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Review: Magic Bullet Suite

June, 2003


Magic Bullet Suite
Magic Bullet Suite SD
Requires After Effects 5.5, STD or PRO version
$995.00 US

Century 16:9 Widescreen adaptor
$895.00 US


by Steven Galvano

I am going to concentrate this review on two areas: Century's 16:9 adaptor, and the Magic Bullet Suite.

Century 16:9 Adaptor ­ I like this thing. It has its limitations, but if you know exactly what you are trying to accomplish, you can easily determine if it will fit with your project.

Most prosumer cameras such as Canon's GL1, and Sony's VX-2000 have "On-board" (or electronic) 16:9 abilities. The electronic 16:9 function on these cameras work by essentially "chopping off" the top and bottom portions of the image. This results in a total pixel loss of about 25%. Then, all remaining pixels are stretched vertically to refill the 4:3 chips native to your camera. The 25% resolution loss affects the entire image.

The idea of losing 25% of my image resolution was troubling especially to a guy like me who was set to go through the tenuous post process described above to preserve optimum quality. But, I thought it was worth a shot. I thoroughly tested the On-board 16:9 function on my GL1, against the native 4:3 image it produced. The 16:9 degradation was easily noticeable in every test I performed. With the electronic 16:9 option off the table, I looked at possibility of letterboxing. I would shoot and edit in standard 4:3, and simply crop the image at near or the last step. With this option, you would still lose 25% resolution, but the loss is only in the areas you crop. You do not affect the remaining pixels. During production, you would have to be mindful that your image would be cropped, and frame accordingly. Canon's GL2 has a 16:9 image marker option that shows in the viewfinder. Masking tape also works. The major downfall of this option is that your final output devise must be 4:3. Remember, you are basically creating a 4:3 image with a blacked-out top and bottom. If 4:3 is your destination, this may be a good option for you. You would not have to encounter the limitations that come with using a 16:9 lens.

The primary destination for "Welcome to RCCM" is a 16:9 installation projector mounted in RCCM's main auditorium. Letterboxing would not work for me. There are other perks that come with 16:9 ­ have you ever seen those cool looking 16:9 QuickTime players pop up on the web?
It seemed a 16:9 lens was the way to go. After some research, I settled on Century's 16:9 Lens. I started playing with it as soon as I received it.

[Note: when using a 16:9 lens on a native 4:3 camera such as the GL1, your camera should be switched the normal 4:3 mode as opposed to the electronic 16:9 mode].

It was advertised to have some zoom limitations. According to Century, the GL1's 20x zoom would be fully functional from full wide to 75%. I found that at full wide slight vignetting would occur. Vignetting was enhanced if a filter such as a UV was in use. I also found, although somewhat variable, that zoom was only reliable to just under 50%. In some situations, especially under good lighting conditions, the zoom was effective up to approximately 60%. These attributes are not ideal if you are a "pick up and shoot" type video producer. Century mentioned to me that they were going to release a 16:9 model that was focusable. This would fix the zoom problem, but I imagine it would have to be refocused with each zoom change.

One other note concerning focus: I typically zoom in all the way, grab a good focus on my subject, and then correctly compose the shot. With its zoom limitations that is impossible when using the 16:9 lens. So I did some shoots to test the possibility of using the GL1's LCD screen for focus. Total flop. I like this LCD; it has allowed me to get shots with this camera that would be otherwise impossible, but do not use it to ensure focus! I ended up dragging out a NTSC monitor for select shots. For more candid shots, I zoomed as much as possible and used the auto focus.

[Note: When using Auto focus, turn it on before the shot just to get focus. Once you are focused turn it off to prevent accidental refocusing.]

This adaptor screw mounts to the front of the camcorder much like a standard filter. There is then an adjustment ring at the front of the adaptor used to "square" the adaptor lens to the camcorder lens (so the 16:9 effect is oriented correctly). This ring must be visually aligned, which may present a problem at some time or another. There have been times when the lens has been off, and I've had to quickly apply it to catch a shot and this ring was not perfectly aligned. Not a big deal, and being slightly off is hardly noticeable, but I thought I would mention it.

[Note: Filters cannot be threaded to the 16:9 lens. To use a filter, you must use a matte box, or you can purchase special adaptor that Century has made available.]

That is about the extent of the negative stuff. It actually was not so bad. It just took a little organization, and caused some minor modifications to the project. Some shots would require more zoom then the Century lens could offer. For these few shots we had two options. Shoot them with the electronic 16:9, or shoot them in 4:3, and some how work them in. There is always a solution - flex your creative muscle!

I believe the positives out weigh the negatives here. With the 16:9 lens attached, the GL1 produced some of the best DV images I've seen. Do not bank on this, but in THEORY, the image quality with the adaptor should be slightly increased over typical GL1 quality because you are squeezing the information into a box of less area. The bottom line is the 16:9 image looks at least as good as the native GL1 image. In addition to the quality, the image also has a more cinematic perspective. The lens is advertised to have a 35% wider viewing area at full wide then the GL1 without the lens at full wide. In some initial tests, this look intrigued me. I performed a side-by-side test of the same image, at the same zoom power, one with the Century 16:9, and the other with the GL1's electronic 16:9. I ignored the difference in quality. Although the frames contained the identical information, century's frame looked more cinematic, as if it wrapped around the subject. By comparison, the electronic 16:9 image looked flat and two-dimensional.

A final note about Century's lens: The perspective of vertical objects may be noticeably affected. You can see an example near the beginning of "Welcome to RCCM" (the first "clouds" shot, with the steeple frame-left). Notice how the steeple leans toward center frame. Everything will lean slightly towards center because of the concave design of the outer layer of the lens. I tested to see the extent of what this would affect. A wide shot of a large static object in the foreground, with a contrasting background, such as a wide-open sky, will promote this effect if the foreground image is not centered in the frame. I also found that the less the shot is composed to look "big" (such as looking up at a skyscraper with the sky in the background) the less this effect is noticeable. I like this effect. It is the reason for the perspective enhancements discussed above. Most of "Welcome to RCCM" is shot using this lens, and in most of these shots, the subject is not centered. No negative effects are noticeable. When they are, such as in the "clouds" shot, I believe it is an enhancement.

[Note: While using this lens, I recommend removing any screw-on filters from the camera.]

Magic Bullet Suite.

Magic Bullet is an "all-digital pipeline for finishing movies". It was developed in 1999 by the people at The Orphanage, a high-end digital film production and post house in LA. (The Orphanage began when visual effects and digital gurus left ILM in 1999). According to The Orphanage, "Magic Bullet was designed to allow ultimate creative control over digital projects while maintaining the highest possible quality, with a particular eye towards mimicking the characteristics of motion picture film". Magic Bullet has been further refined over the years by other ILM engineers and programmers.

Magic Bullet is different end to end than other film processes I've seen, beginning with its psychology. It works less as a post tool and more like a cinematographer's toolbox. Common tools found in other processes such as grain and scratching, do not exist in Magic Bullet. It seems that the objective of Magic Bullet is about promoting the bold and beautiful cinematic experience, and less like replicating "1970's 8mm color reversal film", for example.

All that said, let me let you in on the big secret: the "prep" is what will get you the results you are looking for. The most important factor in getting your video to look like film is you. You should look at Magic Bullet as only a helper. If you give Magic Bullet well lit, composed, and detailed shots, it will take your project home.

Magic Bullet has five major components that I have listed in the order I think is important:

1. Magic Bullet
2. Look Suite
3. Opticals
4. Broadcast Spec
5. Letterboxer

Magic Bullet ­ "The Flagship" component.
The primary function of this component is to convert your interlaced footage (60i) to whole or "progressive" frames (24p or 30p). The steps for converting footage are outlined in the previous section. I comprehensively tested Magic Bullet's progressive output against other output such as CineMotion, and AE's 3:2 pulldown. In my opinion, Magic Bullet's advanced process of deinterlacing and conversion to progressive frames looks more authentic. It is also a bit feistier. Shooting your footage at 1/60th of a second shutter speed will help smooth out results, especially at 24p. Higher shutter speeds can leave 24p output looking a bit stroboscopic. Also remember that you are converting 60i footage to 24p which is a ill regular mathematical conversion. Some (emphasize some) motion ill regularities are to be expected.

As described above, I opted for 30p. This decision was based on the type of project I was producing, not my test results. The 30p results looked far less like video than the source, and at least believable as film. Worked for me!

My final word on motion: Before Magic Bullet, I would have said that we were 25% of the way there. With Magic Bullet we are 70%. Although that is better, and certainly good, I still do not think it compares to the natural beauty and grace of 35mm film motion. This is not to say that Magic Bullet is not handling 24p with perfection, it probably is. Maybe it's just that 24p video is not the same as 24fps film.

Another component of the Magic Bullet Deinterlacer is the Deartifactor. According to The Orphanage, "the Deartifactor cancels out some of the subtle imperfections in digital video that can become a big problem on the big screen". In testing of deinterlaced footage, improvements were noticed in areas of the frame that contained high contrasts. Pick the your footage type from the preset menu, and use Deartifacting without fear!

Look Suite:

The Look Suite is the creative punch behind the Magic Bullet Suite. I'm impressed that the Look Suite can affect footage without degrading the quality of the overall image. Other processes degrade image quality to produce a more cinematic feel.

I performed some side by side test with images before and after they have been treated with the Look Suite. The treated footage looked better from a cinematic standpoint, and looked equal to the source footage from a quality standpoint.

A good place to start in the Look Suite is in the Presets Window. Presets are simply different combinations of Look Suite settings.

The standard presets mimic common film looks. I found that they are a good start, but I adjusted just about every one I used. Once the preset has been tweaked, it can be saved.

The Look Suite's interface is simple, but they didn't trade power for it's simplicity. The Look Suite has four four major components. The first, "Subject" is used to "even out" the look of your source footage before it is processed. Magic Bullet stresses the importance of pre-processing your footage (for example, reducing the saturation the from a oversaturated source shot) before affecting it.

I highly recommend SHOOTING your footage with a high attention to detail and keeping it plain. Bottom line: Lighting well and exposing evenly is priming footage for great Look Suite results.

If the production was out of your control and your shot is especially contrasty or oversaturated, use the "Subject" controls to get your looking as "normal" as possible. before using other Look Suite tools.

The next component of the Look Suite is "Lens Filters".
"Lens Filters" contains three components. White Diffusion, Black Diffusion, and GRAD. White and Black Diffusion are based on Tiffen's Pro-Mist filters. I have never been overly fond of these filters in their optical form. It seems here in their digital form, when used in conjunction with the Look Suite's other tools, they are quite effective. The right combination of contrast, de-saturation, the warm/cool effect, and diffusion can produce good cinematic results. Variations of diffusion can change the look of a shot extensively. It can be used as a subtle mood-setting effect or a more bold special effect. "Sizes" and "grades" can be adjusted on the fly for results to taste.

"Grad" is based on a gradient filter, a commonly used filter for sunsets, horizon /sky shots, etc. Unlike it's optical counterpart, the grade, color, intensity, and fade (source point) can be adjusted. I have found this filter to be especially versatile and useful. These three filters are effective and in their digital form, versatile. They are an well-thought-out compliment to the rest of the Look Suite.

The next Look Suite component is "Camera". (The camera) "category describes effect that take place within the camera". Effects added here are calculated after the Lens Filter effects.
The Camera component has three functions. The first is "3-Color Process" which mimics the three-strip dye transfer color process of the 1930's. This effect has been useful to me in conjunction with other controls when trying to recreate an aged film look.

The other components of Camera are "Tint" and "Tint Black". Tint has a color picker and intensity control. This effect is useful if you desire to have a color cast over your shot or project. Tint Black also has a color picker and adds a threshold control.

The Final component of the Look Suite is "Post". Post contains many of the most common controls you will use in the Look Suite:

Warm/Cool is a single slider that can "warm your shot up", or "cool it down". This effect works very effectively, but you should definitely use it in conjunction with other controls such as "Saturation" and "Contrast" for an authentic look. Values below 0% will push your push your image toward a amber, or warm image. Values above 0% will push your image toward cyan, or cooler image. This control is variable, but even a value of +/-1% will drastically effect your image. The Warm/Cool Hue control allows you to effect the hue of your Warm/Cool setting.
The other Post controls are probably the most widely used as adjustments to the presets. They are also rather self-explanatory. Gamma, Contrast, and Saturation. It is worth pointing out that these three controls also exist in the Subject category. They are designed to be able to cancel each other out. Looking at the presets will help you understand this. Commonly preset values in the Subject category are negative, and the same controls in the Post category have positive values. According to Magic Bullet, the magic happens in between!

In my opinion, Opticals is the single most impressive component of the Magic Bullet Suite from the standpoint of mimicking film. Opticals performs Fades to and from black, burns to and from white, and cross dissolves.

The first topic I ever posted on's FCP discussions page, was a complaint about how FCP fades to black. I then discovered AE's easy ease and was much closer to what I was looking for. It "eased" much nicer, but was still missing a crucial element.

From start to finish, film is all about light and it's interaction with the film surface. When using a optical printer to produce dissolves, portions of the film are overlayed and re-photographed. This same logic is also used in more current film compositing systems.

In optical dissolves, the brightest parts of the B-roll come into view first, followed by the rest of the image in order of intensity. So an optical dissolve does not fade opacity as do some NLE systems, but it fades light, much like a iris would.

In my opinion, these effects go a long way in making your project look more cinematic, and Magic Bullet handles them brilliantly. They are also very easy to use.
The optical effects and controls (in bold below) can be keyframed and used in your project.
Dissolve A-B Fader When this slider is at 0% you will see only the A source, when at 100% you will see only the B source.
The Dissolve Film Response Fader works with the Dissolve A-B Fader. It allows you to control the amount of the optical effect that will be put into your dissolve. A value of 0% will produce a linear dissolve much like a common fade in a NLE system. A value of 100% is a bit overkill. I found that a value of about 75% is effective if "disable auto ease" is not checked (will get to that).
Fade/Burn. A Value of -100 is completely faded to black, and value of 100 is completely burned to white.
Fade/Burn Film Response. Works much in the same way as "Dissolve Film Response". A value of 0% gives you a linear dissolve, and 100% gives you the full blown optical effect. I kept this around 70%.

The final function of Opticals is Disable Auto Ease checkbox. The default value is deselected. Opticals automatically smoothes out fades and dissolves using what is very much like a simple easy ease. If you wish to form your fades and dissolves yourself, you can deselect this checkbox. I usually keep this checkbox deselected, but manual override is a sometime helpful.

[Note: You may notice some banding artifacts when performing fades from black, especially when using high values of the Fade/Burn Film Response. These artifacts are greatly reduced when viewed on a NTSC monitor. If they are a bother to you, adjust the Fade/Burn Film Response control.]
Broadcast Spec.

Broadcast Spec filters your footage and ensures that all color and luminance signals are legal to the broadcast standard. I was concerned that this filter would adversely affect color signal in my project, so I performed some fairly comprehensive testing.

There are two presets, component and composite. There are also "Maximum Saturation" and "Saturation Rolloff" controls. The default setting for Maximum Saturation is 80%, and for Rolloff 15%. The Maximum Saturation value of 80% is actually above the recommended broadcast level, which is 75% to 80%. The average Magic Bullet user should feel comfortable with this value at 80%.
Even after careful shooting and Look Suiting (where I substantially reduced saturation), there were still areas that were oversaturated according to Broadcast Spec. Broadcast Spec rolled-off the oversaturated areas nicely without negatively affecting anything else.
The job of Saturation Rolloff is to ensure that when Maximum Saturation does its job, it doesn't simply clip ill legal values, but subtly transitions them to legal values. The default value of 15% worked well for me. Broadcast Spec is designed to be the final step just before rendering.

The Letterboxer does as it name suggests. It simply crops your project, and produces letterboxed output in any aspect ratio you choose. You can also select the color of the bars.

Other Magic Bullet notes:

- The Magic Bullet Suite has been written to work exclusively in AE 5.5. The Magic Bullet Deinterlacer will not work in FCP. Although I have not extensively tested them, I did get Look Suite and Opticals to do their thing in FCP. I recommended using the MBS exclusively in AE 5.5.
- I do not recommend using the on camera "Frame Mode" effect. This effect will hinder the Magic Bullet Deinterlacer's performance.
Magic Bullet Review Conclusion
Mimicking the look of professionally produced 35mm film is a subtle effect. Beginning of course with good production, then a subtle motion effect, and subtle look effects.
I believe Magic Bullet is the best product in its class because their philosophy is right.
It is the only product I know of with such an extreme emphasis on quality, and they deliver it.
In all fairness, products such as CineLook can be toned down to look rather acceptable and there is room for such products as Film Damage, and I will continue to use them - as an effect. But Magic Bullet will likely become the look of my future productions.

copyright©Steven Galvano 2003

Click HERE for "Using Magic Bullet and Anamorphic in your DV project."
Steven Galvano
Colors Studios

Recommended Resources:
Magic Bullet Suite
Century's 16:9 Anamorphic Lens for the GL1
FCP Discussions on
Magic Bullet User Manual
Adobe After Effects 5.5

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