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

Color Concepts and Terminology

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It’s time to dive into some of the terms and concept that brought you modern color correction software. First of all – color grading versus color correction. Many use these terms to identify different processes, such as technical shot matching versus giving a shot a subjective “look”. I do this too, but the truth of the matter is that they are the same and are interchangeable. Grading tends to be a more European way of naming the process, but it is the same as color correction. (Click on any of the images in this article for an expanded and more descriptive view.)

All of our concepts stem from the film lab process known as color timing. Originally this described the person who knew how long to leave the negative in the chemical bath to achieve the desired result (the “timer”). Once the industry figured out to manipulate color in the negative-to-positive printing process, the “color timer” was the person who controlled the color analyzer and who dialed in degrees of density and red/blue/green coloration. The Dale Grahn Color iPad application will give you a good understanding of this process. Alexis Van Hurkman also covers it in his “Color Correction Handbook”.df_clrterms_09_sm

Electronic video color correction started with early color cameras and telecine (film-to-tape transfer or “film chain”) devices. These were based on red/blue/green color systems, where the video engineer (or “video shader”) would balance out the three components, along with exposure and black level (shadows). He or she would adjust the signal of the pick-up systems, including tubes, CCDs and photoelectric cells.

RCA added circuitry onto their cameras called a chroma proc, which divided the color spectrum according to the six divisions of the vectorscope – red, blue, green, cyan, magenta and yellow. The chroma proc let the operator shift the saturation and/or hue of each one of these six slices. For instance, you could desaturate the reds within the image. Early color correction modules for film-to-tape transfer systems adopted this same circuity. The “primary” controls manipulated the actual pick-up devices, while the “secondary” controls were downstream in the signal chain and let you further fine tune the color according to this simple, six-vector division.

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Early color correction system were built to transfer color film to air or to videotape. They were part machine control and part color corrector. Modern color correction for post production came to be, because of these three key advances: memory storage, scene detection and signal decoding.

Memory storage. Once you could store and recall color correction settings, then it was easy to go back and forth between camera angles or shots and apply a different setting to each. Or you could create several looks and preview those for the client. The addition of this technology was the basis for a seminal patent lawsuit, known as the Rainbow patent suit, as the battle ranged over who first developed this technology.

Scene detection. Film transfer systems had to play in real-time to be recorded to videotape, which meant that shot changes had to trigger the change from one color correction setting to the next. Early systems did this via the operator manually marking an edit point (called “notching”), via an EDL (edit decision list) or through automatic scene detection circuitry. This was important for the real-time transfer of edited content, including film prints, cut negative and eventually videotape programs.

Signal decoding. The ability of color correction systems to decode a composite or component analog (and later digital) signal through added hardware, shifted color correction from camera shading and film transfer to being another general post production tool at a post facility. The addition of a signal decoder board in a DaVinci unit split the input signal into RGB parts and enabled the colorist to enhance the correction of an already-edited master using the “secondary” signal electronics of the system. This enabled “tape-to-tape” color correction of edited masters. Thanks to scene detection or an EDL, color correction could be shot-to-shot and frame-accurate, when played back in real-time for its re-encoded, corrected output back to a second videotape master.

Eventually the tools used in hardware-based, tape-to-tape color correction systems became standard. Quantel and Avid led the way by being first to incorporate these features into their nonlinear editing software.

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Color correction software tends to break up its control into primary and secondary functions. As you can see from the earlier explanations, there’s really no reason to do that, since we are no longer controlling the pick-up devices within a camera or telecine. Nevertheless, it’s terminology we seem to be comfortable with. Often secondary controls enable masking and keys to isolate color – not because it has to be that way – but, because DaVinci added these features into their secondary control set. In modern correction tools, any function could happen on any layer, node, room, etc.df_clrterms_03_sm

The core language for color manipulation still boils down to the simple controls exemplified by the Dale Grahn app. A signal can be brighter, darker, more or less “dense” (contrast) and have its colorimetry shifted by added or subtracting red, blue or green for the overall image or in the highlight, midrange or shadow portions of the image. This basic approach can be controlled through sliders, knobs, color wheels and other user interfaces. Different software applications and plug-ins get to the same point through different means, so I’ll cover a few approaches here. Bear in mind, that since some of these actually represent somewhat different color science and math, examples that I present might not yield exactly the same results. Many controls are equivalent in their effect, though not necessarily identical in how they affect the image.

df_clrterms_01_smA common misconception is that shadow/mid/highlight controls on a 3-way color corrector will evenly divide the waveform into three discrete ranges. In fact, these are very large, overlapping ranges that interact with each other. If you shift a shadow luminance control up, it doesn’t typically just expand or compress the lower third of the waveform. Although some correctors act this way, most tend to shift the whole waveform up or down. If you change the color balance of the midrange, this color change will also affect shadows and highlights. The following is a quick explanation of some of the popular color control models.

Contrast/pivot/temperature/tint

df_clrterms_07_smContrast and temperature controls have recently become more popular and are considered a more photographic approach to correction. When you adjust contrast, the image levels expand or stretch as viewed on a waveform. Highlights get brighter and shadows deepen. This contrast expansion centers on a pivot point, which by default is at the center of the signal. If you change the pivot slider you are shifting the center point of this contrast expansion. In one direction, this means the contrast control will stretch the range below the pivot point more than above it. Shift the pivot slider in the other direction for the opposite effect.

df_clrterms_06_smColor temperature and tint (also called magenta) controls balance the red/blue/green signal channels in relationship to each other. If you slide a color temperature control while watching an RGB parade display on a waveform, you’ll note that adjustments shift the red and blue channels up or down in the opposite direction to each other, while leaving green unaffected. When you adjust the tint (or magenta) slider, you are adjusting the green channel. As you raise or lower the green, both the red and blue channels move together in a compensating direction.

Slope/offset/power

df_clrterms_08_smThe SOP model is used for CDL (color decision list) values and breaks down the signal according to luma (master), red, green and blue and are expressed in the form of plus or minus values for slope, offset and power. Scratch Play’s color adjustments are a good example of the SOP model in action. Slope is equivalent to gain. Picture the waveform as a diagonal line from dark to light. As you rotate this imaginary line, the higher part becomes taller, which represents brightness values. Think of the slope concept as this rotating line. As such, its results are comparable to a contrast control.

The offset control shifts the entire signal up or down, similar to other shadow or lift controls. The power control alters gamma. As you adjust power, the gamma signal is curved in a positive or negative direction, effectively making the midrange tones lighter or darker.

Lift/gamma/gain

df_clrterms_02_smThe LGG model is the common method used for most 3-way color wheel-style correctors. It effectively works in a similar manner to contrast and SOP, except that the placement of controls makes more sense to most casual users. Gain, as the name implies, increases the signal, effectively expanding the overall values and making highlights brighter. Lift shifts the entire signal higher or lower. Changing a lift control to darken shadows, will also have some effect on the overall image. Gamma bends the curve and effectively makes the midrange values lighter or darker.

Luma ranges

df_clrterms_04_smThe portions of the signal altered by highlight/shadow/midrange controls (like SOP, LGG or other) overlap. If you change the color balance for the midrange tones, you will also contaminate shadows and highlights with this color shift. The extent of the portion that is affected is controlled by a luma range control. Many color correction applications do not give you control over shifting the crossover points of these luma ranges. Some that do, include Avid Symphony, Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse and Adobe SpeedGrade. Each offers curves or sliders to reduce or expand the area controlled by each luma range and effectively tightens or widens the overlap or crossover between the ranges.

DaVinci Resolve includes a similar function within its log-style color wheels panel. It uses range adjustments that can limit the area affected by the balance and saturation controls. Similar results may be achieved by using HSL keyers or qualifiers that include softening controls.

Channels or printer lights

df_clrterms_05_smVideo signals are made up of red, blue and green channel information. It is not uncommon for properly-balanced digital cameras to still maintain a green color cast to the overall image, especially if log-profile recording was used. Here, it’s best to simply balance the overall channels first to neutralize the image, rather than attempt to do this through color wheel adjustments. Some software uses actual channel controls, so it’s easy to make a base-level adjustment to the output or mix of a channel. If your software uses printer lights, you can achieve the same results. Printer lights harken back to lab color timing, using point values that equate to color analysis values. Regardless, dialing in a plus or minus red/blue/green printer light value effectively gives you the same results as altering the output value of a specific color channel.

This is just a short post to go over some of the more confusing terminology found in modern color correction software. Many applications tend to blend the color science models, so as you apply the points mentioned to your favorite tool, you may see somewhat different results. Hopefully I’ve gotten you in the ballpark, in order to understand what happens when you twirl the knob the next time.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Red Giant Software Arsenal

Thanks to the growth of the internet, laptops and now tablets, the use of physical portfolios and demo reels to show your wares has been increasingly replaced by digital alternatives. The newest of these is Red Giant Software’s Arsenal application for the Apple iPad. This is a mobile presentation application designed to present your creative work to clients using an iPad.

Arsenal is easy to use and supports the presentation of both still images and video. You can import images by syncing folders with your iPad, via FTP and Dropbox. Multiple presentations can be organized in the Light Table display. Arsenal uses a series of Collections, each of which can hold several Strips. Once you pick the Collection to load, the available Strips are displayed. For a Strip of photographs, simply swipe the Strip with your finger in a standard iPad gesture and you can scroll through the images to see what is available in that Strip. Tap any image to display it full screen. From the full screen mode, you can swipe left or right to change images, set up a slideshow with automatic advance (three, five or eight seconds) or access any image from a small film strip at the bottom.

Arsenal offers a set of editing controls to add, move or delete images, name Collections and Strips (with choices of font style and size and theme colors), as well as add your logo at the top. Syncing is a big part of the application. You can e-mail a customer an Arsenal file that’s synced via Dropbox. The customer can run this file on their iPad using a free Arsenal Reader application and the images stay updated via Dropbox. In addition, you can also e-mail any image to another person from within Arsenal as a standard e-mail attachment.

Arsenal currently supports all three iPad models, JPEG and PNG images, plus MOV and MP-4 video files. There’s full support for the new iPad’s Retina display with images up to 5,000 pixels (3,000 for the original iPad model). I tested Arsenal on my first generation iPad, using still photos from my Olympus point-and-shoot camera as well as older 35mm slide scans. A few of these exceeded 3,000 pixels, but didn’t present any problems.

I prefer manual sync for my iPad and have an “iPad Transfer” folder on my desktop computer where I copy files headed for the iPad. Stills or movies that I’ve synced are accessible by Arsenal to be organized into Collections and Strips. 720p/23.98 H.264 MOV files at 5Mbps play nicely on the iPad and look great full screen on this first generation device. My only complaint is that videos don’t offer a thumbnail for quick visual recognition. Remember that productions use stills in lots of ways, including casting photos, location scouting stills and behind-the-scenes shots. All of these uses can find a home with Arsenal.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 Oliver Peters

Magic Bullet PhotoLooks 2

Red Giant Software launched the preset-based “looks” market, when it originally released the browser version of Magic Bullet Looks. Visual effects director and software designer Stu Maschwitz overhauled the original product to create a self-contained color correction and “looks creation” interface, where tools were grouped according to how they fit into the flow from in-front of the camera to post. Magic Bullet Looks ships with tools and a number of presets, which can quickly be previewed on an image. The software is built as a separate application that is linked into most standard NLEs and compositors as a plug-in. This design spawned a still photography version, called PhotoLooks, which uses the same basic engine. For still photography, PhotoLooks installs as a plug-in to Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom and Apple Aperture.

Last year Red Giant Software brought out Magic Bullet Looks 2.0, which is also sold as part of the Magic Bullet Looks Suite 11. This featured a more streamlined Looks interface and additional tools, like Cosmo (a skin smoothing tool), but the PhotoLooks version was stuck with the old skin. Now the two have parity, with the recent update of the suite and PhotoLooks 2.0. Purchase PhotoLooks separately or get it included with the suite. Once again, both Magic Bullet Looks (for video) and PhotoLooks (for stills) feature a consistent appearance and a common set of tools and presets.

Magic Bullet PhotoLooks 2.0 is available as a plug-in to Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom, but may also be accessed by launching the PhotoLooks application. When you use it as a plug-in, you gain the benefits of round-tripping between the applications. In Aperture and Lightroom, both before and after version are saved, to guarantee that the process is non-destructive. If you open PhotoLooks separately, you can import JPEGs, PNGs and TIFFs, but the adjusted image can only be saved as a JPEG. Custom looks can also be exported for use elsewhere.

Along with the new interface and Cosmo, other new features include four new scopes, faster GPU-enabled processing and 3-way color correction tools based on Magic Bullet’s popular Colorista filter. Creating an original look is as simple as dragging a tool into one of the categories (subject, matte, lens, camera, post) and then tweaking the setting to your liking. A tool isn’t limited to a specific category, so “post” tools can be applied in the “subject” position, as well as the other way around. You are simply creating a chain of filter effects, much like audio engineers do with audio filters. Once you get the desired result either save that as a new preset or exit back to the host program, where the image will appear with that look applied to it.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 Oliver Peters

New Plug-ins for 2012

Plug-in developers have had their hands full. Not only are they rolling out refreshed versions of their products, but they are having to adapt to a range of new hosts, including Apple Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5 and updates of Avid Media Composer and the Adobe Creative Suite applications. Here’s a look at some of the newest options.

Boris FX – Boris Continuum Complete 8

Boris Continuum Complete is truly the Swiss Army Knife of filter packages. At NAB, Boris Yamnitsky (president of Boris FX) pointed out that the focus of the BCC8 upgrade was not simply to add more filters, but to improve the quality of all the filters, such as adding 3D depth to effects like lens flares. Filter categories have also been slightly regrouped into more logical combinations. The Boris Continuum Complete package includes categories that cover a wide variety totaling over 200 filters.

New features include improvements in the particle effects, lens flares, glows, lights and image restoration tools. There’s better integration with After Effects and support for 32-bit floating calculations. Best of all, BCC8 adds eight new filters including videoscopes, film glow, a 3D particle emitter, 3D lens flares, wild cards, organic strands, stage lights and flicker fixer.

Boris FX was one of the first companies to include particle effects inside an NLE and the performance and responsiveness of all of these filters have been greatly improved. Running BCC8 in After Effects on my Mac Pro with an ATI 5870 graphics card is a joy. The effects are easy to manipulate, particularly those that are more taxing, like distortions, particles, strands, extruded 3D text and glows. The Continuum filters use a set of custom on-screen controls that make it easy to tweak parameters either in the filter control panel or using the widget overlays.

The engineers have put effort into improving such basic effects as film glows and the 3D lens flares, giving these a very organic look and maximizing the level of control. Even though there are a lot of sliders to play with, each effect comes with a set of presets to quickly test out the looks – simply step through the presets from a pulldown menu. If you can only afford to purchase one set of third-party filters, then BCC is a great choice, because it’s so versatile.

RE:Vision Effects – Twixtor

Mention time-ramping effects, a la the movie 300, and RE:Vision Effects’ Twixtor immediately comes to mind. The most sophisticated version, Twixtor Pro, is available for Adobe After Effects, but for more casual users, RE:Vision released the standard Twixtor plug-in for Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro X.

Twixtor technology is particularly effective to slow a clip down, because it interpolates new frames in-between existing frames to eliminate visible stepping in the motion. It calculates the direction of motion within a clip and predicts where pixels should be. This data is used to create new frame information for the in-between frames. Naturally, these calculations aren’t always perfect, so the plug-in provides controls to fine-tune the parameters. Twixtor Pro (available in After Effects) gives you the ability to separate objects into layers to improve the accuracy of motion tracking.

Edge detection is a key part of how Twixtor does its magic. This means chroma and contrast play a role. If you try to apply Twixtor on a “log space” flat clip from an Alexa (Log-C), RED One (RedLogFilm) or Sony F3 (S-Log), you’ll often have some image artifacts, such as smearing or unnecessary blending. Instead, first bake in a LUT to color-corrected the clip and then apply Twixtor for significantly better results.

Twixtor tends to work best on clips when the object of your attention is reasonably isolated from the background. A skateboarder doing a jump against a blue sky will yield better results than if that background is the more complex architecture of a building. In the second example, the interpolation will tend to include the structure of the objects that intersect the skateboarder, causing them to warp and morph as you advance frames. This is where Twixtor Pro in After Effects gives you more control, but nevertheless, by being selective and doing some of your own masking, you can minimize these issues when using Twixtor in FCP X or Media Composer.

Irudis – Tonalizer|VFX

Final Cut Pro X has encouraged new plug-in developers to enter the NLE effects market. One such company is Irudis with their Tonalizer|VFX color-correction filter. It’s a slider-based filter designed for the FCP X interface and comes in a PRO (paid) and LITE (free) version. It’s billed as using photographic-style color correction and, in fact, Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture users will feel right at home.

Tonalizer|VFX LITE provides a number of basic controls for contrast, brightness, chroma, etc. You need to bump up to Tonalizer|VFX PRO for the full level of control. Some of the key features are color correction based on warmth (color temp) and tint, highlight rescue, detail enhancement and noise reduction. Its strongest feature is the ability to dig out detail from seemingly overexposed skies and blocked up shadows. It also includes adaptations, which is a localized contrast control that will add more “punch” to an image. Best of all, I found it to be one of the least taxing color correction plug-ins available for X.

Noise Industries – FxFactory

Noise Industries is another company throwing full support behind FCP X. Not only are their existing FxFactory partner developers becoming X-compatible, but Noise Industries has busily been adding partners to the mix. Some, like Nattress and Sheffield Softworks, created popular FxScript filters built for the original FCP effects API. These have been newly re-written for FxPlug and are now offered as part of the FxFactory installation. In most cases, these filters are also available to all the other supported hosts, including After Effects – a first for Nattress and Sheffield.

These new additions add a number of color correction tools to the kit. For instance, Nattress curves and levels, Sheffield Softworks filters and Yanobox Moods fill a huge gap in X’s built-in color grading capabilities. You also get the same on-screen overlays in After Effects, such as Moods’ color wheels and Nattress’ curve schematics. So if you are running FCP X, Motion 5 and After Effects, a single installation of FxFactory will enable the filters for each application.

One of the newest FxFactory associations is with Ripple Training for a series of FCP X title effects branded as Callouts. These are useful templates that are a godsend for anyone doing instructional video of any type. It’s a series of animated arrows, lines, circles, thought and speech bubbles and more. As FCP X templates (based on Motion projects under the hood), these come with easy on-screen widgets for size/position adjustment, text entry and animation direction.

Another new member to the family is UK edit boutique Tokyo, who has been developing a number of FCP X-specific plug-ins, since its launch. Their first outing with FxFactory is the Tokyo Split Animator. This is a series of split-screen animation templates, which can be easily customized for interesting on-screen image collages. Design variations include shapes, sizes and angles. The user can make modifications of animation entry points, size and screen position, borders and shadows and more. The Tokyo Split Animator is a very cool way to add screen dynamism using a very simple concept.

DigiEffects – Damage and Delirium v2.5

DigiEffects has been going through a refresh of the Damage and Delirium filter sets, which I’ve tested in a few hosts, including Apple Final Cut Pro and Adobe After Effects. I wasn’t thrilled with the performance in FCP X, but they are more in their element inside After Effects, which I still regard as the best effects architecture of any of the common desktop tools. Between these two packages, you get several dozen filters in a range of categories encompassing particle effects, film and TV damage and overexposure.

These filters can be used to distress images or to add particle-based effects, like fog, fireworks, electrical arcs and more. They still don’t seem to be as responsive as other filters are in After Effects – though the 32-bit effects respond better than the 16-bit effects – but they do add some unique looks to the toolkit. For example, their skew effect is quite different from other grunge, TV interference or analog glitch effects – complete with controls for ghosting, distortion, noise, glow and vertical hold.

Digital Film Tools – Film Stocks

Digital Film Tools has developed a number of stylized image products, including Photo Copy, Tiffen Dfx and their newest – Film Stocks. All of these have just gone through a round of updates to be compatible with Final Cut Pro X and the Creative Suite 6 applications. With Film Stocks, DFT has combined the various film stock emulation and film processing categories from the other packages into a single “film looks” filter application. Like the others, it’s available for a wide range of film/video and photographic hosts.

When you apply the Film Stocks filter to a clip on the timeline in a host like Avid Media Composer or Adobe After Effects, you can access numerous sliders for direct adjustment inside the usual effects control panel. Or click the button to launch the external Film Stocks application, which uses its own custom interface. This is consistent with the other DFT products, as well. (The exception is the FCP X implementation of Photo Copy. There, you have a series of presets available with adjustable slider controls, but no link to the standalone application. )

Once you’ve launched Film Stocks, simply choose the category, like motion picture films – browse the presets within the category, such as various Fuji or Eastman stock emulations – and tweak the settings to customize the look. The film/video plug-in works on a single layer. Some parameters, like film grain, will be animated, which affects rendering performance. For example, enabling grain with animation values will take longer to render than without grain.

In Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or Apple Aperture, the plug-in sends you directly to the external application. You have the ability to create and blend layers into a composite, much as you would with Photoshop layers. This is an especially useful tool for digital photographers. Want that touch of Kodachrome 25? Simply bounce out to Film Stocks, apply the preset and you’re done. If you are looking for a convincing mimic of film, then without a doubt, Digital Film Tools’ Film Stocks is the best film emulation product on the market.

 GenArts – Sapphire Edge V2

Sapphire Edge is a preset-based set of filters and transitions running the same effects engine as the traditional Sapphire filters. It uses a preset browser application to search and preview looks and styles. When you purchase Sapphire Edge, you also get a one-year subscription to FX Central, a subscription download service to expand to your preset collection on a monthly basis. Sapphire Edge V2 plug-ins have just been released, which include updates for Final Cut Pro (7 and X), After Effects/Premiere Pro CS6 and Sony Vegas. Nine new filters (rays, glare, glint, kaleido, soft focus, etc.) and four new transitions have been added. To date, there are over 575 presets based on 31 effects and transitions.

With V2 you can now save your own presets. Each implementation of these filters includes a set of slider adjustments in the host application’s effects interface. You can launch the Edge browser, pick an existing preset from a series of thumbnails that are previewed using your source clip, and then apply it. Back in the NLE, simply adjust the sliders until the look is right for your clip. At this point you have the option to save the adjusted version as a new preset.

As part of saving the modified preset, Sapphire Edge will let you tag it with category and name information to facilitate future searches in the browser. You can only save and recall new presets within similar products. For example, presets saved in the FxPlug version of Sapphire Edge V2 will not appear in the After Effects/Premiere Pro version; however, custom presets developed in Premiere also show up in the Edge preset browser if you apply that effect in After Effects.

Sapphire Edge V2 is GPU-accelerated with NVIDIA CUDA cards, although I found performance to be close to real-time in Premiere Pro CS6 running with my ATI card. Simply put, Premiere Pro CS6’s performance with these various filters is amazing. Sapphire Edge and the Digital Film Tools products run incredibly smoothly with timeline playback set to half-resolution. Unfortunately, comparable playback in FCP X is glacial. That’s pretty much true of all complex filters in the new Final Cut, especially those using an external application to build the effect, including GenArts Sapphire Edge, Magic Bullet Looks and the various Digital Film Tools products.

Red Giant Software Magic Bullet Looks 2 and Looks Suite 11

To keep up with the various NLE changes, Red Giant Software has recently refreshed Magic Bullet Looks and some of the other applications included as part of the Looks Suite. Looks is now compatible with all of the Avid, Adobe and Apple software. The Suite package includes a collection of software designed to solve a variety of post situations. Unlike other “suite” filter packs, these are actually different tools, not a set of categorized filter groups. These include Looks 2, Colorista II, Grinder, Mojo, PhotoLooks 2, Cosmo, Denoiser II, Frames and Instant HD. The Suite offers a great bang-for-the-buck. All of these tools – especially  Colorista II – have loyal fans, but the biggest “go to” application within this suite is Looks. If that’s your main focus of interest, then the Looks 2 software is probably the better purchase over the suite.

Magic Bullet Looks 2 runs as a plug-in that – when launched – opens into its own external application. The plug-in acts are a conduit and takes care of proper color management between the two. Magic Bullet Looks isn’t simply a group of presets or a set of photo-style filters. The Looks tools include a range of color correction tools, lens-style filters and more. These are grouped according to Subject, Matte, Lens, Camera and Post. The idea is to create a series of filters, whose combination mimics the chain of real-world processes from in front of the lens through to post. The interface includes tools, presets, scopes and a viewer for an all-inclusive image adjustment environment. The change from the original Magic Bullet Looks to Looks 2.0 involved streamlining the interface, as well as the addition of Cosmo – a skin softening filter.

The most recent change has been the introduction of Magic Bullet PhotoLooks 2, which is available separately or as part of the Looks Suite. This is a photographic plug-in that works with Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture. Even after the Looks 2 interface was released, the PhotoLooks version had retained the previous style. Now, PhotoLooks 2 uses the same consistent interface and new tools, such as Cosmo.

These filters are great for creating stylized images. As with the other suites, real-time performance in Premiere Pro CS6 is vastly better than in Final Cut Pro X. You’ll definitely need to render there. Otherwise, Magic Bullet Looks 2 is a great option. If  can only make one purchase of a comprehensive “looks” filter, then Magic Bullet Looks is the one to start with.

Originally written for DV magazine / Creative Planet / NewBay Media, LLC

©2012 Oliver Peters

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

Video sweetening

Color grading for mood, style and story

Video “sweetening” is both a science and an art. To my way of thinking, Color correction is objective – evening out shot-to-shot consistency and adjusting for improper levels or color balance. Color grading is subjective – giving a movie, show or commercial a “look”. Grading ranges from the simple enhancement of what the director of photography gave you – all the way to completely “relighting” a scene to radically alter the original image. Whenever you grade a project, the look you establish should always be in keeping with the story and the mood the director is trying to achieve. Color provides the subliminal cues that lead the audience deeper into the story.

Under the best of circumstances, the colorist is working as an extension of the director of photography and both are on the same page as the director. Frequently the DP will sit in on the grading session; however, there are many cases – especially in low budget projects – where the DP is no longer involved at that stage. In those circumstances, it is up to the colorist to properly guide the director to the final visual style.

I’ve pulled some examples from two digital films that I graded – The Touch (directed by Jimmy Huckaby) and Scare Zone (directed by Jon Binkowski). The first was shot with a Sony F900 and graded with Final Cut Pro’s internal and third-party tools. The latter used two Sony EX cameras and was graded in Apple Color.

The Touch

This is a faith-oriented film, based on a true story about personal redemption tied to the creation of a local church’s women’s center. The story opens as our lead character is arrested and goes through police station booking. Since this was a small indie film, a real police station was used. This meant the actual, ugly fluorescent lighting – no fancy, stylized police stations, like on CSI. Since the point of this scene isn’t supposed to be pretty, the best way to grade it was to go with the flow. Don’t fight the fluorescent look, but go more gritty and more desaturated.

(Click on any of these images to see an enlarged view.)

Once she’s released and picked up by her loser boyfriend, we are back outside in sunny Florida weather. Just stick with a nice exterior look.

Nearly at the bottom of her life, she’s in a hotel room on the verge of suicide. This was originally a very warm shot, thanks to the incandescents in the room. But I felt it should go cooler. It’s night – there’s a TV on casting bluish light on her – and in general, this is supposed to be a depressing scene. So we swung the shot cooler and again, more desaturated from the original.

The fledgling women’s center holds group counseling sessions in a living room environment. This should feel comfortable and inviting. Here we went warmer.

Our lead character is haunted by the evils of her past, including childhood molestation and a teen rape. This is shown in various flashback sequences marked by an obvious change in editorial treatment utilizing frenetic cutting and speed ramps – together with a different visual look. The flashbacks were graded differently using Magic Bullet Looks for a more stylized appearance, including highlight glows.

Our lead comes to her personal conversion through the church and again, the sanctuary should look warm, natural and inviting. Since the lens used on the F900 resulted in a very deep depth of field, we decided to enhance these wider shots using a tilt-and-shift lens effect in Magic Bullet Looks. The intent was to defocus the background slightly and draw the audience in towards our main character.

Scare Zone

As you’ve probably gathered, Scare Zone is a completely different sort of tale than The Touch. Scare Zone is a comedy-horror film based on a Halloween haunted house attraction, which I discussed in this earlier post. In this story, our ensemble cast are part-time employees who work as “scaractors” in the evening. But… They are being killed off by a real killer. Most of the action takes place in the attraction sets and gift shop, with a few excursions off property. As such, the lighting style was a mixed bag, showing the attraction with “work lights” only and with full “attraction lighting”. We also have scenes without lights, except what is supposed to be moonlight or street lamp lighting coming through leaks from the exterior windows. And, of course, there’s the theatrical make-up.

This example shows one of the attraction scenes with work lights as the slightly, off-kilter manager explains their individual roles.

(Click on any of these images to see an enlarged view.)

Here are several frames showing one of the actors in scenes with show lighting, work lights and at home.

These are several frames from the film’s attraction/action/montage segments showing scaractor activity under show lighting. In the last frame, one of our actresses gets attacked.

The gift shop has a more normal lighting appearance. Not as warm as the work light condition, but warmer than the attraction lighting. In order to soften the look of the Goth make-up on the close-ups of our lead actress, I used a very slight application of the FCP compound blur filter.

Naturally, as in any thriller, the audience is to be left guessing throughout most of the film about the identity of the real killer. In this scene one of the actresses is being follow by the possible killer. Or is he? It’s a dark part of the hallway in a “show lighting” scene. One of the little extras done here was to use two secondaries with vignettes to brighten each eye socket of the mask, so as to better see the whites of the character’s eyes.

A crowd of guests line up on the outside, waiting to get into the attraction. It’s supposed to look like a shopping mall parking lot at night with minimal exterior lighting.

And lastly, these frames are from some of the attack scenes during what is supposed to be pre-show or after-show lighting conditions. In the first frame, one of our actresses is being chased by the killer through the attraction hallways and appears to have been caught. Although the vignette was natural, I enhanced this shot to keep it from being so dark that you couldn’t make out the action. The last two frames show some unfortunate vandals who tried to trash the place over the night. This is supposed to be a “lights-off” scene, with the only light being from the outside through leaks. And their flashlights, of course. The last frame required the use of secondary correction to make the color of the stage blood appear more natural.

©2011 Oliver Peters