Top 5 tips for the Smoke pre-release

Like others, we’ve been looking forward to the pre-release of Smoke 2013. Mike and I have been fortunate enough to have been putting it through its paces for for the last several weeks and learning the ins and outs.

Unlike a lot of other pre-release software that is widely distributed, this software was released early in the development process by Autodesk in order to get feedback from users as soon as possible. So while it’s great to be able to use Smoke in its newly released form, it’s also important to keep in mind that this is very much software under development. Have fun with the app, but be prepared to run into some bugs and instability. Honestly, it’s to be expected for a release that’s actually labeled “ALPHA” in the Preferences pane. It’s not a reflection on the software that will ship later this year.

With that in mind, I have some useful tips to make sure that you have as positive an experience with Smoke as is possible.  These are only tips for this early version…things will surely be fixed as the software develops further. And they aren’t tips suggested by Autodesk. But they are a few things can make your life easier based up my experience of running Smoke for several weeks. For me, it made it a lot more fun to dive into this new version of Smoke.


Our Smoke Fundamentals training is now available, and as part of that training Mike shows how to utilize FBX files within Action. For those of you who have purchased the course, we’re providing the files Mike used as part of the class. Enjoy!

Download the Smoke2013_fxphd_FBX files

The tips

In short (with explanations below), my top tips are:

  1. Don’t use H.264 sources
  2. Don’t “Create Project Media” when importing footage
  3. Use ProRes sources
  4. Move Media Storage to a faster drive
  5. Smoke is RAM hungry. Turn on the 64-bit kernel and use more.

Let’s take these one by one:

1. Don’t use H.264 footage

Playback performance of H.264 clips can be dreadful. Autodesk is aware of this and will have it improved in a later release. For testing and learning, though, it’s not really a big problem. Just transcode to ProRes footage and performance will improve dramatically, making exploring Smoke fun again.


2. Don’t create Project Media when importing footage

When you import media into Smoke you have effectively have two options: use it right off the file system (similar to FCP or Premiere) or click the “Create Project Media” button and have Smoke manage the media for you. If you click the “Create Project Media” option and import a clip, Smoke will transcode your source clip into the Intermediate Renders format you chose fwhen you created your project. This resulting movie gets saved in your “Autodesk Media Storage” folder.

Leave "Create Project Media" disabled when importing

In theory, this can be a great thing. Transcoding to an efficient playback format can help performance tremendously (see point #1). Also, having the software manage your clips for you in this “hidden” folder makes sure that it can always find the clips for you.

Why is this good? Well, in Pre Release 1, if you don’t create project media — and then happen to move an imported clip to a different place on your hard drive — Smoke won’t find the clip. Instead, you’ll get a gray and white checkerboard display in your player window and a lot of complaining from the software. And there is no way to relink/reconnect the footage (this workflow will be introduced later in the summer). To get access to the clip again in Smoke, you’ll need to move the movie back to the original location manually.

But — and in my personal experience it’s a big but — those benefits are outweighed by the bugs. For me, the most unstable part of the release has been the background processes that run to copy your imports through the transcode process. Spinning beach balls and movies that never import. I’ve had nothing but bad luck with it on multiple systems.

Once I stopped doing this, I was much happier. So I suggest you do the same.


3. Use ProRes sources

If you want a more pleasurable experience with the first pre-release, I suggest using ProRes for your source footage your intermediates. It’s so much less weighty than other footage possibilities (H.264, R3D, etc), that its ideal for learning the software.

I’m not suggesting you don’t try other types of media — one of the great things is Smoke’s ability to use a wide variety of footage. But if you just want to get in and try to learn the creative tops, you’ll be much happier if you use ProRes sources.


4. Move Media Storage to a faster drive

By default, Autodesk creates an “Autodesk Media Storage” folder at the root level of your hard drive and doesn’t give you an option to place it elsewhere. This is where intermediate renders are placed (such as when you render a segment on the timeline).

But the folks at Autodesk have let us know how we can move it to a faster drive or array. I recorded a quick tutorial movie which goes through the simple process, which you can view here:

[fx_video src=”/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/media-move.mp4″ link=”/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/” width=”680″]


5. Turn on the 64-bit kernel and use more RAM

This is something I haven’t gotten confirmation of from Autodesk, but increasing RAM usage made a big difference for me. Stability increased dramatically once I allocated more RAM than was happening by default.

First off — if you have 4GB of RAM or less in your system, you probably won’t be lovin’ life with Smoke. I started out using a Late 2009 iMac (2.8Ghz i7) that only had 4GB. I should have known better based upon my history with Smoke. After upgrading to 16GB of RAM, the software immediately ran smoother — my guess is that even 8GB would have improved things tremendously.

Second — I also found it was key to enable the 64-bit kernel and modify the Smoke settings so that it would use more RAM.

Enabling the 64-bit kernel

Because the 64-bit kernel can sometimes wreak havoc with installed system add-ons, I don’t use it as the default. Instead, I temporarily restart in 64-bit mode when I’m working in Smoke. In order to do this:

  1. Restart your mac
  2. Before it restarts, press and hold the 6 and 4 keys down (as in 64-bit) until after the chime sounds and the system begins to boot up
Smoke Service Monitor Troubleshooting tab

When you want to go back to 32-bit mode, all you have to do is restart your computer.
If you want to make the change permanent, you can use the Smoke Service Monitor to permanently set it. This app can be found in the  /Applications/Autodesk/Smoke 2013 PreRelease1/Utilities folder. Just start the app, click on the Troubleshooting tab, and click on the 64 bit button.

On the next restart, you’ll be in 64 bit mode. To change it back, just click the 32 bit mode and restart.

Modify Smoke settings

When I first restarted into 64-bit mode, Smoke was still only using about 4GB of the 16GB of RAM I had available. I figured that I would use 8GB for Smoke and  leave 8GB free for other apps and the OS.

Adjusting memory sue

In order to get the app to use this extra RAM, you then need to modify your Smoke settings. This is done with the Smoke Setup app, found in the same /Applications/Autodesk/Smoke 2013 PreRelease1/Utilities folder. Just open it up, and in the General tab there is a “Reserved Application Memory” setting.

Memory use is listed in MB in Smoke Setup. To get 8GB of memory use, I entered 8000MB and clicked on the “Apply” button. If you wanted it to use 6GB, you would enter 6000MB.

This allows Smoke to use up to 8GB of memory for frame buffers within the software, leaving a healthy amount available for other apps, the OS, and background processes. I suggest you leave at least 30% of your RAM free for other purposes.


Wrap up

The idea behind these tips is to make your life happier when learning this new Smoke. If you’re like me, you get frustrated when you keep hitting tech walls that you need to jump over or bugs that you need to overcome. Smoke 2013 is an incredibly exciting development for the industry — and it’s gonna get even better over the development process.

But in these early days, the moniker of “keep it simple” is a wise one to follow.