RED One and Magic Bullet Looks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© 2009 Oliver Peters

Compositing with Avid Media Composer

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Most editors do a lot of compositing. Not eye-popping visual effects, but the day-to-day motion graphics work typical of promos, show opens, corporate videos and local market TV spots. There are many apps to use, but I feel that most editors would prefer to stay within the environment of their favorite NLE.

 

I know that many editors think that Final Cut Pro is a great compositing tool, because it includes Photoshop-style blend modes and uses an After Effects model for effects parameters. I might be in the minority, but I happen to think FCP isn’t really that great for motion graphics work. In fact, Apple might even secretly agree with me or they wouldn’t have developed Motion. On the other hand, I’ve done a lot of very nice compositing inside Avid Media Composer with timelines surpassing 50 layers at times.

 

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Of the various NLEs available as software-only products, I feel that Avid Media Composer has the best built-in motion graphics and compositing tools. No need to bounce your tracks to another app, like After Effects or Motion, but if you want more, there’s AvidFX. It’s essentially an OEM version of Boris Red that runs from within the Media Composer interface. The best part of staying inside the application is that you don’t have to waste a lot of effort keeping track of additional project types and media assets. It’s all right there inside the one Avid project.

 

Aside from a solid toolkit for effects, several key software design components expedite work in Media Composer. For example, rendering can be done on intermediate tracks within the timeline and Avid does a superb job of retaining these renders as changes are made. One simple change won’t cause the whole timeline to have to be re-rendered. Secondly, you can replace the “fill” media of any real-time graphic with an alpha channel – whether imported or internally generated – with moving video. This can be a direct replacement or even a blend of moving video and the original graphic “fill” and it retains real-time performance. It also appears as a single timeline video clip that can be easily moved or trimmed.

 

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The third powerful feature is Collapse. This lets you exceed the nominal track limits of Media Composer. For instance, a timeline might consist of 10 video tracks that each hold collapsed clips. A collapsed clip is a “container” with additional tracks inside it. Each can hold many tracks, so if the clips in this example each consisted of 10 internal tracks, the entire timeline would actually be 100 tracks deep! It’s important to understand that Avid’s Collapse is NOT like FCP’s Nesting. The latter is really a reference clip that is tied to a separate timeline and changes ripple between the two timelines. In Media Composer, Collapsing is simply a way to non-destructively combine a group of clips so you can treat and display them as a single unit.

 

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The sample frames I’m showing are from a fake extreme sports promo that I use to present Media Composer compositing and effects concepts. There’s a base layer of stock sports images with grunge and color effects. Next is a top and bottom layer of colorized checkered flags followed by layers of crawling text. These are collapsed clips containing several tracks for the words, which are being moved horizontally using simple DVE position changes. The last layer is the word SPORTS spelled in oversized letters. Each letter is a set of full screen elements that take up several tracks for the shadow, beveled edge and letter interior. The inside of the letter is cut by a matte, which is filled by the metallic texture blended with moving video.

 

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I use Photoshop as the graphics companion to any NLE. In this case, I created the SPORTS graphic elements in Photoshop, with layer sets for each letter’s shadow, full color image and interior matte.

 

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The metallic texture of the letters was also created in Photoshop by using the gradient and liquefy tools. First, organize and position the layers in the Media Composer timeline. Then it’s a simple matter of using DVE moves to create the traveling effect of the word moving through the frame (combined with video inside the letters).

 

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This 25th anniversary graphic uses the same concept. The Avid timeline combines stock footage and Artbeats water elements with versions of the graphic built in Photoshop. Once inside Media Composer, you can play with layers and opacity values to get just the right look, including the watery “25” reflection in the foreground.

 

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Upfront I praised Media Composer’s toolset. To start with, there’s a much better DVE than either FCP or Premiere Pro. You can actually do decent “2.5D” DVE moves with ease. Another tool that’s simply better in Media Composer is the Spectramatte keyer for blue and green screen keys.

 

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To me, it’s far better than the built in tools in FCP, Premiere Pro or even Motion’s “lite” version of Primatte. I’m sure you can top it with various plug-ins and the built-in After Affects keyers, but again this discussion is about NLEs. So without spending more bucks on an extra chromakey plug-in, Spectramatte does a really good job on common keying situations.

 

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Most software NLEs have keyers, but they don’t all have matte and paint tools and built-in tracking. This is a big plus for Avid. There’s a built in tracker that comes in handing for locking composited elements together, as well as stabilizing shots. Even more handy is Animatte – a built-in paint tool for creating traveling mattes. Some apps refer to this as rotosplining, but the point of Animatte is to isolate a portion of the image. In my example, I’ve isolated the motocross rider in order to make the surrounding black-and-white. With enough patience, I can create a very tight matte and adjust that frame-by-frame throughout the shot so that it stays with the rider and completely isolates his action for the duration of the clip. This can also be used in conjunction with color correction tools to create shapes and vignettes for secondary color correction.

 

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It’s nice to have these tools, but even better that system response if very good when you are working with them. For example, when you apply a 4-point or 8-point matte in Final Cut, the system can be very slow to respond. The performance difference is very striking when you compare the same Mac using an FCP matte versus Avid’s Animatte. In the end, you should use the tools you are comfortable with, but sometimes we overlook what’s right at our fingertips. I wanted to take this space to point out some of the tools that give Avid editors a reason to stick with the product.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters