RED One and Magic Bullet Looks

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A while back the folks at Video Resources, Inc. posted an entry on their ShootWithRed blog called One Image, Many Visions. You can download a source image showing an over-the-shoulder shot of a woman, then play with the color grading of the image and post your results to their web gallery. It’s interesting to see how many different looks one can get from the same basic image. I posted a few myself, which gave me the inspiration for my own blog entry on this subject.

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One tool that I really like for specialty grading is Red Giant Software’s Magic Bullet Looks. The software was developed by effects director Stu Maschwitz. Unlike other plug-ins, Looks is really an integrated suite of effects and filters all rolled into one package. It runs under many NLE hosts, but is probably most optimized for Adobe After Effects.

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Aside from its power, Looks relies on a well-designed custom user interface to edit and apply effects. Maschwitz’s breakthrough was to redesign the Looks GUI based on common tools that are part of steps in the production and post chain. Effects can be applied to these stages and in this order: Subject, Matte, Lens, Camera and Post. Some effects, like Fill Light can only be applied to a single stage, like Subject. Others, such as Film-like Curves, may be applied to difference stages in the chain, plus can be applied to more than one stage within the same effect chain. A single “look” is made up of a series of filters chained in sequence. For example, the Mexicali preset look consists of Curves + Exposure + Lift/Gain/Gamma + Curves + Auto Shoulder.

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In addition to custom settings, Looks ships with quite a few presets. Any preset can be applied and then modified to create your own original version of that preset. Presets become valuable starting points to create a look or to test out options if you are in the mood to experiment. The effected image is previewed within the active main interface window, but also in the mini-preview panes for these presets. This lets you instantly see how preset effects will appear when applied to your image. Your unique settings may be saved for later use and also applied as custom presets.

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Magic Bullet Looks is more than simply a grading application. The choice of tools includes not only a wealth of standard color correction filters, but also a variety of focus and distress effects. Drag-and-drop any filter onto the image and adjust the parameters to taste. I use Looks when I need to create something special, but generally not as an all-purpose color grading tool. First of all, grading an entire long-form project using only Magic Bullet Looks is overkill, but more importantly, it can greatly expand the project’s file size. Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Colorista is more appropriate when you simply need a standard color correction tool.

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The test image supplied by ShootWithRed originated in a RED One camera. The downloadable image is an uncompressed TIFF exported from a REDCODE camera file. As you can see, the image appears very flat, so it really lends itself to interesting color grading experimentation. I don’t know which export settings were used, but this look is indicative of a color space setting using one of the log modes. In addition, uncorrected film negative would also tend to look this way when transferred to video.

I think it’s important to note that their blog entry hails the power of REDCODE raw, but the color manipulation of this image really isn’t using the camera raw files. I didn’t use any of RED’s tools or any native workflow to create my examples. Essentially this same original, flat tonal range could have been achieved with any of the leading digital cameras, like a Sony F23, an Arri D-21, a Grass Valley Viper and many others. Nevertheless, this provides a good example of how much range there is to create beautiful and stylized imagery, when combining properly exposed RED One footage and a comprehensive tool like Magic Bullet Looks.

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One very interesting benefit of Magic Bullet Looks is the ability to use Looks on set. When you install Looks for Final Cut, After Effects or a different host, both a plug-in and a standalone application called LooksBuilder are installed. When you apply the plug-in to a clip and select “edit” in the effects editor, the clip you are grading opens into LooksBuilder. That’s where the actual adjustments are made. Then these settings are applied within the host when you are done.

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LooksBuilder exists as a standalone application, so you can also launch it separately and independently of your NLE. In this mode, you can open any TIFF or JPEG images available on your system, make adjustments and save either the settings as a “look” file or export the altered image as a new TIFF or JPEG. That process is not unlike working with iPhoto, Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom. This is how I created all of my samples. Look files can be opened and applied on any other computer with Magic Bullet Looks installed.

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An on-set workflow would be something like this. The director of photography would shoot with a RED One and export a reference TIFF from one of the .R3D camera files using the RED Alert software. Next, open the TIFF in LooksBuilder and create a custom preset for the shot. This setting can be saved as a look file and sent to the post house. Assuming that the post facility also owns Magic Bullet Looks, this file would be applied to an exported/rendered version of the footage (uncompressed, ProRes, DNxHD, etc.). The end result is a custom look that exactly matches the one that the DP created on the set.

DPs often follow a similar procedure now, but typically use software like Photoshop or an on-set grading application. That’s a good reference, but in very few cases actually provides correct grading data that can be applied in post. Using LooksBuilder actually gives the DP a direct interchange with Final Cut Pro, After Effects and others, based on real data and not simply visual color approximation. Since the Magic Bullet Looks/LooksBuilder user interface is designed around terms and tools familiar to DPs, the application is much friendlier to the production process than Photoshop.

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The following 12 images show how Magic Bullet Looks can be used to create a variety of different visual styles from the same basic image.

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© 2009 Oliver Peters

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