Smoke 2013 - An Editing and Effects Super App

One of the biggest splashes at NAB was the preview of AutoDesk Smoke 2013. With the Free Publicly Available Smoke Pre-Release Trial beginning immanently I thought it would be a good time to put down some of my thoughts on the all new Smoke.

Rather than rehashing all of the product features, I'll focus on describing the problem that I think Smoke is setting out to solve and the core elements of the program that support its ability to solve this problem (if you want a full overview of the software features check this out). I'll also look at how Autodesk's pricing signals a broadening of Smoke's target market, users who will most likely to be attracted to it, and the potential this product has to shift the dimensions of competition in the NLE market: Workflow efficiency is in.

Smoke: Reducing Round-Tripping and Increasing Efficiency

With Smoke 2013, Autodesk is trying to help editors and video production companies reign in the complexity and wasted time associated with using multiple single purpose tools and plugins on a project. With shrinking post production budgets and ever tightening timelines, a highly optimized and efficient workflow is becoming increasingly important and this application looks like it will hit the spot.

To help editors achieve these workflow efficiencies, the new Smoke combines editing, effects, and media management into a single application.

Post professionals are all familiar with the pain of doing an edit in an NLE like Final Cut Pro, creating effects in After Effects, rendering, importing, and repeating. As the number of plug-ins and single purpose tools in a workflow increases, the problem of making changes compounds. The multi-product workflow might not be a huge issue if you only had to do these steps once, but the reality is that over the course of a project you have to go back and repeat things over and over as feedback and client requests come in.

Smoke 2013Timeline UI

The workflow in Smoke 2013 is based around a track-based editing environment. Autodesk has designed the new interface such that anyone using Final Cut, Avid, or Premiere Pro should feel right at home. Users will be able to start cutting directly in Smoke by pulling in footage from the MediaHub, or they will be able to import a timeline from their NLE of choice and get to work. There is no need to switch applications as you move from working on effects and compositing to color grading and editing. You simply switch to different modes from the timeline. Changes & updates are quick & easy because effects & edits are connected in the timeline and everything is updated immediately.

In a sense, the integration of editing and effects into a single program goes a step further than offering suites of tools like Adobe Creative Cloud. Even a Creative Cloud user who uses Dynamic Link to incorporate After Effects compositions into a Premiere Pro project wastes time switching applications and making sure that the linking is done properly. With a single application, there is no need for jumping around or linking, effects are always available for viewing directly in the timeline, and they are always up to date.

The genius of what Autodesk has done with this release is that it has made the strengths of its visual effects and finishing tools much more accessible by incorporating them into the timeline based interface. Essentially it has taken a tool that has long had a reputation for having a steep learning curve, and turned it into something that an experienced editor can begin using productively in a short period of time.

This is not to say that people will wrap their heads around node-based compositing overnight, since that's totally unrealistic. The software is simply much more approachable: People who were previously intimidated by the old workflow don't have to jump directly into the deep end. Editors can start using the tool in a familiar way, build their confidence, and start trying out more complex effects over time. The benefit to doing so? They have access to a very deep tool set that can do amazing things. If you saw some of the demos the Autodesk crew was doing at NAB, you'll know what I mean.

In sum, the big benefit of tight integration is that users can make changes to edits, effects, color all without leaving the tool. Since time isn't wasted exporting from one tool to another, it means more flexibility to try creative new things. A more experimental and iterative process could also facilitate client revisions due to the smaller number of steps involved.

Solid Media Management + Working With Native Video Sources = Efficiency

The changes to Smoke 2013 go beyond eliminating round-tripping. The tool also promises to reduce the friction associated with media management in multiple applications, as well as, working with a wide variety of file formats in a project.

Smoke MediaHub Browser

All media in a project is managed through the new MediaHub browser. From here you can browse sequences, review & edit meta-data, preview sub-clips, and import media so that you can start editing right away.

Smoke is designed so that editors can natively use video sources from DSLRs, digital cameras, and application specific formats such as DNxHD and ProRes. This means that work can begin immediately without a long log and capture session and that formats can be mixed in the timeline.

Since color correction will likely be done with native formats within Smoke, there shouldn't be any issues with conforming footage and exporting into another color correction tool. This has proven to be a gotcha for Premiere Pro and Avid users who edit in native formats and later need to conform and export media for color correction in a tools like Davinci Resolve.

Efficiency Isn't a New Focus For Smoke, It's Just Being Taken to a New Level

Giving post production professionals an integrated set of tools that is designed to minimize clicks and reduce time spent round-tripping material isn't a totally new thing for Autodesk. The company has just taken that to a completely new level with Smoke 2013 and the new timeline based interface.

How much time can be saved through integration?

As an example, we can look to an "independent" study that Autodesk commissioned from Pfeiffer Consulting with Smoke 2012. The study timed how long it took seasoned editors to complete a comprehensive list of finishing tasks in Smoke 2012, versus a multi-product finishing workflow composed of several editing and effects packages.

The Smoke professional performed the full list of editing, finishing, and rendering operations in 1 hour and 53 seconds, versus 1 hour, 18 minutes and 33 seconds for the editor using the multi-product workflow. This means that the multi-product workflow took approximately 30% longer to complete the tasks (54% more time when rendering was excluded).

The tests highlighted that Smoke's highly integrated workflow required far fewer clicks, trips to the menu bar, and context / application changes than the competing workflow (which did offer the advantages of flexibility and diversity of tools). The other advantage for Smoke came from a consistent and purpose driven interface.

Admittedly studies such as these are biased. This one in particular ignores the fact that Smoke had a steep learning curve and there was a limited supply of Smoke experts that could produce these type of time savings on a consistent basis. Due to the smaller supply, these experts would likely command premium rates, which would impact the ROI of using Smoke.

Nevertheless, it's hard to dispute that there is potential to save significant amounts of time by using a consistent interface and a single set of highly powerful tools. With Smoke 2013, and the timeline based interface, Autodesk is reducing the learning curve and making it easier for a whole new group of customers to benefit from the significant workflow efficiencies of the "super app".

Expanding the Market With New Pricing

Autodesk's decision to reduce the price of Smoke from $15,000 down to $3,500 is a sign that it's serious about expanding its target market beyond high-end visual effects artists.

At $3,500 and with the increased flexibility associated with its media management functions and timeline based editor, it will be much easier for a large audience to justify the purchase price which is still significantly higher than some of its competitors. For instance, at a rate of $100/hr, you would only need to save 35 hours, or approximately 1 week of time over the course of a year for the software to pay for itself. With a 48 week working year, this means that the program would pay for itself if it saved 2% of your time over the year.

To further reach into the mass market, Autodesk has reduced the hardware requirements for Smoke. It will comfortably run on the latest generation of iMac and MacBook Pro systems that are equipped with Thunderbolt storage and IO.

This is an important component of Autodesk's strategy, since cheaper software doesn't mean much if you require a large investment in fully decked out Mac Pro's just to run it.

Smoke 2013<em>iMac</em>PromiseStorage.png

Beyond increasing the absolute size of the market, I think the pricing move has several benefits for Autodesk:

  • It helps build buzz and momentum (the free trial period doesn't hurt with this either). More approachable pricing will help encourage people to test the software.

  • It likely reduces the potential for piracy. At some point it's easier to buy the software than pirate it. $3,500 is still expensive, but the workflow efficiency should help pay for it.

  • It ensures that people will upgrade to each new version of the software. In a rapidly changing market, Autodesk will want to make it easy for its customers to stay up to date. $15k per seat per year, is not an easy upgrade.

  • It helps segment the market for Smoke. More price sensitive production companies can simply pay the license fee and learn how to take advantage of the tool on their own by experimenting, buying books, and watching videos. Larger shops will likely pay significantly more to Autodesk once they invest in additional support, upgrade programs, and official training courses.

Who The New Smoke Is Going to Work Well For

Smoke is now a much more mass market product, but it's still not going to be for everybody. As always, it makes sense to take stock of your goals, type of work you do, and client demands before rushing out and purchasing a new tool set. So who does this work well for?

First off you need clients that value quality, effects, compositing and color correction. People producing low-cost web video and bare bones corporate videos are probably best sticking to a tool like FCP or Premiere Pro.

I think that Smoke is a great fit for companies that need to turn around effects heavy videos under tight timelines. The ability to incorporate changes quickly and easily will be an important element of the purchase decision. This market includes those who do lots of work on broadcast television commercials, high-end corporate work, agencies who edit in-house, as well as, and large corporations with their own production groups.

Questions About the New Smoke Will Soon be Answered

The curtains will be lifted very soon and we will get the chance to see if the software lives up to its promises.

Will it be easy enough? Previous versions of Smoke were powerful, but very complex. Autodesk is building off a strong base, but the NLE is version 1. Will the bins, media management, shortcuts, trimming tools, etc. truly work the way that people expect them to? Will the learning curve of the new version be easy enough to spur more mass adoption?

Based on the feedback I've heard, the people I've spoken with, the demos I've seen, and the early reviews by Creative Planet, Scott Simmons, and Walter Biscardi, it looks like the software will live up to its disruptive promise.

The prolonged public beta is an excellent way of answering these questions, and it is a great marketing tactic. People will have 4-6 months to use the software and see for themselves what the learning curve is like, and whether it makes sense to integrate the tool in their workflow.

The Broader Perspective: Changing Dimensions of Competition

I think the release of Smoke highlights the changing dimensions of competition in the NLE world. It's akin to the changes in the PC world where total cost of ownership became more important than the sticker price of a computer or the processor clock speed.

The various editing options will increasingly be evaluated based on their ability to shave time off the entire post production process. Reducing clicks, imports, exports, renders, and manual asset management will be the order of the day. Shrinking budgets and tight timelines will dictate this.

Premiere Pro will have to get better at media management, because this is where time is wasted in collaborative workflows. While Avid has made strides in opening up the front-end, Walter Biscardi's post highlights that it has lots of work to do in terms of opening up its back end so that people can efficiently export projects into other tools.

If tools are going to be measured based on their overall ability to increase an editors efficiency over the entire post production workflow, then suites or super applications are the easiest way of delivering this. Why? Because everything inside of a suite can be controlled by developers. You can try all you want to work well with external products (and don't get me wrong, I think this is important), but diverging corporate goals, development priorities, interface decisions, and release schedules mean that it's going to be harder to offer a streamlined experience through a collection of third party tools than it will be within a single tool (or suite of tools).

Bottom line, I think that this market is going to be increasingly about suite vs. suite, and that Smoke's approach of tightly coupling tools into a single application could give it an advantage over companies like Adobe and Apple who have more loosely coupled their editing tools into several different (but related) applications that link assets.

Taking this speculation a bit further, if Autodesk's approach is successful and if it starts encroaching on the share of the other NLE vendors, it could prompt some changes or consolidation in the industry. Could this pave the way for Avid and Blackmagic to find a way to combine Media Composer and Davinci Resolve into their own "super app"?

Conclusion - It's Time to Get Out And Test Smoke

It looks like there is a new major contender in the NLE ring, and that it has the potential to be disruptive to the industry.

If you are at all in the target market described above, it's definitely worth checking Smoke out when the preview is released. With a prolonged public beta period (it should be usable until the commercial release in the fall), people will have the opportunity to test it for free themselves and make up their own minds. For post production professionals, it's nice to see a road-map laid out in advance so that they can see if the product lives up to the hype, test it, and make plans for the coming year.

We really like where Autodesk is going and the approach it is taking. This is the first time they've opened up a tool for a prolonged public beta period to get feedback and improve the product. While it's hard releasing something before a product is completely done, the public feedback helps make a better product faster. We hope for the best, because it will spur more innovation in this market.

Once you've got Smoke in your hands, let us know what you think in the comments below.