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Issue: November 1, 2011

Review: Autodesk Smoke 2012 SP2 for Mac OS X

By: Barry Goch
PRODUCT: Autodesk Smoke 2012 SP2 for Mac OS X

WEBSITE: www.autodesk.com/smokeformac

PRICE: $14,995; Subscription, $1,995
·New features including multi-layer stereoscopic timeline
·New lights and shadows in the Action 3D compositor

It’s not every day that a new version of software equally excites new users and long-time artists. Autodesk has done just that with the release of Autodesk Smoke 2012, which features a complete revamp of the lighting system in Action, Smoke’s 3D compositing environment. A long-time user request was to include cast shadows and Autodesk has delivered with 3D shadows that are extremely interactive and easy to use yet deep. 

They have also introduced a totally new set of creative tools called Flame FX that can replace some plug-ins. These GPU-accelerated plug-ins are extremely fast and many work inside the 3D compositing environment of Action. Before we dive into all the cool new toys, I want give a brief overview of Smoke.

Autodesk Smoke is an all-in-one editing and finishing tool. You can edit projects from scratch, but most commonly you use Smoke’s powerful post tools to finish projects started in Avid Media Composer, Apple FCP 7 or Adobe Premiere Pro. The conform workflow starts with Smoke’s support of EDLs, XMLs and AAFs. You can load XMLs and AAFs and have Smoke find and automatically link the media to the imported timeline. Why do this? Because Smoke has creative tools such as their Master Keyer, 2D tracker, built-in paint system, and the (upgraded) Action 3D compositing system. With these tools, you no longer need to round trip between separate apps, rather you keep your work flowing and stay in one app. Smoke processes media internally at 4:4:4 RGB. Many aspects of Smoke are also GPU-accelerated for artist interactivity and speedier results. Smoke also includes a Burn license in order to set up a background-rendering engine that can also be used for other background processes such as import transcoding and QuickTime exports. It also supports the Avid Artist Color panel for excellent control for color grading — giving your suite that pro look.

Smoke 2012 is also a stereoscopic finishing tool; it adds multi-layered stereo timelines to its complement of stereo finishing tools. Adding the FBX camera to your Action comp allows you to instantly convert a 2D scene to 3D by adding its stereo camera into the set-up.



THE DETAILS

Building upon the foundations of the 2011 release, which introduced pixel shader technology to Action, Smoke 2012 now features vast improvements in the lighting system inside of Action. Autodesk has added a series of new types of lights — Directional, Ambient, Rectangular Area, Ellipse — to correlate more exactly to the lighting options found in 3D software packages such as Autodesk Maya and Autodesk 3DS Max. The new lighting system in Smoke creates ultra-realistic 3D lighting artifacts and will automatically detect and render occlusion effects.

Previously, to add shadows to an object in Action, you applied a shadow node that worked like the most basic drop shadow you would apply to text in, say, Photoshop. Now Action supports true cast shadows. To add a shadow, you select a light in the schematic and then double click the Shadow Cast node in the node bin, which then connects the shadow to the light. Now you have complete control over how the shadow interacts with the scene in true 3D space. Further, Autodesk gives you three options on the type of cast shadows you apply to the scene: 2.5D, 3D soft shadows and hard shadows. They have also built-in adaptive degradation — a way to maintain artist interactivity by being able to selectively turn the shadows on render only, or on pen up.

Autodesk is leveraging its 3D product technologies to improve how 3D objects work inside of the Action 3D compositor. With the 2012 release, Smoke now supports point caching or geometry caching — animation of vertices inside of FBX. Action also supports import of substance textures from 3DS Max and Maya. Another improvement is the ability to break down models and text into what’s called multi-materials, allowing you to change texture map on faces — front, back and extrusion. It works on text, Gmasks and with object groups built in 3D.

Another development is the introduction of Flame FX. These are GPU optimized and accelerated plug-in style effects. I say “style” because they are much more than effects to throw on clips to create a new look, although they do that as well. The Flame FX that exist on Smoke’s desktop are great tools for stylizing images. For example, the Damage tool has a ton of controls and options to get cool looks fast. However, the real powers of Flame FX are the ones that work inside of Action. The Lens Flare and Rays Flame FX are 3D aware plug-ins that work beautifully with the pixel shading technology and new lights inside of Action. In fact, the lighting system and plug-ins recognize occlusions, which can create dramatic edge lighting light as I did in a recent project.

Pixel Spread is another great new part of the Flame FX plug-ins. It is a fast tool for quickly and gracefully fixing key edge blending problems. That, along with the new 2D transform Flame FX (with a built-in camera shake), provides the capability to do real comps inside the Modular Keyer. 

Autodesk has redesigned parts of the UI,  moving familiar buttons around, like the timeline view options and the library selector on the desktop, which irks long-time artists but makes the system more logically laid out for new users. Also, the update of the Action compositor layout, with its new node bin, is in a similar vein — making the layout more logical at the expense of muscle memory.

The Subscription Advantage Pack, announced at SIGGRAPH introduced wider camera support, including Red Epic, AVCHD and GoPro media. It also includes a new Flame FX, Bloom, HDMI monitoring via the Kona 3 card and (finally) ProRes QuickTime exports. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

The 2012 release is a solid update on what, to me, is a clear and thoughtful product development path improving the software with every release and adding features that keeps making Smoke a more powerful tool.

You can download a free, fully functional 30-day trial by visiting: www.autodesk.com/smoke-trial.