With the arrival of the 2015 version of Flame, Autodesk seems to have brought the software back on track, says Alistair Rankine. He gives us the lowdown on how the new Flame is better than the old one It has been a few years since I last reviewed Autodesk Flame. Since then a great deal […]
With the arrival of the 2015 version of Flame, Autodesk seems to have brought the software back on track, says Alistair Rankine. He gives us the lowdown on how the new Flame is better than the old one
It has been a few years since I last reviewed Autodesk Flame. Since then a great deal has happened in terms of functionality, pricing and product availability. Pricing on Flame Premium, Flame and Smoke has been slashed with regards to subscription, a couple of new products have been added to the Flame/Smoke family, and Smoke Advanced on Linux has been placed into retirement with all Smoke Advanced Subscription holders receiving a free upgrade to Flame 2015.
I cant deny that I was disappointed with the 2014 product range that was released last year. Flame and Smoke Advanced both received a substantial makeover in the 2014 version, with a completely new interface to boot. The new interface looked fantastic, years ahead of the previous release, and it really felt that Flame/Smoke had moved forward in leaps and bounds. The only problem was the software had been released way too early, was full of bugs and crashed a great deal.
Now, with the arrival of the 2015 version of Flame, I truly believe that the software is back on track and keeping its head high above its competitors.
The new 2015 Product line is certainly the most advanced line-up yet. Since the release of the Flame Premium 20th Anniversary Edition, both Smoke and Flame have made use of the Flame Reactor render engine. What this essentially does is allow the software to work in conjunction with accelerated GPU via the NVIDIA Graphics card, giving the user an extremely fast system with real-time timeline effects as well as advanced rendering for both Timeline and Desktop Batch.
This has now been taken one step further, with Flame 2015 allowing even faster processing and a more advanced workflow for 4K formats.
This includes real-time playback and monitoring via SDI of 4K/UHD material at 50p and 60P, optimised node performance for Timeline and Batch Effects, and 16GB fibre channel controllers for people with fast storage, allowing real-time throughput of high-resolution images. 4K/UHD colour management supports ACES and REC-2020 colour spaces, and it is also now possible to create 4K resolution element using Substance Texture, Substance Noise/Splatter and Materialize.
Another addition is Background Reactor. This requires a second GPU card to be fitted to your system and allows artists to render their work in the background while they continue to work, giving a totally interactive workflow directly on the systems on hardware. In the future, we may also see the second GPU being used for other tasks, such as conforming in the background.
The interface itself looks very similar to the 2014 version but the Library, Desktop and Timeline workflows have been redesigned. The 2014 library was problematic. With the new workflow we now have a Library area and a Desktop area. The Library is the final place where everything is saved and the Desktop is the area where the Reels, Batch, Batch Snapshots and Batch Sources are saved. This, in turn, is then saved to the main Library.
This may give Smoke Advanced users a headache until they get used to it. I personally have chosen to work out of the Library and use the Desktop as a Scratch Pad for any work I am doing, not as a Save destination. There is a line of thought that says this way of working is much simpler, more easily understood and more organised. It also helps to give a more modern feel to the workflow. It is up to the artist how they work, as long as everything gets saved to the Library at the end of the session in an appropriate manner.
The re-introduction of large thumbnails in Library is of great benefit, as are the full width and dual views, all allowing for extra organisation. The new Library and Desktop appeal to long-term users and new users alike.
New additions to the Creative toolset are 3D shapes and Replica. Multiple Gmasks can be added to a singular 3D shape, and it also makes use of the existing Ellipse and Rectangle Gmask Nodes. Extra functionality has also been added to help enhance the creation of 3D shapes. The new Replica Node in Action basically functions in the same way as the old cascade and duplicate trick, all contained within one Node.
Matchbox shaders were introduced to the software a few versions back and come in the form of a Matchbox Node, a Scriptable Node built around OpenGL Shader language.
As many people didnt upgrade to the previous version of Flame due to its early release, they may have missed out on Flame’s Tracking improvements. Basically, the point tracker has been given a complete overhaul. One of the most interesting things is the fact that the Vertices and the UV trackers are now separate. This is confusing at first, but once you start using it correctly, it starts to make sense and opens up a whole new world of tracking ability.
As well as new additions to the creative toolset, there are also many more new enhancements and “under the hood” additions. One is the ability to work with a second monitor. Flame has always only used one monitor to work with the software, but it is now possible to have your library set up on one monitor and your work on another. When I first saw this, I thought it was an unnecessary addition. After working on it, I found it difficult to return to one monitor. A good addition but not essential.
Conforming has been improved with the ability to relink content to multi-channel clips such as OpenEXR and PSD formats. It is also now possible to use RGBA files within a conform which automatically promotes the file into a convenient Matte Container.
With the introduction of Smoke 2015 we now find that Smoke is only available through a Cloud-based Desktop Subscription. If you are an existing Smoke on Mac user with an active subscription, you will be offered the chance to either move over to a Desktop Subscription or to have a perpetual 2015 licence.
There are many welcome new features in Smoke 2015. The timeline line FX infrastructure has been re-designed and works in the same way as the timeline FX on Flame. It is now possible to re-order timeline effects using the FX ribbon. This is basically a hidden Batch/CFX tree, which can be directly accessed in the timeline without entering Batch/CFX. This gives you the option of working directly in the timeline on your FX work. If at any time you decide you need to promote your work to CFX or Batch, you can easily promote your timeline FX into CFX/Batch and continue working on them in their Node-based format, offering you even more control and versatility on your final composition.
The Axis effect on the timeline has been replaced with a single Layer Action effect, which can be used either as a segment effect or as a Transition effect. This offers a whole host of extra features in the timeline, such as 3D Lens Flares and customisable preset Action transitions between clips.
It has been a long time coming for Smoke users but there is now a 3D Camera Tracker available inside Smoke. This offers a great deal of scope for both compositing and Motion Graphics. This is also available in Action in the timeline FX, allowing for 3D camera solving to be carried out directly in the timeline.
Other major improvements include support for Blackmagic DesignLink card and UltraStudio for Thunderbolt devices, as well as video IO support for AJA Video Systems offering dual stream stereoscopic output.
Integration between Smoke and FCP has improved vastly, as Smoke now supports more timeline effects and metadata from FCP as well as being able to output XML files with accompanying Quicktime files to make for a more seamless round trip between the software.
In terms of improved performance, Smoke 2015 has been specifically designed to work hand in hand with the new Mac Pro running Mavericks. When combined with Thunderbolt Storage, the speed and responsiveness is unbelievable, leaps and bounds ahead of the previous version, making the system a joy to work on. Conforming has been vastly improved on both Smoke and Flame and increased support for native files has also been implemented.
A few things, however, are missing from the new version of Smoke. Gone is the support for third party plugins. This isnt necessarily a bad thing, as Smoke still has access to the previous arsenal of Flame FX nodes inside CFX and also has access to Matchbox Shaders, so there are plenty of options directly inside the software. One of the main problems was the cost of third party plugins, more than the software in many cases.
One big issue, though, is that Smoke and Flame are no longer compatible with each other.
This may have huge implications for freelancers who originally purchased Smoke so that they could share projects and setups with the facilities that they were doing the work for. I imagine this may cause many original Smoke users who work in this way to move away from the software altogether and look towards other ways of working closely with Facility Houses.
Personally I think this a bad move on Autodesks part. I already hear a lot of people saying that they are looking at the prospect of changing to Nuke Studio from the Foundry in order to have affordable compatible software that they can use to share their work and projects.
That said, Smoke 2015 is a fantastic finishing tool and although compatibility with Flame is restricted it stills offers first-class Keying, Tracking and Grading tools and in my opinion still has one of the best interfaces of any finishing system available.
Flame Assist and Flame Premium
Presently Flame Assist is virtually the same as the Smoke 2015 perpetual licence, with an almost identical toolset.
As with the Smoke 2015 perpetual licence, Flame Assist can share projects and can be networked together with other Flame systems. Flame Premium consists of Flame alongside Lustre, allowing for a seamless round trip of Finishing and Grading.
Many people were initially surprised with the new updated line of products available. There was a lot of hype before the products were launched, with many people like myself hoping to see something very different from what was actually released.
I had envisaged a new product line-up consisting of two products only: Flame/Flame Assist for Mac and Flame Premium on Linux. Flame on Mac could have been a little brother to Flame in the same way Smoke Advanced has always been a little brother to Flame. I didn’t imagine that there would be any restriction on purchasing products, and I certainly didnt imagine there would be functionality removed from existing products.
It looks like Smoke on Mac is now being targeted at FCP and Premiere users who want to be able to add that extra magic to their projects, and put in the hands of the right person it remains a high-end finishing tool.
The Flame family has now become a more exclusive set of software aimed at high-end finishing and FX work. It still boasts some of the best tools on the market and will continue to be a favourite of designers and compositors alike. Unlike other compositing software like Nuke the Flame interface allows for something more than straight A, B compositing; it is a limitless creative environment which allows the user to take a project in any direction they choose.
Flame still has no direct competition on the market. It is still the best standalone Creative Finishing, Compositing, Grading and Editing system. This may change with the release of Nuke Studio. As I said earlier, Nuke is a great A,B compositor and certainly has a few more advanced compositing tools in its arsenal. However, up until now it has seemed like a very mechanical process compared to Flame’s unlimited creative workflow. Also, most Nuke artists have to work across a variety of programmes in order to complete the job. Perhaps Nuke Studio will become a challenger in the near future. As we know, the Foundry is a very proactive forward-thinking company that takes on both client and user comment.
Other competition may come from Mystika, which seems to have cornered the stereoscopic 3D market at the moment. Mystika’s big issue is lack of customer support, which is a major issue. It doesnt matter how good your product is, if it breaks in a client session it is imperative that support be on hand. This is an area where Autodesk excels, with 24-hour support via the helpdesk and in situ support via the local reseller.