Digital Anarchy Samurai Sharpen


Editors often face the dilemma of dealing with less-than-perfect footage. Focus is the bane of this challenge, where you have the ideal shot, but the operator missed the optimal focus, leaving a useable, albeit soft, image. Editing and compositing apps offer a number of built-in and third-party sharpen and unsharp mask filters that can be employed as a fix. While you can’t really fix the focus issue, you can sharpen the image so that it is perceived by the viewer as being better in focus. All of these filters work on the concept of localized contrast. This means that any dark-to-light edge transition within the image is enhanced and contrast in that area is increased. The dark area is darkened and the brighter part enhanced. This creates a halo effect, which can become quite visible as you increase the amount of sharpening, but also quite obnoxious when you push the amount to its full range. A little bit improves the image – a lot creates an electric, stylized effect.

One of the better sharpening filters on the market is Digital Anarchy’s Samurai Sharpen, which is available for Apple Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro CC and After Effects CC. (According to their website, Avid and OpenFX plug-ins are in development and coming soon.) What makes Samurai Sharpen different is that it includes sophisticated masking in order to restrict the part of the image to be sharpened. For example, on a facial close-up, you can enhance the sharpness of eyes without also pushing the skin texture by an unflattering amount. Yet, you still have plenty of control to push the image into a “look”. For example, the photographic trend these days seems to be photos with an obvious over-sharpened look for dramatic appeal. If you want subtle or if you want to stylize the image, both are achievable with Samurai Sharpen.df0717_sam_2_sm

Click any of the example images to see an enlarged view. In these comparisons, pay attention to not only the eyes, but also lips and strands of hair, as these are also affected by sharpening. (Image courtesy of Blackmagic Design.)

df0717_sam_4_smThe effect controls are divided into three groups – Sharpen, Mask and Blend. The top three sharpen controls are similar to most other filters. Amount is self-explanatory, radius adjusts the size of the localized contrast halo, and edge mask strength controls the mask that determines what is or isn’t sharpened. The edge mask strength range markings might seem counter-intuitive, though. All the way to the left (0) means that you haven’t increased the mask strength, therefore, more of the image is being sharpened. In our facial close-up example, more texture (like the skin) and noise (background) would be sharpened. If you crank the slider all the way to the right (50), you have increased the mask strength, thus less of the image is being sharpened. For the face, this means the eyes and eyelashes are sharpened, but the skin stays smooth. The handy “show sharpening” toggle renders a quick hi-con image (mask) of the area being sharpened.

df0717_sam_3_smThe real power of Samurai Sharpen is in the Mask Group. You have two controls each for shadow and highlights, as well as an on/off toggle to enable shadow and/or highlight masking. These four sliders function like a curves control, enabling you to broaden or restrict the range of dark or light portions of the image that will be affected by the sharpening. Enabling and adjusting the shadow mask controls lets you eliminate darker background portions of the image from being sharpened. You don’t want these areas sharpened, because it would result in a noisier appearance. The mask can also be blurred in order to feather the fall-off between sharpened and unprocessed portions of the image. Finally, there’s a layer mask control in this group, which shows up a bit differently between the Adobe apps and FCPX. Essentially it allows you to use another source to define your sharpening mask.

df0717_sam_5_smThe last section is the Blend Group. This offers slider adjustments for the opacity of the shadow and highlight masks created in the Mask Group section. GPU acceleration results in an effect that is quick to apply and adjust, along with good playback performance.

While there are many free sharpening tools on the market, Digital Anarchy’s Samurai Sharpen is worth the extra for the quality and control it offers. Along with Beauty Box and Flicker Free, they offer a nice repertoire of image enhancement tools.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Red Giant Trapcode Suite 13


After Effects artists who are called upon to design a lot of shots that involve sci-fi effects, particles, user interface overlays, as well as shots with sparks, light rays, and sparkles have come to rely on Trapcode as their go-to plug-in set. The newest version, available from Red Giant, is Trapcode Suite 13. This package includes 11 different effects, which encompass a range of particle and volumetric lighting effects.

If you install the suite, all 11 Trapcode effects will show up in After Effects CC. These include Particular, Form, Tao, Mir, Shine, Lux, 3D Stroke, Echospace, Starglow, Sound Keys and Horizon. Of these, 3D Stroke, Shine and Starglow will also be available within Premiere Pro CC. Together these effects form a comprehensive toolkit for After Effects designers who really do have to create magic from scratch.

df2816_trapcode_01Trapcode Particular is typically the effect that most folks associate with Trapcode effects. In this new version, you can use its built-in Effects Builder to select from certain presets and design custom effects. Although other Trapcode models include presets for certain styles, only Particular includes this separate Effects Builder to browse, preview and apply effects. Particular now includes certain organic 3D effects, like smoke, fire, water and more.

df2816_trapcode_05Trapcode Form lets you design particle grids, spheres and objects that evolve over time. Trapcode Tao lets you build 3D geometries with fractal math for shapes, facets, etc. Tao is a simplified 3D object design tool, that enables metallic textures and the ability to incorporate the image maps from lower After Effects layers as surface textures. You can create animated objects, shapes and ribbons and all are GPU-accelerated. Trapcode Mir is designed to create 3D surfaces, terrains and wireframes. These can be used for tunnel effects and land topographies. Both Tao and Mir can display these designs as wireframes, shaded polygons or rendered surfaces.

df2816_trapcode_02Trapcode Sound Keys links to an imported audio file. It analyzes the file and creates animation keyframes, which can drive a colorized volume bar display to that sound. These keyframes can also be used to drive other effects, such as scaling to the beat. Trapcode 3D Stroke enables 3D lines, paths and overlays. Trapcode Lux turns After Effects lights into visible sources with volumetric properties. Trapcode Horizon is there to create infinite backgrounds in After Effects. Trapcode Echospace enables repeated effects like trails and 3D offsets.

Last but not least, there’s Trapcode Shine and Trapcode Starglow. Both are lighting effects. Shine generates 3D light rays that you can use with text or to mimic real-world lighting, like shafts of light through the forest. Shine can be linked to After Effects 3D lights for volumetric-aware effects. Starglow is more stylized with glints and glimmers, similar to adding a star filter to your lens.

Working with the suite

The suite as a whole is intended for serious After Effects artists who have to create shots, not merely enhance them. As such, it’s not like suites from other plug-in developers that offer a whole toolkit of image manipulation effects, color correction, titling and more. If that’s what you want, then the Trapcode Suite isn’t for you. However, each of these plug-ins is available separately, so if you only want Trapcode Particular or Shine, for example, then it’s best to buy just the one effect that you really need.

df2816_trapcode_06Each of these effects is quite deep. I have never seen any other plug-in with as many modifier controls as those from Trapcode. Unfortunately, these tools are very sparse on presets compared to competing plug-ins. Nevertheless, Particular has over 180 presets, while Shine, 3D Stroke and Starglow have 30, 40 and 49 presets respectively. Some, like Shine, Starglow and Sound Keys are pretty easy to figure out. Others, like Mir or Tao, really do require that you spend some time with tutorials. The investment in time is certainly worth it, if these are the type of effects that you need to do on a regular basis.

Although I use After Effects, I’m a novice at building such particle effects and find myself more comfortable with tools like Shine. Building a flying title with rays that emanate from the text was a piece of cake with Shine. Trapcode has worked hard to take advantage of GPU and CPU power. Mir and Tao are GPU-accelerated and others, like Particular, were optimized for better CPU performance in this release. Adding and adjusting these effects was pretty quick on a 2009 Mac Pro 8-core tower with a Sapphire 7950 card. No slouch, but certainly pretty average by today’s standards. I’m sure these effects would really scream on a top-of-the-line HP with a smokin’ NVIDIA card.

df2816_trapcode_03Trapcode Particular was also fun, because of the Effects Builder. Essentially it’s a presets browser, with different effects options. When you select an option, it becomes part of your effects chain in the Builder window. This lets you design a custom effect, starting with the emitter type and then adding modifiers within the chain, such as turbulence, gravity and so on. Each of the segments of this chain have parameters that can be tweaked. Once done, you apply the effect that you’ve built to the clip on the timeline and close the Builder window. Then make timing and other adjustments in the standard After Effects control panel.

df2816_trapcode_04There are many similar effects to Trapcode Shine offered by other plug-in developers. One unique attribute of Shine is the feature of adding fractal noise. So, in addition to light rays you can add the appearance of haze or smoke to the effect. Depending on how you set the controls, it can also look like a water reflection shimmering onto the objective in the image or other similar styles. All of this can be internally masked from within the plug-in. Applying the mask means that if you want the light rays to just emanate from a window in the corner of the set, you can adjust the mask accordingly. Light rays would only appear to come from the window and not other bright objects within the rest of the shot. Another unique aspect to Shine is that its light rays are 3D camera-aware, based on After Effects light and camera positions.

Overall, the Trapcode  Suite tools are a wonderful addition to any visual effects artist’s collection of plug-ins. The quality is outstanding, the visual appearance quite organic, and performance with a moderately powerful GPU is fast. Editors will likely want to limit themselves to Shine and Starglow to make the best investment for how they use plug-ins. But if you are a power After Effects user who also cuts in Premiere Pro CC, then the suite has you covered either way.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Adobe’s Summer 2016 Refresh


Adobe is on track for the yearly refresh of its Creative Cloud applications. They have been on a roll with their professional video solutions – especially Premiere Pro CC – and this update is no exception. Since this is not a new, across-the-board Creative Cloud version update, the applications keep the CC 2015 moniker, except with a point increase. For example, Premiere Pro CC becomes version 2015.3, not CC 2016. Let me dive into what’s new in Premiere Pro, Audition, Adobe Media Encoder and After Effects.

Premiere Pro CC 2015.3

Adobe has captured the attention of the professional editing community with Premiere Pro and has held it with each new update. CC 2015.3 adds numerous new features in direct response to the needs of editors, including secondary color correction, a proxy workflow, a 360VR viewer and more.

New Lumetri features

df2516_lumetriThe Lumetri color panel brought over the dominant color correction tools from SpeedGrade CC configured into a Lightroom-style panel. For editors, Lumetri provides nearly everything they need for standard color correction, so there’s rarely any need to step outside of Premiere Pro. Three key features were added to Lumetri in this update.

First is a new white balance eyedropper. Lumetri has had temperature and tint sliders, but the eyedropper makes white balance correction a one-click affair. However, the new marquee feature is the addition of SpeedGrade’s HSL Secondary color correction. Use an eyedropper to select the starting color that you want to affect. Then use the “add” or “remove color” eyedroppers to adjust the selection. To further refine the isolated color, which is essentially a key, use the HSL, denoise and blur sliders. The selected color range can be viewed against black, white or gray to check the accuracy of the adjustment. You can then change the color using either the single or three-wheel color control. Finally, the secondary control also includes its own sliders for temperature, tint, contrast, sharpening and saturation.

In the rest of the Lumetri panel, Adobe changed the LUT (color look-up table) options. You can pick a LUT from either the input and/or creative tab. The new arrangement is more straightforward than when first introduced. Now only camera gamma correction LUTs (like ARRI Log-C to Rec 709) appear in the input tab and color style LUTs show up in the creative tab. Adobe LUTs plus SpeedLooks LUTs from LookLabs are included as creative choices. Previously you had to use a SpeedLooks camera LUT in tandem with one of the SpeedLooks creative LUTs to get the right correction . With this update, the SpeedLooks creative LUTs are all designed to be added to Rec 709 gamma, which makes these choices far more functional than before. You can now properly use one of these LUTs by itself without first needing to add a camera LUT.

New Proxy workflow

df2516_proxyApple Final Cut Pro X users have enjoyed a proxy workflow since its launch, whereas Adobe always touted Premiere Pro’s native media prowess. Nevertheless, as media files get larger and more taxing on computing systems, proxy files enable a more fluid editing experience. A new ingest tool has been added to the Media Browser. So now from within Premiere Pro, you can copy media, transcode to high-res file formats and create low-res proxies. You can also select clips in a bin and right-clip to create proxies, attach proxies and/or relink full-resolution files. There is a new toggle button that you can add to the toolbar, which lets you seamlessly flip between proxy and full-resolution media files. According to Adobe, even if you have proxy selected, any export always draws from the full-resolution media for the best quality.

Be careful with the proxy settings. For example, one of the default sizes is 1024×540, which would be the quarter-frame match for 2K media. But, if you use that for HD clips in a 1920×1080 timeline, then your proxies will be incorrectly pillar-boxed. If you create 720p proxies for 1080p clips, you’ll need to use “scale to frame size” in order to get the right size on the timeline. It’s a powerful new workflow, but take a bit of time to figure out the best option for your needs.

Adobe Media Encoder also gains the Media Browser tool, as well as a new ingest function, which has been brought over from Adobe Prelude. Now you can use Media Encoder to copy camera files and/or transcode them to primary and secondary locations. If you need to copy camera cards, transcode a full-res master file and also transcode a low-res proxy file, then this complete workflow can be handled through Media Encoder.

New 360VR viewer

df2516_360Premiere Pro CC now sports a new VR-capable viewer mode. Start with monoscopic or stereoscopic, stitched 360-degree video clips and edit them as you normally would. The viewer allows you to pan around inside the clip or view the timeline from a point of view. You can see what someone viewing with goggles sees when looking in a given direction. Note that this is not a pan-and-scan plug-in. You cannot drop one of these 360-degree clips into an otherwise 2D 16×9 (“flat”) timeline and use Premiere Pro’s VR function to keyframe a digital move within that clip.

There are other new Premiere Pro CC features that I haven’t yet tested thoroughly. These include new support for Apple Metal (an API that combines the functionality of OpenGL and OpenCL) and for grading control surfaces. Open Caption support has been improved – adding more languages and their native alphabets, including Arabic and Hebrew.

Adobe Audition CC 2015.2

df2516_auditionWant better audio mixing control than what’s available inside of Premiere Pro CC? Then Audition CC is the best tool for the job. Premiere Pro timelines translate perfectly and in the last update a powerful retime feature was added. Audition “automagically” edits the duration of a music cue for you in order to fit a prescribed length.

The Essential Sound panel is new in this update. The layout of this panel is the audio equivalent to the Lumetri color panel and also owes its design origins to Lightroom. Select a clip and choose from the Dialogue, Music, SFX or Ambience group. Each group presents you with a different, task-appropriate set of effects presets. For example, when you pick Dialogue, the panel will display tabbed controls for loudness, repair sound, improve clarity and a creative tab. Click on a section of the vertical stack within this panel to reveal the contents and controls for that section.

In the past, the workflow would have been a roundtrip from Premiere Pro to Audition and back. Now you can go directly to Adobe Media Encoder from Audition, which changes the workflow into these steps: cut in Premiere Pro CC, mix in Audition CC, and master/export directly through Adobe Media Encoder. Thus roundtrips are eliminated, because picture is carried through the Audition phase. This export path supports multichannel mix files, especially for mastering containers like MXF. Audition plus Media Encoder now enable you to export a multichannel file that includes a stereo mix plus stereo submix “stems” for dialogue, SFX and music.

After Effects CC 2015.3 and more

df2516_aeAfter Effects CC has been undergoing an overhaul through successive versions, including this one. Some users complained that the most recent version was a bit of a step backwards, but this is all in an effort to improve performance, as well as to modernize and streamline the product. From my vantage as an editor who uses After Effects as much as a utility as for occasional motion graphics and visual effects, I really like what Adobe has been doing. Changes in this update include enhanced performance, GPU-accelerated Gaussian blur and Lumetri color correction, better playback of cached frames, and a new a/v preview engine. In the test projects that I ran through it, including the demo projects sent by Adobe, performance was fast and rather impressive. That’s on a 2009 Mac Pro tower.

If you are an animator, then Maxon Cinema 4D is likely a tool that you use in conjunction with After Effects. Animated text and shape layers can now be saved directly into the Cinema 4D file format from After Effects. When you customize your text and shapes in Cinema 4D, the changes are automatically updated in After Effects for a roundtrip 3D motion graphics workflow.

Thanks to the live The Simpsons event, in which Homer was animated live using Character Animator, this tool is gaining visibility. Character Animator moves to version 4, even though the application is still technically in prerelease. Some of the enhancements include improved puppet tagging. You can record multiple takes of a character’s movement and then enable your puppet to respond to motion and trigger animation accordingly.

To wrap up, remember that Adobe is promoting Creative Cloud as more than simply a collection of applications. The subscription includes access to over 50 million royalty-free photos, illustrations, vector graphics and video (including 4K clips). According to Adobe, licensed Adobe Stock assets in your library are now badged for easy identification. Videos in your library are displayed with duration and format information and have links to video previews. You can access your Libraries whenever you need them, both when you are connected to the internet and working offline. I personally have yet to use Adobe Stock, but it’s definitely a resource that you should remember is there if you need it.

Click here for Dave Helmly’s excellent overview of the new features in Premiere Pro CC.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine and Creative Planet Network.

©2016 Oliver Peters

NLE as Post Production Hub


As 2009 closed, I wrote a post about Final Cut Studio as the center of a boutique post production workflow. A lot has changed since then, but that approach is still valid and a number of companies can fill those shoes. In each case, rather than be the complete, self-contained tool, the editing application becomes the hub of the operation. Other applications surround it and the workflow tends to go from NLE to support tool and back for delivery. Here are a few solutions.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC

df2316_prproNo current editing package comes as close to the role of the old Final Cut Studio as does Adobe’s Creative Cloud. You get nearly all of the creative tools under a single subscription and facilities with a team account can equip every room with the full complement of applications. When designed correctly, workflows in any room can shift from edit to effects to sound to color correction – according to the load. In a shared storage operation, projects can stay in a single bay for everything or shift from bay to bay based on operator speciality and talent.

While there are many tools in the Creative Cloud kit, the primary editor-specific applications are Premiere Pro CC, After Effects CC and Audition CC. It goes without saying that for most, Photoshop CC and Adobe Media Encoder are also givens. On the other hand, I don’t know too many folks using Prelude CC, so I can’t say what the future for this tool will be. Especially since the next version of Premiere Pro includes built-in proxy transcoding. Also, as more of SpeedGrade CC’s color correction tools make it into Premiere Pro, it’s clear to see that SpeedGrade itself is getting very little love. The low-cost market for outboard color correction software has largely been lost to DaVinci Resolve (free). For now, SpeedGrade is really “dead man walking”. I’d be surprised if it’s still around by mid-2017. That might also be the case for Prelude.

Many editors I know that are heavy into graphics and visual effects do most of that work in After Effects. With CC and Dynamic Link, there’s a natural connection between the Premiere Pro timeline and After Effects. A similar tie can exist between Premiere Pro and Audition. I find the latter to be a superb audio post application and, from my experience, provides the best transfer of a Premiere Pro timeline into any audio application. This connection is being further enhanced by the updates coming from Adobe this year.

Rounding out the package is Photoshop CC, of course. While most editors are not big Photoshop artists, it’s worth noting that this application also enables animated motion graphics. For example, if you want to create an animated lower third banner, it can be done completely inside of Photoshop without ever needing to step into After Effects. Drop the file onto a Premiere Pro timeline and it’s complete with animation and proper transparency values. Update the text in Photoshop and hit “save” – voila the graphic is instantly updated within Premiere Pro.

Given the breadth and quality of tools in the Creative Cloud kit, it’s possible to stay entirely within these options for all of a facility’s post needs. Of course, roundtrips to Resolve, Baselight, ProTools, etc. are still possible, but not required. Nevertheless, in this scenario I typically see everything starting and ending in Premiere Pro (with exports via AME), making the Adobe solution my first vote for the modern hub concept.

Apple Final Cut Pro X

df2316_fcpxApple walked away from the market for an all-inclusive studio package. Instead, it opted to offer more self-contained solutions that don’t have the same interoperability as before, nor that of the comparable Adobe solutions. To build up a similar toolkit, you would need Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor and Logic Pro X. An individual editor/owner would purchase these once and install these on as many machines as he or she owned. A business would have to buy each application for each separate machine. So a boutique facility would need a full set for each room or they would have to build rooms by specialty – edit, audio, graphics, etc.

Even with this combination, there are missing links when going from one application to another. These gaps have to be plugged by the various third-party productivity solutions, such as Clip Exporter, XtoCC, 7toX, Xsend Motion, X2Pro, EDL-X and others. These provide better conduits between Apple applications than Apple itself provides. For example, only through Automatic Duck Xsend Motion can you get an FCPX project (timeline) into Motion. Marquis Broadcast’s X2Pro Audio Convert provides a better path into Logic than the native route.

If you want the sort of color correction power available in Premiere Pro’s Lumetri Color panel, you’ll need more advanced color correction plug-ins, like Hawaiki Color or Color Finale. Since Apple doesn’t produce an equivalent to Photoshop, look to Pixelmator or Affinity Photo for a viable substitute. Although powerful, you still won’t get quite the same level of interoperability as between Photoshop and Premiere Pro.

Naturally, if your desire is to use non-Apple solutions for graphics and color correction, then similar rules apply as with Premiere Pro. For instance, roundtripping to Resolve for color correction is pretty solid using the FCPXML import/export function within Resolve. Prefer to use After Effects for your motion graphics instead of Motion? Then Automatic Duck Ximport AE on the After Effects side has your back.

Most of the tools are there for those users wishing to stay in an Apple-centric world, provided you add a lot of glue to patch over the missing elements. Since many of the plug-ins for FCPX (Motion templates) are superior to a lot of what’s out there, I do think that an FCPX-centric shop will likely choose to start and end in X (possibly with a Compressor export). Even when Resolve is used for color correction, I suspect the final touches will happen inside of Final Cut. It’s more of the Lego approach to the toolkit than the Adobe solution, yet I still see it functioning in much the same way.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

df2316_resolveIt’s hard to say what Blackmagic’s end goal is with Resolve. Clearly the world of color correction is changing. Every NLE developer is integrating quality color correction modules right inside of their editing application. So it seems only natural that Blackmagic is making Resolve into an all-in-one tool for no other reason than self-preservation. And by golly, they are doing a darn good job of it! Each version is better than the last. If you want a highly functional editor with world-class color correction tools for free, look no further than Resolve. Ingest, transcoded and/or native media editing, color correction, mastering and delivery – all there in Resolve.

There are two weak links – graphics and audio. On the latter front, the internal audio tools are good enough for many editors. However, Blackmagic realizes that specialty audio post is still the domain of the sound engineering world, which is made up predominantly of Avid Pro Tools shops. To make this easy, Resolve has built-in audio export functions to send the timeline to Pro Tools via AAF. There’s no roundtrip back, but you’d typically get composite mixed tracks back from the engineer to lay into the timeline.

To build on the momentum it started, Blackmagic Design acquired the assets of EyeOn’s Fusion software, which gives then a node-based compositor, suitable for visual effects and some motion graphics. This requires a different mindset than After Effects with Premiere Pro or Motion with Final Cut Pro X (when using Xsend Motion). You aren’t going to send a full sequence from Resolve to Fusion. Instead, the Connect plug-in links a single shot to Fusion, where it can be effected through series of nodes. The Connect plug-in provides a similar “conduit” function to that of Adobe’s Dynamic Link between Premiere Pro and After Effects, except that the return is a rendered clip instead of a live project file. To take advantage of this interoperability between Resolve and Fusion, you need the paid versions.

Just as in Apple’s case, there really is no Blackmagic-owned substitute for Photoshop or an equivalent application. You’ll just have to buy what matches your need. While it’s quite possible to build a shop around Resolve and Fusion (plus maybe Pro Tools and Photoshop), it’s more likely that Resolve’s integrated approach will appeal mainly to those folks looking for free tools. I don’t see too many advanced pros doing their creative cutting on Resolve (at least not yet). However, that being said, it’s pretty close, so I don’t want to slight the capabilities.

Where I see it shine is as a finishing or “online” NLE. Let’s say you perform the creative or “offline” edit in Premiere Pro, FCPX or Media Composer. This could even be three editors working on separate segments of a larger show – each on a different NLE. Each’s sequence goes to Resolve, where the timelines are imported, combined and relinked to the high-res media. The audio has gone via a parallel path to a Pro Tools mixer and graphics come in as individual clips, shots or files. Then all is combined inside Resolve, color corrected and delivered straight from Resolve. For many shops, that scenario is starting to look like the best of all worlds.

I tend to see Resolve as less of a hub than either Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro X. Instead, I think it may take several possible positions: a) color correction and transcoding at the front end, b) color correction in the middle – i.e. the standard roundtrip, and/or c) the new “online editor” for final assembly, color correction, mastering and delivery.

Avid Media Composer

df2316_avidmcThis brings me to Avid Media Composer, the least integrated of the bunch. You can certainly build an operation based on Media Composer as the hub – as so many shops have. But there simply isn’t the silky smooth interoperability among tools like there is with Adobe or the dearly departed Final Cut Pro “classic”. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. You can add advanced color correction through the Symphony option, plus Avid Pro Tools in your mixing rooms. In an Avid-centric facility, rooms will definitely be task-oriented, rather than provide the ease of switching functions in the same suite based on load, as you can with Creative Cloud.

The best path right now is Media Composer to Pro Tools. Unfortunately it ends there. Like Blackmagic, Avid only offers two hero applications in the post space – Media Composer/Symphony and Pro Tools. They have graphics products, but those are designed and configured for news on-air operations. This means that effects and graphics are typically handled through After Effects, Boris RED or Fusion.

Boris RED runs as an integrated tool, which augments the Media Composer timeline. However, RED uses its own user interface. That operation is relatively seamless, since any “roundtrip” happens invisibly within Media Composer. Fusion can be integrated using the Connect plug-in, just like between Fusion and Resolve. Automatic Duck’s AAF import functions have been integrated directly into After Effects by Adobe. It’s easy to send a Media Composer timeline into After Effects as a one-way trip. In fact, that’s where this all started in the first place. Finally, there’s also a direct connection with Baselight Editions for Avid, if you add that as a “plug-in” within Media Composer. As with Boris RED, clips open up in the Baselight interface, which has now been enhanced with a smoother shot-to-shot workflow inside of Media Composer.

While a lot of shops still use Media Composer as the hub, this seems like a very old-school approach. Many editors still love this NLE for its creative editing prowess, but in today’s mixed-format, mixed-codec, file-based post world, Avid has struggled to keep Media Composer competitive with the other options. There’s certainly no reason Media Composer can’t be the center – with audio in Pro Tools, color correction in Resolve, and effects in After Effects. However, most newer editors simply don’t view it the same way as they do with Adobe or even Apple. Generally, it seems the best Avid path is to “offline” edit in Media Composer and then move to other tools for everything else.

So that’s post in 2016. Four good options with pros and cons to each. Sorry to slight the Lightworks, Vegas Pro, Smoke/Flame and Edius crowds, but I just don’t encounter them too often in my neck of the woods. In any case, there are plenty of options, even starting at free, which makes the editing world pretty exciting right now.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Red Giant Magic Bullet Suite 12


Red Giant released Magic Bullet Suite 12 in February. Popular tools have been streamlined along with the addition of a brand new film emulation tool. The suite now includes Magic Bullet Looks 3.0, Magic Bullet Colorista III, Magic Bullet Film 1.0, Magic Bullet Mojo 2.0, Magic Bullet Cosmo 2.0, Denoiser II, and LUT Buddy. The new update adds OpenFX compatibility.

Along with feature and interface changes, Red Giant has also focused on performance improvements across the board, as well as bringing more of the tools into new hosts like Apple Final Cut Pro X. A single installation of the suite will install the plug-ins into as many application hosts as you have on your system. However, check the compatibility list for your particular NLE. For example, everything installs into Adobe Premiere Pro CC and After Effects CC, but Final Cut Pro X only gets Colorista, Looks, Cosmo, Film, and Mojo. Avid Media Composer is only compatible with Looks and Resolve gets Mojo, Film, Looks, and Cosmo. Depending on your toolkit, you might opt for one or two of the individual plug-ins rather than the entire suite. If you already installed version 12.0, you’ll need to download and reinstall 12.1 in order to add the plug-ins into new hosts, like Resolve 12.

Magic Bullet Looks (v3.1)


Magic Bullet Looks is a popular go-to plug-in for sophisticated stylization of an image. It includes tool modules for color correction, lens effects, relighting, and a lot more. The interface design has been flattened and streamlined. As before, it runs as a separate application that opens whenever you launch the interface from the clip on the timeline. The frame that you are parked on becomes the reference frame to which you apply your looks. In 3.0 and 3.1, you can now hover the mouse over the various preset looks and the larger Looks viewer will be updated to preview that look on your frame. In addition, this will also preview the various tool modules used to create the look. Red Giant has created many new preset looks based on popular film and TV show treatments. All are customizable. The 3.1 update added a Trackpad Mode, enabling you to use a laptop or standalone trackpad like a control surface.

New tool modules have been added, such as a LUT tool and a 4-way color corrector. The latter adds a very intuitive luma range graph to easily change the crossover points between lo/mid and mid/hi. Importing LUTs into Looks doesn’t seem to work perfectly. It’s pretty solid in the Adobe applications, but color management with FCP X is quirky. When I imported LUTs into Looks with FCP X, the result was a lot more extreme than in the Adobe applications. This is likely an issue with FCP X’s color pipeline when an external program is involved.

Magic Bullet Colorista III (v1.1)


The earlier version of Colorista was a feature-packed plug-in that functioned like a mini-grading application. It had master, primary, and secondary grading, plus curves, a power mask, and keyer. With Colorista III, Red Giant decided to simplify the plug-in by including one level of primary grading, curves, a keyer, and HSL secondary adjustments. The power mask is gone, because the developers decided to rely on the new built-in masking that’s part of Premiere Pro CC and Final Cut Pro X. Adobe added bezier masks with built-in tracking to all effects, so if you are using Colorista III in Premiere Pro CC, you now have a better masking capability than in the past. Apple added shape masks to all effects with the introduction of FCP X 10.2.


With FCP X, the developers were able to integrate the color grading wheels into the inspector pane, but in a vertical configuration. The response of the wheels is weighted, so that you move the mouse farther in relationship to the puck’s travel on-screen. This results in better granularity to the adjustment, but might require a bit of time for new users to get accustomed to the feel. Although it includes curves, these are not true multi-point curves, as you are limited to five control points along the line. Typically these work best when you want an s-curve correction.

A big addition to Colorista III are Lightroom-style shadow and highlight controls. Adjusting the shadows slider acts like you are adding or removing fill light from an image. There’s also a new vignette slider, so you can quickly dial in the size and darkness of an edge vignette. Most of the Magic Bullet products include a strength slider, while enables you to dial back on the amount of the color treatment. This lets you make a more extreme correction and then tone it down for the final look. One welcomed addition is an overall white balance control with a color picker to select what you determine as white in the image. This is very good news for FCP X editors in particular.

New 1.1 features, which are applicable to Adobe hosts, include support for OpenCL and Cuda. This allows for real time color correction during video playback via Adobe Premiere Pro’s Mercury Playback Engine. The Skin Overlay is back and there’s a keyer “cut out” mode to create transparency for layered color corrections.

Magic Bullet Film

df1315_mbs12_6_smFilm style LUTs (color look-up tables) are all the rage and this one is particularly well thought-out. Red Giant has reverse-engineering the LUTs from actual film and includes 22 negative stocks and four print stocks. These include the typical Kodak and Fuji variations as well as settings for some imaginary custom stocks designed by Red Giant. The key to this plug-in is that it is intended to pair a film negative LUT with a film print LUT, in order to more accurately mimic a real-world film pipeline.

df1315_mbs12_7_smIn addition to the LUTs, you have a number of control sliders for tint, exposure, contrast, saturation, and skin tone. There’s a slider for the amount of built-in grain to be added, as well as an instant vignette and a strength slider. A particularly interesting control is the vintage/modern slider. Shift it all the way to modern and you get a very strong orange/teal effect, whereas going fully in the vintage direction leaves the image more reddish and faded.

Magic Bullet Mojo 2.0

df1315_mbs12_8_smMojo is for the folks who want the extreme orange/teal coloration that many blockbuster films use. This is my least favorite filter in the suite, because few films that I see actually look like the results you get here – blockbuster or not. It’s a color treatment whose purpose is to cool off the background independent of skin tones. Depending on the shot and the art direction used in production, sometimes you get great results and other times not so much. df1315_mbs12_9_smFortunately there are plenty of adjustments to derive a decent, albeit stylized, color correction. As part of the Looks refresh, there is now a set of Mojo tools built into Looks, as well. Mojo has also been GPU-accelerated. Red Giant claims it’s 20% faster in Adobe products and 80% faster in FCP X. In the testing that I’ve done, the results have been in line with these numbers.

Magic Bullet Cosmo 2.0

Cosmo is a skin smoothing filter. It’s effectively the “vaseline on the lens” trick. If you have an actress with more textured skin and you need to soften it, then Cosmo does one of the better jobs I’ve seen. It isolates skin from the background, so that you end up softening only skin without hurting background detail.

df1315_mbs12_3_smThe new version has good performance, so you can keep on working with the filter applied without having to render to continue. Cosmo is GPU-accelerated with a 20% bump in Adobe products. In addition to FCP X, it is also available in Sony Vegas Pro.

Denoiser II and LUT Buddy

Denoiser II is general solution for reducing video noise and works well with most footage. LUT Buddy is a tool included with a number of Red Giant products. It is designed to import and export LUTs, although in my testing behavior was inconsistent. I could get it to generate a LUT, but not import all LUTs that should have been compatible.

LUT Buddy is very useful for turning the grade you create in one application into a LUT that can be used in another. For example, you can use a number of different color correction filters in After Effects to grade a shot and then use LUT Buddy to turn that grade into a LUT. Then in Premiere Pro, apply the LUT that you created, without the need for using the same filters as were used in After Effects. Here’s where LUT Buddy should have worked to read its own grade, but it didn’t. When I applied the grade and played the clip, the color correction would flicker on and off. However, I was still able to import that LUT using Premiere Pro’s Lumetri filter, so the process is still functional. My initial testing was done with Adobe CC2014, but in retesting in Adobe CC2015, unfortunately I could no longer get LUT Buddy to export a LUT.

df1315_mbs12_10_smOverall, this a solid update. Better performance and new tools. In most hosts you can stack several instances of these filters and still get real-time playback, which is a significant step forward. Magic Bullet Suite 12 is the perfect package for editors that want to have plenty of control over the look of their image, yet stay inside the editing application.

To usher in Magic Bullet Suite 12, Red Giant produced another of its innovative short films, called “Old/New”. It’s directed by Seth Worley and narrated by Patton Oswalt. Along with a clever storyline, the film was produced using a wide range of Red Giant products. Make sure that you check out the behind-the-scenes video to see how they did it.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

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 ( 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