FCP X tools, Part 5 – filter suites

Ever since Red Giant Software introduced Magic Bullet Looks, a growing trend in effects packages has been filter suites. These install as plug-ins, which are built around presets that can be previewed and adjusted in a separate browser application launched from the filter interface. A representative frame has to be sent from the host application to the preset browser in order to preview the desired look or effect with your image instead of a template image. This was a missing element at the launch of Final Cut Pro X, but has been fixed with the 10.0.3 update. Two suite sets are currently available for FCP X – Magic Bullet Looks 2 and GenArts Sapphire Edge.

Magic Bullet Looks 2 may be purchased separately or as part of the Looks Suite and is available as a plug-in for a variety of hosts, including other NLEs, After Effects, Motion and photo applications, such as Photoshop, Aperture and Lightroom. In FCP X, you access the Magic Bullet Looks browser application through the on-screen overlay button. Once launched, controls are the same as when used with any of the other hosts. Looks itself is a collection of filters that mimic various tools used in production and post, such as diffusion from a lens filter or color correction used in post. A newly-added tool is Cosmo, which is a video noise cleaning effect that’s ideal for smoothing skin textures.

Looks are created by stringing together a chain of filters into a single effect. Any of these can be freely modified within the interface. A wealth of presets is installed with the plug-in. Any custom looks you’ve created yourself and saved are added to your library. Additional “guru” packages of presets may be purchased from Red Giant Software. Any preset look that has been installed or custom looks that you’ve created are available to other hosts, as well. For example, you could create a look in FCP X and have it available in After Effects, too. Once you build and apply a look and return to FCP X, you still have the ability to mask the area where the effect is visible from the effects control panel. Naturally, the look you’ve created can be copied and pasted to another clip without relaunching the custom browser interface.

A new competitor in the world of effects suites is GenArts with Sapphire Edge. The 10.0.3 update also enabled it to work with FCP X. Sapphire filters have always been extremely powerful, high-quality effects, but some users might find the control options daunting to dial in just the right effect. They are available for nearly every editing and compositing host, but tend to be among the pricier offerings in the market. These two factors led GenArts to develop Sapphire Edge, which is designed around presets selected via a preview browser. The effects collection is based on four Sapphire filter styles – Film Damage, Film Style, Lens Flare and TV Damage. The package installs plug-ins into both the effects and transitions palettes of FCP X. Edge is less expensive than a full set of Sapphire plug-ins, thus more in line with the price structure of FCP X itself.

The Sapphire Edge preview application is launched from the effects pane and like MB Looks, opens with the reference frame that you were parked on. Unlike MB Looks, you can only apply a preset look, but you can’t tweak it and save a new preset from inside the browser. Since there are a lot of presets with Edge, the preview browser lets you search by genre, mood or style. When you return to FCP X though, there are a number of sliders in the control pane to make adjustments to the application of the effect, which means you have latitude to customize it to your liking.

Purchasing Sapphire Edge includes a year’s subscription to FX Central, the GenArts online preset store. Edge installs a collection of over 350 presets, but additional monthly collections may be downloaded and installed with the FX Central subscription. I’m not really wild about this model, but it is one that GenArts is applying to other products, notably Sapphire 6. Frankly, I prefer working with the standard Sapphire 5 filters in After Effects over using the Edge browser in FCP X. On the plus side, the browser approach lets you quickly check out a lot of looks more quickly then you could ever do by tweaking sliders using the regular filter set. Two different approaches for different mindsets and the Sapphire Edge preset approach is a good fit for FCP X.

One notable missing developer in the FCP X effects suites mix is Digital Film Tools. Their Film Stocks, Photo Copy and Tiffen Dfx packages are superb and available in most of the hosts, except FCP X. I feel that the implementation of FxPlug in X is a bit flakey, so some filters show up in the X palette, even when they don’t yet work with X. On my system, PhotoCopy shows up in the effects palette, complete with preset options, but they don’t work in X.  The DFT filters use a separate browser application to preview, adjust and apply filters, just like MB Looks and Sapphire Edge, so I presume they have similar issues integrating into the FCP X effects architecture. Ironically some of these show up in Motion, but not FCP X. Although the performance in Motion is not terribly stable either. Maybe we’ll see that in a future update.

The good news is that we now have more options from some of the most popular suppliers, but the bad news is that performance is poor. All of the suite tools are taxing on the system and don’t particularly playback well in real-time without rendering. I also found some issues with interaction. For example, if you test out certain filters in Motion ahead of applying Magic Bullet Looks, it will fail to load. That can only be fixed with a relaunch of the app. As I’ve mentioned all along, Apple’s own built-in filters and the ones people have created as Motion template are the smoothest when left unrendered. I tend to treat these complex look effects as icing – best saved for last. I’m not big on using these as the sole place to do grading work. Tackle it that way and the rendering hit won’t be much of an issue.

UPDATE – The FCP X 10.0.4 version released on 4/10/12 “broke” MB Looks and Sapphire Edge. Both GenArts and Red Giant Software released updates on 4/13/12 to correct this issue. Please make sure you download the update if you run into any issues.

(Note: click on the images above to see enlarged views.)

©2012 Oliver Peters

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