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Serious Magic's Ultra2

Serious Magic's Ultra2
A CreativeCOW.net Product Review


Joaquin Gil reviews Serious Magic's Ultra2 for CreativeCOW.net

Kino Gil
Joaquín 'Kino' Gil
kino, Marina del Rey (L.A.), California USA

©2005 by Joaquin Gil and CreativeCow.net. All rights are reserved.

Article Focus:
CreativeCOW.net contributing editor Joaquin 'Kino' Gil writes a review on Serious Magic's ULTRA 2 Professional Keying Software with Vector Keying™ Technology and tells readers, ''[Before ULTRA2] each matte had to be calibrated separately and the values adjusted almost on a frame by frame basis in order to get details like loose strands of hair, bluish shadows and reflections, grains of sand and other minutiae. Yes, it took forever [and] no motion tracking software, either. All of that effort, [and hours of work] very seriously done, is made moot today with this software tool from Serious Magic. ... The key is perfect to the extreme of perfectly keyed fine strands of hair, transparency and translucency.''


Ultra2: The evolution of chromakey


The PROCESS


It can be reasonably argued that most of today's effects filmmaking, from TV sitcoms to blockbusters galore, depend on a process through which the actors and basic props shot on a sound stage are inserted onto images or footage of real or computer generated locations, complete with creatures.

The most popular way of doing things is called Chroma-Key (from a TV tradition) or "bluescreen/greenscreen" in the world of film. This has the talent and props standing on a set painted an almost fluorescent shade of green or blue. Helpers, rigs and props that are to be made "invisible" likewise don garments or paint in the key colors to be processed out.

The process originally derives from the luminance key, where a particular level of grey or intensity of light (= "luma" therefore "luminance") in the primary image can be separated and made transparent to a secondary image by using the resulting area as a "cookie cutter" to reveal the secondary image in the selected ranges of the primary image.

The use of the image from a single gun in "color" or RGB TV allows a process known as chroma key, in which the key occurs on the output of a single color. That single color is electronically ignored or "removed", thus becoming, in essence, a "hole" through which another image can be shown. In practice the color chosen is rarely a single frequency (reflectance bead systems with camera-mounted green or blue light source being the notable exception) but rather a small range of the chosen color. The purpose of even lighting and wrinkle avoidance in flexible backdrops is precisely to minimize that range of shades or tones so the keying can be as perfect as possible and fine detail in the keyed subject is preserved.

A quick search in the Wikipedia turns up some juicy facts:


  • ***
    The technique is variously referred to as "color key" ( color = chroma ), colour separation overlay, greenscreen and bluescreen, according with the implementation.

    "The principal subject is photographed/filmed against a background having a single color or a relatively narrow range of colors, usually in the blue or green. When the phase of the chroma signal corresponds to the preprogrammed state or states associated with the background color(s) behind the principal subject, the signal from the alternate background is inserted in the composite signal and presented at the output. When the phase of the chroma signal deviates from that associated with the background color(s) behind the principal subject, video associated with the principal subject is presented at the output."

    The reason blue is used for weather maps and movie special effects is because it is complimentary to human skin tone and therefore is easier to key out. However, in many instances green has become the favored color mainly because green is easier to key and because green is not found as frequently on clothing.

    The colors used are bright, fluorescent versions of blue and green. Again, this is done partially so the person in front of the wall could still wear, for example, a dark blue tie without it keying out.

    Though blue and green are the most common colors used, it is technically possible to chroma key using any color background. However, green and blue are the favored. Occasionally one might see a pink background used.

    The most difficult part to setup a blue - or greenscreen is the even lighting and the avoidance of shadow, because as narrow as possible range of blue (or green or other) color is made transparent. A shadow would change that to a darker color and it will be opaque.

    ***

Don't you just love the Internet?

Again, in practice, very few chroma-keying systems can deal with the finer stuff: transparency, reflections and shadows have been usually effects that belong to the higher end of the equipment rack. The work of Ultimatte comes to mind, as the de-facto standard for the dedicated machines and the very effective homonymous software that works as a plug-in in the major compositing packages.

Up to now, Ultimatte and the superb keyers in Curious gFx, Apple's Shake and Autodesk's Combustion/Flame/Inferno family were the way to go. We used Ultimatte running inside Wavefront's Composer - the first compositing package and one I was proud to help shape - to carefully remove Miss Foster from a blue room for the Beach sequence in Zemeckis' "Contact". Each matte had to be calibrated separately and the values adjusted almost on a frame basis in order to get details like loose strands of hair, bluish shadows and reflections, grains of sand and other minutiae.

Yes, it took forever. No motion tracking software, either.

And all of that effort, very seriously done, is made moot today with this software tool from Serious Magic.

The folks at this company take seriously that old phrase of Arthur C. Clarke's, borrowed from the science fiction domains:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".


So the company works at producing a piece of software that performs… well… magically.

The PRODUCT


ULTRA2, an upgraded version of the original ULTRA, is one of those incredibly smart applications of computers we keep finding in this XXIst Century of ours. The program basically runs a complete set of comparative keys (chrominance, luminance, difference, etc.) on the source images supplied and delivers what can be termed perfect keys. ( Or what a friend of mine calls emphatically "freakin' perfect keys".)

The procedures are really simple to follow, too. Although the tool provides a complete set of controls of all the aspects of the keying ( and related ) processes taking place, the idea is that you don't need to use them. The tool will run all the keyings and comparisons and extract the optimal matte for you without your intervention. Of course, if you are like many of us, you'll tweak. That's fine. The controls are easy to use and effective in result. They are even fun and teach you a thing or two about mattes you thought you knew.

On startup, the program consists of a panel split roughly in three areas: "INPUTS" is on the left side, and a very well thought out interface allows for easy selection of background, input clips and other sources, like Source B, overlay video and graphics. The dedicated overlay channel accepts Flash-type swf files. On the right side of the display the "PREVIEW" panel lets you see and use the composite in progress. Finally, the bottom of the work area is taken by the "CONTROLS" area: a series of tabs that allow access to the different sections of the software like controls for cropping and resizing one or more layers, animation of the virtual camera you see through, tabbed collections of pre-ready media and a media browser.


Virtual Set

The rest of the design is just as powerfully self-explanatory. Deceptively simple in appearance, this program packs a lot of ingenuity and knowledge.

BASIC KEYINGS


ULTRA2 is a standalone program that runs only in Windows boxes. No OSX or Linux versions contemplated for the moment. The program runs on wrapped sequences, that is to say, Quicktimes or AVI files. It is equally comfortable using AVI or QUICKTIME as input files as far as I could check. It does not recognize frame sequences so compilation in a wrapped form is a must, but that is a default format for most digitizing applications. ULTRA2 can work in standard definition, DV and High Def, both 1080 and 720 simply by choosing a new "Session" (Ultra2 parlance for a project) and choosing either 4:3 or 16:9 format.

The quality of the mattes is amazing. This software package of less then US$600 does the kind of job of a piece of traditional hardware of US$250,000.00.
Simple Keyed Clip

Choice problem spots like (1) transparency , (2) motion blur and (3) wrinkled backdrop are quickly compensated for by the software to obtain the mask below. Additional modes offer very easy to use painting tools to mask out regions, like the rounded edges of the backdrop in the top corners of the clip.



Clip 3

There are two main ways of using the tool, depending on whether or not you avail yourself of all its properties. You can use it as a very quick and easy matte-extraction tool to process a series of green or blue screen shots and ready them for external compositing in another application.

You would accomplish this by reading an input clip, processing it and saving it with a transparent alpha background. (there is such a ready-made file, a DV, i.e. 720 x 480 png frame. Similar “transparent” frames are possible for any SD or HD resolution.)

The second way entails learning a bit more about the concept of "virtual sets", as is implemented in ULTRA2.

VIRTUAL SETS


You are always running a virtual set of some kind. That is how you define how many layers you are using and what kinds. It is a matching set of assumptions that activate capabilities of the program as are needed.

In essence also, a Virtual Set is a matched set of backgrounds and channels. It usually includes different views of a pre-rendered (CGI) location that can be used with different standard framings of your on-screen talent such as close-up, full-frame, mid-shot, etc., and also can be used with controlled, programmable moves in all three axis. Your choice of basic SET defines use of background, insertion of a B source in a window, virtual motion and graphic overlays.

The Sets that come pre-animated with ULTRA2 are mostly designed for corporate and commercial work, but they are gorgeous, sure to give a good production value injection to many a humble talking head.


Simple Keyed Clip

The special thing about these Virtual Sets is that you can have extremely complex camera moves inside your virtual set that will be applied to the image of your talent, so you can effectively look at the horizon, do a fly-by around digital buildings or mountains and swoop right through a window or a crevice in the rock to reach the place where your talent is in that virtual landscape. This makes for exciting intros to spice up many a talking head, but also opens interesting narrative options, specially when applied to high-end imagery and carefully lit plates, because these trajectories are programmable.

Even using the virtual sets supplied - which can give a polished, professional look to a sequence shot in your garage with passable illumination - the sky… seems not to be the limit: The really nice news is that there are "empty" sets that let you hang your own customizations, so a decent CGI program like Maya or XSI and you can Virtualize a whole film. Eat your heart out, Sky Captain, Sin City, Star Wars and all those good yarns done in greenscreen.
Scene Clip

KEYING WAYS


There are also two ways for getting a key.
The tools are more than adequate for general production work.
The first mode of use is that in which many corporate videographers will find themselves with models or voice talent: You have a green or blue background of limited size in a place where illumination will pose problems and you cannot guarantee wrinkle-free, perfectly even light.

No problem. Point your camera, shoot a few frames of the EMPTY background, then position your talent and record normally. Once you import the clip in ULTRA2 look for a frame with ONLY the background, go to the "KEY" tab in the ULTRA2 display (which is simplicity itself) and hit the "SET KEY" button.

Done.

When you play back the material with your talent, the key is perfect to the extreme of perfectly keyed fine strands of hair, transparency and translucency.
Keyer Clip

The second way to get a key using this tool is for those occasions where you have no footage of the empty background, or when the talent moves along a larger area and the camera follows, losing individual wrinkles and shades that would have permitted the automatic matte extraction in the previous case example.

In these occasions you have the capability of directing the matting engines to the color ranges you want to matte out.

The mechanism for doing this is called "POINT PLACEMENT". In a nutshell, you click on the source footage in the green shades or variations themselves, as they turn up in the image.

This is an NTSC 16:9 image, recorded anamorphic onto normal NTSC DV25. Since I do not have the footage with the screen alone, the points - marked here by small gray squares I have outlined in yellow - were used to select the different green shades I want to eliminate.

Apply Points

Below you can see the test of the mask done by simply double clicking one of the included backgrounds, which automagically puts it in the "background" channel.

Backgrounds



CONCLUSION

Ease of use, minimal price and fantastic delivered power make this tool a must for the eFilm or Video professionals of all sizes and walks of life, from those doing wedding and corporate videos to the indie effect makers, documentarians and feature filmmakers out there, to whom the SD and HD capabilities should appeal as a very desirable and cost-effective combination.
Serious Magic ULTRA2 at amazon.com
This is a tool that pulls amazing masks from something like DV25 footage. Broadcast SD or HD material looks just unbelievable. This is truly Chroma-key for the rest of us, but with the full quality that computer assisted keying is capable of in the XXIst Century, better quality, in fact, than many dedicated and hardware tools sold for fifty times the price of ULTRA2 or even more. It is also a standalone program, not a plug-in, so you can dedicate a smaller machine, a user and a session to mask pulling without sacrificing an animation or compositing machine and attending software. This means more efficiency and less glut of generalized tools of higher cost, which translates to a must in any administrator's book. ULTRA2's robust coding and multi-format capability allow it to integrate to any kind of production pipeline and also make it also a remarkably trouble-free tool in the digital arsenal. To qualify this level of tool for our readers is a no-brainer:

Five out of five cows.



Go and get one.

Marina del Rey, September 2005


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