) By default this adjusts itself based on the Resolution value you select, and assumes you’re working in square pixels, expressed as a ration of width to height. (W:H). However, you can also change this if you so desire, and have a pixel aspect ratio be whatever you want.

  • Try selecting different resolutions in the Resolution dropdown box. Note the corresponding changes to the Aspect Ratio boxes.

Note the pixel aspect is only metadata, and does not change your image per se… it affects how wide your pixels are as viewed in Autodesk Smoke. You can even change this independently of the Resolution, to make your own aspect ratio. In many of the Player modules, Smoke gives you an aspect button you can switch to view either square pixels or your project’s default setting. Unless you know what you’re doing, I suggest you leave it at the square pixel default for what ever resolution your’re working in, which is 16:9 if you’re at 1920 x 1080.

Below that, you have the Bit Depth box. This lets you set a default bit depth of 8 bit, 10 bit, 12 bit unpacked, 12 bit packed, or 16 bit floating point. The higher the bit depth, the more processing time and loss of interactivity. The lower the bit depth, the less you can ‘dig into’ the color and make color adjustments, and you may see banding in subtle gradients. Again, you can work in any bit depths that you want, but picking a default you know you will mostly work in will make your life easier.  I recommend using at least 10 bit for regular commercial work… I find this meets my needs for most applications. If you’re doing a lot of film compositing, color timing, or keying, you may want to do at least 12 bit.

Bit depths in Smoke

Your bit depth options.

Next to the bit depth box, you have the Scan Mode dropdown. This lets you select the default setting for Progressive or Interlaced frames (either Field 1 or Field 2.) Unless you’re doing a lot of 60i broadcast work, I recommend keeping this at default which is Progressive. You can always render selective clips interlaced if you need to later.

Under those, you have the Graphics Rendering dropdown box. There are only two options, 16 bit and 8 bit. This dictates what bit depth your Graphics hardware card renders its frame buffers at, and has nothing to do with the bit depth of individual clips. You will get better results with 16 bit, which is default and what I would recommend. If your system is hardware-challenged, and you’re willing to sacrifice a little bit of quality for faster renders, select 8-bit.

At the bottom is the Cache and Renders tab. This allows you to select an image format for your intermediate renders (and your cache, if the cache option is selected). When you import media with the “Cache Source Media” checkbox enabled, or render a clip, this format is what Smoke will encode your footage to internally. What you select here depends on several factors:

  1. Your frame storage speed, or data rate, which affects playback.

  2. Your frame storage size.

  3. Your project’s quality requirements.

Here are your options for renders and cache settings: Uncompressed, Legacy, ProRes 422 (Proxy), ProRes 422 (LT), ProRes 422, ProRes 4444, and ProRes 422 (HQ)

Cache and Render format

This may seem very confusing, but here’s a few practical recommendations:

  • If you’re doing a lot of effects work for film, or extensive color for spot work, and have the storage, you will want to use the Uncompressed option for the best quality.
  • If you’re doing regular commercial work, onlining spots, or doing music videos or the like, one of the high quality ProRes codecs would be fine.
  • If you’re doing mostly editorial work, or corporate or web videos, one of the lower quality ProRes codecs may be the way to go. You will be able to make much better use of your storage and keep more footage nearby.
I have found the quality of the ProRes codecs, especially ProRes 422HQ and 4444, to be outstanding, even holding up to multiple generations. Autodesk’s implementation of this codec for intermediate renders is in my opinion one of the best things in Autodesk Smoke for Mac. Yes, the image does get recompressed, which takes a bit longer to render and which does take a small hit in quality and color fidelity, but it will probably not be visible to even the trained eye. Granted, this is a huge topic that merits its own separate post. My advice: don’t be afraid of the ProRes codecs. If you don’t have money for a bunch of storage, they are your best friend.

The Proxy Tab allows you to select proxies for use in your project. I would recommend using this for visual effects or compositing jobs where you want high quality and high resolution clips, but also want the option of faster interactivity when you need it. You can turn them on for all your clips, or just selected ones. Smoke gives you a lot of great options for how to determine which clips in your project are going to be proxies.

Smoke Proxy Project Settings

Smoke’s flexible conditional Proxy settings for your project.

By default, proxies are set to “off” for a project. Go ahead and enable them for this test project.

Select the Proxy Settings tab, and click the dropdown box that says “Proxies Off” and set it to “Conditional”.

Notice you can tell Smoke to generate proxies based on resolution or color depth, and you can tell it what quality setting to give the proxies.

Note that even with your conditional options, proxies are still a global setting for your job. For jobs that I edit or online and also do extensive effects shots for, I will often make TWO projects: one project is for my editorial phase without proxies to quickly access clips and conform them, and another project with proxies enabled that I generate when I have an edit more or less completed, and am ready to knuckle down on some hard core effects work. Smoke’s flexiblity gives you the best of both worlds.

With those recommendations, you should hopefully be well on your way to happily using Autodesk Smoke for Mac in your custom tailored work environment. Don’t be afraid of generating as many projects as you need to categorize your jobs, even multiple ‘test’ projects to try things out. I often do that so that I can easily archive or delete them later.

If anybody else is out there with more recommendations on how to set up your project, or feel like further elaboration is needed, please comment below. Thanks!



2 Comments

  1. In this piece you stated the obvious about the bit depth box

    “The higher the bit depth, the more processing time and loss of interactivity. The lower the bit depth, the less you can ‘dig into’ the color and make color adjustments, and you may see banding in subtle gradients. ”

    But you didn’t mention what it is for. Is it for the intermediate rendered files?

    And by the way, I really like your website.

  2. Thanks Jeffrey! I appreciate the comment and the question.

    The box you are referring to pertains to the default settings for any clips created within a project, but they can be changed. As for the intermediate renders, they will render clips at the bit depth of whatever your render settings are. For example, you may have multiple 16-bit nodes in a comp, but if you’re funneling them through an 8-bit BFX output, then the resulting renders will be 8-bit.

    This box is not to be confused with the bit depth of the graphics hardware at the bottom, which is either 8 or 16 bit.

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