Autodesk…just what are they doing with Smoke and Flame?

This week fxguide sat down with Stig Gruman, VP of Sales to discuss the direction of Flame and Smoke, along the way we discussed buying AVID, Naiad and the pains of introducing a product well before it turns out being ready to ship.

To be blunt, fxguide a supporter of the Autodesk media and entertainment products, but not a fan of generalist interviews that speak around the issues facing artists today. Stig Gruman kindly agreed to this  frank discussion of what it will take to make Flame and Smoke more attractive to younger artists wanting to decide what programs to learn, how much the products cost, how much more productive they need to be at those prices to compete with Autodesk’s competition, and the need to perhaps return to some of the marketing approaches that made the products great.

Gruman is no one’s fool; he joined Autodesk not long after the Autodesk – Discreet ownership change and he has all the intellect and background to know business in general and our industry in particular. When he speaks he knows how to choose his words, but unlike someone at a lower level in the corporate structure, one gets the feeling he is not concerned about the opinions of someone else more senior in the company.  In other words, he speaks with an authority and command that conveys he understands exactly what is being asked, and he fully understands and chooses to engage or not.

I have heard him speak at functions when most answers to generalist questions are those well rounded, well intentioned answers that really say very little, while still sounding very respectful to customers. He is very capable of speaking ‘marketing’ and rounding out answers with ‘watch this space’ or ‘commitment to customers’. He is also comes over in person as very bright and aware of the industry, and in this interview he solidly avoided speaking in generalities. He seemed very comfortable being as specific as someone in a publicly traded company can, when talking to the press.

The challenge facing Autodesk with the compositing and editing products are three fold

  1. Pricing and perception of price. Flame is not cheap, Smoke on Mac is.
  2. Attracting young artists. The life blood long term of any product is making the product somewhat aspirational, so younger artists will want to learn it. Artists have to feel investing their time in being a Flame or Smoke operator will lead to work.
  3. Making the applications attractive to their client’s clients. In the golden era of Flame, clients demanded the suite, just because it is the best. They did not know what they wanted to do – but they knew it was their ‘get out of jail card’. Today many producers feel that they need a bunch of lower cost seats – as they will burn their budget too quickly in the flame suite. The challenge is to make producers believe flame – while more expensive is more cost effective.

There are currently three “effects” Linux products being actively marketed by Autodesk: Flame, Flame Premium, and Flare, as shown on their Flame product overview page.  Flare is a cut down version Flame that focuses on the Batch environment and doesn’t have a Desktop or main editing timeline. In order to purchase Flare, you must own a Flame license, and many facilities find this an attractive inexpensive option (it costs less than NUKEX). As far as “editing” products, they market only Smoke, which is available on Mac OS X.

We started by asking point-blank if Autodesk still sold Smoke Advanced and Flame. This might sound like a ridiculously simple question, but it still took Gruman a moment to answer. The reason he may have hesitated and the reason we asked is up until now (and I would suggest still today) there is general confusion as to exactly what is happening with the versons of Smoke and the versions of Flame. Inferno even still exists as a currently updated product for owners.

The currently shipping version of Smoke (on Mac) and the other “Linux Smoke versions” are historically quite different than Flame and Flame Premium. Smoke costs US$3,500 and Smoke Advanced (at various times called Fire, Smoke HD, and Smoke Advanced) is not sold separately. “I do not believe you can buy a new Smoke Advanced,”  Gruman answered cautiously.

As we mentioned earlier, contrary to some reports, Flame stand-alone is still sold. However, Autodesk would much much prefer to sell you Flame Premium which is actually Flame (which now includes the full editing features of Smoke) + Lustre (color grading). When we say ‘prefer’ to sell….they will sell you Flame stand-alone but you have to really push to get only this version of Flame. The Flame Premium on their web site makes no reference to Lustre at first glance, but it is bundled as a separate program.

From a financial standpoint, it is interesting that while the two main products that are very similar, one is $3,500 and the other is closer to US$100,000 (in fairness, the $100K includes the hardware). If we remove the hardware component by assuming the fully configured Flame Hardware is around $25,000 to $30,000, the jump is still $3,500 to $70,000. Smoke to Flame. Bear in mind that you can buy the entire suite of 3D products, Max, Maya, XSI and Motion builder for under US$9,000.

This huge pricing gap is something we really tried to explore with Gruman. The first point Gruman or any Autodesk team member will point out is that Flame’s newest 20th Anniversary edition has had a huge re-working to bring it up to scratch with modern floating point scene linear workflows and image processing tools. Such a huge R&D effort requires a return on investment, hence the still high price.

After all, as Gruman pointed out, Flame used to cost (with an Onyx) close to $650,000, so it has come down in price a lot. But we suggested there are two other factors to be considered, firstly that Autodesk has not wanted to lower the price since it would annoy current customers and secondly if they did drop the price – by high school economics – they would sell more. “Do I believe if we halved the price we’d sell twice as many – I dont” he responded.

But Flame has to compete with other products, so we asked Gruman who or what was Flame’s competition. He said that it is “no one product…it would be a collection of products”. This seems valid, so we proposed  that such a collection of products might include say Nuke and Hireo, perhaps others, but this would still only get those products to a third of a half the price of a Flame Premium suite. The logic is that Nuke X + Hiero + some other plugins etc + good hardware and graphics card would be between $35,000 and $50,000. So for a facility or a producer to make money on the Flame suite, it would need to be not just better than such a collection of tools, it would need to be twice as good.

Gruman feels Flame Premium is exactly that, given that it has Lustre, which has fast GPU color grading. Such a collection of tools would easily be $50,000 and Flame Premium would be more than twice as productive. This is a point he made based on his direct feedback from customers.  We don’t want to imply any arrogance in his answer…Gruman accepts that this is exactly the point: that Autodesk knows that they need to provide more and deliver more. Especially given that Smoke is $3500 (with hardware perhaps closer to $30,000).

Gruman agrees that that gap is currently wider in price than it feels in functionality and that it might seem to some that the jump between the products is a smaller gap in features than a gap in price. This is why Autodesk’s focus is on image processing right now. The team wants to make Flame Premium vastly better in image processing or at least as differentiated in features as it is now in price. Gruman was open and direct that this is the path forward, not merging Smoke and Flame. His logical argument is that now that the new bed has been made in the rebuilt Flame 20th Anniversary release, the product can now excel and move forward more quickly with solid image processing features.

Which leads us to Smoke and the question of whether Smoke (on Mac) is really the only Smoke. And since it is designed for creative editors, then hasn’t Autodesk linked itself to Apple at exactly at a time when Apple is not advancing tower machines, one’s capable of using the latest graphics cards and latest processors? We posed to Gruman that Adobe has addressed this by introducting Premiere Anywhere, which allows a Mac laptop at the desk and PC servers in the equipment room with all the latest CPUs and graphics cards to do the processing. With this hub and spoke approach, Adobe solves or works around the lack of new Apple Pro Hardware at the desktop.

Gruman firstly is complementary about Adobe but points out the market for Smoke is not primarily an enterprise environment and instead it is much more stand alone system, that would not as easily allow the Adobe style multi-user server room solution. He also says “this is a conversation we should be having in a week from now” referring to the up coming WWDC Apple developers conference. It is true that if Apple delivers a new “pro” computing solution – a new tower or tower replacement – then Smoke would be extremely well placed to ride that wave.

Posters have already gone up at WWDC hinting of a new something, but it is unclear if that is an iWatch or a tower MacPro with Thunderbolt, twin Nvidia cards and everything else the pro community desires. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has stated there will be new pro hardware this year and there is a new Texas Apple factory, which one would guess is much more likely to be making lower yield high value added solutions, as all the mass market ipads and iphones are made in extremely cost effective Asian factories. But conversely if Apple walks away from the pro end of the market, Smoke on Mac will be limited to laptop use and in this one space alone it is hard to imagine Smoke on Mac having enough GPU power to truly shine.

We asked Gruman just how much he felt Smoke on Mac was an offline tool or if the concept of an offline tool was even valid anymore. Gruman explained that it was really the idea of capitalizing on the FCP editors who might have been looking for an alternative after FCPX that drove the move to launch Smoke on Mac (the newest version) last NAB 2012.

Given how long it was from the NAB to the product being fully shipped and stable, we asked Gruman if with 20/20 hindsight he thought it was the right thing to have launched when they did. He explained with two key points. One that there is a limited number of trade show opportunities like NAB, and secondly they did so not knowing how long it would take to get the product from the NAB 2012 build to the level it is at today. He remarked how painful that period had been, and yet at the time it was the right decision. When we asked if AVID was for sale, he pointed out, any company is for sale at the right price, and that it appeared that AVID’s restructuring had been “tough road for them for a number of years”, harder and taken longer than they had expected. So speaking personally he commented that “I’m not sure I am looking for more challenging businesses to deal with (!)”, especially in the area of editing products.

With regards to the cloud solutions and in reference to the earlier Adobe discussion about their Anywhere product developments, we discussed the move by Adobe to Creative Cloud, and we asked if the Autodesk Creation Suite could become the Autodesk Creative Cloud? Gruman has earlier discussed a pilot program on Autodesk creative tools that allowed for effectively something similar to this. In that trial program one extremely interesting development was the high ratio of new autodesk customers who took advantage of the trial. This method of virtually renting the software had made Autodesk products more widely accessible and brought in a host of new people into the Auodesk tent. While there are no announced plans for a full time program, such a response must have been extremely popular at Autodesk head office. But Gruman stated that from his point of view he felt strongly that any such move would not be best as a forced solution. In other words unlike Adobe, where this is now the only option, he favors exploring any such move as an alternative and not mandatory scheme.

When we pushed about other cloud based options, he pointed to new products that the company had released for doing say automated modeling via the cloud, and a continuing exploration of rendering via th cloud, but other more main product virtualizations or similar moves are not a priority. Right now the team is focused on increasing the tools that will differentiate Smoke from Flame, enhancing and building on what they have and simplifying the offering on hand. At a marketing level they will be exploring variations in the pricing structure but there was absolutely no indication of merging Smoke and Flame, and only a hint that if hardware changed then perhaps they could look at Flame on Mac, at the very least that door was not slammed shut, (he did point out fxguide was not “the first person to ask that!”)

We also grilled Gruman on a range of related topics from confusion over product and suite naming conventions to the purchase of Naiad. Autodesk has many best of category products, especially in 3D. Naiad is one of the most interesting fluid simulation products that had been introduced in recent years, used in Avatar and at leading facilities like Weta until Autodesk bought them and the entire team joined Autodesk and they stopped selling the product.

We asked Gruman point blank “you have these great best of categrory products, you bought Naiad, our question is … can we have it back please?” Gruman responded that firstly (and perhaps surprisingly) if a customer has a project you can approach Autodesk at almost a consulting level and they will do special one off Naiad sales. But more importantly, he said “we did not buy it to put it on a shelf” (meaning bury it) and went on to say it very much will be reappearing. He can’t discuss when, but from his reaction he seemed both very excited and keen to see the new product or product extensions involving Naiad return to the front of house, and be available for everyday customers to use and work with. For his money “that can’t happen soon enough.” While no timeline was given, know that fxguide will be exploring this again around Siggraph this year in a few months.

Gruman knows that one of the strengths of the Autodesk Media products has been its strong brand awareness amongst Autodesk’s customers clients. He admits this is an area that he would like to see the team refocus on, building up the demand at the sy the agency or director level to use products such as Flame and not just directing Autodesk’s communications and marketing at their direct clients. After all the key to selling equipment is having customers getting a good return on their investment and so anything that can drive people to companies with Autodesk suites is in everyone’s interest.

8 thoughts on “Autodesk…just what are they doing with Smoke and Flame?”

  1. Great article! It really shows that Autodesk still has the ability to say a lot without meaning anything.

    They really need to get their act together and price Flame correctly, it’s still a great tool but as it stands now it’s no longer the tool of choice for high end stuff for a myriad of really good reasons. Pitch 16 bit float in plain 2013 as revolutionary, really? Please!

    Their three fold challenge is just plain ridiculous.

    1. Flame no longer justifies it’s price and maintenance costs in pretty much all of the high end scenarios, specially if you take it’s closed architecture — which is far from being friendly of collaborative workflows — into consideration.

    2. They’ve relied way too much for way too long on the Flame myth of it being a magical box. Now this illusion is over. Newer artists need to feel that being good artists will lead to work, and not that just being operators of mythical systems will.

    3. The golden era is yet to happen, one where tools are tangible and artists will be valued by their capacity, experience and knowledge and not the capacity of the systems they use alone. So yes, “the golden era” in the Flame sense is indeed over, one where any crappy compositor sat in front of a really expensive machine was deemed a demigod.

    And wonder why if they are not bothered by Nuke, Hiero & CIA, why are they changing both Flame and Smoke to mimic them in some aspects? Tiny buttons, right clicking, tabs, etc. By trying to make them appeal more to younger audiences and “ease” a transition they are in my humble opinion ruining some of it’s strongest features, which is their pen friendly, quick to use gestural interface.

    I’m of the opinion that they need to drop Flame’s price to ~15K and release a OSX version of it within the next two years, otherwise it will cease of being relevant altogether.

  2. 100K$ for flame, after you still have to find the artist…this era is over, where the comp was like an astronaut.

    I think the pipline already exist so if they will not fit in it by making flame more friendly interface/multi platform/trial versions and let it be pirated a bit for the student who wants be better artist and practice at home, except this the whole discreet products will die in very short time.

    Last thing, the effects are complex now so the pipeline also, the all in one product will no longer exist.

  3. Clemens Taubmann

    lower price tag, open architecture, cutting edge next-gen ux / gui design. none of that can be found in the funeral edition…but hope dies last.

  4. Francis Pimenta

    i’m a bit suprised that he didn’t mentioned sgo mistika as the compeditor to flame. nuke is more for complex shots and not for the finishing. i would like to see more open ness that you can get the smoke or the flame version as a package for the linux system. linux is easy to use, solid and fast.

    1. Jonathan Howard

      I’ve used Nuke for finishing for years with great success. I’m actually writing this as I’m rendering out 720 frames for a commercial I’m delivering today. It just needs a timeline to work with it. Premiere does a great job with this. Absolutely no reason to say Nuke isn’t for finishing when it’s used in this capacity on a regular basis.

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