The Autodesk Smoke Crash Course for Beginners (Part Two): Preferences

In Part One we looked at how Autodesk Smoke is structured, and how to set up the software before you use it. In this part we’ll look at the options you have for preferences and project settings.

Fire up Autodesk Smoke and you get this screen:

Smoke FirstI nterface

There are two things you’ll need to do before you can start using Smoke:

  • Select your project settings
  • Define the user


Project Settings

Under Project, click New. You will be able to choose a variety of presets:

Smoke Project Settings

First you give your project a name. The specifications of your project could be the specifications of your final delivery or your source footage. It depends on whichever workflow gets you to the end the fastest, and how much transcoding needs to be done.

Here’s a brief overview of the project settings:

  • Volume: This is the same media drive we created in Part One. Choose an existing volume. This cannot be changed later. A project is always linked to one volume.
  • The frame count tells you how many frames are available in the framestore (we’ll get to this later).
  • Setup Directory is a ‘preset folder’ that you specify on creation of a new project. Further projects can be put in the same directory. In Setup Mode, you can choose to copy the exact same settings as another Setup or create your own.
  • In Config Template, choose a default or create your own. A configuration template is attached to each project, and it tells Smoke what settings should be used for playback. These include refresh rates, timecode, frame rate for playback and so on. You could ideally choose a template that matches the project’s resolution, but if you don’t have a monitor that can match that resolution or frame rate, you could use a more suitable config file. This only applies to the playback environment, and not your project resolution. If you don’t have an external monitor, you could select a config file (*.cfg) with the extension ‘_free.cfg‘. This will disable the broadcast options in Preferences.
  • When you select the resolution for your project, you get these choices:

Smoke Resolutions

  • If you don’t like what you see, you can always make your own. Select the aspect ratio and color bit depth. Smoke can go up to 16-bit float (Sony RAW, for example), and can also take 8-bit, 10-bit and 12-bit files.
  • The Graphics bit depth is used to display images (on your monitor) with greater accuracy. If you use 16-bit floating point, it will take longer to calculate, but the imagery will be more representative of the final result.
  • Under Cache and Renders, you can choose the format that will used within Smoke to store rendered files in your cache. The options are:

Smoke Intermediary Options

  • To render as DPX or OpenEXR, select Uncompressed. Legacy gives you customizable uncompressed options (there are no restrictions when you select this option). Prores gives you lighter files. Autodesk tells us that the CPU performance isn’t affected by any of these settings, only the data rate is affected (which it does, duh!).
  • Under Proxy Settings, you have three choices: Proxies On, Proxies Off, or Conditional. For Proxies, you can choose a fixed resolution or a percentage of your media. You also have the option to select the interpolation algorithm you want to use for your proxies, and whether you want 8-bit of full bit depth.


User Settings

The second thing you’ll need to specify is a user. Don’t fret, that’s you, sir. You can select users based on who’s in the network sharing Smoke. To keep things simple, let us assume there’s only one user at the moment. So you can specify a name for the user.

You can always access your project settings by going to File > Project and User Settings….

Are we done with the settings? Not by a long stretch. Here’s one more, just for kicks:

Smoke Preferences

Go to Autodesk Smoke > Preferences…. You’ll get this (click to enlarge):

Smoke Preferences

As you can see, Smoke offers you every imaginable setting at your disposal, not all of which you might want to try on your first go. In fact, I’m pretty sure you hate me for showing you this!

The preferences are global, and apply to your Smoke experience. These are not limited to any project. If the Smoke Settings utility was based on configuring your hardware, Preferences are software-based. Here is a quick overview:

  • Audio  – on how your audio is handled and played back.
  • Backburner – pertains to background rendering.
  • Broadcast Monitor – obvious.
  • General – Again, obvious. One thing I’ll mention is the Auto-save option. There are two kinds of saves – a soft save (you can cancel it when you see an orange Smoke icon. Just move the mouse or type something, etc.), or a hard save (a normal save). By default, both kinds are switched on.
  • Input Devices – settings on tablets like the Wacom, etc.
  • LUT – obvious. You can control every aspect of your LUTs, and create/import 1D and 3D LUTs.
  • Storage – Gives you status and testing tools.
  • Support – Stuff for technical support when you have problems.
  • Timeline – Timeline options, including setting defaults for transitions, etc.
  • Timeline FX / CX – timeline options for effects and ConnectFX.
  • User Interface – self explanatory.

Whew! That’s a whole lot, isn’t it? I’m sure you’re glad to have made it this far. But I have bad news. There’s one more thing we have to do before we can start.

The Service Monitor

You need to check if all your background processes are working. What the heck does that mean? Smoke opens many background services on startup, and we need to ensure these are running properly. Otherwise you’ll have errors you don’t want.

This is a separate application like Smoke Setup.

Go to Finder > Applications > Autodesk > Smoke xxxx > Utilities > Service Monitor:

 Smoke Service Monitor

Every human being (except the guys who designed this) can be forgiven for screaming and tearing their hair out (wherever you can find them). What is all this? In simple terms, these are just background processes that need to be all green. Let’s keep it simple:

  • Backburner – As seen above, this handles all background processing and rendering. The Manager does the managing, while the server does the delivery (just like in a restaurant). Smoke is designed to be used as part of network, so one Manager can handle many clients at the same time. Exporting isn’t handled by Backburner, since that is not a background process (you have to wait for it).
  • Wiretap Gateway or just ‘The Gateway’ – The Gateway handles bringing media/clips into and out of Smoke, and also conforming (which is also the same thing). The most important function of the Gateway is to stay in touch with your original files (which might be on a SAN, etc.), local copies (intermediaries that will make your editing and playback faster), or proxies (that will make your job even faster). You can relink to each very easily.
  • daemon – a daemon manages background processes as a whole. Bringing files into your computer over a network, transcoding them, etc., needn’t bog you down. The background processes actually make your life a lot easier, and the daemon is the universal name for such an application.
  • Stone+Wire – this manages your framestore and allows for interaction between different Autodesk Smoke systems on a network (like Smoke or a Flame or Lustre system).
  • License Server – Tells you the license server is active. Mine is greyed out because I’m using the trial version for this article.

The bottom line is, you should have all your processes with the green status, and none of them should be red. Once you know this is the case, you don’t need to worry about it…until you do.

How to get help

Smoke has an excellent User Guide. You can get the general help page here, or go to Help > Smoke Help.

Smoke Help

You can also access many of the great Smoke learning videos here.

If you’re stuck with something you can always visit the Smoke Forums for advice and support.

Smoke is not a simple program under the hood. It is extremely powerful, with lots of bells and whistles. If you want an analogy, if FCP-X is a yacht, then Smoke is an aircraft carrier. I understand many of these settings and preferences will look intimidating to a newcomer, which is why Smoke tries very hard to keep them away when you start out.

You can simply launch the application and start working if that’s what you want. However, that would be the wrong way to go about learning something new. It’s like trying to ride a horse without knowing how to stop or steer it. Hey, these are the things that make Smoke unique. It’s up to you to figure out if this much complexity is a necessary part of your workflow or not.

In Part Three we’ll look at the typical Smoke workflow and how the work space is designed to further this goal.