Magic Bullet 1.1: A review by Barend Onneweer
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Magic Bullet 1.1 for PAL users
Long before Magic Bullet was released to the industry as an After Effects plug-in, there was a lot of buzz around the web about the proprietary treatment that The Orphanage had developed to make video - and in particular DV - take on the looks of film. It was no secret that most of the process was done within Adobe After Effects, so a lot of people around the forums were trying to figure out how to achieve similar results, since creating a film-look from DV or DigiBeta footage seems to be our common goal...
The Magic Bullet pipeline and monitors at The Orphanage are calibrated to match the look when finally transferred to film at the Efilm facility, so there are no surprises. Transfer to film is especially complicated when working with NTSC (60i) video, since the frame rates of 60i for video and the 24fps for film are not really compatible. PAL video (50i) is simply de-interlaced (resulting in 25p), and slowed down 4% to do a frame-by-frame transfer. NTSC needs to be converted from 60i to 24p which involved a lot of fiddling around with blending frames, which is far from ideal.
The Magic Bullet Suite
And this was where Magic Bullet came in. People have been very excited about the quality at which Magic Bullet creates a 24p master from NTSC video, for transfer to film. So the excitement went through the roof when a plug-in set for Adobe After Effects was announced over a year ago. The Magic Bullet Suite consists of 5 individual plug-ins. The two really powerful plug-ins are the Magic Bullet component which takes care of the frame rate conversion and de-interlacing, and the Look Suite which (surprise...) treats the colors and tones of the video to mimic different film stocks or lab-processes.
Then there's the Opticals plug-in, which simulates the look of optical crossdissolves and fades to black, like they come out of the film lab. The Letterboxer adds black bars on top of your footage, nothing fancy but just a quick way to get the aspect ratio's right for different film formats. The Broadcast Spec plug-in provides different ways to keep your video within broadcast legal range, which is important for output to video.
So, how does it work?
Well, like the title of this review says, my article is mainly aimed at PAL users (although NTSC folks may find some interesting stuff, so keep reading). This is because I'm in PAL country myself and am not the right person to judge the NTSC to 24p conversion.
Magic Bullet seems to have been primarily hyped as a very good way to create 24p from 60i. It could also be that it's been mostly American users stories that I've stumbled upon until now. Our studio is mainly based on Windows, so I couldn't easily try out Magic Bullet to find out myself, thus I have been reliant on NTSC users to convince me of the power of the Magic Bullet Suite, and being the stubborn Dutchman that I'm know for.. Let's say I was a sceptic. Like mentioned before it's simply a matter of de-interlacing PAL 50i to 25p and there many ways to skin that (insert your favorite animal here). I personally always preferred Re:VisionFX's FieldsKit, which is still a must-have plug-in at $90.
As of the recently released version 1.1 of the Magic Bullet Suite, it's also available for Windows 2000 SP2 and Windows XP Home and Pro. So it was about time that I checked for myself what all the fuss was about.
The Magic Bullet Component
The first thing I wanted to take a look at is the quality of de-interlacing. So I imported a piece of DV footage and applied the Magic Bullet component to it. The first thing that happens is that my video image is replaced by a warning message in the comp window - urging me to use the Auto Setup button that now sits in the Effects Control panel.
After pressing the Auto Setup button the plug-in determines what type of footage it is working with, what the composition settings are and thus what would be the most suitable procedure. In NTSC world this could be much more complicated, with many choices from just de-interlacing to 30p to resampling to 24p etc. In my case Magic Bullet decides basic de-interlacing is needed to create 25p from the PAL source material.
I put the Magic Bullet de-interlacer through a couple of different tests, comparing it side-by-side to Re:VisionFX FieldsKit. In default settings both produce almost identical results. Both plug-ins allow you to tweak the motion-mask, defining what area's of the image are de-interlaced and what area's are left untouched.
The FieldsKit allows you to see the motionmask while making the adjustments, which makes it a bit easier to use in that respect. Magic Bullet uses slightly less intuitive terminology for the controls, but with a little bit of tweaking you'll be able to get the same results.
There is a big difference in speed though: de-interlacing a 10 second clip took me 1min58sec using the FieldsKit while the same result took almost 15 minutes using Magic Bullet...
But this is only the beginning, and there's a lot more goodies in the box, so I'll dig in some more.
Also in the Magic Bullet component is a de-artifacting option. It is designed to reduce compression artifacts caused by DigiBeta, HDCAM or DV compression. A drop down menu allows you to choose the appropriate format. DV uses the worst compression ratio, and because of the way that the DV data stream is reduced in-camera, the red and blue channel are pretty much half the resolution of the green channel. It is in fact a little bit more complicated than this, but I won't go into that now. You are able to see for yourself that mainly around bright red parts of DV images, there is very obvious blockiness.
Of course we all know that information that is lost cannot be reproduced, but I was quite amazed by what Magic Bullet de-artifacting does. As you can see in the example below, the DV codec has reduced the red tulips (did I mention I was Dutch?) to a a blocky mush.
If you roll your mouse over it, you can see how the details come out, revealed by the de-artifacting procedures of Magic Bullet.
I was a little bit impressed...
Anyone who has had to to compositing on DV compressed material knows that it's exactly these compression artifacts that ruin most of the fun. Especially chromakeying on DV compressed footage (or HDCAM material for that matter, which is a little bit better, but compressed nonetheless) is a real pain. In the past I've developed many different tricks to get rid of some of those artifacts to get better results on the keyer, but the Magic Bullet de-artifacter looks better than any of the tricks I've been able to produce, and it does so at a single click of the mouse. In the example below I took some chromakey material that I treated with the de-artifactor, and the results are very nice. It's a lot easier to produce nice smooth edges with the Magic Bullet processed shots.
The next question that rises is: if I'm planning on doing my final output on DV, is de-artifacting any use, since everything will be recompressed in the end anyway? So I did a couple of tests, and it turns out that with a good DV codec, the reds are visibly less smeared than without de-artifacting used. You will definitly see image degradation, courtesy of the DV compression, but there still is a benefit from the artifact removal.
I must say this was enough to get me a little bit excited about this plug-in set.
The Look Suite
This is the more creative heart of the Magic Bullet Suite. The Look Suite is where the look of of your images, the color palettes, contrasts and gamma are getting the magic treatment. The way the Look Suite is laid out is somewhat unconventional and nothing like your regular color grading tools with curves and levels controls. This makes it virtually useless for color-matching shots for scene-continuity, or tweaking individual colors. That is something you would have to do before applying Look Suite. In most cases you would apply Look Suite on top of the entire comp.
The Look Suite consists of four stages: Subject, Lens Filters, Camera and Post. I find the name Subject a bit confusing, as if you'd be changing the colors of what's in front of your camera with a saturation and gamma filter...
Then there's the Lens Filter stage which simulates the use of three different filters that can be mounted in front of a lens. Black Diffusion is similar to what a Tiffen Black Pro-Mist would do, and you can dial in the effect up to grade 6. White Diffusion is more like a White Pro-Mist, and the third option is a gradient filter with a completely adjustable gradient size and color. I would have expected the Gradient filter to be able to rotate, since they're not exclusively used for tinting the sky. Maybe in the next version.
The Camera stage is where the film-stock is simulated. This mainly gives you control over the tint of the image, and separately for the blacks.
But you get a bit more control out of the Post stage, where you can work on a warmer or cooler look, gamma, contrast and color saturation.
Most of the controls are a bit unconventional, and sometimes you miss something to fix certain problems, but fortunately there's presets, 31 of them in this version. Not all of the presets respond well to every image, some of my material didn't take the Bleach Bypass preset well, and there was a couple of others that tore my colors to bits and pieces (DV still is an 8 bit per channel source so heavy remapping of values will do that). But there are also a couple of presets that almost give instant gratification. Others are a good start that need some tweaking.
I liked the Neo preset for many different things. It's obviously based on the green-ish look of The Matrix, but it's subtle enough. Warm & Fuzzy looks nice too, although the highlights are diffused a bit much for my taste. Berlin was a bit overdramatic on some shots, but it did nicely on the cityscape (which figures). Of course you should really see these presets as a good starting point, or a way to quickly try out some different looks. When you like the direction of one of the presets, you'll probably need to tweak and adjust the settings to perfect the look.
The third important part of the Magic Bullet Suite is Opticals. Crossdissolves and fades to black that are performed on an optical printer in the filmlab look different from the simple linear dissolves and fades that you get from NLE's and compositing apps. So Opticals was designed to produce crossdissolves and fades to black that look much more like those created on an optical printer.
This effect is best approached in a traditional A/B roll approach. The effect takes two input layers, and by setting keyframes you can fade from one layer to the other. If you keep one layer input set to 'none' it will result in a fade to black. Very straightforward and the fades and dissolves produced with this plug-in are really nice.
In a plug-in set that is aimed to be the definitive film look solution, it makes a lot of sense to add a letterboxing tool. It's pretty easy to set up a mask in After Effects, or create a matte in Photoshop to use as an overlay to create a widescreen aspect ratio to you your footage. But the Letterboxer that comes with the Magic Bullet Suite makes it a little bit easier. There are a couple of regular presets for the most common aspect ratios, but you can also adjust the wipe value manually. Just a handy gizmo.
If your output is not to be transferred to film but meant for broadcast or DVD distribution, it's important to keep your levels within the broadcast specifications. There's a filter in After Effects that allows you to key out or limit colors that exceed those specifications, but it's a bit primitive and there isn't a whole lot of control.
The Broadcast Spec filter that comes with the Magic Bullet Suite has two stages. It affects the saturation level of the colors, and you can limit the output levels. By default it sets 80% as a maximum saturation level, and it uses a 15% transition area to softly roll off the saturation of the colors that are highly saturated. You can manually adjust both values. The output levels are often set to 16 for the Black Output Level and 235 for the White Output Level.
In this example I have gone a bit overboard with the color treatment to show how the Broadcast Spec filter shows the offending areas.
I would have preferred to have the soft-clip option (that is there for saturation) available for the luminance levels also. That way you could gently roll off the highlights and leave the rest of the image untouched. Now all the luminance values are remapped to the new range (for instance 16 to 235). In that respect I would still prefer Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse to create broadcast safe output. But the Broadcast Spec filter is a nice addition to the set.
The following is just a small matrix of render test results to give you an impression of the kind of render times you can expect, and what components cause these. I rendered a 10 sec PAL clip (250 frames) to a Quicktime DV codec. The rendering was done on an Athlon XP 1700+ running at 1533 MHz with 512 MB PC 2100 DDR RAM.
As you can see the Magic Bullet de-interlacer is particularly slow (it adds around 3 seconds per frame compared to a different de-interlacer). For PAL there is a lot of speed to be gained by replacing it with Re:VisionFX's FieldsKit. For creating 30p from 60i NTSC the same will work. If you are going for 24p from NTSC you'll need to go with the Magic Bullet solution.
The Look Suite with the Berlin preset (not one of the fastest rendering presets) adds around 2,5 second per frame in this scenario, which is quite acceptable.
So, is the Magic Bullet Suite the definitive solution for treating video with the film look? Well, yes. More like anything else on the market it reproduces the look of material shot on film. It goes without saying that the old 'garbage in - garbage out' tune still applies. But if you shoot and light your material well - without too much contrast - the Look Suite produces gorgeous results with a single click of the mouse.
I have no doubt that I would be able to reproduce most of the looks in the Look Suite with standard plug-ins in After Effects. That is what I've been doing up to now anyway. It usually took me about 4 or 5 layers with different effects (color treatment, glow and blur) and transfer modes and a lot of tweaking - by the time it looked good, it would render just as slow as Magic Bullet. The Look Suite provides a much more compact solution with easier control.
So how is the Look Suite as a color correction tool? It's not. The Look Suite takes a completely different approach to color treatment, and the controls are unconventional. The names can be a bit confusing at first, but it's completely aimed to produce film-like images, which is what it does very well. If you need to go in and color-match different shots for scene continuity, or fix problems with whitebalance, you work with other After Effects filters, or preferably Synthetic Apertures Color Finesse. The Magic Bullet Suite and Color Finesse are more like a perfect couple than direct competitors. Both plug-ins have completely different functions and possibilities.
The Magic Bullet de-interlacer is nice, but slow. I get exactly the same results (but much faster) using Re:VisionFX's FieldsKit, which is highly recommended at $90,-. PAL users can use the FieldsKit to bypass the Magic Bullet de-interlacer to create 25p. For creating 24p from 60i NTSC you'll still need to go with Magic Bullet, but that's probably where the render-times are worth it.
The DV artifacts removal is very nice though, and is very good at cleaning up your images especially around those saturated reds. Even if you render back to DV, the artifacts removal improves image quality. And it's also a very nice tool to clean up DV footage before doing compositing and chromakeying.
I'll end this review by stating that I was pleasantly surprised by the results I got out of the Magic Bullet Suite. I was very sceptical at first, but it delivers gorgeous results within a really compact solution. My only concern is the render times for the de-interlacer, and the price. My feeling is that $999,- for the Standard Definition version ($1999,- for the HD version) is a bit too high, especially since the whole 24p thing is of no relevance to PAL users. It would make more sense to me if it were in the $700 neighborhood. That is what keeps me from giving it the full 5 cows.
On the other hand, if you
need easy access to the best looking video you've ever seen, Magic Bullet can
be your best friend and you might make back the money in a single project.