Boy Meets Toy
Allow me to introduce you to a new friend of mine: Magic Bullet Suite. Magic Bullet is a revolutionary way of looking at the video medium. It allows those without the budget or understanding of real film to mimic nearly all of the positive aspects of film without the hassle and expense. But before I get too far ahead of myself, allow me to give you a tour of Magic Bullet Suite without the personal commentary.
Magic Bullet was a process designed by the extremely creative folks at The Orphanage (www.theorphanage.com), a premier post production facility with offices located in Los Angeles and San Francisco and whose beginnings are just as interesting a story as this tool-set. It just so happens that their clients were inticed by the look of film, but turned away from it due to the budgetary requirements. After some serious trial and error, Stuart Maschwitz, an Industrial Light & Magic alum, hit the gold mine. His formula was absolutely convincing and has fooled numerous viewers into believing that his video productions were shot on film when in fact, he was using a Sony DCR-VX-1000. Now, a "formula" like this can't remain a secret for long. Before long, people from all over were asking the question, "How'd you do it?" -- and so after some deliberation, along with lots of coding and even more trial and error, the answer was born. Magic Bullet Suite is the brainchild of professionals who clearly understand both video and film. Now, Let's move on to the real review. WARNING: My non-bias mode is now completely off.
Magic Bullet is a very precise process that can and will make video have the aesthetics and general appeal of real film. And while it is sold in a plug-in package, it is far more than a simple plug-in. In a moment, I'll offer a little more on the actual process, but let's get into the box first.
The Package: Upon first glance, the package is very sleek, with a flair of machismo. Solid black with silver tones and a flying bullet right on the cover. But after you get past the exterior, the very first thing you'll see is the manual and installer CD accompanied by the security dongle. While I am an adamant opponent of software theft, I must say that the dongle chain on the reverse of my Mac is getting deep, sometimes too deep. But I digress.
The Manual: The manual is filled with the kind of information that allows users to understand the ideas and theory behind the software. The detail taken to describe the process and the fluidity of the material is on par with some of the best instruction manuals I've read. The manual is broken down into three sections and is clearly written to quench your thirst for understanding the Magic Bullet process in its entirety.
Section one, The Overview, introduces you to the software with detailed Q&A with the science and philosophy behind the tool, a quick mandatory brief on the system requirements and the installation method. Section two, aptly titled Reference, is the real bones of the text allowing for extraordinarily accurate descriptions of theory and practice along with effective ways to manipulate each filter for maximum effect. Section three is a straightforward Appendix that offers screen captures and further explanation about the creators at The Orphanage. The install is painless and reasonably fast on my dual 800 processor PowerMac and the Magic Bullet Suite folder is right where I need, and expect, it to be.
Welcome to the Playground: Magic Bullet is an Adobe After Effects plug-in and when you open AE the first time after installing Magic Bullet, it will serialize before use. After this, we're now ready to play...
The Magic Bullet manual offers numerous suggestions to get the most effective results, but we chose to ignore them and try to disprove the myth of "video that looks like film" right off the bat. I created a new composition with these exact settings: 720 by 480, NTSC (DV), 29.97 fps, Lower Field First. So far, so good. Now, before I go much farther, there are a few considerations to make when working within a composition. Suffice it to say that you can modify the composition settings to infinity to get the results you seek. I chose to stick with a basic composition so as not to confuse myself. Next, I needed a pristine DV snippet in order for the process to work. In other words, don't load a previously affected clip or you'll miss the point of Magic Bullet. Once you've got your snippet in the composition, select the Magic Bullet plug-in from your effect list. You'll notice the auto set-up feature (see blue icon in graphic at right). Auto set-up is one of the most interesting features in Magic Bullet and it is a foolproof way to figure out what your footage is and what Magic Bullet Suite needs to do with it from here.
Now, you have a few adjustments within the Magic Bullet plug-in consisting of a de-interlacer, a standards check-box and a "motion detect" adjustment. These rudimentary adjustments will affect everything beyond this point, as these are the motion portions of the plug-in set.
The Look Suite: Within the Magic Bullet system is the "Look Suite." (See left.) Look Suite offers some quick standard presets to speed your workflow. Some presets mimic standard film processes like, bleach bypass, basic black/white diffusion, color reversal, and sepia along with signature presets consisting of Miami, warm & fuzzy, punchy and epic. All of these presets are useable given the right situation. However, we found that the basic warm and basic cool were the most realistic in terms of what you might see on an NTSC picture tube. For our purposes, we chose a few of the more standard looking plug-ins as these are what most people will expect to see. I selected basic warm for my shot. You can see the immediate difference below...
Once you get a handle on these two plug-ins, you have to focus on you options a little more as the Magic Bullet Suite thins out a bit. Opticals, a plug-in designed to help you get film quality dissolves and transitions, is pretty simplistic and was, in my opinion, not really a value added plug-in. Instead, it reminded me of a cross-dissolve with a controlled in and out curve that allowed for some, albeit miniscule, difference between the typical transform transparency and looked a whole lot like what I see in Final Cut Pro on a daily basis. It offered some interesting burn and fade controls, but for the most part won't be used for our regular work. I sampled Opticals. Next, there is the Letterboxer filter. If this one isn't self-explanatory, don't read much further because we've already lost you (Just kidding.). Actually, this letter-boxing utility is pretty useful, as it will mask your video to true film aspect ratios. From a standard 4:3 to a Super 16mm, to a real 65mm anamorphic mask, you can get the exact film aspect match for film. This is truly a simplistic plug-in, but it is a very valuable piece in the ever raging battle to fool the viewer into believing that they are seeing real film. For our video, we went with a wide format 2.35:1, or Cinemascope, for maximum effect. Again, compare the resulting still frame to the untouched original below...
Finally, there is the nearly overlooked Broadcast Spec filter. Another obvious name for a filter that does exactly what it was named for. It makes you video fall within legal guidelines and makes it broadcast ready in terms of saturation, luminance, and chroma. We turned it one just for the hell of it. I noticed absolutely NO difference with my naked eye, but on the scopes, there was some manipulation to the uppermost peaks of the luminance values.
Let's See Some Results: OK, now that you know what the Magic Bullet Suite consists of, what's in the manual, and heard how cool the box is, let's see what she can do for you. Still frames cannot convey the power of the moving image, but I've included a few just to show the process as it as used in my test. Now, if you've actually read this article, you'll have a short-list of the settings I used to manipulate the following frames. The video clip is pretty small, but even compressed, you can see a notable difference between the original clip and the affected clip...
I'll leave the clip to do the talking, but I want to make it clear that I believe that Magic Bullet Suite is a nearly indispensable tool for those in a position to do the impossible on a daily basis. I am astonished by the quality of the final results achieved with this tool and would highly recommend it to everyone who absolutely needs the look of film, but has the budget for DV.
In Closing: While I've been rambling on, I've completely forgot to mention how it compared to some of my own highly touted "formulas," which was my real ulterior motive in this review to begin with. Well, to be completely honest, I'm torn. My formula for NTSC-DV actually looked better to my eyes in terms of color, contrast and overall "look" -- but I feel like Magic Bullet Suite was a clear-cut winner when it came to the motion of film and the aesthetics of certain color processes. My own numerous formulas are certainly right in there in terms of quick fixes but for the real deal, Magic Bullet Suite has definitely expanded my field of view.
-- Michael Munkittrick
©2002 by Michael Munkittrick. All rights are reserved.
For more info or to purchase Magic Bullet, please visit Toolfarm.com
You can visit with Michael Munkittrick who hosts Creative Cow's Sony DV and particle Illusion forums -- and who interacts with users as a member of the Cow's After Effects forum