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Smoke Gets On Your Mac

Maybe it's not just about high-priced clientele.

By Mark Christiansen | December 03, 2009


Last week, Autodesk offered a preview of its Smoke software on the Macintosh at the Inter BEE 2009 Conference in Tokyo, where the software was announced at a $14,995 price point - cheap for Smoke, very expensive for Mac-based studios relying solely on some mixture of Final Cut Pro, After Effects, Avid or Nuke.

In the short term, this clearly will not revolutionize video production because it will only reach a select audience who see a clear return on the investment It is nonetheless hugely significant for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is no other software available for Mac that does exactly what Smoke offers: editing and compositing in a single tool optimized for interactive, over-the-shoulder client work.

The question is whether client-attended work is the big deal that it was earlier this decade, or whether Smoke's true advantage may lay elsewhere.

Because Smoke is on the Mac, the competition on that platform - those other companies whose names start with "A" - will respond in some way or other, even if just to say why it's not relevant. That was largely the reaction to Autodesk's announcement earlier this year of Flare, the Linux version of Flame, whose availability was made so limited (only available, at a high premium, to existing Flame licensees) as to make it easy to ignore.

But price is still an issue for Smoke, and there is the question as to why Autodesk didn't target a direct challenge to Final Cut (or Avid). The answer clearly lies in the company's desire to maintain a quality reputation by providing responsive and thorough technical support. A mass-market release would be premature for software that has previously only run on very specific systems, and there will be better and worse ways to do it.

If you've never been in the same room as a Smoke, you can look at it as a hyrbid: more of an editor than any compositing app (from Flame on down to After Effects) and more of a comper than any of the big editing competition (Final Cut and Avid).

To the casual observer Smoke resembles the Flame, from whence it emerged a decade or so ago, especially in the Action module, where compositing happens. Smoke allows the editor to work with true 3D compositing - including incorporation of a 3D camera track into a node-based workflow - instead of farming it out elsewhere.

Smoke is optimized for media management - an area where Final Cut has never quite made it - and responsive playback, although the Mac version will not initially be as "real time" for editing or delivery as its pricier predecessors.

That's all important for those client sessions - the question is, does Autodesk hope that many times more of those sessions will be possible with this price drop? I seriously doubt it. The stealth truth about a tool like Smoke is that its users (or "operators") come to rely on it not because it makes those stressful client sessions go more smoothly but because a responsive, integrated system adds creative possibility, allowing options to be tried and changed quickly.

And that is where the competition had better not overlook this one. Many compositing apps are just fine if you know exactly what you want to do, but all of them are positively excruciating if there's any editing involved. Editing and comping go together all the time - not just in the final assembly but in the earliest stages of pre-visualizing a project. Pre-vis is all about speed, trying a wide range of options quickly. Autodesk has on their hands a tool that facilitates that process but was too expensive to justify its use for that purpose.

That's changing now, and once the kinks are ironed out, Autodesk should have the options to re-price Smoke for Mac as competitively as they choose. This would leave the competition - if it doesn't pay attention and stays in place - to play catch-up, once they figure out that Smoke is not about more and more clients looking over artist shoulders, but rather more artists working more rapidly on their own.

If instead the result is that the competitions responds by making its tools more responsive and versatile - then everybody wins, right?

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MichaelSanders: | December, 04, 2009

I don’t think you get the idea about the price.

Smoke is aimed at the top notch VFX post houses, it is not competing for the same market as final cut pro so why compare it?  High end post houses require quite a few different things from the average lounge editor using FCP.  Firstly 24hr tech support and secondly bug fixes that happen in days not years.  Also, as you say Smoke works entirely different to FCP so gets used in different - much higher end edit sessions.  This kind of software will be charged at different rates to an FCP suite so its not an issue.

Not everyone in post has dropped down to the cheap end of the market and there are still parts of Soho in the UK doing very well working on the old traditional model using the real high end (and real time which is the key!) kit.

Its like comparing a Z1 to a F900R, both do something similar but both are aimed at users who have completely different requirements; and at the top end we accept that’s what the kit costs - and thankfully so do most producers!

Mark Christiansen: | December, 04, 2009

Okay, Michael, let’s suppose that’s true. Why would Autodesk cut the price and raise the technical variables of software that is already serving that market?

MichaelSanders: | December, 04, 2009

‘cause there not stupid..

it could be any number of reasons: Because they want everyone to migrate over to the Mac Platform over time, because they realise that everyone - especially the big post houses are having to deal with the big R and price it accordingly.

And I don’t think they are aiming for mass market, simple as that, nor as you say - would they want to.

Mark Raudonis: | December, 05, 2009


Your nuts if you don’t think this is a “trickle down” attempt to reach into a lower market tier.

This is a story that has repeated itself countless times through various industries.  What was once “high end” is now available to the masses.  You may not like it, but that’s what’s happening here.

Not everyone needs a cappacino machine and a pretty hostess to justify their room rates.  That group is going to leave in a New York minute and find the talent that’s willing to go it alone.

Yes, this is a major shift to a more mass market.  24hr tech support?  Puhleeze! This crowd can wait till morning, ‘cause they ain’t paying the high room rate!


gcelso: | December, 06, 2009

This move is definitely going to compete for the same market as Final Cut Pro whether it’s for high-end clients or not. Maybe not the instant it’s released, but eventually.

Having an editor/compositor in one program bridges the gap that currently exists with the current Adobe/Apple workflows: By and large, most post houses/facilities (at least in the SF bay area) are outfitted with Final Cut to edit, and After Effects to composite.  People like cutting with Final Cut, but do not like compositing with Motion and so there’s a big gap in the workflow. Of course there’s XML export scripts, Automatic Duck, etc., but hardly a seamless workflow. Of course, that’s just one technical issue, and not enough to justify the price difference, $2500 vs. $15,000. But nonetheless an achilles heel in the two competing workflows.

I think a few things might happen:

Autodesk can be looking at this in the long term. They have enough programs to compete and provide alternatives to the Apple and Adobe workflows, at least on the visual end.

Not going to sugar coat this, this has happened with Maya, Max, Final Cut, etc. It’s not on an expensive SGI machine anymore, it’s on an Apple. Anything that can run on a personal computer is highly susceptible to being pirated. Without a shadow of a doubt, the moment this is released this, there will be a torrent for it. A new crop of filmmakers/videographers/imagemakers, etc. will have easier access to it, potentially making it a standard by the time they become legit or start requesting it from their employer or client.  This is a reality for me and the company I work for. We’re continually having it to upgrade to keep up with the contractors we hire that barely can afford an editing system, but have the latest and greatest in software.

In any case, they still have an uphill battle to fight. Should be interesting.

Sproketz: | December, 07, 2009

All you can really say about this situation is “wait and see”. No mention here of what the yearly maintenance contract will cost. Autodesk has been hearing loudly from users over the last couple of years regarding high priced maintenance contracts with little or no significant updates or addressing of long standing complaints.

One COULD hope that somewhere down the line this might push Apple and Avid to be more responsive with new features. For instance, Avid could bring the Symphony color correction feature to the entire product line.

Or Apple might add gestural features to their interface or maybe eliminate all the round-tripping and just get everything to work in the one interface, like Smoke.

Smoke has a very valuable feature set, but I don’t think the $15,000 stated price tells the whole story on cost of ownership.

But it’s certainly a first step in an interesting direction.

Mark Raudonis: | December, 07, 2009

Yearly maintenance = $2,000.

Full cost of ownership?  Like any system, the software is just the tip of the iceberg… but that’s ANY system.  The point is, the cost of the software, AND the platform to run it have now dropped to a previously unheard of competitive level.

Sproketz: | December, 07, 2009

The former Discreet line has always been infamous for forcing users into their proprietary, vertically integrated systems.

With current systems you do not just buy Smoke software and a CPU.

Will users need Autodesk

Mark Raudonis: | December, 07, 2009

“And exactly how will the system be crippled to mitigate the anger from customers who paid full tilt for Smoke?”

Just ask Avid.  Their software price has been on a downward plunge for years.  How do their users feel about? 

Many people already own the I/O, monitoring, support items you mention.  Lot’s of big questions that don’t matter.

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