More 4K

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I’ve talked about 4K before (here, here and here), but I’ve recently done some more 4K jobs that have me thinking again. 4K means different things to different people and in terms of dimensions, there’s the issue of cinema 4K (4096 pixels wide) versus the UltraHD/QuadHD/4K 16:9 (whatever you want to call it) version of 4K (3840 pixels wide). That really doesn’t make a lot of difference, because these are close enough to be the same. There’s so much hype around it, though, that you really have to wonder if it’s “the Emperor’s new clothes”. (Click on any of these images for expanded views.)

First of all, 4K used as a marketing term is not a resolution, it’s a frame dimension. As such, 4K is not four times the resolution of HD. That’s a measurement of area and not resolution. True resolution is usually measured in the vertical direction based on the ability to resolve fine detail (regardless of the number of pixels) and, therefore, 4K is only twice the resolution of HD at best. 4K is also not sharpness, which is a human perception affected by many things, such as lens quality, contrast, motion and grading. It’s worth watching Mark Schubin’s excellent webinar on the topic to get a clearer understanding of this. There’s also a very good discussion among top DoPs here about 4K, lighting, high dynamic range and more.

df_4kcompare_1A lot of arguments have been made that 4K cameras using a color-pattern filter method (Bayer-style), single CMOS sensor don’t even deliver the resolution they claim. The reason is that in many designs 50% of the pixels are green versus 25% each for red and blue. Green is used for luminance, which determines detail, so you do not have a 1:1 pixel relationship between green and the stated frame resolution of the sensor. That’s in part why RED developed 5K and 6K sensors and it’s why Sony uses an 8K sensor (F65) to deliver a 4K image.

The perceived image quality is also not all about total pixels. The pixels of the sensor, called photosites, are the light-receiving elements of the sensor. There’s a loose correlation between pixel size and light sensitivity. For any given sensor of a certain physical dimension, you can design it with a lot of small pixels or with fewer, but larger, pixels. This roughly correlates to a sensor that’s of high resolution, but a smaller dynamic range (many small pixels) or one with lower resolution, but a higher dynamic range (large, but fewer pixels). Although the equation isn’t nearly this simplistic, since a lot of color science and “secret sauce” goes into optimizing a sensor’s design, you can certainly see this play out in the marketing battles between the RED and ARRI camps. In the case of the ALEXA, ARRI adds some on-the-sensor filtering, which results in a softer image that gives it a characteristic filmic quality.df_4kcompare_2

Why do you use 4K?

With 4K there are two possible avenues. The first is to shoot 4K for the purpose of reframing and repositioning within HD and 2K timelines. Reframing isn’t a new production idea. When everyone shot on film, some telecine devices, like the Rank Cintel Mark III, sported zoom boards that permitted an optical blow-up of the 35mm negative. You could zoom in for a close-up in transfer that didn’t cost you resolution. Many videographers shoot 1080 for a 720 finish, as this allows a nice margin for reframing in post. The second is to deliver a final 4K product. Obviously, if your intent is the latter, then you can’t count on the techniques of the former in post.

df_4kcompare_3When you shoot 4K for HD post, then workflow is an issue. Do you shoot everything in 4K or just the items you know you’ll want to deal with? How will this cut with HD and 2K content? That’s where it gets dicey, because some NLEs have good 4K workflows and others don’t. But it’s here that I contend you are getting less than meets the eye, so to speak.  I have run into plenty of editors who have dropped a 4K clip into an HD timeline and then blown it up, thinking that they are really cropping into the native 4K frame and maintaining resolution. Depending on the NLE and the settings used, often they are simply blowing up an HD shot. The NLE scaled the 4K to HD first and then expanded the downscaled HD image. It didn’t crop into the actual 4K native resolution. So you have to be careful. And guess what, if the blow up isn’t that extreme, it may not look much different than the crop.

df_4kcompare_4One thing to remember is that a 4K image that is scaled to fit into an HD timeline gains the benefits of oversampling. The result in HD will be very sharp and, in fact, will generally look better perceptually than the exact same image natively shot in an HD size. When you now crop into the native image, you are losing some of that oversampling effect. A 1:1 pixel relationship is the same effective image size as a 200% blow-up. Of course, it’s not the same result. When you compare the oversampled “wide shot” (4K scaled to HD) to the “close-up” (native 4K crop), the close-up will often look softer. You’ll see defects of the image, like chromatic aberration in the lens, missed critical focus and sensor noise. Instead, if you shoot a wide and then an actual close-up, that result will usually look better.

On the other hand, if you blow up the 4K-to-HD or a native HD shot, you’ll typically see a result that looks pretty good. That’s because there’s often a lot more information there than monitors or the eye can detect. In my experience, you can commonly get away with a blow-up in the range of 120% of the original image size and in some cases, as much as 150%.

To scale or not to scale

df_4K_comparison_Instant4KLet me point out that I’m not saying a native 4K shot doesn’t look good. It does, but often the associated workflow hassles aren’t worth it. For example, let’s take a typical 1080p 50” Panasonic plasma that’s often used as a client monitor in edit suites. You or your client may be sitting 7 to 10 feet away from it, which is closer than most people sit in a living room with that size of a screen. If I show a client the native image (4K at 1:1 in an HD timeline) compared with an separate HD image at the same framing, it’s unlikely that they’ll see a difference. Another test is to take two exact images – one native HD and the other 4K. Scale up the HD and crop down the 4K to match. In theory, the 4K should look better and sharper. In fact, sitting back on the client sofa, most won’t see a difference. It’s only when they step to about 5 feet in front of the monitor that a difference is obvious and then only when looking at fine detail within the shot.

df_gh4_instant4k_smNot all scaling is equal. I’ve talked a lot about the comparison of HD scaling, but that really depends on the scaling that you use. For a quick shot, sure, use what your NLE has built in. For more critical operations, then you might want to scale images separately. DaVinci Resolve has excellent built-in scaling and lets you pick from smooth, sharp and bilinear algorithms. If you want a plug-in, then the best I’ve found is the new Red Giant Instant 4K filter. It’s a variation of their Instant HD plug-in and works in After Effects and Premiere Pro. There are a lot of quality tweaks and naturally, the better it does, the longer the render will be. Nevertheless, it offers outstanding results and in one test that I ran, it actually provided a better look within portions of the image than the native 4K shot.

df_4K_comparison-C500_smIn that case, it was a C500 shot of a woman on a park bench with a name badge. I had three identical versions of the shot (not counting the raw files) – the converted 4K ProRes4444 file, a converted 1080 ProRes4444 “proxy” file for editing and the in-camera 1080 Canon XF file. I blew up the two 1080 shots using Instant 4K and cropped the 4K shot so all were of equal framing. When I compared the native 4K shot to the expanded 1080 ProRes4444 shot, the woman’s hair was sharper in the 1080 blow-up, but the letters on the name badge were better on the original. The 1080 Canon XF blow-up was softer in both areas. I think this shows that some of the controls in the plug-in may give you superior results to the original (crisper hair); but, a blow-up suffers when you are using a worse codec, like Canon’s XF (50 Mbps 4:2:2). It’s fine for native HD, but the ProRes4444 codec has twice the chroma resolution and less compression, which makes a difference when scaling an image larger. Remember all of this pertains to viewing the image in HD.

4K deliverables

df_4K_comparison-to-1080_smSo what about working in native 4K for a 4K deliverable? That certainly has validity for high-resolution projects (films, concerts, large corporate presentations), but I’m less of a believer for television and web viewing. I’d rather have “better” pixels and not simply “more” pixels. Most of the content you watch at theaters using digital projection is 2K playback. Sometimes the master for that DCP was HD, 2K or 4K. If you are in a Sony 4K projector-equipped theater, most of the time, it’s simply the projector upscaling the content to 4K as part of the projection. Even though you may see a Sony 4K logo at the head of the trailers, you aren’t watching 4K content – definitely not, if it’s a stereo3D film. Yet, much of this looks pretty good, doesn’t it?

df_AMIRAEverything I talked about, regarding blowing up HD by up to 120% or more, still applies to 4K. Need to blow up a shot a bit in a 4K timeline? Go ahead, it will look fine. I think ARRI has proven this as well, taking films shot with the ALEXA all the way up to Imax. In fact, ARRI just announced that the AMIRA will get in-camera, on-the-fly upscaling of its image with the ability to record 4K (3840 x 2160 at up to 60fps) on the CFast 2.0 cards. They can do this, because the sensor starts with more pixels than HD or 2K. The AMIRA will expose all of the available photosites (about 3.4K sensor pixels) in what they call the “open gate” method. This image is lightly cropped to 3.2K and then scaled by a 1.2 factor, which results in UltraHD 4K recording on the same hardware. Pretty neat trick and judging by ARRI’s image quality, I’ll bet it will look very good. Doubling down on this technique, the ALEXA XT models will also be able to record ProRes media at this 3.2K size. In the case of the ALEXA, the designers have opted to leave the upscaling to post, rather than to do it in-camera.

To conclude, if you are working in 4K today, then by all means continue to do so. It’s a great medium with a lot of creative benefits. If you aren’t working in 4K, then don’t sweat it. You won’t be left behind for awhile and there are plenty of techniques to get you to the same end goal as much of the 4K production that’s going on.

Click these thumbnails for full resolution images.

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©2014 Oliver Peters

Red Giant Universe

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Red Giant Software, developers of such popular effects and editing tools as Trapcode and Magic Bullet, recently announced Red Giant Universe. Red Giant has adopted a hybrid free/subscription model. Once you sign into Universe for a Red Giant account, you have access to all the free filters and transitions that are part of this package. Initially this includes 31 free plug-ins (22 effects, 9 transitions) and 19 premium plug-ins (12 effects, 7 transitions). Universe users have a 30-day trial period before the premium effects become watermarked. Premium membership pricing will be $10/month, $99/year or $399/lifetime. Lifetime members will receive routine updates without any further cost.

A new approach to a fresh and growing library of effects

The general mood among content creators has been against subscription models; however, when I polled thoughts about the Universe model on one of the Creative COW forums, the comments were very positive. I originally looked at Red Giant’s early press on Universe and I had gotten the impression that Universe would be an environment in which users could create their own custom effects. In fact, this isn’t the case at all. The Universe concept is built on Supernova, an internal development tool that Red Giant’s designers use to create new effects and transitions. Supernova draws from a library of building block filters that can be combined to create new plug-in effects. This is somewhat the same as Apple’s Quartz Composer development tool; however, it is not part of the package that members can access.

df_rgsu_3Red Giant plans to build a community around the Universe members, who will have some input into the types of new plug-ins created. These plug-ins will only be generated by Red Giant designers and partner developers. Currently they are working with Crumplepop, with whom they created Retrograde – one of the premium plug-ins. The point of being a paid premium member is to continue receiving routine updates that add to the repertoire of Universe effects that you own. In addition, some of the existing Red Giant products will be ported to Universe in the future as new premium effects.

df_rgsu_2This model is similar to what GenArts had done with Sapphire Edge, which was based on an upfront purchase, plus a subscription for updated effects “collections” (essentially new preset versions of an Edge plug-in). These were created by approved designers and added to the library each month. (Note: Sapphire Edge – or at least the FX Central subscription – appears to have been discontinued this year.) Unlike the Sapphire Edge “collections”, the Universe updates are not limited to presets, but will include brand new plug-ins. Red Giant tells me they currently have several dozen in the development pipeline already.

Red Giant Universe supports both Mac and Windows and runs in recent versions of Adobe After Effects, Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro X and Motion. At least for now, Universe doesn’t support Avid, Sony Vegas, DaVinci Resolve, EDIUS or Nuke hosts. Members will be able to install the software on two computers and a single installation of Universe will install these effects into all applicable hosts, so only one purchase is necessary for all.

Free and premium effects with GPU acceleration

In this initial release, the range of effects includes many standards as free effects, including blurs, glows, distortion effects, generators and transitions. The premium effects include some that have been ported over from other Red Giant products, including Knoll Light Factory EZ, Holomatrix, Retrograde, ToonIt and others. In case you are concerned about duplication if you’ve already purchased some of these effects, Red Giant answers this in their FAQ: “We’ve retooled the tools. Premium tools are faster, sleeker versions of the Red Giant products that you already know and love. ToonIt is 10x faster. Knoll Light Factory is 5x faster. We’ve streamlined [them]with fewer controls so you can work faster. All of the tools work seamlessly with [all of the] host apps, unlike some tools in the Effects Suite.”

df_rgsu_4The big selling point is that these are high-quality, GPU-accelerated effects, which use 32-bit float processing for trillions of colors. Red Giant is using OpenGL rather than OpenCL or NVIDIA’s CUDA technology, because it is easier to provide support across various graphics cards and operating systems. The recommendation is to have one of the newer, faster NVIDIA or AMD cards or mobile GPUs. The minimum GPU is an Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics chip. According to Red Giant, “Everything is rendered on the GPU, which makes Universe up to 10 times faster than CPU-based graphics. Many tools use advanced render technology that’s typically used in game development and simulation.”

In actual use

After Universe is installed, the updates are managed through the Red Giant Link utility. This will now keep track of all Red Giant products that you have installed (along with Universe) and lets you update as needed. The effects themselves are nice and the quality is high, but these are largely standard effects, so far. There’s nothing major yet, that isn’t already represented with a similar effect within the built-in filters and transitions that come as part of FCP X, Motion or After Effects. Obviously, there are subjective differences in one company’s “bad TV” or “cartoon” look versus that of another, so whether or not you need any additional plug-ins becomes a personal decision.

As far as GPU-acceleration is concerned, I do find the effects to be responsive when I adjust them and preview the video. This is especially true in a host like Final Cut Pro X, which is really tuned for the GPU. For example, adding and adjusting a Knoll lens flare from the Universe package performs better on my 2009 Mac Pro (8-core with an NVIDIA Quadro 4000), than do the other third-party flare filters I have available on this unit.

df_rgsu_5The field is pretty crowded when you stack up Universe against such established competitors as GenArts Sapphire, Boris Continuum Complete, Noise Industries FxFactory Pro and others. As yet, Universe does not offer any tools that fill in workflow gaps, like tracking, masking or even keyers. I’m not sure the monthly subscription makes sense for too many customers. It would seem that free will be attractive to many, while an annual or lifetime subscription will be the way most users will purchase Universe. The lifetime price lines up well when you compare it to the others, in terms of purchasing a filter package.

Red Giant Universe is an ideal package of effects for editors. While Apple has developed a system with Motion where any user can created new FCP X effects based on templates, the reality is that few working editors have the time or interest to do that. They want effects that can be quickly applied with a minimum amount of tweaking and that perform well on a timeline. This is what impresses clients and what wins over editors to your product. With that target in mind, Red Giant definitely will do well with Universe if it holds to its promise. Ultimately the success of Universe will hang on how prolific the developers are and how quickly new effects come through the subscription pipeline.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine/Creative Planet Network

©2014 Oliver Peters

CoreMelt TrackX

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Tracking isn’t something every editor does on a regular basis, but when you need it, very few NLEs have built-in tracking tools. This is definitely true with Apple Final Cut Pro X. CoreMelt makes some nice effects plug-ins, but in addition, they’ve produced a number of workflow tools that enhance the capabilities of Final Cut Pro X. These include Lock & Load X (stabilization) and SliceX (masking). The newest tool in the group is TrackX and like SliceX, it uses Mocha tracking technology licensed from Imagineer Systems. In keeping with the simplified controls common to FCP X effects, the tracking controls in TrackX are very easy to apply and use.

TrackX installs as three generators within FCP X – Simple Tracker, Track Layer and Track Text. All use the same planar-based Mocha tracker. The easiest to use – and where I get the best results – is the Simple Tracker. This lets you attach text or objects to a tracked item, so they travel with its movement.

The example used in their tutorial is of a downhill skier. As he races downhill, a timer read-out travels next to him. This works well and displays well, because the tracked objects do not have to perfectly adhere to each other. It uses a two-step process. First, create the item you want to attach and place it into a compound clip. Therefore, it can be a complex graphic and not just text. The second step is to track the object you want to follow. Apply the TrackX generator and trim to length, use the rectangle tool to select an area to be tracked, drop the compound clip into the filter control pane’s image well and then track forward or backwards. If there are hiccups within the tracks, you can manually delete or insert keyframes. Like other trackers, you can select the mode of analysis to be used, such as whether to follow position, scale or perspective.

df_trackx_2_smThe second TrackX generator is Track Layer. This worked well enough, but not nearly as well as the more advanced versions of Mocha that come with After Effects or are sold separately. This tool is designed to replace objects, such as inserting a screen image into a TV, window, iPad or iPhone. To use it, first highlight the area that will be replaced, by using the polygon drawing tool. Next, add the image to be used as the new surface. Then track. There are controls to adjust the scale and offset of the new surface image within its area.

In actual practice, I found it hard to get a track that wasn’t sloppy. It seems to track best when the camera is panning on an object without zooming or having any handheld rotation around the object. Since Mocha tracking is based on identifying flat planes, any three-dimensional motion around an object that results in a perspective change becomes hard to track. This is tough no matter what, but in my experience the standard Mocha trackers do a somewhat better job than TrackX did. A nice feature is a built-in masking tool, so that if your replacement surface is supposed to travel behind an object, like a telephone pole, you can mask the occluded area for realistic results.

Lastly, there’s Track Text. This generator has a built-in text editor and is intended to track objects in perspective. The example used in their demos is text, that’s attached to building rooftops in an aerial. The text is adjusted in perspective to be on the same plane as the roofs.

Overall, I liked the tools, but for serious compositing and effects, I would never turn to FCP X anyway. I would do that sort of work in After Effects. (TrackX does not install into Motion.) Nevertheless, for basic tracking, TrackX really fills a nice hole in FCP X’s power and is a tool that every FCP X editor will want at their fingertips.

For new features announced at NAB and coming soon, check out this video and post from FCP.co.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Digital Anarchy

df_diganarch_3_smOne of the plug-in developers I’ve touched on from time to time is Digital Anarchy. They’ve developed a diverse repertoire of image enhancement plug-ins for photo and video hosts, as well as iOS devices. In the past, they’ve developed such interesting tools as ToonIt (now a Red Giant product), but current video offerings focus on Flicker Free, Knoll Sparks (Autodesk-only) and Beauty Box.

Flicker Free

Flicker Free is the newest plug-in and is designed specifically for flickering video – most notably time-lapse clips. It currently works in Final Cut Pro, After Effects and Premiere Pro. According to their website, versions for Avid, DaVinci Resolve, Assimilate Scratch and Sony Vegas will be coming soon. When you shoot time-lapse image sequences with a modern DSLR camera using electronic lenses, there is a minor luminance difference from one frame to the next. That’s because each time a new frame is exposed, the lens must return back to the identical iris setting as the previous frame. This does not happen with the precision needed for total seamlessness, when a series of images is played as a video clip. Flicker Free is a way to deflicker this varying exposure, but can also be successfully applied to high-frame-rate slow motion, rolling flicker caused by LED lighting and other issues. The controls are simple – just apply the filter and tweak the few sliders to taste.

Beauty Box

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Beauty Box Video 3.0 is a skin smoothing filter that runs in After Effects, Assimilate Scratch, Avid, DaVinci Resolve, Final Cut Pro 7 and X, Premiere Pro, Nuke and Sony Vegas. If you are primarily a desktop software user (Apple, Adobe, Avid), then you’ll probably get the best results in After Effects. Selecting the range is like an HSL keyer, with dark and light color selections used to define the mask. The idea is to isolate skin color in an actor’s or actress’s face. Once the mask area is properly qualified, you have the ability to adjust contrast, saturation, hue and skin smoothing amounts. There are controls for additional sharpening and color correction, as well as shine removal. The newest 3.0 version is enhanced for GPU acceleration and is very responsive on a modern machine. Lastly, the mask area can be inverted, so that the smoothing operation is applied to everything outside of the face, for example.

Ugly Box

df_diganarch_2_smAround Halloween, Digital Anarchy also released a free variant of Beauty Box called Ugly Box. This was a special version that went the opposite direction of smoothing, by enhancing localized contrast. The effect of doing this is to intensify any texture in the skin. Then you can alter the hue, saturation and brightness. Although it’s a Halloween novelty, since you can make the “witch’s” face green, it could also be a useful tool in some productions like a zombie movie to enhance the effect of horror makeup.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Stocking Stuffers 2013

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With an eye towards Black Friday, it seemed like a good time to put up this post. There’s been so much development in tools for FCP X this year that I decided to focus my year-end post of small items strictly around some of the offerings related to FxFactory. Although there are plenty of other developers focusing on Final Cut Pro X, Noise Industries has done a good job of aggregating a divergent set of developers under one roof. Many of the items listed are for FCP X, but quite a few also work inside Adobe Premiere Pro CC.

Apple’s Final Cut Pro X uses an effects architecture based on templates tied to the underpinnings of Motion 5. Even if the user didn’t buy the Motion application, that’s the engine that drives FCP X effects. End users and developers can create innovative effects, transitions and titles simply by building an effect inside Motion and publishing it as an FCP X effect. This capability has enabled the Final Cut ecosystem to blossom with many new and useful effects that would be very complicated to replicate in most other editing or compositing applications.

df_fcpxplugs0713_1Some of the newest tools are even free, such as the Andy Mees filters. Mees is well-known in FCP circles for his older FxScript plug-ins and now he’s developed a handful of useful effects for FCP X. Of particular interest is Better 3D – a 2.5/3D DVE – as well as his Elastic Aspect filter. The latter stretches 4:3 content to fit a 16:9 frame. It is designed to stretch the outer portions of the frame more than the center, in order to leave talent (usually in the center of the frame) less distorted.

df_fcpxplugs0713_10The folks are Ripple Training are known for software training, but of late have also become plug-in developers with products that include Callouts, Optics, Timelines and Tools. All but the last are design themes with graphic overlays. Timelines is a set of templates for animated timeline charts. Tools is a mix of useful effects to augment FCP X. These include masks, 3D text, guides, color balance and certain stylized looks.

df_fcpxplugs0713_4A similar offering is Tim Dashwood’s Editor Essentials. Dashwood develops Stereo3D tools for Final Cut, but like Ripple’s Tools, this group is an editor’s toolkit designed to make life easier. Included are letterbox/pillarbox masks, color correction adjustments, camera horizon leveling, a quick slate template, a dead pixel fixer filter and more.df_fcpxplugs0713_3

Tokyo Productions developer Simon Ubsdell got into the effects game with FCP X. Some of his newest effects include Chrominator and PIPinator. The first filter turns flat titles into shiny, metallic, extruded text, complete with sheens and glows. PIPinator (as in “picture-in-picture”) is a set of preset DVE moves to fly images in, out and through the frame. Other effects include ReAnimator for dead pixels and Split Animator for various split screen effects.

df_fcpxplugs0713_5I’ve mentioned Luca Visual FX a few times in my past reviews. Luca VFX is a great resource for grunge and distress looks. Some new filters and transitions include Impackt and Lo-Fi Looks. The latest – XOverlays – deviates from grunge, by using a set of patterns and graphics as effects overlays. These plug-ins also include image wells within the filter, so you can alter the look by dropping in your own images. Luca has further extended XOverlays, by releasing a set of bonus motion graphics, which may be used in these image wells. Design styles include bands, grids, high tech elements, ripples and visualizers.df_fcpxplugs0713_15

Another new Luca offering is Hi-Tech, which is a collection of lower-thirds, simulated displays and animations. It’s a perfect package for a show, spot or film that needs a lot of sci-fi style monitors, HUD overlays and digital elements. Each of these can be customized with image drop wells, color changes and the ability to reposition items within the frame.

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Stupid Raisins has focused on transitions using blocks, panels, shapes and slide effects. Their latest release is a series of title generators with built-in motion graphics, reminiscent of Apple’s LiveType. Although these animations have been integrated into Motion, it’s nice to have them easily accessible within FCP X as an effect. There are 50 titles with a variety of text animation effects. Apply the clip to the timeline and then you can easily modify fonts, text information and style.

df_fcpxplugs0713_7I’ve only touched the surface of the available tools, but I’ll wrap up with PHYX’s new Flarelight filter. This package includes three glare, lens flare and glow filters, plus noise and star field generators. The lens flare in particular is very nice. It has a ton of parameters to customize the flare and keyframe its movement. Actual adjustment felt a little slow as I was doing it, but it played reasonably well in real-time without having to render – just to see the effect.

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idustrial revolution – one of the original FxFactory development partners – has added the XEffects Toolkit to their product family. The Toolkit is a set of 53 filters, titles and generators that cover a wide range of needs from the stylish to the utilitarian. For example, where can you find a tilt-shift filter, a telestrator overlay line and a slate/countdown clock all in the same set of effects? Also included are filters that treat standard editing effects – like a zoom – in much the same way as a Behavior in Motion.

df_fcpxplugs0713_17The last plug-in I’ll mention here is Swoosh from SUGARfx. Swoosh is a set of light brush transitions, titles and generators. The transitions especially show off the power of image manipulation in FCP X. Not only are these a graphic color overlay that wipes from one image to the next, but the path of the light brush effect actually refracts the image underneath. This results in visual ripple or distortion of the incoming and outgoing shots. The transitions run in real-time on a good machine and you have control over a number of parameters, including the gradient colors and the refraction amount.

df_fcpxplugs0713_18I’ve avoided mentioning color correction filters of various types, since these were covered earlier. If you missed those posts, check here and here for a refresher.  I’ve mentioned these in the context of Final Cut Pro, but many of these filters will also show up and work in Motion, After Effects and Premiere Pro with the same installation. It’s a growing ecosystem of tools that makes FCP X a very interesting environment to work in.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

© 2013 Oliver Peters

Rampant Design Tools

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Editors love to play with effects and filters. It’s one of the things that has driven the FCP X market. No matter what NLE you use, filters and transitions are almost always proprietary to that application. You can’t use a Motion template in any other application than Final Cut or Motion. Often the best solution is to use effects elements in the form of media rather than plug-ins. This way your effects are transportable between offline and online editors, different editing applications and different computing platforms. They are also correctly translated as part of a sequence sent out as an EDL, XML or AAF file. This is something to think about for Adobe Creative Cloud subscribers, who might be reticent to buy a lot of plug-ins that are locked to a host application that they now don’t own.

df_rdt_2_smOne company leading the way in new effects and design elements is Rampant Design Tools. The designer behind the company is visual effects wiz Sean Mullen. For the sake of full disclosure, Sean and I have worked together in the past and so I’ve been able to test and play with a lot of his products. The Rampant Design Tools products cover a wide range of styles, but coming from a VFX background, Sean has included a lot of elements that are useful for effects compositing, including flares, light flashes, dust, gunfire, smoke, fog, dirt, scratches and more. All elements are QuickTime-based, using common codecs. Typically these are Photo-JPEG or PNG, depending on whether or not they need to be keyable.

df_rdt_3_smNew products include animated backgrounds, matte transitions, textures and optical effects. I’m particularly fond of his Bokeh elements, which make really tasteful backgrounds. Rampant has also added stock music and After Effects templates for a more rounded product offering. It’s important to note, that while these are drag-and-drop effects, they do come from a compositor’s sensibility. By this I mean, they are there to play with, combine and modify to taste. For example, changing blend modes or filling a keyable transition clip with other “fill” media will completely change the look of the effect in a way that makes it more unique. Yes, you can use them “as is”, but you also have the latitude to get out of the “cookie cutter” mindset. To help users expand their creativity, the Rampant Design Tools website includes tutorials, a blog and a community section.

df_rdt_4_smThis post doesn’t need an in-depth review. The products are self-explanatory and work in any editing and compositing application that can read QuickTime files. The quality of the tools are fine – designed by an experienced compositor for other artists. If you don’t want to be locked into plug-ins that might not work with the next version or OS change, then Rampant Design Tools could just fit the bill.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Hawaiki Color

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Color correction using graphical color wheels was introduced to the editing world in the Avid Symphony over a decade ago and adopted by nearly every NLE after that.  Final Cut Pro “legacy” had a two nice color correctors using the color wheel model, so adopters of Final Cut Pro X were disappointed to see the Color Board as the replacement. Although the additive/subtractive color math works about the same way to change tonality of lows, mids and highlights, many users still pine for wheels instead of pucks and sliders. A pair of developers (Tokyo Productions and Lawn Road) set out to rectify that situation with Hawaiki Color. It’s the color correction tool that many Final Cut Pro X editors wish Apple had built. (Click any images in this post for an enlarged view.)

Both developers offer several different types of grading filters, which all perform similar tasks. Each has its own twists, but only Hawaiki Color includes on-screen sliders and color wheel controls. Based on how Apple designed FCP X, developers simply cannot create custom interfaces within the Inspector effects panel. They are limited to sliders and a few extras. One of these extras is to the ability to tap into the Mac OS color pickers to use color swatches as tonal controls for low/mid/hi color balance. A number of grading filters use this method quite successfully.

If a developer wants to introduce more custom interface elements, then there are two routes – linking to a separate external application (Magic Bullet Looks, Digital Film Tools Film Stocks, Tiffen Dfx3, GenArts Sapphire Edge) – or placing an overlay onto the Viewer. Thanks to the latter option, a number of developers have created special overlays that become “heads up display” (HUD) controls for their plug-ins. To date, only Hawaiki Color and Yanobox Moods have used a HUD overlay to reproduce color wheels for grading.

df_hawaiki_2_smThe Hawaiki Color grading controls can be adjusted either from the Inspector effects pane or from the on-screen HUD controls placed over the main Viewer output. Set-ups, like a reference split screen, must be done from the Inspector. The grading controls are built into three of the four frame corners with low/mid/hi/global sliders for exposure, temperature and saturation. The sliders in the fourth corner let you adjust overall hue, contrast, sharpening and blur. At the center bottom of the frame are three color wheels (low/mid/hi) for balance offsets. Once the Hawaiki Color filter is applied to the desired clips in your timeline – and you have set the filter to be displayed in a window or full screen with overlaid controls – it becomes very easy to move from clip-to-clip in a very fast grading session.

df_hawaiki_3_smI ran a test using Philip Bloom’s Hiding Place short film, which he shot as part of his review of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. He was gracious enough to offer an ungraded ProResHQ version for download, which is what I used as my test footage. The camera settings include a flat gamma profile (BMD Film), which is similar to RED’s RedLogFilm or ARRI’s Log-C and is ideal for grading. I edited this into an FCP X timeline, bladed the clip at all the cuts and then applied the Hawaiki Color filter to each segment.

df_hawaiki_4_smBy running my Viewer on the secondary screen, setting the filter to full screen with the interface controls overlaid and placing the FCP X scopes below, I ended up with a very nice color grading environment and workflow.  The unique aspect, compared to most other grading filters, is that all adjustments occur right on the image. This means your attention always stays on the image, without needing to shift between the Inspector and the Viewer or an external monitor. I did my grading using a single instance of the filter, but it is possible to stack more than one application of Hawaiki Color onto a clip or within adjustment layers. You can also use it in conjunction with any other filter. In fact, in my final version, I added just a touch of the FilmConvert Pro film emulsion filter, as well as an FCP X Color Board shape mask for a vignette effect.

df_hawaiki_5_smThere are a few things to be mindful of. Because of the limitations developers face in creating HUDs for an FCP X effect, Hawaiki Color includes a “commit grade” button, which turns off the on-screen interface. If you don’t “commit” the grade, then the interface is baked into your rendered file and/or your exported master. Like all third-party filters, Hawaiki Color does not have the same unrendered performance as FCP X’s own Color Board. There’s “secret sauce” that Apple uses, which developers are not privy to. Frankly, there isn’t a single third-party FCP X filter that performs as well as Apple’s built-in effects. Nevertheless, Hawaiki Color performed reasonably well in real-time and didn’t get sluggish until I stacked FilmConvert and a vignette on top of it.

df_hawaiki_6_smI ran into an issue with Bloom’s source file, which he exports at a cropped 1920 x 816 size for a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. FCP X will fit this into a 1920 x 1080 sequence with letterboxed black pad on the top and bottom. However, by doing this, I found out that it affected the HUD controls, once I added more filters. It also caused the color wheel controls to change possible in the frame, as they are locked to the source size. The solution to avoid such issues is to place the non-standard-sized clip into a 1080p sequence and then create a Compound Clip. Now edit your Compound Clip to a new sequence where you will apply the filters. None of this is an issue with Hawaiki Color or any other filter, but rather a function of working with non-standard (for video) frame sizes within an FCP X sequence.

df_hawaiki_7_smAs far as grading Hiding Place, my intent was to go for a slight retro look, like 1970s era film. The footage lent itself to that and with the BMD Film gamma profile was easy to grade. I stretched exposure/contrast, increased saturation and swung the hue offsets as follows – shadows towards green, midrange towards red/orange and highlights towards blue. The FilmConvert Pro filter was set to a Canon Mark II/Standard camera profile and the KD5207 Vis3 film stock selection. This is a preset that mimics a modern Kodak negative stock with relatively neutral color. I dialed it back to 30% of its color effect, but with grain at 100% (35mm size). The effect of this was to slightly change gamma and brightness and to add grain. Finally, the Color Board vignette darkens the edges of the frame.

Click here to see my version of Hiding Place graded using Hawaiki Color. In my clip, you’ll see the final result (first half), followed by a split screen output with the interface baked in. Although I’ve been a fan of the Color Board, I really like the results I got from Hawaiki Color. Control granularity is better than the Color Board and working the wheels is simply second nature. Absolutely a bargain if it fits your grading comfort zone!

©2013 Oliver Peters / Source images @2013 PhilipBloom.net