The Smoke 2013 Review 11/17/13

smoke_WETAt NAB this year I received a review copy of Smoke 2013. Then I promptly came back to San Francisco and became completely slammed in client work.

The result? I’m just now getting this review out.

While I definitely feel bad about not getting this review out sooner, it has in a way been a blessing in disguise.

As a freelance editor in the Bay Area I have to know more than one NLE. While I cut my teeth (pun intended) on Media Composer and Final Cut Classic years ago, in the past year I’ve had to become proficient on Premiere Pro.

This summer I had a Final Cut Pro X trial by fire.

So this perspective has been good for me in that it’s giving me the ability to better compare the the major NLEs out there. Granted, Smoke is a finishing tool and can’t be fairly compared to the dedicated NLEs on the market, but it’s competing in this space, so it’s feature set is fair game.

Smoke in many ways is like having 5 Adobe CC apps in one interface (particularly if you now add Cinema 4D Lite) so I approach the review in that light. So with that said, here are my Smoke 2013 highlights:

SETUP

Like Avid Media Composer and Final Cut Pro X, Smoke manages your media for you. This ensures that you get better performance and safeguards against all of the things that can go wrong with your project if mistakes are made in regards to media management.

And if your source files are already optimized for editing, you can skip the transcoding process during import and start editing with them natively.

setup_WET2But one unique media management feature that I find useful, is that Smoke creates setup directories (project settings) that you can share in between projects. This is great, for instance, for sharing any custom effects you’ve created between projects.

The other important thing that Smoke does is let you add a storage volume to Spotlight’s privacy tab to prevent indexing slowdown. This along with the granular control you have for proxy creation, shows how focused Smoke is on efficiency from the start.

IMPORTING

importing_WETI really like the mode tabs at the bottom of the interface that quickly let you switch from editing to importing to conforming. And like Premiere Pro’s Media Browser, you can do importing plus a whole lot more in the Media Hub section. Here you can import footage, XMLs, AAFs and EDLs.

In addition to transcoding media on import, you can also do things like choose a bit depth, select the scan mode of imported clips and even import LUTs (lookup tables).

EDITING

timeline_WETWith the addition of the timeline in Smoke 2013, offline editors have warmed up to the idea of using this app. But while finally embracing the timeline metaphor, Autodesk has also extended it in surprising ways:

  • To zoom in on the timeline, you drag up and down (similar to Ableton Live).
  • the View Mode box, that lets you select different viewing modes depending on the different types of content you’re working with (player, source and triptych).
  • the calculator that appears when you edit values in the timecode window. (I know this has been around forever on many Autodesk apps, but  new Autodesk users will appreciate this feature).
  • the focus point on the positioner for track selection
  • like Media Composer, whenever your mouse is hovered over an edit point or start or end of a clip, the single and dual roller trims are activated regardless of the selected tool.
  •  the ability to do video track versioning. With this enabled you can add tracks to your timeline, giving you the ability to toggle between alternate versions of your cut.

While the timeline is not as feature rich as dedicated NLEs, Autodesk got the fundamentals right.

It makes you wonder if they are going to continue adding more functionality to make it a more robust editor, suitable for all types of projects or will they continue focusing on conform and compositing tools. Time will tell…

AUDIO

Maybe I went into this review with low expectations about Smoke’s audio handling capabilities, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Many know that the short Fix It In Post was edited in Smoke, but may not know that the audio was mixed there as well.

Now I see how that was possible, as there are most of the fundamental audio tools that I expect in an NLE.

Basically, audio is divided into sequence audio and what’s called, The Audio Desk. In the former, all audio adjustments are made in the timeline. In the latter, adjustments are made in a separate section, with EQ and mixer controls, that support up to 32 tracks of audio.

In terms of implementation, I really like how waveforms are turned on by default in the Smoke timeline. As an editor that likes music driven cuts, I often leave waveforms on and get frustrated when I am using apps where they are hard to see (Media Composer).

audio_WETI also like the separate audio FX ribbon that is activated by < right + clicking > on an audio track. However, there are times when the user needs to select the Edit button within this ribbon to initiate a parameter change.

As far as I could tell there is no keyboard shortcut to activate this button and it would be nice if there was, seeing as how this will be an oft-used feature.

TIMELINE EFFECTS

Many of you have probably heard about Smoke’s powerful tools for 2D and 3D compositing, Connect FX  and Action respectively. More on them in a minute.

timeline_FX_WETHowever, for most of your basic offline editing needs, you may be able to get quite far with Smoke’s timeline effects. In the timeline tab, clicking on the FX ribbon brings up rows of buttons with categories of effects.

Interesting things of note:

  • Like Media Composer’s 3D Warp tool and FCP 7′s motion tab, the Axis tool in Smoke is a multi-faceted Swiss-Army knife. You can animate timeline elements in 2D space, do tracking, stabilization and even use a 3D animation system – with cameras and custom lighting.
  • The Sparks category allows the addition of 3rd party effects
  • Basic property manipulation in a menu right above the timeline. Very handy.
  • Blend modes button right above the timeline (Yay!) No keyboard shortcuts (Boo!)
  • To perform more complex task you have to press the Enter editor button which takes you into an interface within Smoke dedicated for advanced compositing tasks. I think when offline editors first see this interface they’ll be a bit intimidated (at least I was) until they realize how great this single-focus layout and functionality  is for compositing.
  • If you want to tweak the motion interpolation you can click on the animation menu and you will be presented with a curve editor. (I like how you don’t have to enter a new screen to edit this).
  • The nuanced way Smoke handles motion estimation when the frame rate of the clip does not match the frame rate of the sequence. Many NLEs will automatically make the adjustment, but none of the others give you this kind of granularity (how you want neighboring frames interpreted).

COLOR 

There are two color correction engines within Smoke: a basic color corrector and the color warper.

color_WET

The basic color corrector is comparable to the 3-way color corrector in FCP 7 or the color correction mode within Media Composer.

It’s great for primary corrections, very straightforward and most video editors will have no trouble getting the swing of using it.

But it’s the color warper that’s the real mind-blower.

It’s what you expect from arguably the best finishing system out there.

It’s a powerful tool for doing secondary color correction, that goes beyond what can be done using Avid Symphony but falls short of features found in a dedicated grading app like Davinci Resolve.

Things I like:

  • both color engines allow you to work in full-screen mode. In this mode, your image takes up the majority of the screen with the controls as semi-transparent heads up display.
  • adjustments made in either the basic color corrector or the color warper are independent and will not effect each other.
  • when you drag any of the color sliders, the onscreen controls disappear so that you get an un-cluttered image as you make adjustments.
  • with the ranges function in the basic color corrector, you can tell Smoke how bright a pixel will have to be to be affected by the shadow, mid-tones and highlight tweaking.
  • in the color warper, you’re able to zoom in on the color region you want to work on, giving you more fine-grained control when working on images.
  • you can blur the edges of a matte with X and Y controls to smooth out rough edges.
  • And finally, even though there are only 3 secondary selectives, you can use ConnectFX to tie together as many color warpers as you want.

KEYING

keyer_WET_2

Another area where Smoke really shines is its insanely powerful keyer. Frustrated with After Effect’s KeyLight or don’t have access to other 3rd party keyers? Then bring the shot into Smoke.

Like Smoke’s color tools, I firmly believe its Master keyer is a “gateway” feature that will bring a lot of people into the app. It’s that powerful.

Things I like:

  • when selecting the green screen color to key out, you can also drag across the subject as well. Yep, Smoke is smart enough to know what you want to key out.
  • the master keyer also has a secondary color plot, so you can essentially do a second pass to key out things that did not key out the first time.
  • the mix slider lets you tell Smoke how much of the first and secondary keys to pull out. Very cool!
  • If that’s not enough, the Master keyer also includes 3 patch keys for problem areas in your shot that aren’t able to be fixed with the first and secondary passes.
  • the powerful G-Mask that let’s you create a garbage matte around your image.
  • great edge control
  • Finally, with the CCF button you can dial in the subjects color to match the colorspace settings of your background. And by allowing you to select black, white and mid-tones areas of your background, your colorspace mapping onto the subject will be more nuanced and realistic.

TRACKING

This is becoming increasingly necessary for almost every project editors do nowadays. Whether we’re trying to remove unwanted onscreen elements like text or logos or have mattes move over time, being able to do this quickly and efficiently is a must.

Like Premiere Pro, Smoke has built-in stabilization capabilities, but unlike Premiere, Smoke has a tracker. Sure, you can dynamic link a PPro clip and bring it into After Effects where it can be tracked, but the whole point of Smoke is the ability to do everything in one app.

After applying the Axis effect in Smoke ,you then open up a tracker editor that, like the color correcting interfaces within Smoke, give you rich controls to make your track.

graph_WET_2

This also includes an animation editor (like the graph editors in After Effects and Motion) that make it easier to identify and delete bad keyframes, so that you can resume your track if need be.

 CONNECT FX

ConnectFX_WET_4Much has been made of Smoke’s robust compositing system called ConnectFX.

If you haven’t done node-based compositing before (Shake, Nuke, etc…) then that aspect of it will certainly take some getting used to.

But you’ll find that always being able to see what is going on with your composite (especially if it is a complex one) is a huge advantage of doing track-based compositing, a la After Effects.

Things of note:

  • How the Blend & Comp node let’s you easily combine two images, using whatever blend mode you want. In a traditional NLE this would be two layers with multiple effects applied. With node-based compositing, it’s a simpler and more transparent process.
  • The ability to save effects as presets, that can be applied to clips or adjustment layers.
  • Doing a simple lower-third animation takes way more steps than most editors are used to. Hopefully, once you initially create a lower-third for one project you can save the preset as a template and then later customize it for future projects .

ACTION

Action_WET_2The icing on Smoke’s cake is the fact that is does true 3D. It’s extensive Action toolset gives you the ability to do 3D compositing and animation.

But if you’re familiar with doing 2.5D work within After Effects, a lot of the concepts and procedure will be familiar. For instance, in Smoke you use what is called a Gap clip, essentially an adjustment layer that you will more often than not, house your 3D composite.

Things I like:

  • Being able to bring Photoshop files into the Action interface and have the layers automatically mapped to Axis nodes.
  • Like After Effects, Smoke uses the parent-child metaphor for the Action system. This will make it easier for AE folks to wrap their head around organizing and controlling nodes.
  • The same goes for lighting functions and features within Action.
  • Action’s lens flare system has functionality on par with 3rd party plugins like Knoll Light Factory.

And with the release of Smoke guru Brian Mulligan’s new free 3D templates, a lot of new users are going to be able to quickly get up and running.

 

 CONCLUSION

Autodesk is in a “chicken and egg” situation. I get the sense (based on my straw poll of industry peers) that Smoke is not getting the widespread adoption that Autodesk hoped. The recent 20% off sale didn’t help this perception either.

Many people would say the two biggest obstacles to widespread industry adoption of Smoke is price (yes, $3500 is an insanely great value for what Smoke offers, but $3500 is still steep for ultra small shops and freelancers) and learning curve.

Would adopting a cloud subscription as Adobe help increase market penetration? Undoubtedly.

But that still wouldn’t address the perceived steep learning curve. On this front though, Autodesk has really made great strides. The amount of tutorials and virtual training on Smoke (the vast majority of them free) is staggering.

It’s a far cry from the paucity of training that was available after the rollout of Smoke 2012.

Mulligan’s free Smoke templates is a great first step in hopefully a huge marketplace of 3rd party templates. If there were Smoke templates on Pond5, Videohive, Revostock, etc… this could incentivize people who had been on the fence about Smoke to try it.

Pond5 even created a plugin for Premiere Pro that allows users to try out and purchase media from its’ site. Avid has gone the extra step of creating a marketplace for buying filters and stock media that’s accessible right within Media Composer.

But the thing to do is really just try it for yourself. Autodesk gives you a free 30-day trial of Smoke and Ripple Training has a free 2-hour quick start training, complete with exercise files.

And with all of the new product and codec support (as well as other added features) in the new Extension Release, Autodesk is showing their commitment to having a complete editorial experience.

Start off by just solving specific post challenges with Smoke, like keying and tracking. If you feel comfortable you can move to color correction and grading and maybe eventually compositing and animation.

It’s been a fractured NLE market in the wake of the Final Cut Classic collapse. So it’s good to know as many of these tools as you have the time, patience and persistence to learn.


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