Useful Tools: Our Review of Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Suite
Since its beginnings in 2002, Red Giant has become an increasingly important maker of visual effects software. The Beaverton, Oregon-based company publishes a range of different apps for filmmakers, broadcasters and other moving media creatives.
Most relevant for our readers are the four popular suites of plug-ins that the company continues to publish, support and upgrade over the years. The Magic Bullet Suite, Trapcode Suite, Keying Suite and Effects Suite are versatile collections popular among motion graphics designers, compositors, visual effects artists and filmmakers. Together, they offer a range of creative possibilities, not only for After Effects users but also for those using NLEs including Premiere Pro, Avid and Final Cut.
One or another Red Giant plug-ins turn up in any number of feature films, music videos and television shows. Recently “Plot Device”, a short film funded by Red Giant that of course uses many of these tools, won 16th Annual Webby Award for editing. You can watch that film here. We plan to cover all of Red Giant’s suites in upcoming reviews. For now, we’ll focus on one of the all time favorites of many editors and compositors, Magic Bullet Suite, now in Version 11.3.
The initial version of Magic Bullet came from Stu Maschwitz, a long time production and post pro who also writes an influential blog. After leaving ILM, Stu founded The Orphanage, a well-known effects house in San Francisco. While there he began developing the suite of plug-ins that eventually became Magic Bullet, which allow you to create “professional Hollywood-style results on an indie budget” as their website puts it.
High on the useful list is Colorista II, an advanced color correction and grading tool. Colorista allows precise and detailed color tweaking; it works in After Effects, Premiere Pro and Final Cut. It has a true Lift/Gamma/Gain correction system along with mask and color key isolation tools. With Colorista, not only can you fix color problems with your footage, but you can also achieve many unique, artistic looks.
Colorista takes a three-stage approach to color grading: Primary stage, Secondary Stage and Master Stage. That makes sense since color correction is often done in multiple passes. Sometimes this is done by applying several instances of an effect to your footage. With Colorista’s three stage approach you can pretty much do it with a single instance of the plug-in.
The first control you’ll encounter in the Primary Stage is Primary Exposure, useful for setting the overall brightness of the image. Next there’s the Primary Density which seems similar to a gamma adjustment. You’ll also find a highlight recovery control which is meant to restore lost detail in blown-out highlights.
Primary stage also contains a three way color corrector with color wheels to adjust shadows, midtones and highlights. Each wheel has controls that let you shift the hue, saturation and luminance within each of these ranges.
As part of the three-way color corrector, you’ll find a rather unique HSL corrector. The HSL Color corrector contains two wheels, one of which controls saturation, and the other controls lightness. On the edge of the wheels are small handles or dots of color which represent each hue. By grabbing the color dot you want to adjust, you can push it towards one of its neighbors to make it become more like it. For example, you can push the yellows toward orange, or the blues toward purple.
You can also drag the color dot in and out towards the center of the wheels. This will either increase or decrease the saturation of just that color or darken or brighten it. I found this tool to be extremely useful for changing selective colors in a scene. For example, let’s say your shot had a field of red poppies. with the HSL wheels you could increase the saturation or brighten up just the flowers without affecting anything else. I’ve actually not seen this method before, but I highly recommend it.
There’s also a Auto Balance color picker that lets you fix the white balance in your footage. By clicking on it and then clicking on some pixels that should be nearly white, you can achieve a natural tone and remove the kind of unsightly casts that result from improper white balance. I also found this an extremely useful tool I’ll probably turn to often.
At the bottom of the Primary stage is a Primary Mix adjustment setting that ranges from 0 to 100. By changing this value, you can blend the results of your adjustments with the original source in one place without having to increase or decrease the controls individually.
Colorista’s second stage of color correction allows you selectively apply your color correction to an area you define such as a rectangular or elliptical mask, referred to here as a Power Mask. Naturally, you can position the masks anywhere and have complete control over their size, rotation and feathering. You can also restrict your color correction based on a color key; Colorista provides a built in keying interface to use for this purpose.
The secondary stage also has its own three-way color wheels, identical to the ones found in the primary stage. These color correctors will only affect the keyed and masked areas. If no areas have been keyed or masked, they will work over the entire frame.
Also available in the secondary stage are two more exposure and density controls. These function similarly to the ones in the Primary stage, but like the color wheels are restricted to the Mask and Key areas. If none are present, it too reverts to affecting the entire image.
There’s also a control called Pop in the secondary stage. A bit like sharpening, Pop can bring the detail out in your image by sliding it towards the positive range. It can also soften things up by sliding it into the negative range. This can be useful, for example, in smoothing out wrinkles on the faces of older actors.
Colorista II’s secondary stage adjustments also include secondary Saturation and Hue controls, which affect the entire dynamic range. You’ll also find a Mix control that, like the Primary mix, gradually blends in or out the secondary stage of correction tweaks.
Finally, Colorista II has the last stage of correction controls, called the Master Stage. Like the first two stages, the Master Stage contains exposure, density and mix controls. It also contains a three-way color corrector as found in the other two stages as well as the remarkable HSL corrector found in the Primary Stage.
However, the Master Stage also contains something unique that the other stages don’t have, namely red, green and blue curves. Here you can adjust the RGB channels, either together as a whole or each one individually. The Master Stage also lets you define a rectangular mask which you can use to restrict the Master Stage.
Under the Master Stage are three more controls. The Show Skin Overlay checkbox helps you to achieve proper skin tones by overlaying a grid pattern over the skin tone. The more you correct your footage, the more the grid pattern appears where true skin tones should be.
I find Colorista II to be a truly advanced color correction plug-in that offers sophisticated abilities right inside of After Effects and Premiere. In addition, I found the useful HSL corrector to be unlike anything I have seen before. It can be used to great effect to selectively change the values of certain colors in your footage.
Colorista’s multi-stage approach is also a great way to apply different stages of color correction to your project without having to revert to duplicated layers or multiple instances of the same effect. Colorista is like getting a whole color correction app in a single plug-in.
Magic Bullet Looks
Another very compelling plug-in inside the Suite is Magic Bullet Looks 2. This sophisticated tool allows for tremendous creative possibilities; with it you can create and apply many different kinds of looks to your footage. Or, if you’d rather not do it yourself, you can access a large library of professionally designed presets which contain everything from practical color correction settings to more stylized and creative effects to help you tell your stories. Looks 2 also works in 32 bit float mode. Thus, all calculations are done with the highest precision and fidelity.
To work with Magic Bullet Looks, you can either use it as a plug-in or as a standalone application. If you use it in a host application (such as an editing program), it opens in a separate window. However you choose to run it, once you’re inside, you’re greeted with an comprehensive and feature packed interface that gives you the sense that this is more than just a plug-in, but a powerful and useful color grading toolset in its own right.
Moving your mouse to either part of the screen causes Looks “drawers” to pop out. On the right is the tools drawer which contain a plethora of useful tools you can use. These are organized into five different sections such as Subject, Matte, Lens, Camera and Post. Some of these tools are actually drawn from other Magic Bullet plug-ins such as Colorista or Cosmo. Thus you can think of Looks as a place to combine everything The Magic Bullet Suite has to offer in one convenient place. Pretty cool if you ask me.
In Looks you’ll find a range of cooling and warming filters which will push your image colors in a coordinated way depending on your preference. You’ll also find some nice vignetting tools with interactive control over the amount of feathering. As mentioned above, you’ll also find Colorista style three-way color correctors, that HSL adjuster that I really like, gradient exposure tools, curves, lens distortion, and film grain. Really, the list just goes on and on.
Magic Bullet Looks offers a very nice workflow and interface. As you drag tools from the tool drawer onto your footage, their icons then appear in a horizontal stack on the bottom of your scene’s preview area. By clicking on each of the icons, the tool’s controls appear in the Controls section on the right of the screen. This is where all the adjustments happen and you are able to fine tune everything to get just the look you want.
You can also rearrange the tool icons in the stack. By doing this, you set up the image processing in a different order. For example, you may wish to see what a Crush looks like before a saturation adjustment or vice versa. Depending on the order, different looks result. You can also toggle a tool off and on in the stack to get a quick sense of the effect it has on the scene or toggle the whole chain off and on.
Looks also contains many different kinds of useful vectorscopes and graphs that are a big help when adjusting colors such as RGB Parade, Slice Graph, Hue/Saturation, Hue/Lightness and Memory Colors.
Once you find a look that you like, you can save it as a preset for future use. Besides the presets that you create, there are many, many other interesting presets that were created for you to either use out of the box, or as a starting point for you to customize. This approach can obviously save you time.
The presets are organized into categories such as Cinematic, Diffusion and Light, Stock Emulation, Music Videos, Classic Popular TV, Tints and many others. I found it to be a lot of fun to try out the different presets on my scene and watch as it assumed many different looks that I didn’t have to spend time creating.
I found Magic Bullet Looks to be a great environment to try out creative ideas. The abundance of tools and scopes allow for virtually unlimited experimentation and fine adjusting. The extensive presets are a great way to see what’s possible and get a head start on your own look. In addition, you can download other collections of looks created by professional color graders and add them to your presets.
Recently released, Magic Bullet Denoiser II is definitely a piece of software you want to have. You might want to remove a little noise in a scene shot in low light with a good camera, or perhaps you’ve received some noisy or grainy footage someone shot with some junky old gear.
Whatever the case may be, Denoiser II will come to your rescue. I know, because I was in this very same predicament. I was working on a spot that included a scene with a doctor. We had hired a small crew to shoot the doctor in Rhode Island; they sent the footage to us on a hard drive. To our dismay, besides the fact that the lighting was flat, the footage was very noisy. Due to an impending deadline, we had no other choice but to use it.
I was a little unsure of how good it would work, but it turned out that I had nothing to worry about. With practically no modification to Denoiser’s initial settings, the footage cleaned up gorgeously and what was previously unacceptable was now usable.
Denoiser works best in 16-bit or 32-bit (float) color, so it’s a good idea to set your project to either of those modes. After running a denoising pass which analyzes your footage first, the plug-in should produce good results immediately without you having to do anything more. That’s how it worked with my footage.
However there are several other controls you might use. The Noise Reduction slider controls how much noise to remove while Motion Estimation can help with footage that contains a lot of motion. There’s also an Enhancement control which can pull out fine detail (sharpening) in your footage
Denoiser II also lets you choose which frame to sample the noise from with the Frame Sample control. This can be useful if your footage has a lot of texture that could be misinterpreted as noise. In most cases, this is not necessary, but by choosing a frame that was shot with the same camera and lighting conditions without the noise-like texture, you can avoid problems that DeNoiser might have identifying what’s noise and what isn’t.
Magic Bullet Mojo is a very cool plug-in that gives your footage a stylish Hollywood look. While its effects may be approximated with some of the other tools in the suite such as Colorista or Looks, Mojo was tuned to get a certain look and it does that quickly and efficiently.
Mojo achieves this particular look by cooling off the shadowy areas of the pictures while warming up any skin tones. The result is a dramatic looking image that has ‘mojo’, evoking the look of some of the today’s biggest blockbuster movies.
You apply Mojo to your footage by increasing a slider which dials in the effect. It’s fast, and works very well right out of the box. However, the plug-in has several other useful sliders which help to adjust the look and provide other many other creative looks. These sliders control the amount of tint and color balance in the image and allow you to do things like warm up the skin tones or give the image more of a bleached look. You can also add a skin tone grid overlay, common to many of the plug-ins in the Magic Bullet Suite, which helps you keep track of what the proper skin tones are while you affect the rest of the frame. Mojo is cool.
The next tool in the Suite is called Magic Bullet Cosmo. This plug-in was made to smooth out skin tones and blemishes so that imperfect skin can look more perfect. It is useful in for close ups and can make people look younger and more glamorous. Think of it as a cosmetic plug-in, hence the name, Cosmo.
At the top of the Cosmo plug-in is the Skin Color slider. This slider adjusts the all over color of the skin and lets you push it towards red or green as desired. The next few sliders allow you to control how much softening occurs as well as other parameters.
If you work in fashion or do a lot of glamour shots, Cosmo should be in your toolbox.
Magic Bullet Frames consists of several useful utility plug-ins. Frames Plus converts interlaced video footage shot at 30 frames per second to 24p, the common motion picture frame rate. There are controls to help you to de-interlace the footage, determine field order, detect motion and remove artifacts.
Frames also contains Broadcast Spec, a filter that helps you ensure that the colors in your footage are within the acceptable ranges for broadcast.
Letterboxer is a simple but useful plug-in that does just what its name implies: it letterboxes footage via presets with common aspect ratios such as Academy, Super 16, Widescreen TV, Theatrical, Anamorphic and Ultra.
Opticals is a tool that can create cross dissolves, fades, and “burns” in a much more filmic way as opposed to the linear way that computers usually handle them. Magic Bullet Frames also creates a tool called Deartifacter that can help remove digital video artifacts resulting from compression.
Instant HD is a plug-in that helps scale up footage to HD resolution. SD resolution can be effectively scaled up and still look very good. The plug in contains many different preset HD sizes, but you can also dial in your own custom sizes. Instant HD also contains controls for sharpening, quality level and anti-aliasing. Obviously, this is more than a simple scaling.
A result of Red Giant’s acquisition of Digital Anarchy, they have now integrated their Resizer plug-in as part of the Instant HD package. The filter offers great speed and similar results to Instant HD.
Also included in the Magic Bullet Suite in MisFire, a collection of film damage looks you can apply to your footage. These include scratches, vignettes, dust, splotches, flicker, grain, fading, gate weave and something they call Funk. Useful if you want to give your footage that old celluloid look.
Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Suite v11.3 contains sophisticated color correction tools with Colorista II, Looks and Mojo. Denoiser can save a shoot with its ability to take unsightly noise out of your footage and can do wonders for footage that you may have thought about discarding altogether. The other plug-ins in the suite are also a valuable addition to your toolbox
More than just a suite of useful plug-ins to dip into, v11.3 of the Magic Bullet Suite provides an entire color grading ecosystem that will expand your everyday work with After Effects and NLEs. Well worth it to add to your tool chest or an upgrade if you already have it. Be sure to check out Red Giant’s great website for more information as well as many free training resources.