Brian Higgins
Issue: September 1, 2008


PRODUCT: Autodesk Smoke 2009


PRICE: $64K turnkey, including storage

- New Batch feature from Flame

- Wiretap Central server application

- Lanczos resize filtering for downconverting

I’ve been working on Autodesk systems for almost nine years now and have spent the last five working on Smoke and Flame as a visual effects artist at SOLdesignfx. Since coming to SOL, I’ve used Smoke for television commercials produced in every flavor of SD and HD imaginable. I have worked on projects for Dell, Budweiser, Allstate, Kellogg’s, P&G and Beck’s beer, with agencies such as Leo Burnett, DDB, Draft FCB, J. Walter Thompson and BBDO.

Smoke 2009 has some really amazing new features. We just finished a new 2009 internal promotional project for our parent company, Cutters, Inc. We are the design and finishing arm of the studio. We shot the promo in P2, and with Smoke 2009 we could work with the media natively without having to transcode it.

Our offline editor cut the promo in Apple Final Cut Pro, so I had him output an XML file of the finished edit, loaded it into Smoke and relinked it to his P2 QuickTimes. I soft-imported them at first to double-check that they lined up with his work picture, “Stoneifised” the media once I knew I had the right footage, and then dove into the compositing. Truly, this is the future! After years of working with EDLs, working tapeless with XML had me looking around for my flying car. Montreal will probably sort out that whole Cold Fusion thing next. I’ll definitely be using the XML/soft import workflow more often as we start to see more spots shot on P2.


Batch, in my opinion, is the biggest new feature of the upgrade. Autodesk has taken the Batch compositing environment from Flame and put it directly into the Smoke timeline. It’s a much more nonlinear way of working, bringing interactivity and flexibility to compositing in Smoke that was previously lacking. With Batch, you have access to tools without hopping in and out of different modules on your desktop. Tools like Action, Sparks (plug-ins), the Master Keyer and Paint are all now available for simultaneous use in a composite without having to pre-render and pre-process anything. Want to adjust the strength of the Rack Defocus spark you’re using for the background of your greenscreen comp? Now you can dial it in while looking at the downstream result of your changes in context, and watch the whole thing update as you refine your work. It’s a node-based compositing environment, so you can adjust and tweak to your heart’s content without having to replicate work. Note that as of this writing, Batch is a Smoke 2K-only feature. If you have Smoke HD and want to use Batch, you’ll need to upgrade first!

Another cool feature in Smoke 2009 is Wiretap Central. It’s a server app (ideally run on a separate machine) that opens up your framestore to other computers on your network via a Flash-based browser. It speeds up the QuickTime creation process substantially, and is also a way of creating movies in codecs that Smoke doesn’t natively support (like Sorensen, for example.) Instead of tying up the Smoke to make QTs for client review, you can pass the buck to a producer or assistant and remain focused on the bigger picture.

Of all of the new Smoke 2009 effects tools, Action (the revised 3D compositing environment — formerly “DVE”) and Batch are the two that I’ve been using the most. I recently completed work on a commercial for Cheez-It crackers that had a lot of bluescreen, as well as quite a bit of CG. There were skydivers holding onto an aerodynamic prop that had to be replaced by a CG chunk of cheese. We had to match the color of the backpacks between the bluescreen skydivers and the skydivers (shot practically), and make footage from multiple shoots look uniform. Using Batch and Action, I was able to composite the CG, key out the bluescreen, and then track in any patches or masks I might need. Once we’d established a look that the clients were happy with, I was able to very quickly copy the settings onto other shots that required similar composites. It eliminated a lot of needlessly repetitive work and kept all of the effects live.

Best of all, it kept them in the timeline, so whenever I was playing back a rendered composite it was in the context of the edit, which really helped keep everyone focused on the piece as a whole rather than on a bunch of disconnected individual shots.


Overall, Smoke 2009 works faster and much more efficiently. It’s an upgrade that’s great for the sanity of VFX artists and editors who are increasingly asked to produce more work in less time. Another added bonus is the new Lanczos resize filtering. It’s great for cleanly downconverting HD to SD.

The Smoke 2009 toolset is very interactive, and the new hardware screams — even with HD footage! From our tests, we found the new HP hardware to be about 300 percent faster across the board compared to our older SGI Tezro machines. Batch is definitely my favorite new addition to Smoke; it really brought the system into its own as a powerhouse compositor. It’s worth digging in and getting your hands in the meatloaf!

Brian Higgins is a Visual Effects Artist with Chicago's SOLdesignfx (