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Bonfire Labs expands its creative tool kit with Autodesk Smoke 2012 for Mac

My name is Matt Silverman. I'm a partner and Creative Director at Bonfire Labs (, a San Francisco based agency who helps the world's leading brands tell their story through design, motion and technology. Our team of seasoned designers, animators, visual effects artists, editors, directors, writers, and coders tackle any motion design challenge our marketing and development partners throw at us.

As an off-shoot of San Francisco commercial editorial boutique Phoenix Editorial, Bonfire Labs' pedigree runs deep. Phoenix literally rose from the ashes in 1991 (the same year I graduated high school) when Editel's San Francisco facility burned down in a fire. Editel producer Lisa Hinman joined online editor John Crossley and offline editor Bob Frisk to sweep up the ashes and build their own shop. Frisk quickly cemented himself as the editor of choice for humor-driven spots created by such advertising notables as Hal Riney, Jeff Goodby, Rich Silverstein, Tracy Wong, Bob Kerstetter, Paul Venables and Greg Bell. I came on board in 1999, bringing my motion graphics design and visual effects background to the party.

In 2002, we decided to expand our design and effects business by splitting off Bonfire Labs. Our vision was to create something between what we were doing at Phoenix for commercials and what I did at the CKS Group, my first employer out of school.


CKS was one of the world's first "integrated" ad agencies. I started freelancing for CKS Interactive in 1996, when I was brought on board to create CG shots for the Apple   Macintosh Performa 6400 in-store demo. CKS was so far ahead of its time that its interactive division was shut down shortly after I began working with them, long before most humans had even heard the term "interactive." Luckily for me, some of the only folks who survived were the motion graphics designers, who were moved across the street to CKS Pictures, and they took me with them. I was quickly thrown into the world of advertising, but unlike traditional advertising, CKS fed on a small niche in the food chain. We were not trying to be a traditional agency, but rather fill the gaps that traditional agencies neglect or ignore. For example, at the time, Chiat Day handled the traditional advertising for Apple, while we handled "everything else." This included product package design, tradeshow booth design, retail store displays, digital signage and web site development.

Image courtesy of Bonfire Labs | Client: HBO Home Video | Agency: Venables Bell and Partners

Each division of CKS filled a unique niche in the marketing landscape, and CKS Pictures handled everything related to motion. Housed in the former Apple television studio in Cupertino, California, we had a large sound stage with a hardware Ultimatte, Avid suites, and even a satellite uplink (installed by Apple for infomercials). More importantly than the toys, I quickly found myself in Silicon Valley board rooms strategizing on marketing campaigns with CMOs. What initially would start as a discussion for a motion design project would quickly turn into ideas for global marketing campaigns, which could be handled by the many specialized CKS divisions. Before I knew it, I was even writing slogans and designing jigsaw puzzles. But I mostly focused on motion graphic designs for clients including Timberland, Apple, Compaq, RadioShack and various other tech companies in the Valley. CKS went through a number of mergers and name changes after I left, eventually ending up as March First which collapsed with over 12,000 Aeron chairs for sale during the dot com crash. With the demise of March First, Apple retained many of the top CKS creatives to establish its own internal graphic design group.

Image courtesy of Bonfire Labs | Client: Sony | Agency: Bonfire Labs

After kicking off Bonfire Labs, things began to organically change for both our business model and the ad agency business model, and slowly but surely we began to move in the direction I had envisioned. We began getting larger non-broadcast motion graphics design projects from both traditional and interactive ad agencies like McCann and AKQA, and started working on similar projects directly for tech clients such as Adobe and Microsoft. With these larger design projects came more responsibility - ranging from writing scripts and creative briefs to producing live-action effects shoots. We became a small niche agency with top-notch clients who treat us as like they treat their traditional agency of record as partners. Over time, the scope of our projects continued to evolve into other delivery platforms, including interactive store window displays, Times Square signage lit from city wide blocks of LED's, video intensive microsites for feature films and TV shows, mobile advertising campaigns utilizing HTML5 for Android and iPhone, hours of live-action guided tours showing how to use the world's smartest smartphone, and even a stereoscopic "Powerpoint" presentation explaining stereoscopy. And we have recently come full circle, acting as the agency of record for a national spot for Sony, which we created from soup to nuts. We have also added designers with interactive and software development backgrounds, and will soon be expanding our office space and bringing our development partner Particle ( in-house.

Image courtesy of Bonfire Labs | Client: Barclays | Agency: Venables Bell and Partners

As our business model has changed, so did our workflow. Working in teams is crucial, and collaboration is key. With more and more full-time artists and freelancers collaborating on a project, we began to invest in a data-centric infrastructure. For centralized processing, we set up a small render farm running on a Smedge render queue with custom submit scripts for Maya and After Effects. Along with the dedicated render nodes, Smedge also allows us to tap into unused cores from artists' workstations during the day, and switches over at night to take advantage of all the workstation horsepower (total 204 Intel XEON cores). We centralized our storage with a Quantum Stornext SAN running on Linux Metadata controllers and Apple XSAN clients. This system allows all artists and editors to directly access the same footage on our 90TB disk array. The 4gb fiber channel throughput helps us chug through data-intensive high-dynamic range composites without affecting playback of high definition uncompressed video at the same time in another room. This system is the backbone of our fifteen Mac Pro workstations running our core toolset of Adobe Master Collection, Final Cut Studio, Autodesk Maya and Cinema4D. Most recently, we downloaded a free 30-day trial of Autodesk Smoke for Mac OS X.

With After Effects at the heart of Bonfire Labs' pipeline, we began to rethink how to supplement our creative design, which we were doing in After Effects. For years Phoenix relied on Linux solutions like Autodesk Smoke for finishing. I also spent a few years of my life running the Flame, so when it came to outfitting our Mac-based studio, I immediately thought of Smoke for Mac and we're now testing it out for Bonfire. Instead of processing chroma-keys or doing paint touchup in After Effects, we throw the shots into Smoke then send the processed shot or matte back to After Effects for final integration with the rest of our motion graphics. We love the speed of Smoke's motion tracker, so we wrote a custom After Effects script to import the tracked data into After Effects for use in our motion graphics comps. Offsetting this type of work to Smoke allows the After Effects designers to concentrate on their design and not bog down the comps with unnecessary processing or manual tasks that can be done in Smoke's highly-interactive compositing toolset.

As the Creative Director at Bonfire Labs, in an ideal world I'd spend my time on the box for the first 20% and last 20% of each project and creative direct in the middle. With this goal in mind, I am finding that working in Smoke during the conceptualization process gives me access to a true 3D compositing environment to knock out sample shots which can later be executed by our creative team in their app of choice. 3D type can quickly be created with custom bevel profiles. Extended bi-cubics give us the ability to map the image onto a 3D patch surface and warp the image in 3D space. The speed of the OpenGL rendering is astonishingly fast compared to other apps on the Mac, creating silky smooth interactive setups and super fast rendering times. I can quickly mock up ideas using real 3D models, import and export fbx files to and from Maya (including stereo cameras), C4D or Nuke, and import animatics from our editors' FCP timelines.

As the shots get dispersed to our team, rendered comps come back into Smoke over-cutting the animatic in the timeline. When the process is complete, we have a full conform in Smoke ready for traditional online finishing, which was the other big reason for bringing Smoke on Mac into our tool kit. With Adobe After Effects at the center of Bonfire's Mac-based tool set, we felt like we were missing a major part of the puzzle with the absence of an integrated finishing tool. Smoke on Mac was the perfect solution, fitting right into middle of our OSX pipeline.

This is only the beginning for Bonfire Labs. We continue to grow our team and expand our business in new directions. Every day brings with it new creative opportunities, and thanks to the technological backbone we have put in place we can easily handle any idea we throw at our clients.

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Related Keywords:Bonfire Labs, Phoenix Editorial, Autodesk, Smoke for Mac, Editing, Creative, Adobe, Apple, commercials

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  • Bonfire Labs expands its creative tool kit with Autodesk Smoke 2012 for Mac by DMN Editorial at Jul. 20, 2011 10:22 pm gmt

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