Monday, 23 April 2012

Autodesk Release Smoke 2013, should we be happy or wary?

As is normal this time of year, much of the VFX industry will have been keeping an eye on NAB in Las Vegas for any juicy news of tech and toys that they can expect to see being launched this year. A lot of recent talk has been about the shift in power in regard to offline or NLE editing, and where it is heading. Apple looked to have made a conscious decision to turn their back on the professional market, by releasing what many industry users thought to be a poor replacement for FCP7 in Final Cut X (watch in glee as they back track furiously). On the other hand, AVID's new Media Composer 6, now recognises non proprietary video cards, promoting dual boot machines and making it a lot easier to join the AVID family. With Adobe releasing a new version of Premiere in CS6 and Editshare's 'Lightworks' returning after an 18 month beta programme, there are plenty of options out there.

Autodesk are joining the party and have recently announced their new version of Smoke for Mac, with the impending release of Smoke 2013. There isn't a beta or trial version expected until June this year with a full release due in the Autumn, however it appears to be quite a radical approach by Autodesk to combine more NLE editing with some of their powerful compositing tools.

Smoke has always featured a timeline, but the 2013 release appears to have been completely rethought with the aim to combine offline editing together with the compositing stage of a job. You don't have to look very hard at the screen grabs to see that they have made a conscious decision to replicate the recognised NLE format of Source/Timeline windows along with a panel for managing your media. Autodesk have introduced a feature they call Media Hub, which is focussed on allowing you to better manage your source material, with native support for RED, ARRIRAW, DNxHD and ProRes, which covers a lot of the popular digital cameras out there at the moment.

Autodesk are calling it an 'all-in-one creative workflow" enabling node based compositing within a timeline, which will obviously bring huge benefits in being able to make VFX changes "without leaving the editorial environment". I expect many companies will look to employ this way of working as it will have cost and time savings for them. I'm more interested to see how many editors look to add this to their skill set, plus the possibility of being able to link this into a Flame VFX pipeline intrigues me. For example, could this help us manage the conforming process more effectively? Maybe this will allow us to work a bit smarter, editing with raw camera footage (or DPX) and passing over the relevant data for the VFX work, in an already recognised and accepted format?

At first glance, a "super app" that does it all, is very appealing, but lets not forget the artists in this equation. Just because you make software that can do both NLE and (some) VFX, is that enough of a reason to mean that we should working like that? How many great editors are there who will fancy themselves as compositors and vice versa? Though I can't deny that for people in the early part of their careers, it makes great sense to get stuck in.

Secondly, there is a big concern amongst hardened SMAC fans, about the impact that the 2013 release will have on the incumbent 2012 version. Lets not forget that Smoke on Mac 2012 licenses are approximately 15K per machine (10K for license with another 5K for plugins), plus any yearly support that you may pay to Autodesk. No one quite knows if the 2013 version will effectively replace the 2012 Mac license, but if its does, it will have huge ramifications. The new version is very much a Smoke Lite (which is to be expected for 3K per license), missing important functionality such as Drag Brush, Autopaint, Shade or Wash. Updating to 2013 would cause chaos in some of our suites.

Many companies have invested a lot of money in Smoke on Mac, heck, I designed a whole department around it, so I'm mildly concerned as to what the impact will be. I'm inclined to think that Autodesk should have stripped Smoke back even further, reduced the cost and made a proper FCP killer. As its stands, it's too expensive for a pro-sumer (who won't have a Flame pipeline to link into) and is not comprehensive enough to take over from Smoke 2012. Will Autodesk support 2012 alongside this release? And what about our Linux versions?

With my pipeline hat on, I do find the introduction of software like this interesting (along with The Foundry's 'Hiero' software) and the impact it could have in regard to streamlining a VFX workflow. The real challenge is how to employ them in the most strategic and effective way, assuming of course that it doesn't have a detrimental impact on Autodesk's existing loyal customer base.

For more info and general overview of what Smoke 2013 is offering, click here for release video.