Rampant Design Tools


Many editors are on the constant journey for just the right, cool set of plug-ins. By doing so, they often lock themselves into a single host application and often even a single machine to which the plug-ins have been licensed. If that sounds familiar and you are looking for an alternative, then moving to a package of drag-and-drop effects is the way to go. One of the best developers for such effects is Rampant Design Tools.

df1215_rampant_3_smRampant was founded by veteran visual effects artist Sean Mullen, so the effects have been created from the standpoint of what actually works. The beauty of these drag-and-drop effects is that you can use them with any nonlinear editing or compositing application, regardless of whether this is on Mac or Windows. As long as the system is running QuickTime and includes a playback component for Apple ProRes codecs, you are ready. Since the actual effects are media files, they can be archived with the project and moved between systems, without any need to license a plug-in on another machine.

df1215_rampant_6_smThe Rampant Design Tools website offers a lot of options for how to purchase the effects, but their latest endeavor is Studio Essentials, Volume 1 and 2. These include paint effects, film grunge, distortion, flares, light transitions, fire, smoke, bokeh, snow, dust, and so much more. Nearly all of these elements originate from real and not synthetic footage, which Rampant has actually produced using RED cameras. The effects packages are available in 2K, 4K, and 5K resolutions. Even if you are only working in HD, you might still want a 4K package, because it permits you to reframe the effect to get a unique look, rather than by simply dropping in a stock effect “as is”. The elements are designed to be modular. For instance, you can build up layers of the distortion elements to create a different look. The files come as Apple ProRes 4444 media that works well when keyed or composited using blend modes. By combining, reframing, and adjusting blend modes, you avoid the rut of effects that can’t be modified or plug-in presets.

Rampant Drives

df1215_rampant_4_smThese collections are large enough, that delivering a 4K version of one of the Studio Essentials volumes would be unwieldy as DVD-ROMs or as a download. Instead, Rampant Design Tools sells these complete with their “Rampant Drives”. These are 4TB, USB 3.0 drives containing the complete volume. When you purchase the collection with this delivery option, you may select either Mac or PC formatting. Simply plug it in and start using the effects straight from the drive. Although there is no technical limitation to moving the files around on a SAN, simultaneous shared use is prohibited by the EULA. It states that the contents may only be used on one computer at any one time.

df1215_rampant_9_smAs there are a lot of effects in the contents of each volume, Rampant includes a PDF preview file for each set of effects. This is a quick starting point to decide which effects group to explore, without having to bring everything into your edit project at once. These PDFs can also be downloaded from the website, if you are trying to decide what to purchase. Effects may be purchased as part of a complete Studio Essentials volume or by individual categories in 2K, 4K or 5K sizes. That may still be a bit much for many users, so Rampant also offers a smaller set of HD effects for $29 each through its BudgetVFX companion site.

Pieces and Parts

df1215_rampant_2_smMost of the effects can be used as a single transition or overlay effect, but some in the Studio Essentials collections have been designed as toolkits. For example, there’s the Monster Toolkit, which is intended as a drag-and-drop creature kit. It contains over 1500 elements (stored as Photoshop files), made up of various body parts, such as eyes, ears, mouths, skin textures, and so on. The download size is a whopping 35.6 GB simply for that kit! One of the newest collections is a set of organic paint effects. This set includes 62 effects clips and features a wide range of real paint drip and splatter effects, which will easily blend with video using Overlay or Multiply modes.

df1215_rampant_8_smTo use the effects in an NLE, you would typically place the clip on a higher track above your main video. In FCP X this would be as a connected clip over the primary storyline. A transition effect would be positioned so that the meatiest part of the effect clip would be lined up over the cut to hide it. This is particularly true of lens flare and light blast transitions where the center of the clip often completely fills the screen. This technique has been used for years by After Effects compositors to add a transition between clips on separate layers.

Letting the effect control your video

df1215_rampant_7_smA particularly cool trick that Mullen has posted as one of his tutorials (youtube.com/user/RampantMedia) is how to have the effect actually modify the video beneath. This is an aspect of many plug-ins and something not often associated with stock effects clips. His example uses one of the glitch effect clips. Typically this would be an overlay above the video that would obscure the image, but not necessarily distort or bend it with the effect. If you composite in After Effects, however, you can use its tools to have one layer affect the other. This is accomplished by adding two effects to the base video layer: Stylize – Motion Tile and Distort – Displacement Map. Motion Tile is set to wrap the image as it is stretched and mirrored, so you don’t see black on the edges. Displacement Map is linked to the layer with the glitch effect clip. Displacement is based on channels, so that the lower video is displaced where the effect is visible and not displaced where the glitch clip is black. The last step is to set keyframes for the start and stop of the displacement, so that the video isn’t displaced when you want it to be normal. This trick also works for other effects, such as lens flares.

df1215_rampant_11_smThere are many stock effects vendors on the market. A quick internet search would pull up a page-full. However, most are still offering effects in older codecs or are limited to HD sizes at best. Many don’t offer a wide selection of effects. You might find some great lens flares from one company, but do they also offer fire effects? Quality, breadth of product offerings, and high-resolution is what sets Rampant Design Tools apart from these others. It’s a great way to add eye candy to any production with tools that give you total control in sculpting a unique look.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Stocking Stuffers 2014

df_stuff14_1_smAs we head toward the end of the year, it’s time to look again at a few items you can use to spruce up your edit bay.

Let’s start at the computer. The “tube” Mac Pro has been out for nearly a year, but many will still be trying to get the most life out of their existing Mac Pro “tower”. I wrote about this awhile back, so this is a bit of a recap. More RAM, an internal SSD and an upgraded GPU card are the best starting points. OWC and Crucial are your best choices for RAM and solid state drives. If you want to bump up your GPU, then the Sapphire 7950 (Note: I have run into issues with some of these cards, where the spacer screws are too tall, requiring you to install the card in slot 2) and/or Nvidia GTX 680 Mac Edition cards are popular choices. However, these will only give you an incremental boost if you’ve already been running an ATI 5870 or Nvidia Quadro 4000 display card. df_stuff14_2_smIf you have the dough and want some solid horsepower, then go for the Nvidia Quadro K5000 card for the Mac. To expand your audio monitoring, look at Mackie mixers, KRK speakers and the PreSonus Audiobox USB interface. Naturally there are many video monitor options, but assuming you have an AJA or Blackmagic Design interface, FSI would be my choice. HP Dreamcolor is also a good option when connecting directly to the computer.

The video plug-in market is prolific, with plenty of packages and/or individual filters from FxFactory, Boris, GenArts, FCP Effects, Crumplepop, Red Giant and others. I like the Universe package from df_stuff14_3_smRed Giant, because it supports FCP X, Motion, Premiere Pro and After Effects. Red Giant continues to expand the package, including some very nice new premium effects. If you are a Media Composer user, then you might want to look into the upgrade from Avid FX to Boris Red. Naturally, you can’t go wrong with FxFactory, especially if you use FCP X. There’s a wide range of options with the ability to purchase single filters – all centrally managed through the FxFactory application.

df_stuff14_4_smFor audio, the go-to filter companies are iZotope, Waves and Focusrite to name a few. iZotope released some nice tools in its RX4 package – a state-of-the-art repair and restoration suite. If you just want a suite of EQ and compression tools, then Nectar Elements or Nectar 2 are the best all-in-one collections of audio filters. While most editors do their audio editing/mastering within their NLE, some need a bit more. Along with a 2.0 bump for Sound Forge Pro Mac, Sony Creative Software also released a standard version of Sound Forge through the Mac App Store.

df_stuff14_5_smIn the color correction world, there’s been a lot of development in film emulation look-up tables (LUTs). These can be used in most NLEs and grading applications. If that’s for you, check out ImpulZ and Osiris from Color Grading Central (LUT Utility required with FCP X), Koji Color or the new SpeedLooks 4 (from LookLabs). Each package offers a selection of Fuji and Kodak emulations, as well as other stylized looks. These packages feature LUT files in the .cube and/or .look (Adobe) LUT file formats and, thus, are compatible with most applications. If you want film emulation that also includes 3-way grading tools and adjustable film grain, your best choice is FilmConvert 2.0.

df_stuff14_6_smAnother category that is expanding covers the range of tools used to prep media from the camera prior to the edit. This had been something only for DITs and on-set “data wranglers”, but many videographers are increasingly using such tools on everyday productions. These now offer on-set features that benefit all file-based recordings. Pomfort Silverstack, ShotPut Pro, Redcine-X Pro and Adobe Prelude have been joined by new tools. To start, there’s Offload and EditReady, which are two very specific tools. Offload simply copies and verifies camera-card media to two target drives. EditReady is a simple drag-and-drop batch convertor to transcode media files. These join QtChange (a utility to batch-add timecode and reel IDs to media files) and Better Rename (a Finder renaming utility) in my book, as the best single-purpose production applications.

df_stuff14_7_smIf you want more in one tool, then there’s Bulletproof, which has now been joined in the market by Sony Creative Software’s Catalyst Browse and Prepare. Bulletproof features media offload, organization, color correction and transcoding. I like it, but my only beef is that it doesn’t properly handle timecode data, when present. Catalyst Browse is free and similar to Canon’s camera utility. It’s designed to read and work with media from any Sony camera. Catalyst Prepare is the paid version with an expanded feature set. It supports media from other camera manufacturers, including Canon and GoPro.

df_stuff14_8_smFinally, many folks are looking for alternative to Adobe Photoshop. I’m a fan of Pixelmator, but this has been joined by Pixlr and Mischief. All three are available from the Mac App Store. Pixlr is free, but can be expanded through subscription. In its basic form, Pixlr is a stylizing application that is like a very, very “lite” version of Photoshop; however, it includes some very nice image processing filters. Mischief is a drawing application designed to work with drawing tablets, although a mouse will work, too.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Boris Continuum Complete 9

df_BCC9_3WayClrBoris Continuum Complete has been the flagship effects package for Boris FX. With each new version, the company makes it better, faster and even more useful. They have recently released BCC 9 for Avid Media Composer, Sony Vegas Pro, Adobe After Effects/Premiere Pro, FCP X/Motion and DaVinci Resolve. This has been a two-year effort to build upon BCC 8, which was initially released in 2012.

Boris Continuum Complete 9 sports over 30 new effects, including 23 new transitions. In total, BCC 9 versions for Avid Media Composer, Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro each offer over 230 filters, including 3D extruded text, particle effects, image restoration tools, lens flares, keying and compositing and much more. Specific new filters include a lens vignette, 2-strip color process, sharpening, lens correction, grunge, edge grunge, a laser beam effect, an improved pan & zoom filter with perspective and a one-stop chromakey “studio”.

df_BCC9_DmgdTVDissWhile new filters are always fun, the two big changes in BCC 9 over previous versions are OpenCL and CUDA acceleration, plus the addition of an FX Browser. Boris FX claims as much as a 2X improvement with some filters, when comparing the rendering of BCC 8 versus BCC 9 (tested on Avid Media Composer running under Windows). From just casual use, you’ll definitely see an improvement when applying and manipulating such processor-intensive effects as lens flares and glows.

FX Browser

df_BCC9_FXBrowserThe FX Browser is new for Continuum Complete. While it’s not unique to have a filter browser within an effects package, this one has an edge over those of competitors, because the clip is displayed in a viewer. You can play or scrub through the clip and sample the various filter presets. You aren’t tied to a default thumbnail image or a single still frame of the clip that you’ve sent to the browser. Nearly all of the BCC filters and transitions come with a set of presets.

Many users simply apply a filter, use its default and tweak the sliders a little. In doing so, they miss the wide range of looks that can actually be achieved. With this new FX Browser, you can apply a filter, open the FX Browser and see what each of the Boris presets will look like on your image. In the left pane you see thumbnails for each preset. As you click on the options, the viewer displays your clip with that preset applied to it. At the bottom of the browser is a history panel that shows the choices you’ve already reviewed. Once you find the desired look, click the “apply” button, which returns you to the host’s effects controls. Now adjust the sliders to fine-tune the effect to taste.

df_BCC9_MagicSharpAnother useful way to work with the FX Browser is to apply the standalone FX Browser filter to a clip. When you open the FX Browser, you’ll now see all of the effects categories and individual filters available within BCC 9. This is a great way to preview different filters when you just need some creative inspiration.


df_BCC9_LensFlareDissIn the past, filters within the Boris Continuum Complete for After Effects version would also show up and work in Premiere Pro; however, the transitions functioned like they did in After Effects and not like a built-in Premiere Pro transition. You would have to stack adjacent clips onto overlapping vertical tracks and transition between them, just like in After Effects. Now with the changes in Premiere Pro CC and CC2014, transitions in packages like BCC 9 behave as native effects – the same as in other NLEs. This means you can now apply a transition to the cut between two clips on the same track, just like a standard cross-dissolve.

df_BCC9_SwishPanAs with any of the filters, transitions may also be previewed in the FX Browser. Boris Continuum filters feature on-screen controls (heads-up display or HUD) to vary filter adjustments, in addition to the sliders in the control panel. With BCC 9, some of the transition effects also gain appropriate HUD controls. For example, overlay curves let you make nonlinear adjustments to wipes and dissolves without the need to add keyframes.

Focus on quality and efficiency

df_BCC9_RaysOver the last few versions, Boris FX has focused on improving the overall quality of all of the filters. The new BCC Vignette effect doesn’t just darken the edges of the frame, it also adds a slight defocus to more closely approximate real-world lens issues. Their BCC 2-strip Color filter is designed to accurately mimic the look of classic Technicolor films. The new BCC Lens Correction filter is mathematically designed to “unwarp” the characteristic wide angle lens distortion of cameras like the GoPro.

Some of BCC 9’s strength is in a packaging of old favorites, such as its chromakeying tools. Many editors swear by the Boris keyers. Tools in this group include a matte choker and light wrap, which are typically used to finesse a key. Most editors end up applying a stack of these various filters to a clip, in order to get the cleanest result. New with BCC 9 is a chromakey studio filter, which combines all of the keying tools into one panel. This first made its introduction years ago in BCC for Final Cut Pro (“legacy”), but it’s now a part of all the BCC 9 versions. An improvement in this version is the addition of a built-in set of garbage masks to isolate the area needing to be keyed.


df_BCC9_ScatterizeWhile most of the filters and effects are consistent across hosts, there are some host-specific variations. For instance, in the AVX package for Avid Media Composer, each filter is more complex, because Boris FX adds a geometry function for image transforms (scale, position, etc.) to most AVX filters. These are not standard clip attributes built into the native Media Composer architecture, like they are in After Effects, FCP 7/X and Premiere Pro. Unfortunately, since these are extra functions required to augment Media Composer, it makes the AVX set more expensive than the AE version. For FCP X, filters must be built for Motion and then packaged as Motion templates to be used inside FCP X.

df_BCC9_PinArtBCC filters, in general, add more controls within each filter than do many of the competitors. Nearly all BCC filters include Pixel Chooser, which is an internal masking control. If you only want a filter to alter the bright areas of an image, you can use Pixel Chooser to mask the image according the luminance values and then the effect is limited to that portion of the image.

Another unique BCC feature is Beat Reactor. Let’s say you want a glow filter to pulse the intensity of the glow in sync with the beat of a music track. Simply enable Beat Reactor in that filter’s control panel, select and link the track that you want as a reference and adjust accordingly. Beat Reactor displays an overlay graphic of color bars for the music. These bounce up and down like a digital VU meter in response to the track. The bars may be used for reference and hidden – or they can also be rendered into the final output as an extra visual element. The Beat Reactor controls let you select the portion of this graph that is to affect the filter and the specific parameters to be controlled. Select a range that includes just the musical peaks and you’ll get a smaller variation to the changes in the filter than if you had selected the entire graph.

df_BCC9_LEDlightsLast, but not least, is a new online help system. Having trouble figuring out a filter? Click on the “help” button in the control panel to access a web page (stored on your computer) for tips and tutorials about using that effect. Boris FX continues to improve and advance what has to be the best all-around editor toolkit on the market. Boris Continuum Complete 9 is cross-platform and covers the most popular NLEs. Now that Avid Media Composer no longer comes bundled with a full set of BCC filters, new Avid editors will certainly want to invest in this package. For Adobe Premiere Pro CC customers, it adds capabilities that far surpass what comes with Premiere Pro. Best of all, the single purchase for the Adobe version covers you for After Effects, as well.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

The State of FCP X Plug-ins


The launch of Apple’s Final Cut Pro X spawned a large ecosystem of plug-ins and utilities. This was due, in part, to the easy method of creating Motion templates, along with the need to augment interoperability with other applications, i.e. fill in the gaps in FCP X’s capabilities. Lately you have to wonder about the general status of the FCP X plug-in market. GenArts decided to discontinue its Sapphire Edge product and BorisFX only recently launched its BCC 9 version for FCP X*. GenArts may have simply stopped the Edge product because the business model wasn’t working. On the other hand, new offerings, such as Red Giant Universe, build up the available tools.

NLEs suffered a “race to the bottom” with pricing, which left us with numerous low cost and even free options. Historically, plug-in packages have been tiered to the price of the host application. If you paid tens of thousands or more for a product like Flame, then paying a couple of grand for a set of third-party filters wasn’t unreasonable. The same filters for After Effects cost less, because the host was less. Naturally the market drives this, too, since there are far more After Effects users buying plug-ins, than there are Flame users. Unfortunately, that NLE “race to the bottom” leaves plug-in developers in an uncomfortable position, because many users are loathe to pay more for a set of plug-ins than for the host application itself. These shouldn’t be related, but they are.

It’s also not an exclusive FCP X problem, per se. Autodesk’s introduction of Smoke on the Mac didn’t attract Sparks plug-in developers to adapt their Flame/Smoke plug-ins to the Mac platform. That’s because these new users simply weren’t going to pay the kind of prices that Flame users had and still do for Sparks filters. Since Autodesk had no “takers”, they ended up adding more of the filter building blocks into Smoke itself and in the Smoke 2015 product have dropped the Sparks API altogether.

Aside from the issue of cost and what fuels development, for the user, plug-ins can be a tricky issue. Often plug-ins can be the biggest cause of application instability and poor playback performance. All too often, application crashes can be boiled down to a misbehaving filter. Most of the time, third-party effects do not provide as smooth of a performance as native filters. This is especially true of FCP X where built-in filters are far less of a drag on the system, then the others. Most likely due to the “secret sauce” Apple applies to its built-in effects and transitions.

In the case of Final Cut Pro X, there actually is no plug-in structure. It uses Motion’s FxPlug3 architecture as Motion templates. This means that a video filter, transition, generator or title has to be developed for Motion and that, in turn, is published as a Motion template, which appears inside FCP X as an effect. Even if you didn’t buy Motion, FCP X is running its effects engine “under the hood” and that’s why third-party filters work. While this makes it easy for users to create their own plug-ins, using the building blocks provided natively in Motion, it also adds a burden for more advanced developers. BorisFX, for example, must go the extra mile to make its FCP X filters and transitions look and feel the same as they do in After Effects, FCP 7 and other hosts.

On top of having a tool that simplifies the creation of cheap and free filters, FCP X also includes a nice set of native filters and transitions. This set is far more wide-ranging than what’s currently bundled with Adobe Premiere Pro CC or Avid Media Composer. Of course, not all are great – the keyer, for instance, is mediocre at best – and there are missing items – no DVE, masking or tracking. That’s why there is still room for third-party developers to create tools that meet the needs of the more demanding customers. But, for the vast majority of FCP X users, there’s little or no need to purchase a comprehensive package of 200 effects, when a lot of these looks can be achieved within the FCP X or Motion toolkit already.

The market does seem good for many specific filters that fill certain needs. I would imagine (although I don’t know actual numbers), that users are more likely to buy a tool like CoreMelt’s SliceX or Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Looks, because they address a specific deficiency. Likewise, I think users are more likely to buy a tool that works across several platforms. For instance, FxFactory Pro (and many of the FxFactory partner plug-ins) work for FCP X, FCP 7, Premiere Pro and After Effects on the same machine, without having to buy a different version for each host.

Another development need is for tools that augment interoperability and workflows. People tend to lump these into the plug-in discussion, although they really aren’t plug-ins. Tools like Xto7, 7toX, EDL-X, Shot Notes X and others are there to fill in the gaps of FCP X-centric workflows. If you have the need to send your sound from FCP X to a Pro Tools mixer, there’s no way to do it in X, using any method that’s commonly accepted within the industry. (I’m sorry, but exporting “baked in” roles is a workaround, not a solution.) The answer is X2Pro Audio Convert, which will generate an AAF with embedded audio from the FCPXML export of your timeline.

The trend I do see in the FCP X world is the creation of more and more Motion templates that are, in fact, design templates and not plug-ins. This is probably what Apple really had in mind in the first place. Companies like MotionVFX, Ripple Training, SugarFX and others are creating design templates, which are mini-Motion projects right inside your FCP X timeline. It’s a lot like buying a template After Effects project and then using that via Dynamic Link inside Premiere. Such templates are cheap and fun and save you a lot of building time, but they do suffer from the “flavor of the month” syndrome. A design might be good for one single production, but then you’ll never use it again. However, these templates are cheap enough that you can charge them off to the client without concern.

In kicking this idea around with friends that are developers, some felt there was a place for an Apple-curated market of plug-ins for FCP X – like the App Store, but simply for plug-ins, filters and utilities. That’s a little of how FxFactory works, but not all developers are represented there, of course. I do see the need for a product that acts like a template manager. This would let you enable or disable plug-ins and design templates as needed. If you’ve purchased a ton of third-party items, these quickly clutter up the FCP X palettes. Currently you have to remove items manually, by dragging the effects, titles and generators out of your Movies > Motion Templates folders. If you have FxFactory filters, then you can use the FxFactory application to manage those.

Overall, I see the FCP X ecosystem as healthy and growing, although with a shift of users away from comprehensive effect packages – largely due to cost. Tools and effects that users do purchase seem to be more task-specific and, in those cases, money is less of a factor. If you are a film editor, you have different needs than a corporate producer and so are more likely to buy some custom tools that you cannot otherwise live without. These tend to be made by small, responsive developers that don’t need to survive on the revenue that the large bundled effects packages used to bring. It’s too early to predict whether or not that’s a good thing for the market.

* Note: I originally composed this post a few weeks ago prior to the release of BCC9 and published this post with the error that BCC9 wasn’t out yet. In fact it is, hence the correction above.

©2014 Oliver Peters

More 4K


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.










©2014 Oliver Peters

Red Giant Universe


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


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