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

CoreMelt SliceX powered by Mocha

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The structure of Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has brought many new and innovative plug-ins to market that extent the power of the application. One such plug-in is SliceX from CoreMelt. Developer Roger Bolton is a visual effects compositor who has been making FCP, Motion and After Effects plug-ins that fill the needs he sees coming from a VFX background. SliceX was originally developed as a mask-creation filter designed for FCP X, which has no built-in, custom masking tools. The latest version of SliceX has been improved to add keyframes to the effects parameters. It now also sports a built-in 2D planar tracker using Mocha technology licensed from Imagineer Systems.

SliceX is a set of six effects filters for Final Cut Pro X. These include shape masks for blurs, color correction, depth-of-field, object removal (cloning), vignettes and layer shapes. Each has a different set of parameters depending on the design of that filter – blur settings versus color correction sliders, for example. You can apply the filter on a single clip; or you can stack clips vertically and apply a filter to a higher clip in order to composite these clips together, enabled by the masks you have created. Each filter includes a common set of on-screen drawing tools for the mask shapes, as well as the Mocha tracking controls. Masks can be adjusted using control points with Bezier handles and can be moved, scaled and rotated along with the adjustment of edge softness.

Having built-in tracking is unique in a filter (except for the Boris Continuum Complete effects) and by adding the Mocha tracker, elevates the level of effects work you can do inside FCP X. Most trackers are point trackers, where you have to identify one to four consistent high contrast points within an image for the tracker to follow. The Mocha tracker is a planer tracker, which means it automatically calculates tracking points based on a wider surface area of flat planes detected in the image. When you use Mocha tracking in Adobe After Effects, for instance, the clip is sent out to the separate Mocha tracking application, which creates the tracking data. This data is then used to adjust scale, position and rotation information within After Effects’ transform tab.

df_slicex_2All of these extra steps are eliminated with SliceX. In keeping to the general FCP X philosophy of hiding the advanced technology under the hood, SliceX features a simple floating heads-up panel for Mocha and the drawing tools. Click the track arrow in the Mocha control panel to track forward or backward from the point you are parked and the mask is adjusted based on that track. Tracks can be set for either translate (position)/scale/rotation or for perspective. The tracker runs slower than real-time while it analyzes the shot, though this pass is relatively speedy as trackers go. Once the tracking analysis is complete, FCP X will apply and run the effect in real-time without rendering. In addition to the Mocha control panel, there’s also a new mask keyframe control panel. If you change the mask points within a clip, this automatically adds keyframes at every point where you have made adjustments. You can now step through or delete these keyframes, which is a separate function from the standard FCP X keyframe controls available within the effects Inspector window.

CoreMelt’s SliceX adds tremendous functionality to FCP X. You can use the effects to track and blur faces or act like tracked color correction nodes in DaVinci Resolve. The tracking is as simple and foolproof as it comes. Object removal is a great fix-it tool. Have an actress with a skin blemish on her cheek? Simply add the mask and offset the skin area. Track it and voila – the blemish is gone.

It’s easy to say good things about many filters. They are fun to use and give your videos unique stylized looks, but it’s rare that filters significantly improve the core function of your NLE. SliceX is one of those. It’s a must-have filter if you are serious about professional results with Final Cut Pro X. Use it on a few shots and you’ll instantly ask why every NLE doesn’t do the same – and do it so painlessly.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters