The most common question I am asked when scoping a VFX/Post/Broadcast facility, whether small medium or larger is whether they should be buying, Smoke, Flame, Nuke, After Effects, Eyeon, 3Ds Max, Maya or Cinema 4D. Whether you are a sole trader creative, small to medium sized business or a large scale facility the answers are always the same…the tools are one thing but what are you trying to achieve is another. Now I'm sure there are those of you out there that may laugh and guffaw at this as an answer either because you think its a ‘sales'y’ type question or an avoidance of the question…nothing can be further from the truth.
There is a decent sized intro here so please bear with me as I do believe that it absolutely has relevance to how you may like to look at your workflow…its is important to understand the viewpoint.
An analogy I use is that of renovating a house. Bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, lounge room, outdoor decking and the backyard all have components that need to be completed and there’s a lot of thought that needs to go into it. Once you have your plan you need your materials, be they floorboards, skirting boards, vanity unit, toilet, built in doors and the plethora of other materials that go into each section of the house. Once you have all that you select your tools. But what are the right tools to pick?
Its at this point I then leave the home renovation and look at the products mentioned above and what the customer is trying to achieve. What is your project?, how do you want to achieve it?, how quickly does it need to be done? and will you be doing this sort of work in the future?
So look at the tools in hand and judge them on their merit.
Do you want to buy a sander that is only designed for doing floorboards only? Will you be doing floorboards in the future? Perhaps…do you have other sanding that needs to be done like skirting boards in other areas of the house? Yes? then maybe you shouldn't look at the floorboard only sander. (reductionist I know but roll with me on this) If you only ever want to sand floorboards and never want to do anything else, then maybe it is the right thing to buy.
Lets now talk about the tools of our industry and how you work.
What is it in this project that you need to achieve? Is it compositing? editing? effects? A bit of sound? some graphics? encoding? …or is it all of them? And do you do this all the time? Will you be doing this in the future?
The conversation isn't that different from the house renovation to be honest.
I'd like to call out the most common discussion point here as there are two competitive products in the marketplace that I think are worth discussing here…and of course the introduction will make sense. Bear in mind this is only an example and is not a slight on any of the products mentioned. Similar discussions and parallels can be drawn between AVID Media Composer vs Adobe Premiere Pro, Maxon's CINEMA 4D vs. Autodesk Maya and in some cases Autodesk Maya vs. Autodesk 3DS Max.
Autodesk Smoke for Mac and The Foundry's Nuke. Both are excellent software packages and are incredible at what they do. But the tool isn't everything…its how the tool fits into your facility….not just the project, but your facility. I'm not going to go through every single feature of Nuke or Smoke as there are half a million websites and articles that wax lyrical about camera trackers, GUI advancements and node trees etc etc. That’s not the point of this post. (although I do suggest you check out their awesome features) The point of this post is to suggest to you that both tools for their merits are excellent tools and whether they suit your workflow. And also before everyone cries out "Sean, I've seen all your marketing around Autodesk, you're biased…" this isn't the case as we sell both products. I'm not going to make your mind up for you I'm going to suggest a few areas to look at for you to draw your own conclusions
How do you see your workflow? - is it a shot based or an end to end ? This is really the crux of the analogy I used above. Are you only ever going to sand floor boards? If your focus is only ever comping single shots then Nuke may be for you. If you need editing as well as comping, as well as sound…then Flame or Smoke. If you are in between then you need to drill down and work out where you want to be
Price - This shouldn't be the main driver...but most people dismiss software and hardware solution based solely on price. Should be the furthest thing from your mind. Why? Its a moot point as both of these software packages are within coo-ee of each other. Don't focus on it and don't change your facility or workflow just to facilitate a very very minuscule saving in the long run. Cost saving vs productivity is a recipe for disaster. Similarly looking at the increase in productivity and the increase in output often changes the discussion around software. "So I can double or triple my output by only spending x amount more?" You guys are all smart and know how to monetize that increase in output :)
Point products - How many products do you need to achieve the output? Do you need Adobe Premiere, Maxon Cinema 4D, Nuke/After Effects and Hiero to achieve the same thing that you can achieve in a single software package like Smoke? When a client asks for a revision how hard is that for you to do on the fly? Point products are often the organic way that small facilities grow as they add elements to their workflow as required…there’s nothing wrong with that approach, but when the flexibility of the facility and the productivity is hampered by the mere fact that there was never a clear workflow in the first place nor a vision then people find themselves beating a path through the jungle by themselves.
The other element there is that the more platform changes and work arounds implemented as a result of multiple products means that when a revision needs to be done you have to jump all the way back in time throughout your workflow to do a revision. Wouldn't it be nice not to have to jump between packages and literally step back to that point in time? You can with products like Smoke and Flame….and these products continue to make our customers both existing and new, very very successful and agile. Its also worth noting that there is no editing capabilities in Nuke as it truly is a compositing package and not interested in the editing aspect….to get a timeline for this you need Hiero.
Native Support - If you have to flatten, render out, change, transcode or translate from one piece of software to another just to get to a digestible format every single time you need to do another element... its not going to end well. I don't mean rendering in your application (rendering small effects), I mean rendering out from ProRes to DPX sequence so that you can pick it up in another program and combine it with other transcoded material because the host application doesn't support that codec.
Out of the Box or build to order - This is one of the most contentious topic between the two platforms of Smoke and Nuke…which is why I have put 5th….no I haven't buried it down here before you ask… I've just left more room to discuss it. Are you a propellor head? Do you like scripting? A lot do and a lot don't…which is why this often defines workflows and processes in facilities.
Smoke and Flame have one of the best out of the box experiences in that the media management, project sharing and multi user capabilities make it unbeatable. Multiple user profiles, set ups, project sharing between seats and suites as well as projects moving between software packages is outstanding…and why they are the tools of choice for so many people. You can build a project, fill it with media/content, edit, comp, export and archive it all without customisation. While the Smoke/Flame workflow is unique the fact it contains this entire pipeline means creative users can just work. Of course there are technical complexities due to all the high tech background infrastructure and its need for proper design, implementation and maintenance, but that’s where Digistor come in ;)
Nuke on the other hand is limited in these area's. Single projects, very minimal media management, very few features related to project sharing and a number of other elements leave the software fairly resident on a single workstation with little to no interop between seats. Now that isn't always bad, however in a studio environment where collaboration is king and speed is the ideal scenario it can sometimes be a very limiting factor. What is lacks in these areas it makes up in its API. Users, developers and internal engineers at a facility have the ability to script their own software to harness the API as well as use coders to create media management tools, or script mundane tasks which adds to the power of the software. But to get to the level of a Smoke or a Flame you would need to spend a lot of time to try and replicate that may not get close…I've not tried so I won't make a call on that…. that’s for coders and scripters to argue :)
Its really up to you - Ultimately the decision is entirely up to you as a customer and what tools you are happy to implement in your facility. Do you want ease of use and an out of the box pipeline in a box? or is the pipeline not as important as your ability to customise the tool for your pipeline? There’s no wrong answer but I can tell you that others will say one is right and one wrong. What I can also tell you is that many of our customers often end up buying both tools. I can hear people sighing 'well why did you bother with the article if people buy both?!?' and my response to that is that this is the critical part. These customers and individuals have recognised that there is a requirement for both….but they know the limitations of workflows or capabilities and purchase the tools that are required. More recently facilities are investing in the Autodesk workflow be that Flame Premium, Smoke or Flare because they don't need to design their pipeline. This is the selling point…they buy a license of Nuke for shot based work to then feed into their Autodesk pipeline.
The take away that I hope that I have imparted is that buying a tool is no different whether it is building/renovating a house or creating a Post/VFX pipeline. The tools that you choose need to be the right ones but they need to have flexibility, longevity, be multipurpose, be able to aid productivity and not sit on the shelf due to only needing it for one project. All tools have their pro's and con's…but knowing them and critically analysing those pro's and con's will leave you in a much stronger position to maximise your own productivity and make smarter decisions around the right tools.