Review: Autodesk Smoke

Smoke gets lower price and revamped interface (August 12th, 2013)

MacNN Rating:

ratingratingratingratingrating

Product Manufacturer: Autodesk

Price: $3495

The Good


  • - Lower price
    - improved interface
    - Node-based grading

The Bad


  • - Slow with AVCHD files
    - Only works with single display

Autodesk Smoke 2013 for Mac Review, Part 1

Unless you work in the film or TV business, you've probably never heard of Autodesk Flame. Autodesk -- maker of countless high-end professional software packages like AutoCAD and Maya -- doesn't do much to publicize Flame on its website, either. Yet Hollywood professionals know Flame as one of the most advanced finishing, compositing, and visual effects suites available.

Flame has traditionally been offered as a turnkey Linux solution, priced as high as $200,000. In recent years, Autodesk began offering Flame as software only (on pre-installed Red Hat Linux disk images) for around $110,000. Those are high numbers, but they aren't out of place in the context of multi-million dollar movie budgets.



[Flame]


One of Flame's most important components is Smoke, which has been offered as a standalone product for Mac since 2009. Initially priced at $15,000, Smoke was marketed to medium size studios, but remained out of reach for most sole proprietors and small operations. With the introduction of Smoke 2013 for Mac, Autodesk is hoping to break into a whole new segment of the pro video and indie film market by pricing the software at just $3,500.

With Apple's Final Cut Pro falling from $1,500 to $300 in recent years, and a $60 version of Lightworks around the corner for Mac, Linux, and Windows, there's considerable headroom for Autodesk to offer a more advanced product that bridges the gap between the ultra-high-end and entry-level professional solutions.

In part 1 of our look at Smoke 2013, we'll take a look the software's basic NLE (non-linear editing) and color grading tools, and see how those compare to FCP X, the go-to solution for most Mac-based video professionals.

NLE Interface

Along with a new price tag, Smoke 2013's other big change is a revamped user interface, marking a significant departure from previous versions. While the core interface principles remain the same, Smoke 2013 presents the user with a very polished and relatively intuitive user experience. Clearly aimed at making FCP users feel at home, the new Smoke UI makes getting started easier, while maintaining a feature set that's as advanced as ever.



[Smoke - click to enlarge]




[Final Cut Pro X - click to enlarge]


At first glance, Smoke's NLE interface is superficially similar to that of FCP X. It has slick UI elements and smooth graphics, but digging a little deeper, it becomes apparent that it has more in common with FCP 7 and Avid Media Composer. While some FCP users complained Apple "dumbed down" the user interface with FCP X, you won't hear any such complaints from Smoke users. Nonetheless, the new version clearly brings greater ease-of-use to the basic editing features of Smoke, and it's apparent that Autodesk wants FCP and Avid users to feel at home. Part of that strategy includes default keyboard shortcuts borrowed from FCP 7, but those settings are also fully customizable for users who'd prefer something different. Also helpful is the ability to import XML, AAF and EDL files from other NLEs, including FCP X.

There are situations, however, where the extremely simple workflow of FCP X has its advantages. Making rough cuts and quickly throwing together edited sequences is easier with Apple's solution than with Smoke. On the other hand, as the sophistication of your project scales up, Smoke's more advanced interface does a better job of managing complexity.

There was a time when Smoke required a Wacom Intuos tablet to control its interface. That is no longer the case, but the program continues to include full support for those devices.

Notably, Smoke 2013 is a full-screen environment with a minimum required resolution of 1440x900 pixels. In our experience, however, anything less than 1920x1080 feels cramped and limited. Interestingly, Autodesk has decided to make Smoke for Mac a single monitor experience, whereas Flame supports multiple displays. Even small scale operations could benefit from multiple monitor support, which makes it seem like Autodesk has arbitrarily neutered Smoke in this respect to prevent cannibalizing Flame.

Performance and Hardware

There's no question Smoke is more demanding than FCP in terms of hardware requirements -- that is, if you intend on using all of Smoke's advanced capabilities. However, when it comes to doing identical tasks using either suite, Smoke is surprisingly efficient in its use of process cycles and memory. In a variety of file import, export, and rendering tests, we found no significant differences between Smoke and FCP X. In some certain instances, such as exporting to a sub-native resolution, Smoke seems to have a performance edge over FCP X.

One notable exception, however, is Smoke's handling of AVCHD files. Although Autodesk claims Smoke 2013 supports transcoding AVCHD, we found this process to be incredibly slow and buggy. While AVCHD was initially launched as a consumer file format, it has found its way into entry-pro cameras like the Sony FS100 and FS700. While most professional applications of such cameras will involve the use of an external recorder with a pro format, Autodesk should either make AVCHD transcoding work properly, or remove the feature. Fortunately, importing everything from 640x480 VGA to Red, Arri, or Academy 4K works just fine.

As laptop hardware continues to advance, using Smoke 'in the field' on a MacBook Pro is a realistic proposition -- something that would not have been possible a few years ago. When working with HD footage, 8GB of RAM feels like a bare minimum, and 16 GB is definitely preferable. An iMac will offer a bit more performance, but a MBP combined with a large external monitor will provide a similar experience.

If you're hoping to use 4K or 5K footage, high frame rates, or some of Smoke's more advanced capabilities, a MBP or iMac will probably fall short of pro performance expectations. And therein lies one of the problems with Smoke 2013 for Mac. Beyond a top-end MBP or iMac, it's not clear where users should turn. Apple's current Mac Pro lineup isn't particularly competitive, and with the pricing and performance of the next-generation Mac Pro still unknown, it will be hard for small production houses to commit to Smoke 2013 for Mac at this time. A 'Hackintosh' might sound like a reasonable solution, but running OS X on non-Apple hardware is technically illegal, and few production houses will want to go that route. Thus, there's currently a gap between hardware available for Smoke 2013, and its theoretical capabilities, which are very impressive. After using Smoke for a few weeks, it's easy to imagine what it might be like on a custom tower with overclocked CPUs, and high-end GPU, and 32 or 64 GB of RAM. Autodesk says it's not currently planning to offer a standalone version of Smoke for Linux to anyone other than existing customers, so the options for custom hardware setups are slim.

Node-based color grading

Autodesk offers a Hollywood-oriented color grading solution called Lustre, as part of its Flame Premium offering. That might lead you to assume the built-in color grading features of Smoke are limited or second-tier. The reality, though, is that Smoke's color grading tools are very advanced, rivaling dedicated color solutions like DaVinci Resolve.

While the NLE features of Smoke are comparable to Media Composer and FCP, its color grading capabilities go far beyond either suite. Users of Apple's now defunct Color application will find Smoke's node-based grading interface familiar, but unlike Color, which was a severely dated and buggy piece of software, Smoke feels like a high-quality, modern incarnation. When Apple combined Color with FCP to create FCP X, it significantly simplified the color grading features, doing away with node-based grading. Think of Smoke's color features as the "Color X" that never was, and then some.



[Node-based grading - click to enlarge]


Through the "ConnectFX" interface, users can apply endless combinations of color adjustments and effects through interconnected nodes. Advanced masking and mapping features provide a level of control that would normally only be available in a dedicated program like Resolve. Whether you're looking to fine tune individual colors, or change them completely, Smoke can do it. A triptych video mode enables colorists to view three shots side-by-side, making it easier to establish consistency across previous and subsequent shots.



[Tryptic interface - click to enlarge]




[Color correct editor - click to enlarge]


In our tests against FCP X, we found the color grading produced by Smoke simply looks better. Without knowing exactly how each program works under the hood, it's hard to account for precisely why this is, but we achieved consistently better looking results with Smoke.

In addition to offering advanced color correction features, Smoke's unique proposition is that it combines these capabilities with a wide range of other finishing tools under a single roof. The benefits of having an advanced NLE, color suite, and compositor in a single application cannot be overstated, especially for time-constrained and hardware-limited pros who work outside the bubble of big Hollywood studios. Never before has it been possible to do high-end editing, grading, and compositing in a single app.


In Part 2 of this series, we'll take a look at some of Smoke's advanced compositing capabilities.

by MacNN Staff


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