This week's release of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Flame, over three years in the making, reveals a dramatic and positive change in the software. There is so much that is new in the product, starting out with the clearly obvious new UI and workflow that breaks down the walls between Batch, the desktop, and the timeline. But it goes much, much deeper: from improvements such as a modern ACES colour management workflow -- to a brand new, more efficient renderer for Batch called "Flame Reactor" -- to a new conform tool that greatly improves the finishing process.
Congratulations to the team in Montreal on this incredibly important release. In fact, congratulations to anyone who has had a hand in its development over the years -- it's a testament to the work of the team that the product has seen valid for such a long lifetime.
Even the history of fxguide finds its roots in Flame. The fxguide crew all met because we are Flame artists, and actually created fxguide.com as a place for flame*, inferno*, fire*, and smoke* artists to share tips and tricks. It's reassuring to see that Autodesk is fully committed to its flagship product, as well as attempting to grow the stable of young artists through Smoke on Mac.
In this in-depth article, we start by giving our overall perspective on this very first release of brand new Flame. We then dive into detail about the new features in the software and discuss where they excel and where they fall short.
Be sure to check out our fxpodcast with lead product designer Philippe Soeiro, where we cover many of the issues brought up in this article. Also, we have free "Getting up to Speed" training over at our sister site fxphd.com. They are designed to get Flame artists like the fxguide crew up to speed on the changes in the release. Our first of five videos is up now, with more coming next week.
At NAB in April, Autodesk publicly unveiled the new Smoke on Mac, but made no public mention of Flame even though it was its 20th anniversary. leaving Flame users wondering what was up. Due to various corporate reasons (such as revenue reporting, etc), the decision was made to focus only on Smoke, as announcing both products at the time had implications for the company from a financial standpoint. Whisper suites were held for many customers, allowing the company to show what they were working on regarding Flame, but because of having to sign NDAs, no one was allowed to speak publicly about it.
Then, in September, Autodesk revealed the new 20th Anniversary Edition of Flame publicly for the first time at IBC and announced it would be coming out as an extension release to the 2013 software in the autumn. The reality was that both software packages had been in development for a long time, very much in parallel. In fact, plans for the Flame release started over three years ago before there was even a plan regarding the dramatically redesigned Smoke on Mac.
A main goal of the release has been to bring storytelling (Timeline), effects (Batch), and the workspace (Desktop) to equal prominence in the software and place it on equal footing. The Montreal team refers to the release as a milestone release, because from their standpoint it's a key step in converging the different creative tasks into a new finishing process. And they won't be stopping here. "This should eventually incorporate grading - or anything that contributes to the look of a story," says lead product designer Philippe Soeiro, "and not necessarily in the form that we know today."
In order to accomplish this, walls between the creative areas have been torn down where appropriate. Moving between the various tabs is fast…an artist can easily be working in batch, immediately switch to a timeline view, make modifications, and then be back in batch.
It's a bit hard as an end user to comprehend the amount of work from the Montreal development team it must have taken to accomplish this release. In addition to the UI and workflow changes, we'll be covering many of the new architectural changes in this article that users don't see. And they are significant. Also, on top of developing the new Flame, there is a public beta for Smoke on Mac going on at the same time. While they do share much core architecture, it is still two different sets of software with different workflows. They must have been hitting the espresso machine pretty hard for the last several months.
And now it has been released -- the rebirth of Flame. After using the software ourselves, the changes are massive and exciting for the future. However, we can't help but feel that it could have used more time in development in Montreal and in the hands of beta testers to refine it. As release software, it is simply not as polished, refined, and -- most importantly -- as reliable as we've come to expect from Autodesk releases. Other artists who have used the software feel the same way.
If you're expecting to upgrade and start using this software immediately with clients, you're in for a shock. First of all, the workflow changes are huge. You will be lost at times. But it's ok -- honestly you'll be missing features from the new software when you're working in the old. "As a long-time user I was actually surprised at how much I missed the media library once I had gotten used to it and had to go back to the older software," says Wally Rodriguez, a longtime Flame user. "The Smoke Mac pre-release gave me a head start on that, but the amount of new things in the software is not trivial. In general I also wish that there had been more development time to iron out some nagging issues that are there now, but I believe that getting more people to use it will help tighten up the whole thing nicely."
As Rodriquez alludes, there are some very rough edges in the software as well as quite a few bugs, especially regarding getting footage on and off the system. We'll be highlighting some of these of issues in this article to help you be aware of them. In fact, we find this line from the Autodesk email about the release to customers quite interesting:
Continue to use your 2013 release (shipped in April 2012) in production, and make the switch to the 20th Anniversary Edition workflow when you are ready. Autodesk highly recommends familiarizing yourself with the new workflow in the 20th Anniversary Edition and/or Extension 1 release prior to use in production.
Our recommendation is similar, but reflects our frank opinion about the software's current state:
Treat the 20th Anniversary Edition as a beta or pre-release and install it alongside your current production version.
First and most importantly, it's simply going to take you time to get up to speed in the software at the same level you're at with the previous release. As mentioned, we actually have free videos available at fxphd to help with this. You'll want to spend time learning the software before using it with clients.
Next, this will give the team in Montreal time to fix some of the issues we discuss in this article. These have been brought up in the beta process by us or others, and are very much on the radar to be addressed. In fact, as you're learning the software, listen to our fxpodcast with Philippe Soeiro where we talk about some of the issues and their plans on fixing them.
In fairness, getting the software out into the world as soon as possible does allow more users to help shape the software and refine the workflow. These early days are critical for locking things down and a wider exposure could actually help make the software even better. I'm sure Autodesk was anxious to get it out there and get some feedback from its users, much like the Smoke on Mac pre-release program.
Before you jump to the conclusion that we are totally down on the new version of Flame, we're absolutely not. This release is a incredibly positive sign that Autodesk is devoting a large amount of resources to its development. They're certainly not simply letting it die out. If you can see past the various issues as we do, you realize that there's a tremendous amount of promise.
We simply feel that Autodesk shouldn't have put it out there as "release software" it in its current state, because it sets a certain expectation. We're concerned that artists will reject the new workflow because of the rough edges around it. Put it out as a public beta would be fine, but we would have much rather seen them take more time in development and come out with a killer, robust, and polished version battle tested and ready for production use. It's the 20th Anniversary Release after all…that's a big title to live up to.
And if you have further doubt that we feel positive about the software, I'm actually "all in" on Flame. Several weeks ago,I upgraded my system to the current Z820 hardware as well as did an upgrade from Flame to Flame Premium. I wouldn't have spent that kind of money if I thought the future was bleak. And the new system actually arrived on the day of the software release. Nice timing.
So learn the software, help shape it on flame-news or by joining the beta program, have fun, and by the end of the year we'll hopefully see something truly robust for the demands of production. And next April, we can have an even more killer 21st Anniversary Edition.
Now on to a closer look at the software....
One big change is that contextual menus are prevalent throughout the software and, in fact, quite important to getting work done. The contextual menus are accessed with right mouse clicks (but who uses a mouse?), holding down the meta key on the keyboard with a pen press, and the top pen button. When you first access one of these menus your first reaction is the text is really big. But working with a pen is quite a bit different from a mouse and we feel they've struck a good balance between size and usability. Whether you like contextual menus is admittedly a personal taste, but in general we are very supportive of this move
You'll want to embrace the new functionality in order to be happy with the software. It takes a bit of getting used to, but over time we became fine with it in most situations. While at first the lack of dedicated buttons seems to take more effort, eventually you find that in many operations it ends up being faster than the previous way of working.
We still feel a need for dedicated buttons in several situations where there are none, but in many situations hotkeys are available. Also, a nice side effect of the contextual menus is that they provide hotkey guidance. It makes for an easy way of learning the new shortcuts in the software.
When working in the software, you'll find that there are often multiple ways to do the same thing - through contextual menus, hotkeys, or gestural moves. Deleting is a good example -- you can use the Backspace key (that's consistent throughout the software), drag an item to the bottom of the screen to delete it (the icon changes to a trash can), or use the contextual menu.
But because this is the first release of the software -- and things are in a bit of a raw state -- there are some inconsistencies. For instance, while you're on the desktop you can delete items from the Media Panel by dragging to the bottom of the screen. But in an odd twist, you can't do this while in the MediaHub. Which in theory would be the place where you were managing your media. Hotkeys like Delete also don't work in the MediaHub, so you must exclusively use contextual menu items to delete some items when in the MediaHub.
The contextual menu button on the pen is the upper button, which makes it a bit awkward to easily access the menus, so we suggest you modify the default. Go to the Keyboard Shortcut preferences and search for "Access Context Menu". Double click on the one which shows "Ctrl-POINTER_BUTTON_2". Switch the pref to the bottom button by clicking on the bottom pen button. You should see the text update to say "Ctrl-POINTER_BUTTON_1". Press Set and close the window (thanks to Brian Mulligan and developer Frédéric Warren for this tip).
One thing you'll notice is that when you try to access a contextual menu with a drop down, you'll need to move the cursor across horizontally before moving down. If you try to move diagonally, the drop down menu disappears, which can be quite annoying. This is one of those things that seems like it slows you down when working. But you do get used to it eventually, and Autodesk is aware of the problem and working on it.
In general, we're also bit flummoxed regarding the overall "look" of the UI. Obviously, visually redesigning menus and buttons for an existing product is fraught with pitfalls. We've seen the comments on flame-news from artists who loathe the new Smoke on Mac UI look. But it's odd that Smoke on Mac, in our opinion, has a more modern look than the flagship product.
"Modern" is also much more than skin deep. We would have liked to see some more modern operations in the UI. For instance, it's nice to see Autodesk added a search box on the Media Panel. But it's a shame that it's not more like the functionality that was introduced in Adobe products. In those products you simply start typing a few letters and the view is filtered on the fly to display only matches to your search. I use this all the time in After Effects to navigate through a long comp list or to adjust effects.
Overall, though, we feel they have made the right moves from a UI standpoint. It's new and as we said has some rough edges. But we're confident those will be cleaned up sooner rather than later and we'll have a much smoother experience when working in the new software.
New "Flame Reactor" Renderer
While a major focus was on the UI, a lot of other work has also gone on under the hood. One major change is a new renderer in Batch called "Flame Reactor". All material in Batch is now automatically promoted to 16-bit fp and artists no longer have to worry about 8, 10, and 12 bit conversions. The pipeline is also fully unclamped, so that out of range values will be maintained unless they are explicitly clamped.
One major casualty of the addition of new rendering pipeline is that the beloved old-school Keyer is gone from the software: Batch, Tools (aka Desktop), and Action. Autodesk felt that the work to completely re-write the Keyer module to support 16bit fp would take too much effort and still be an architectural dead end.
"The case of the Keyer node is a bit contentious since it is still very much loved for its 'all in one' streamlined interface, even though everything it does can be reproduced in the Modular Keyer," says Soeiro. "As part of the retirement plan for the Keyer, we have been investigating ways of repackaging the functionality - currently available as independent nodes in the Modular Keyer and directly in Batch - into a more streamlined UI which would address ease of use concerns," he says. "This is something that is on our radar and we hope to address it in a future release." We're supportive (albeit painfully at times) of the need to take dramatic steps in order to build a better foundation moving forward. The fxguide crew are all MK users for complex keying tasks, but the Keyer node was great for simple operations. We hope that having an improved keying super tool happens in relatively timely manner.
To deal with compatibility, they have maintained the "Classic Engine" as a project preference in the application so that artists can be sure they can match previously rendered material. You set this when you create a project and it cannot be changed after the fact. Using the "Classic Engine" is required if you have setups using the Keyer module -- and who doesn't? This is because the pipeline is 16fp and the Keyer node or Action layers with Keyer will choke.
As far as "look" of resulting renders that don't use the Keyer, the difference between old and the new obviously depends upon the content and the setup. In many instances you'll be fine with the result of the new render. We've generally found the differences to be totally acceptable in most situations, so you won't necessarily have to create two projects for each legacy job.
There have also been improvements in memory read backs, which means material doesn't have to be loaded on and off the graphics card and RAM as often. Several nodes have gone through GPU acceleration improvements. According to Soeiro, all of these taken together have made a difference in benchmarks. "The outcome of this release is equivalent - or better - performance of Action in Batch when compared to the Desktop module," he says. "This is extremely important in establishing Batch as your main environment for content creation at the forefront of the application."
There are situations where Batch interactivity may feel more sluggish in the new release. But in our testing with various setups, on balance it definitely seems no worse from before and in general feels much more responsive. And yes, admittedly there is some pain with having to deal with legacy projects as well as the loss of the Keyer module. But in all, it's a very positive step from our perspective. Updating the rendering pipeline is critical in keeping Flame and Smoke valid moving forward. I'd rather take my lumps dealing with compatibility for a short period of time, as long as that means Autodesk is getting new features and improvements in our hands faster as opposed to spending time building backwards compatibility.
New Colour Management
The 20th Anniversary Edition brings a brand new, modern colour management workflow to the software. Under the hood, it is a very sophisticated implementation that sets the stage for even more improvements moving forward.
What makes it different from the previous implementations, among other things, is that it is a solution for an ACES color workflow, which allows conversions from various source color spaces into a scene-referred linear workflow and then back out to appropriate devices.
Unlike the previous tools in the software, which generally dealt only with gamma and levels, this allows not only that but also transforming imagery into a color space for working. The previous tools such as 1D & 3D LUTS and the PhotoMap tool didn't deal with color space.
This is incredibly ground breaking for any product as it is the first compositing application which, off the shelf, provides a true color managed ACES workflow. The critical difference with this release is that it provides a scene-referred linear workflow, which fully takes into account the color space and characteristics of the source camera and original footage.
How do you use it? A sensible approach would be be to convert your source footage using the supplied Colour Transforms into the ACES linear workspace, work on the footage, and then convert it on output to a destination profile. You can apply the transform when importing your footage or by accessing the RGB LUT functionality in Batch.
Autodesk supplies a variety of transforms based upon available camera information; this includes Arri, Canon Technicolor Cinestyle (transforms to Video, not ACES), and Sony F35 and F65. They also provide transforms for getting from film to ACES, taking into account the characteristics of a 10-bit log Cineon file. In addition, there is a new UI for applying multiple transforms within a layered list, with concatenated transforms.
The next step would be to set up viewing on your monitor so that you can view your work in a proper state. In preferences, the LUT tab allows you to set up 3D LUT & Colour Transforms. This allows you to load a variety of viewport LUTS for you to access utilizing Alt-Shift hotkeys. In these preferences, you select the appropriate graphics monitor transform for your monitor. Autodesk provides monitor transforms for the Eizo 240W, 241W, and 245W monitors. This transforms from the ACES working colour space into a viewing colour space appropriate for your monitor.
The final step would be to apply a colour transform at the end of your processing (batch or export). There is a variety of transforms, including to HD video, DCI, and sRGB to name a few.
This is really a brilliant step forward for the software. We've covered issues related to colour management in the past and up to this point Adobe After Effects has actually been the main mainstrain product to provide the ability to work in a scene referred linear space. Autodesk has definitely taken the game to the next level.
The Desktop & Timeline
The Desktop is, and has always been, the heart of Flame. It was a bit worrying knowing the team in Montreal was making such dramatic changes to the Desktop. Especially with someone who uses vertical reels at the helm. But we're happy to say that the new Desktop -- and more specifically the Desktop + Batch + Timeline trinity -- is a very positive step forward. More than anything, it points out that the core decisions the team made regarding the workflow changes are correct and that the foundation is laid for the future.
We say that with the understanding of what we spoke of before: that this is the first release and there are some rough edges and missing features. But these problems aren't inherent flaws in the workflow; instead simply bugs and operational workflow hitches that simply feel unfinished. It's solvable stuff and once it's solved, it's gonna be great.
And honestly, it's pretty good right now. I'm already at the point where I prefer working on the new desktop vs. the one in the 2012 release. A big reason for this is that the editing timeline is always present when you're working or it is at least a tab switch or double-click away. The timeline generally follows the selection you have made on the desktop so as you select a clip on the reels, the clip is selected in the timeline. As you scroll through a clip in the timeline, the proxies update on the clip on the desktop.
A big reason we feel the timeline will be used more often by artists is that it has been dramatically simplified and cleaned up from a UI standpoint. Many buttons have been removed; buttons that we felt were unnecessary and frankly made the timeline overly complicated. Gestural editing feels much more flushed out, with strong and very useful visual cues when dragging from the desktop to the timeline. Cursors change more predictably based upon context and gone are buttons for (what we felt) were obscure trim and ripple modes.
We're confident that many power Smoke Advanced users will take issue with our strong praise of the timeline. There are things they will miss. But as a flame artist I find that much of my work -- probably 95% of it -- involves fairly straightforward gestural editing where I'm swapping in new clips, slipping shots, making minor trims, and creating new versions on the timeline.
I was a big batch timeline user myself, but found the location of the timeline (an island in batch) as well as the complexity made it way less useful and many users shied away from it. Working with the timeline on the desktop in previous versions was also incredibly painful. But the barrier is down between the reels and the timeline and it makes a huge difference. Mike, who shied away from the timeline in the past, mentioned the other day that he is using the editing functionality and timeline way more than he ever did in the software. So am I. I think that's a great sign.
A key aspect of the timeline that, for the most part, remains in effect for this release is BFX -- it's the former BatchFX which was buried inside the Batch timeline. Each clip in your timeline can be a BFX clip, which effectively means each is a batch setup. Once you get used to working with BFX, it is truly powerful. Instead of managing multiple batch setups and clips, that's all effectively managed as part of your timeline...since the timeline contains the setup. You can even handle versions by creating multiple version "layers" in the timeline and switch between them. It is true that with weighty batch setups things can slow down a bit, especially with autosaves. But in most cases the benefits outweigh this.
The contextual menus bring a lot of functionality directly to the desktop that artists didn't have before. Via these menus, artists can select multiple clips and reformat them, manage their media, even export them. You can splice reels as well as CTRL-select multiple discontinuous clips and they're spliced in the order in which you selected them. There's even broadcast monitor support, so that as you select and gesturally scroll clips on the desktop they are viewable on the monitor.
There is a new gang functionality, which allows you to create multiple groups of ganged clips on the desktop. You basically scroll your various clips to a given frame that you want them to be lined up on, and then gang them together with a hotkey (or contextual menu). You can then scroll through the clips with them locked together. In all, there are more features (like the multiple groups) than lock reels, but it's definitely not a replacement for that. One casualty of the first release is that there is no simple lock reel functionality -- using gang is nowhere near as straightforward, simple, and fast. But the need for Lock Reels was heard loud and clear during the beta process and we feel we'll see the return of it sooner rather than later.
Unlike previous releases, desktops aren't saved in the main Media Library area, but instead there is a special "Desktop Snapshots" section. It may, at first, seem vastly different but it really isn't. In order to save a desktop in the 2012 release, you'd save to the library. Now, you create a snapshot by hitting the Snapshot button on the desktop. At this point, it gets saved to the Workspace Library. If you wish to load a previously saved desktop, you use a contextual menu to either replace or append the snapshot to the current Desktop.
We hope there's a drag and drop functionality added to this in the future to make it easier and faster than using the contextual menu. You can also save individual reel snapshots as well, by clicking on the camera icon on each reel. These are saved to the latest Desktop snapshot you had saved. Well, most of the time they are. There are some bugs related to this and in certain cases they can get added to an unexpected Desktop Snapshot. This is something that needs to be consistent moving forward.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the fact that you can have an unlimited number of reels on the Desktop now. At any one time, up to eight of these reels may be displayed. Visibility is controlled via "eye" icons in the Media Panel. You can now easily re-order reels on the desktop by dragging and dropping them.
With all this praise, though, all is not rosy in the first release. The problems, bugs, and workflow hitches in the Desktop are fixable things and if you look at each of them individually they don't seem all that big a deal. But they do add together to create some confusion. I think much of it has to do with the fact that we're working in a new environment and aren't fully comfortable, so when things go wrong we're more easily confused. It's similar to being pricked by a needle. One ain't bad. But ten or twenty times….it gets pretty annoying. What are some of those things?
The age old operation of picking a tool, selecting a clip, and tapping where the clip goes is at the heart of desktop workflow. But in the first release, the result clip always goes to the first position on the reel. And sometimes, this is offscreen. So you come out of a module having rendered a clip and it's nowhere to be seen. Eventually you anticipate this, but organizationally it is very problematic. On top of it, there's no indicator that it is the last clip processed. I can't believe how much I relied on this in the past instinctively, but I did. The good news is that the team in Montreal promises that this will be fixed as soon possible.
There are also rough edges in gestural operations on the desktop, which are intended to operate as they always have. There are times that gesturally cutting an uncollapsed clip and moving it resets or moves the reels so the new clip ends up in a place you don't expect. This is incredibly confusing to have clips seemingly jump around on the desktop. They don't really jump around, but the clips slide in position (sometimes offscreen) so you end up being lost. Again, the good news is that the team in Montreal promises that this will be smoothed out as soon possible.
The software is *very* selection-based. This, coupled with the fact that you can have multiple clips open in timeline tabs, can lead to modifying a clip that you don't expect to be modifying. It's difficult to track down exactly what is happening when you're working, but most everyone on the beta program has commented on "getting lost" at times. It's definitely a new working environment, but the fact that all of us experience this at some point points out that something is amiss. This is the type of thing that can be smoothed out, but it will take some use in production to refine the workflow on large desktops.
In the timeline, a change has been made to the "mark out" functionality. It now mimics behavior seen on most desktop editors, which is that the out-point is actually one frame later than it was in the previous release. So if you go to the out-point, you actually view the first frame of the following clip -- or black, if you marked out on the last frame. We understand the desire to have something that is more familiar operating procedure to new users to the platform. I'm sure new users were just as confused by the old behavior. But it does change the way operations work in the software. I'm finding myself marking out and then jogging back one frame and marking out again. Users have asked for a preference to follow the old behavior, but the jury is out as to whether this will be implemented.
Finally, the Desktop seems sluggish and less responsive compared to the previous version. You adapt to this when you're working in the software, but moving back to 2012 you realize how incredibly fast and responsive the previous Desktop was. Good news is that Autodesk is fully aware of the issue. "People have been complaining about the Desktop being less reactive on the beta," says Soeiro. "This is because the Desktop does a lot more than it ever did before: allowing you to send Desktop clips to the broadcast monitor, or previewing soft FX in the Desktop reels, to name just a few additions. While the overall performance of the Desktop is arguably better, the performance hit of the added functionality may be too big of a trade-off. We are taking the performance feedback very seriously, and recognize the importance of having a very reactive Desktop environment."
We're confident that these issues can be worked out in a timely manner, and when they are worked out we feel we won't be looking back at all. The Desktop we know and love will be better than it was.
The far left tab is the MediaHub. This area is where you perform import and export, access other projects, and archive materials. This area reflects some of the biggest changes infrastructure-wise in the software, as the code related to importing, wire, and archiving has undergone a massive rewrite. A big reason for this was to unify and simplify the code so that features can be streamlined and improvements added moving forward. "It simply makes no sense to have 3 different ways of importing and exporting media in the same application with different conventions for each one, and different underlying code," says Soeiro.
The team worked to significantly streamline all of the I/O processes (Import, Export, Publish, Wire, Archive) in the application into one centralized workflow. "Throughout this project, our mission has been to hunt down common tasks that require drilling into disconnected portions of the application, says Soeiro. "Our long time users are accustomed to the constant hopping back and forth between modules, and they no longer think twice about it." However, users new to the product point out the discontinuity of having multiple inconsistent ways of doing things.
The MediaHub UI is effectively divided into two main areas.On the left is the Media Panel, which is the closest parallel in the new release to the clip library. This is the view upon files which have been imported, as well as saved desktops, now called "Desktop Snapshots". It's also the place where you find "Batch Snapshots", which are snapshots of the current batch state, which includes setups and clips. The Media Panel is accessible throughout the software in each and every tab. It's your choice as to whether it is visible or hidden and it's a Shift-ESC away. This access facilitates easy drag and drop functionality from the Media Library to the Desktop or Batch -- as well as the other way.
The right side of the MediaHub is the area which involves getting footage in and out of the system. At the very top of the right side, there are three buttons which determine what actions you are performing: Files, Projects, and Archive. The state of the buttons determines what your view is in the right side of of the UI.
Because we're covering media at this point, it's important to point out a new behavior in the software regarding saving. When an autosave happens, it saves all areas of the software: the Workspace Library, the Desktop, and Batch. This can be confusing at first because a save doesn't automatically happen when you drag a clip on import into the Media Library. So for safety, we recommend setting the autosave to a lower value (that you can tolerate for interruptions) as well as using the "Force Autosave" functionality in the Media Panel tool popup or its hokey Ctrl-S. We also suggest utilizing an SSD for your system drive. We did this and haven't looked back...we feel systems should actually ship with one of these fast drives.
The Media Panel
The panel is divided into three main areas: Desktop + Batch, the Workspace Library, and Shared Folders. In the MediaHub, the panel takes up the entire vertical left (or right) side and is always present. However, the panel can also be shown and hidden on all of the other tabs, allowing easy access to footage. On the Desktop and Tools tabs, you also choose to have it only take up the upper-left/right part of the screen (it's always in the upper-left/right part in Batch).
As mentioned earlier, you'll find yourself using the Shift-ESC hotkey to show and hide this panel often since it allows you to drag footage to Batch or the Desktop. Within modules (other than Batch), there is no support for the panel and it can't be displayed. However, in clips in which you need to select footage from the Desktop, once you're out on the Desktop you can call up the Media Panel to access footage.
Like other areas of the software, there is a large reliance on contextual menus. Depending upon the context, you can reformat media, unlink it, cache source media, flush renders, lock clips and more.
Batch & Desktop
The top areas, Batch and Desktop, show the current states of both these areas. New in 2013.1, the software automatically keeps track of the sources being used in the current Batch setup and displays them in Batch area under a Sources folder. The Desktop area is a live display upon the current desktop. If you move a clip from one reel to another in the Media Panel, it will move on the Desktop. If you add a reel in this area, it adds a reel on the Desktop. While in the MediaHub, you can even import footage directly to the Desktop or Batch by dragging and dropping.
The Workspace Library section most closely parallels the previous generation Clip Library. This area is sub-divided into three areas: Media Library, Desktop Snapshots, and Batch Snapshots. And it's where you save those things.
When you import footage into the system, you would generally drag it into the Media Library. As mentioned earlier, if you drag and drop a folder it will create a matching folder and re-create the folder structure. In the time I've been using the software I've been using it as a staging area of sorts. The Media Library combined with the Batch and Desktop areas create a very fluid workflow with footage and it is something I miss when back in the 2012 release. This blurring of the lines is clearly an area that has improved in the 20th anniversary edition release.
The Desktop Snapshots and Batch Snapshots areas are a bit different. For starters, you can't actually import footage directly into these areas. Instead, by design, they are explicitly the locations where you save what their titles say: Desktop and Batch Snapshots. Batch and Desktop both have Snapshot buttons, which allow you to save the current states to the Workspace Library. Reels also have the ability to save snapshots, and they get saved into the last Desktop Snapshot that you saved. Well, most of the time they do. There are a few bugs related to this that Autodesk is working to smooth out.
A very important distinction with Batch Snapshots is that while it's not visually apparent, a Batch Snapshot not only saves the Sources area but also the entire current setup. The two are very much linked. Batch still retains the ability to save and load setup files, but with Snapshots you are unable to separate the two. The workflow is a bit new for me, but I've been finding that I've been using the batch setup save functionality for incremental saves and Batch Snapshots for 'polished (I never use the word "final") saves.
With both Desktop and Batch Snapshots, you can either replace the current "live" one or append to it.
One of the biggest concerns from users regarding the new Media Library is the size of the thumbnails and the layout. In the example below, compare a view of a single desktop in the legacy Clip Library compared to the same library imported into the current release.
Using the medium sized proxies in the 2012 release shows the difference in how easy it is to discern visual information about clips compared to the new release. It is can be difficult at times to determine what clip is what. You do have the ability to ALT-click/hover over a clip to get more information, but it's not a replacement for larger proxies. On a clip by clip basis, it is nice in the new software to be able to double click on it and get to the full sized player. With the Media Panel, you can easily switch between various clips in the library to watch them directly from the library.
You can also double click on a folder in the library and you're taken to the Timeline tab with a thumbnail view of all the clips in the folder. This is useful, but not a replacement for having something similar to what was present in the previous release.
In the end, the list view with small thumbnails is useful...we've been working with it for weeks. But there is definitely a need for another view in the MediaHub.
Shared folders are designed to simplify workflow between Flare workstations as well as Lustre. The idea is that you set up shared folders, drag footage into them, and work collaboratively.
One reason for this new workflow is getting rid of the problems of read and write permissions in libraries. If you right click on a shared folder, you can acquire write access as well as give it up and the same holds true for the remote workstation. They can render directly to your project framestore by rendering to the Shared Folder.
MediaHub: File Menu
The first button in the right-hand area of the MediaHub is File. This is the area in which you import and export footage into and out of Flame. You can also import and export directly from the Desktop as well, but this would be considered the central hub when doing so because it provides quick access to the Media Library. The UI shows Local Devices, which is locally mounted storage, and the Autodesk Network, which shows gateway machines on the network.
Once you navigate to your files, to import them you drag the files from the view of the filesystem directly into the Media Library or onto the Desktop or Batch area and footage is imported. It creates a folder in the Media Library with the same name and creates all the subfolder organization as well. Dragging an XML file will import the file and even relink the media if you have this option selected. Options for importing the media are set in the bottom part of the UI in the "Format Specific Options" area. The available options change depending upon the type of media and you can save presets for each file type that can be reloaded later.
Similarly, you can drag footage from the Media Panel back to the filesystem area, and an export dialog pops up which prompts you for the format. This fills the longstanding request for multiple file export. Like many operations in the software, deleting items can be done a variety of ways…from gesturally by dragging them to the bottom of the screen (the cursor changes to a trash can), hitting the Backspace key, or via the contextual menu.
From an end user standpoint, the biggest change with this mechanism is that the "old school" and export functionality is gone forever. Instead, the mechanism used under the hood for import and export is effectively Wiretap Gateway. In the past, on previous releases, we (and other artists) have shied away from using Gateway as much as possible due to its relative instability compared with the old school import method. Of course, there were certain formats you had to use it for, such as R3D, ProRes import on Linux, and multichannel EXR import to name a few.
But now you have to use it, since it's the only way to get footage into the system. When it works, it works. And in fairness, much of the time it does. The engineering team in Montreal has gone through a lot of effort to increase stability and also track down bugs during the beta process. I know this firsthand, because I spent time with them logged into my system debugging issues we discovered in Chicago. But the thing about Flame over the years is that you could always rely on it to get footage into the system and out in a rock solid way. "Much of the time" doesn't cut it…this functionality has to be bulletproof. And in our testing, it needs some work to get to this point.
The shortcomings come in two main areas: speed/performance and stability/reliability. As an example, one performance issue is simply browsing large directories of files. It takes a considerable amount of time to populate the file browser with proxies of clips -- and since there is no simple text list view, there is no speedy alternative. It takes so long sometimes that you wonder if the system has hung. Clicking the pen down will abort the scanning in most situations. Soeiro points out that it isn't necessarily the proxies that are causing the issues, but the fact that under the hood the software is doing quite a few things that other software doesn't do, such as checking for gaps in file sequences and verifying other data regarding the imagery. He admits that there is a place for a faster view that skips some of those checks, allowing artists to simply get to the display of files faster and make some of those determinations ourselves.
It's also important to understand that the view upon the file system is not actually a live view, unlike the filesystem browser in the previous release. If you're attempting to monitor a particular folder, waiting for some files to appear as they get uploaded to your system, the view won't show the new files. In order to update the view, you need to do a manual refresh (accessible through contextual menus) to see the new files.
Another aspect is dragging and dropping from the files view to the Media Library. Under the hood, the software creates a placeholder for the clips in the Media Library as well as submitting a Backburner job to queue the import of the footage in the background. Depending upon how many files you have and if you have Cache Source Media on (which saves the image data on your framestore ala 'Store Local Copy'), it can take a long time and seem as though the system has hung. Generally, it hasn't hung and you can see updates in the status line in the lower left part of the screen. But as a frame of reference style benchmark, dragging around 70 files/sequences from the file system to the Media Library and can take from 45 seconds to a minute to get the software back.
I may just be impatient, and probably am. The reality is, if I was importing files in the foreground, it would take much much longer than that to actually import the files. Fair enough…background import actually allows artists to get back to doing creative work on their workstations instead of waiting on imports. But when you start importing even more files, it takes even longer.
The bottom line? We really like much of the new and more modern functionality, especially the multi-file export. However, these processes need to be more reliable, predictable, and efficient so artists spend less time waiting or figuring out what has gone wrong. In discussions with the dev team all the way up to the top in Montreal, it's clear that they have heard this from their testers/customers and are fully aware and behind the fact that these operations need to be 100% reliable. Now they need to deliver that.
Similar to the Files selection, when you select Projects you can select either Local Projects or navigate to another system running wire on the Autodesk Network. By default, your view is in Thumbnails which allows you to see reasonably sized proxy thumbnails of the images in projects. The problem is, unlike the 2012 release, you can only see decent sized thumbnails if you dive into each and every reel in this view.
So you spend time navigating into and out of desktops and reels.
An alternate view is Workspace (or Workspace with Preview), which provides a layout more similar to browsing in the 2012 release. You can have multiple reels open and see what is in each of them. However, the icons are very small -- the same size as the Media Panel -- so you can't accurately judge the footage. You can select one clip at a time and view a Preview of the item, but you still need to select each and every item you want to check out.
There is a need for a hybrid view in the new release that more closely parallels what is in the 2012 and earlier releases. Artists need to see much larger thumbnails so they can more accurately judge the clips. The same actually holds true for the MediaPanel -- we need a view closer to the old school clip library. There is a way to see larger thumbs. By double clicking a folder in the media library, you actually get taken to the Timeline tab and you can view your clips in a Thumbnail view. But its a workaround for a view we really need back.
The good news is that you can safely get material on and off your system. However, this first implementation of the new archiving feels like a first implementation. It follows the drag and drop functionality which is present throughout the software. To create an archive, you navigate to a storage device and create an archive and open it. You can then drag and drop material from the Media Library to the archive. This material is shown in the panel as greyed out items. Items that aren't greyed out are items which are already part of the archive.
In the default view, it's not easy to view the actual clips that are actually tagged to be archived because you need to navigate into each folder. However, a switch to the Workspace view allows hierarchal collapsable menus where you can open multiple folders.
Also, if you drag the same item twice to the archive, it appears twice in the list. Thankfully, the actual material doesn't get archived twice, but its still confusing because you effectively have multiple copies of the exact same thing on an archive. The behavior might be this way because you can actually drag an folder that has say five clips from the Media Library to the archive, then delete two files in the same Media Library. When you drag the updated folder, it gets added with the three remaining clips and the original folder remains intact
There also needs to be more capability to search and select what actually gets added to an archive, because often times you don't want to archive everything.
Much of this also holds true for restoring from an archive. If you have a large number of items it becomes difficult to see what you're restoring when dragging a large number of folders from the archive to your Media Library. Also, because of the limitations of the UI, it is problematic to easily see what is on an archive in multiple folders. This becomes even more problematic in situations where an archive contains multiple folders with the same name (which is common) and you need to navigate into each of them individually to ascertain what they contain.
This is one area that needs quite a bit of improvement.
The mechanism for importing an XML or EDL for conforming and offline has been dramatically reworked with a new module that is a vast improvement over the previous relinking process. Strong kudos to the team in Montreal for this new feature.
When you select the conform tab, the software prompts you to load an EDL or XML. The UI is divided into four areas: the Media Panel on the left, a timeline on the botom which represents the XML file, a listing on the top of all the sources in your XML timeline, and a player preview window on the right (which you can hide or show with a swipe).
Once you load your file, and have "Link to Media Files" selected, the software searches for the appropriate files. When the search is over, you're presented with a UI that provides strong visual cues as to what clips are linked (link icon) and which are problematic. The problem icon is either a red triangle with an exclamation point, which means no match is found, or a yellow stacked clip icon with an exclamation point which means the software has found multiple potential matches.
The Media Panel also updates with a new area at the top with a "Conform Media" header. If you open this up, you will see the media the software has found as potential matches. Note that opening it up can take a bit of time if you're linking from a remote Autodesk Network workstation.
To find and relink the missing files, a good process to follow is to start with the yellow icons. When you select one of these items in the listing, the Conform Media panel updates to show you potential matches, based upon the Match Criteria that you have selected (popup menu located just above the timeline).
To link one of the items to the segment in your timeline, use the contextual menu to Link the file. You'll note the icon in the listing updates to the link icon and the red outline is gone from the timeline.
Next, you move on to the flagged red clips. A good start to linking is to remove various options from the Match Criteria pop-up menu. As you remove search criteria you'll find more and more matches that are appropriate.
Rinse and repeat. This is truly a vast improvement to what is in the previous releases.
The Batch tab brings the procedural workspace to a new, more prominent level. Clicking on the Batch tab takes you immediately to Batch with no delay, opening up some new possibilities about how it is used. Potentially, it can now serve as a procedural desktop of sorts in which to brainstorm. For the most part, Batch itself operates much the same way as it did before and it should be familiar and comfortable to users. Having to worry less about bit depth seems even a bit freeing at first.
The majority of changes work towards making getting footage in and out of batch easier as well as streamlining workflow with the timeline. For instance, with the easy access to the Media Panel, you can drag and drop clips directly from the library as well as the desktop directly into batch. You can drag and drop onto an existing clip in the Batch schematic to replace it, as well as do the same thing in the Modular Keyer schematic. You can also drop directly into an Action schematic (in Batch only) and have the clip added as an image + media layer.
In Batch, getting to a player to view a clip or even edit it is much easier than before and simply a double click away. Well, double-click is the official line, but I've settled on triple-click. This is because it is a double click on a *selected* clip that opens up a player view of the clip on the Timeline tab. But often, you're moving around the schematic and don't actually have the clip you want to play selected. For instance, you might have a processing node selected. So effectively, the first click on a clip selects it and the second/third clicks serve as the double click that take you to the timeline player.
There is a very important workflow distinction to bring up at this point in time. When the Timeline player pops up by doing the double-click, note what clip is selected in the Media Panel. In this case, it's the clip in the Batch Sources folder that is selected -- not the clip from where you dragged it originally into Batch (for instance, the desktop). So if you were to modify the clip in the timeline at this point, you're modifying the clip in the Sources area and not the desktop.
As mentioned earlier, saving a Batch Snapshot saves both the Sources and the setup. This is a bit problematic when trying to recreate some existing functionality in the new release. For instance, suppose you have a green screen shot of some talent that you are using multiple places in batch (without using the MUX node). If you want to do some retouching on the talent, you might take the clip into desktop action or paint, do some cleanup, and render out the result. You'd then take this cleaned up clip and gesturally replace it on the desktop over the original clip. When you went back into Batch, this revised clip would take the place of the previous unretouched clip.
In the new release, this doesn't work. You can save the batch setup separately, but when you load it in a clean setup the software will (intelligently, I admit) find the original, un-retouched source clip. As an alternative, you might think you could delete the clip from the Batch Sources area. Well, you can.but the clip and all the associated links disappear from the Batch schematic. Obviously not a good solution.
One of the developers, Francis Bouillon (who has been an incredible resource for testers on the beta program) came up with a solution that actually fits well within the new workflow. Instead of replacing the clip or finding a workaround, just edit the clip using the integrated Timeline. If you right-click on the clip in the Media Panel Sources area and select "Open as Sequence", it will open it up as a sequence that's easy to modify.
Then on the Timeline tab, just drag the new version from the desktop to the timeline, creating a new track in the timeline. Click the "P" primary track indicator and you're good to go with the new version in Batch. And if you want to go back to the previous version, it's easy to do -- just change the primary track back to the bottom video track. Admittedly, this does break down if you use this clip across many Batch setups. But because of the ease of access to the timeline, it shows what types of new workflows are opened up in the application.
A change some users might not like is that you can no longer nest batchFX inside batchFX inside batchFX. It was a problem to consistently fit into the new workflow. For instance, it was often easy to get lost drilling inside batch timeline levels, not not knowing where you were in the software. So for this reason and others, the feature was dropped.
A new feature in batch is "Create BFX" which is the ability to collapse a batch processing tree into a BFX clip. This clip can then be edited just like any other clip (and modified in the timeline). It's a powerful feature for working with timelines and batch. This process leaves the original batch tree intact and creates a new clip in the batch schematic that you can treat just like any other clip. This is somewhat a replacement for nested BFX, but doesn't completely recreate the nesting. For instance, if you use nesting to keep your schematic clean you'll still need to delete the original pre-bfx tree and replace it with the BFX clip. Also when you expand the BFX, you'll need to expand it into the main batch setup and there's no way to re-collapse it easily.
The Create BFX functionality also creates a robust and reliable batch cache of sorts, since after creating the BFX clip you could render this clip and use it in the rest of the batch pipeline. If you need to modify it, you can expand it back out. Or you could edit the BFX in the timeline, but you couldn't see the impact of the changes in context back in Batch. That would actually be a nice feature: to set a context point in the Batch tab and be able to view it from the Timeline or BFX within the timeline. It's definitely not a replacement for a dedicated cache mechanism, but it can be used to create a reliable cache point in batch.
When you're ready to render, you can render to the Media Library, the Desktop, or write to a file. In the case of rendering to the Desktop, a new reel is automatically created with the name "Batch Renders". Similarly, in the Media Library a folder called "Batch Renders" is created.
A question that comes up often regarding the new release is "What about Smoke?" Soeiro posted on flame-news regarding a bit of re-aligning of what is in various products:
Flame Premium is down to two components / applications. The Smoke "Editing" component has been removed since the Desktop-Timeline-Batch integration removes the need for a distinct application.
There is still a standalone Flame. It won’t support the Tangent Element Panel but is otherwise identical to the version in Flame Premium.
Smoke Linux, and Flame have the same workflow backbone relying on the above mentioned Desktop-Timeline-Batch integration - absent from Smoke Mac.
This means that Smoke Linux standalone gets an integrated first level access to Batch in addition to the existing BFX workflow. However, Smoke Linux does not have a Desktop representation which uses reels (it is restricted to a thumbnail representation - one reel at a time, similar to a source area), and still has the same creative feature restrictions as before (no particles, no projectors, no 3D tracking, no Action Gmasks, no Substance Textures, no Shaders, restricted maps, etc...).
As we said at the start, this is a truly groundbreaking release for the venerable Flame software. The timetable between now and the end of the year -- and NAB 2013 -- will be important for the product, as more and more users install the software and get up to speed in using it. It's critical that users get the software installed, learn it, and help shape the product in the coming months, as this is the foundation upon which new creative tools will be built.
And once again, a big thanks to the dev team in Montreal for their hard work on this release. Most of the concerns brought up in this article have much more to do with the amount of time to flush out bugs as opposed to inherent flaws in the workflow and new features. The new version is solid start on a new beginning.
Bottom line: we're excited about the future.
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