The Autodesk Smoke Crash Course for Beginners (Part One): Setting Up

This crash course is written for those who want to explore Autodesk Smoke to know whether it is the ideal application for their workflows or not, and to learn what might be in store for them. It is assumed that the reader has never seen or worked with Autodesk Smoke.

By the end, you will have hopefully understood Smoke thoroughly, and will be in a strong position to learn how to take your education and work forward.

Smoke 2013 Logo

What is Autodesk Smoke?

Autodesk Smoke (Smoke from here on) does two things equally well:

  • Editing
  • Compositing+VFX

As of this writing, Smoke is available as a standalone application for Macs only, for about $3,500. Compared to other NLEs, it is expensive. However, compared to other node-based compositing applications like Nuke or Fusion, it is cheap.

In fact, when you think of Smoke as a one-stop solution, the price sort of makes sense. If you’re only an editor or a VFX artist, then Smoke isn’t for you. You have to be both. In fact, the person who uses smoke is called a Smoke ‘Artist’.

The bottom line is, you need to know if you’re offering both editing and compositing in one workflow, in one system. If not, Smoke isn’t for you, really. You could use it for just one of its two core functions, but I feel that would be a waste of its potential. Here is Smoke’s mission in Autodesk’s own words:

Autodesk Smoke software is designed for video editors who need to do more than just edit.

How is Autodesk Smoke structured, and why is it the way it is?

Typically, a project that involves visual effects goes through an NLE and is exported to a VFX application – either in bits and pieces, or whole. Smoke tells people: “Hey, why do you want to go through the trouble of round-tripping and working with XML, EDL or whatever? Why not do everything in one place and get your project out quickly?”

The most important term in the above sentence is ‘quickly’.

The structure of Autodesk Smoke

Smoke is divided into three broad divisions:

  • The non-linear editor or NLE
  • ConnectFX, for compositing
  • Action, for 3D VFX

Initially, Smoke required that every project be first converted to DPX sequences, similar to how Speedgrade works, but that is no longer the case. If you look at its presets, you’ll see high-end cinema formats and cameras more than any other type.

Typically, a project comes to a facility equiped with Smoke and a decent computer. An assistant sets up the project, conforms the footage and prepares the media for the Smoke artist. The artist (whose rates per hour are higher than the average editor) arrives and edits the project. The client is usually watching, so the work must proceed quickly.

Once the edit is ‘locked’, the VFX work begins, again under the eagle-like eyes of the client. Changes are made and executed rapidly. If any re-edits need to be made, they can be made quickly. The client is always looking at the clock, counting down the hours, and the Smoke artist must perform accordingly.

Finally, when the project is locked and complete, Smoke exports the master. Speed without compromise. At least, that’s how it is designed to work!

Why is Autodesk Smoke the way it is?

Autodesk initially had three high-end applications that are legends in our industry:

  • Autodesk Inferno – was the most expensive (last I heard it used to sell for $500,000 – not a typo), but now no more.
  • Autodesk Flame – also very expensive (six figures, but the price has come down), has taken Inferno’s place. It is Smoke’s big brother. Sold as turnkey, including hardware.
  • Autodesk Smoke – a powerful system that used to be more expensive, and was sold as turnkey, but was made ‘cheaper’ and available as a standalone application.In many ways, it is a stepping stone to Flame.

Where do you see the need for powerful systems with fast turnarounds? You see it in the following industries:

  • Commercial Advertising
  • Mainstream Cinema
  • International Broadcast Television

I see Smoke as a medium step to those who cannot afford Flame. And, only big budgets can afford the hourly rates of a Flame system and an in-demand Flame artist. Smoke is no slouch, but it will get the job done for the most demanding work. If I were a fortune-teller, I’d say I expect Flame and Smoke to merge, and be sold in the four-figures very soon.

I believe these ‘advantages’ were gained over brilliant coding and excellent hardware design. Applications can be coded for speed, but it is the hardware that made the difference. Today, most newcomers can afford and invest in a super-fast computer. So, the hardware advantage is eroding. On a ‘toe-to-toe’ basis Smoke offers very few advantages over competing applications that justify its price. The drop in prices by Avid Media Composer and Smoke show where the industry is headed. To know more, read this excellent article on where Flame and Smoke is headed.

The different versions of Autodesk Smoke

For the sake of sanity I’m not going into the ‘earlier’ versions of Smoke. Smoke has a weird versioning system, where the core application is called Autodesk Smoke, but with two additions:

  • Service packs – these are updates and bug-fixes
  • Extensions – these include updates and bug-fixes, but are primarily major additions in functionality to the software.

E.g., the version I’m using for this guide is Autodesk Smoke 2013 Extension 1. The ‘Extension 1’ added these features to the original version:

  • Support for Blackmagic Design I/O cards
  • Support for newer cameras and codecs
  • Other important additions and tweaks to the editing and VFX systems

So, which version should you buy? It’s a trick question really. There’s only one version available at any one time (if you’re buying from Autodesk or an authorized reseller). Those who have bought Smoke earlier and want to upgrade have the following options:

  • Service packs – it’s free.
  • Extensions – available only if you’re an Autodesk Subscriber (around $675 per year). Then, you can upgrade your version.


How to set up Autodesk Smoke for best results

Before you start working with Smoke, you must first set it up correctly. To read a full list of system requirements, go here. Here are some important points:

  • Smoke is Mac only.
  • It needs a 64-bit OS and architecture.
  • It supports OpenGL, and therefore both Nvidia and ATI cards. However, Smoke prefers Nvidia Quadro graphics cards (it will be interesting to see how this works out with the new Mac Pro)

After you install Smoke, go to Finder > Applications > Autodesk > Smoke xxx (it will have a full name similar to Smoke 2013 Ext1 or so) > Utilities > Smoke Setup. You’ll get this:

Smoke Setup General

Under General

If you have a Blackmagic or Aja card, you must select the model available that under Video Device. The choices are Aja Kona 3, Aja Kona 3G, Aja IOXT, BMD and None.

If you have an audio card, you must select that under Audio Device. The choices are Aja, BMD, CoreAudio (Apple audio for OS X) or None.

Under Menu Bar, you can choose ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Smoke works in full-screen mode, but has a menu bar like any other application. You can choose to hide this. Certain options in the menu bar will appear at the bottom right of the screen. If you have Smoke open, you must restart to see these changes.

Under Preview

You can define the default settings of how your Blackmagic or Aja card will be used. Blackmagic cards, being new to Extension 1, aren’t there by default. To add a card/setting not on the list:

  • Click New.
  • A new line appears in the list. Click on the blank space in the Device column. Choose between ‘aja’ or ‘BMD’.
  • Set the resolution and frame rate (the frame rate avoids the decimal. E.g., 59.94p becomes 5994p).
  • If you want to make corrections to your display monitor, you can select an X and Y offset. This should be unnecessary with modern video monitors.

Under Media Storage

This is a critical step. Autodesk recommends that you don’t put your media in the same folder or drive as your application. Ideally, your media (which contains your footage and transcodes) must be on a separate drive or drive system capable of good read speeds – like a RAID system or Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 enclosure. This will depend on the data rate of your footage.

Smoke Setup Media Storage

To add a new place:

  • Click Add.
  • Click Select… under Storage Folder and choose a drive or system.
  • Autodesk recommends you name this Autodesk Media Storage. When you install Smoke, you will be asked to select a location and this will be given this name. You can then add another name (each name is unique).

I won’t be looking at the other settings for now. If you’re not happy with the changes you’ve made, you can always choose ‘Reload‘ (bottom right). If you’re happy, click ‘Apply.’ Restart (or start) Smoke.

For a detailed overview on how to configure Smoke properly, click here.

In Part Two we’ll look at the options you have for preferences and project settings.