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The Many Uses of Smoke for Mac in Post

The Many Uses of Smoke for Mac in Post

Autodesk Smoke for Mac is a very deep program, offering a one-stop shop for Offline and Online Video Editing, Color Correction, Visual Effects, and more… is it the Swiss Army Knife of Post Production?

In our facility the Smoke and Flame systems have been known as the go-to solution for a wide variety of tasks. I have used Autodesk Smoke for offline edits, visual effects shots, web videos, special venue projects, music videos, the list goes on and on. When I reach a wall with its capabilities, it’s still able to do enough to let me know what I still need, and to give at 3d artist or a matte painter the elements they need to work on a shot.

That is perhaps Smoke’s strongest selling point: it does enough tasks well enough and fast enough to get you where you can make decisions about your Post workflows. This means it can sit capably in the center of your project, ┬ádirecting traffic and bringing things together into a whole picture.

With that said, what roles CAN Smoke fill in your media content creation business? We will start with the most obvious ones. Here are a few:

1. Smoke as an Editing Platform.

While Avid (and in recent years, Final Cut Pro) reign as the first applications people consider when they talk about editing video of film, Autodesk Smoke has for years retained many of the capabilities of those applications with the addition of high-quality finishing tools.

With Smoke, many of the traditional editing tasks you can do are:

  • Log footage
  • Transcode to various formats
  • Categorize footage into reels and libraries
  • Set Ins and Outs, Create subclips
  • Annotate clips
  • Place colored and annotated cue marks
  • Search and Filter Search libraries
  • Ripple edit, insert edit, overwrite edit, slip, slide, etc.
  • Work on Audio and Audio Mixing and Effects

Autodesk Smoke 2013 has been redesigned with users of these traditional editing apps in mind… from interface modifications to hotkey sets, the online video editor should feel right at home with a reasonable learning curve.

2. Smoke as an Online Platform.

This has been Smoke’s primary task for years, and it excels at it. Its robust conforming tools have been drastically updated for the modern file-based workflows. It can input and transcode in high resolution from digital cinema cameras and I/O decks. It can use effects modules to do titling, roto, paint, compositing, beauty work. color correction, stabilizing, color looks, rig removal, and all the other things you need to make an edit look … well, finished. The deeper tools found in Action and ConnectFX deliver a lot of horsepower to finish shots and give them that needed gleam.

3. Smoke as a Storyboarding Tool.

While some may gasp at a $3,500 application to do Storyboarding, hear me out.

I have used Smoke as a storyboarding tool. Maybe a more correct term would be animatic, or motionmatic, because it allows you do do more than just cutting in still image sketches and transition between them. Many times, storytelling demands more than than that.

I can take a sketch, or do a sketch myself in the Paint module. I can then quickly break the sketch apart and move the elements, such as somebody’s arm waving or placing something down in a shot… something you can’t do quickly or easily in an editing tool.

I can also rough in music and sound effects, and mix and effect them in as many tracks as i want. I can add rough effects like lens flares and fire and stock explosions, which can help get a feel for a scene and rough out how long to spend on a shot with lots of effects in it instead of guessing at it. That’s what storyboarding in Smoke delivers: the opportunity to take as much guesswork as possible out of a shot. ConnectFX allows you to get as complex as you want, and it’s right there in the timeline when you want to dive in and work with a shot further.

In down times when there isn’t a job going on, I have done many spots for pitches in a single day, using Autodesk Smoke. Typically for a pitch, if we have time to do a motion test or animatic, a 2D artist will deliver a Photoshop file that contains styleframes and other elements. I will import that .psd file with all its layers into Smoke and get to work. It’s a fast workflow that lets you see styleframes in motion with very little effort. You’re also using the 2d artist for what he excels at, and freeing up the design decisions from the Smoke artist.

4. Smoke as a Conform / Logging / Edit Assist Station.

Since it can do I/O from many sources, transcode, and conform, Smoke can sit at the ingest stage of many larger studios. I remember when Discreet/Autodesk’s software called Backdraft first came out, it was a no-brainer for us because we could use it with an edit assistant to do a lot of the grunt work of getting footage into the systems. And that was several times more expensive than Smoke is today.

An assist can layoff and ingest materials, archive them, rearrange them, add metadata, create Quicktime movies at different resolutions, and many other administrative tasks. This is very useful in a larger studio because it frees up the suite artists that are typically using the higher end finishing systems, and they are not logging those more expensive hours doing grunt work.

5. Smoke as an Effects / Compositing Workstation.

While other systems may be the go-to solution for this, such as Flame or Nuke or even Autodesk Flare, Smoke can hold its own now that it has ConnectFX and Action nodes. Since these are essentially the same tools as Flame has, minus some of the more robust features such as camera tracking, particles, camera projections, or Modular Keyer, you can do the majority of routine effects shots, even for film work. It can deal with CG passes such as Open EXR and use lookup tables and provide a fully stereoscopic workflow. In a studio that may be slammed on its other systems, a spare Smoke can easily bear some of the effects burden.

6. Smoke as an Effects Assist Workstation.

An effects assistant or apprentice can jump on Smoke and quickly learn how to get around in the Gmask module to do roto work, or use the Paint tool to do cleanup tasks. This can also free up other systems that may be used heavily for more complex shots.

7. Smoke as a Mobile Edit or Effects Previs Station.

If you are a visual effects supervisor or artist and are on set, you can’t very well lug around your beefy Smoke or Flame system with you. Why not load Smoke on the trusty Macbook Pro? Pair it with input hardware and a small set of portable drives and you can get the footage right off the DIT station or from the digital camera feed. You can do rough comps right there on set, and provide loads of valuable feedback as the shoot is going on.

This can get especially useful if you’re doing a shoot for an edit with complex transitions where you need the scenes to match to each other. Or, you can test a greenscreen by doing a key right there, and comp it against the desired background to test things like lighting or color spill. This can save tons of time and money on set, and impress your clients.

8. Smoke as an Animation / CG Assist Station.

For fully 3D studios such as animation shops, Autodesk Smoke can sit in a strategic location and act as a valuable resource by exporting storyboarded edits with shot and frame burn-in as reference. By publishing that sequence and keeping it soft-imported into your Smoke timeline, you can have the CG team overwrite those files with their newest works in progress, and you will always have an up to date version of your show on the Smoke system.

Depending on the speed of your disk SAN and the file format you’re working with, you can play the edit with little to no rendering involved. Of course, you will also have access to all Smoke’s other color and effects tools to test out looks for sequences or fix CG shots that would otherwise take a long time to fix and render in CG.

9. Smoke as a Dailies Viewing Station.

You can also use Autodesk Smoke to view your long format dailies for a CG or Visual Effects show you’re working on. Use it as previously described to soft-import the shots, and it will be ready to show the current state of the show. Pair it with a good calibrated display and put it in a dark viewing room, and you can make great judgements on the color of your show, as well as the quality of the CG or Effects work.

10. Smoke as a Director’s Review Tool.

As a Director or as an Effects Supervisor, you often have to visit the artist personally or wait for dailies in order to see the status of a shot in context. wouldn’t it be great to have the ability to link to shots from your own workstation and review them? You can sketch up notes about a shot using Paint, or you can do a rough comp to see how something’s looking. If you’re using Smoke on a Macbook Pro you can take it around with you and show it to the artists and leads on the show.

For an example of a director who uses Smoke this way, check out this video about Brett Richards, a director with studio Brokendoll in Sweden.

As you can see, Smoke’s versatility and feature set allows for many different uses in the studio. And its price opens up a lot of other possibilities as well.

What are your thoughts? Have you had these needs in your studio or post business? Or have you already used Autodesk Smoke in some of these applications? Please give your feedback below.

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