Autodesk 2013: More Options For More Customers

Category: News
Kathleen Maher
Autodesk updates its content creation suites for its 2013 line, offering customers more options, as the company reaches for a wider market.

The hallmark of modern creation tools is a whole lot of capability inside the box. More is more. Where the different competitors struggle is in the level of integration between the products—and even between the major products of competitors. The two leaders on this front are Adobe and Autodesk, and both are building strong links between the products. 

Autodesk has three very strong 3D modeling and animation programs: 3ds Max, Maya, and Softimage. The company has primarily looked at these products as silos, but their customers may not. When Autodesk first introduced the suites, customers were asked to choose between Max and Maya. Those who opted for the Premium version got Softimage as well. But many customers wanted both Max and Maya, and asked for ways to make that happen. In response, Autodesk has added the Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite Ultimate edition; this includes 3ds Max and Maya 2013, Softimage 2013, Mudbox 2013, and MotionBuilder 2013, as well as SketchBook Designer 2013, which is now part of all Autodesk’s Entertainment Creation Suites. 

$5,495 ($8,730 value)
Maya or 3ds Max
SketchBook Designer
$6,495 ($11,725 value)
Maya or 3ds Max
SketchBook Designer

$7,995 ($15,220 value)
Maya and 3ds Max
SketchBook Designer

When introducing the new suites to press and analysts at Autodesk’s Media Day recently, Senior VP of Media & Entertainment Marc Petit remarked on the maturity of the products. “It’s not about flashy technology, as it has been before; it’s about processes.” Petit told the audience that job descriptions are changing and creative people are taking on more jobs than ever before.

One of the big highlights of Autodesk’s new developments is live character streaming between MotionBuilder and Maya, which enables animators to see how their rigs will work before transferring data between applications. For instance, Petit points out, the capability can be used on the set as the director works with actors to block out a scene or even capture motions for takes. 

Autodesk also has added more interface features, such as consistent hotkeys, so that people can work between the programs more naturally. There are hotkeys that make it easier for people used to working in Maya to utilize the viewports in other applications, and similar hotkeys between 3ds Max and Softimage. Likewise, Autodesk has made the F-Curve (Function Curve) in 3ds Max, Maya, Softimage, and MotionBuilder more consistent. Autodesk has put a lot of effort into improving the interoperability of its 3D programs. Transferring 3D data between Max and Maya is one step. HumanIK is now interoperable with 3ds Max CAT (character animation tool kit), providing round-trip workflow for Max CAT bipedal characters between Max, Maya, and MotionBuilder. 

Autodesk has collaborated with Nvidia to incorporate iray rendering into 3ds Max. They’re calling it ActiveShade, and it opens an interactive rendering session that updates as alterations are made to the model, including changes in cameras, lighting, materials, and geometry. (Image from Autodesk)

For situations where customers are using Max, Maya, MotionBuilder, Softimage, and other tools, Maya becomes the central point. The reasoning is that in many workflows, especially those for movie production, post, and video, Maya is often a constant. 

The problems that Autodesk’s customers have in terms of working efficiently across different products are as much Autodesk’s problem as it is the customer’s. So, Autodesk has steadily worked to increase the capabilities of its FBX format. The company realized that to support all the different capabilities of its portfolio, it needed to create a centralized data model that is external to the products. That means it can work with products other than Autodesk’s. The tactic is similar to that of the other major exchange formats for entertainment content: COLLADA and Alembic. The Alembic project is from an intra-industry team led by Sony and ILM, and Autodesk has offered FBX as a subset of the Alembic tool set. It’s a big problem that gets more difficult as users try to stretch the tools to do more. The latest versions of Autodesk’s software have improved support for Alembic exchange. 

New Partners

2013 is going to be the year of partnerships for Autodesk. The company has already announced a deal with Nintendo in which the game developer will license Autodesk’s new Gameware tools as a part of the company’s development kit for content for the new Wii. 

On another front, the relationship between Autodesk and Mental Images has been a marriage of convenience rather than true love. Mental Images could provide rendering to Autodesk cheaper and more efficiently than Autodesk could develop it in its own products. However, that doesn’t mean Autodesk loved it. Nvidia has brought the Mental Images team in-house and has done more to optimize the software to work with its products. One side effect of Nvidia’s move has been a tighter partnership between Nvidia and Autodesk. The new 3ds Max 2013 has ActiveShade support for Nvidia’s iray renderer and a new render-pass system. 

At NAB Nvidia demonstrate the speed increase GPUs can add to give content creatives the ability to get to work faster, rather than spend the time waiting for the computer to process data. For instance, Autodesk was demonstrating particle systems in Maya. Thanks to GPU acceleration, simulations that were previously painfully slow are dramatically faster--to the extent that animators can experiment interactively with objects and particles. 

Autodesk has also struck up a friendship with Adobe, something the company probably should have done quite a while ago. Maxon has had a partnership with Adobe in terms of After Effects and Photoshop for several years, and as a result, they have increased the use of Maxon 4D in advertising. It seems Autodesk has finally gotten the message, because with this release, the company has added improved interoperability between its 3D tools Max and Maya and Adobe’s After Effects and Photoshop. 

Autodesk Takes on the Editing Market 

Autodesk saved its biggest news for the recent NAB show in Las Vegas. Autodesk’s executives are hugely excited about the latest Smoke for Mac product. The new Smoke fits in another piece of the end-to-end puzzle and puts the company in a much better position to go toe-to-toe with Apple, Avid, and even their new BFF, Adobe. The Autodesk worldview is, why depend on products from several companies when you can buy everything from Autodesk? It’s not so different from the worldview of Adobe or Apple, and it often works. 

The Smoke UI is designed to be familiar to experienced video editors. At the same time, Autodesk tried to put as much as possible at the user’s fingertips. (Image from Autodesk)

Smoke is an answer to the steady erosion of the high end in film/video and TV content creation, and now is a very good time to be going after those markets. Given that, perhaps the biggest news for the revamped Smoke upfront would seem to be the price. Autodesk has priced Smoke at $3,495 to remain on the high end, in comparison to Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Adobe’s Premiere, but it has slashed the cost dramatically from a high of $17,000. In addition, Autodesk says it has reduced the system requirements for Smoke so that it can run on a wider range of Macs. Autodesk says the latest Smoke will run on the most recent generation of iMac and MacBook Pro systems, and it can take advantage of the high-bandwidth Thunderbolt connections for storage and I/O.

In short Autodesk has combined its advanced composition tools with video editing. At the NAB press presentation, Autodesk product manager Marc Hamaker said that the role of professionals in the industry is changing and specializations are merging. People are doing several jobs, and they're under a constant time pressure.  

The new Smoke has an interface that will be immediately familiar to video editors, and as Marc Hamaker told the audience, if the interface looks familiar and isn’t totally earth-shaking, that’s the whole point. At least one priority was to build an interface that would be immediately familiar and comfortable for editors. But Smoke is much more than a content editor, and Hamaker showed off Smoke’s context switching, demonstrating how content creators can easily adjust the color or work with effects. It’s possible to switch to the assets panel to see all the available media in one place, or to switch to the 3D composition tools. The key to Smoke is that there are a variety of tools that are all available in one place where they’re easily accessible without switching to different products.

This includes features such as ConnectFX, a node-based composting tool accessible within timeline for adding effects without leaving the editorial environment. The Color Warper enables professional grading and color matchin,g while the Master Keyer enables one-click chroma-keying and stereoscopic 3D editing and effects.

Addressing some of the areas where Apple has lost ground, Autodesk says Smoke will work with Native Media, such as MOV, MXF, RED. All available files are displayed and accessible through the MediaHub feature enabling ingest to edit. 

Democratization: More than an annoying buzzword

Autodesk has been doing a pretty good job of looking at its product line, picking out its vulnerabilities, and attacking those vulnerabilities itself. Smoke 2013 is a great example. It could be argued that Autodesk’s high-end platform flagship Inferno has been under attack for years and the company was a little slow to protect its flank, but Smoke 2013 does more than that. It takes Autodesk’s tools to a new audience as well as protects its position in the world’s post houses. Those people who have served their apprenticeships and who are sought-after Inferno artists aren’t going to give up their tools, but they’ll be joined by young Smoke jockeys who’ll be doing great work for projects with all kinds of budgets. At NAB this year, there was a clear battle lining up on the Mac among Avid, Adobe, Apple, and Autodesk.

These tools are inexpensive and capable of producing professional results. The walls are coming down on the fortresses of professional production. 

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at

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