For over 20 years I’ve been making my living off of the profession of editing video. When you edit 40–50 hours a week on a regular basis you really hone your craft and over time find a balance between getting the job done on time and making it look as great as possible.
There was a period of time in my career that I wanted to create everything myself. I looked down on using templates or prebuilt backgrounds because in my opinion I was good enough to make all of that from scratch and didn’t want to feel like I was leaning on the creativity of others.
The same could be said for plug-ins. It’s easy to get lost in all of the “cool things” that you can do with plug-ins and sometimes lose sight of the story you’re trying to tell. It’s easy to over do it. I’ve see editors try to find a reason to use a cool effect they like even though it doesn’t really fit the mood of their story or project. I never wanted to fall into that.
But what I have learned is that even if I can make something myself, what’s the point if I can do something more efficiently and in the end have a better product for the client? Is it more important to turn out a good product, or have my ego hold me back from creating better work just because I wanted to do it all myself?
What I have found over the years is it’s not a either/or situation. I’ve also come to think that it often makes great sense to use these tools to your advantage – because in the end what I really want is the best product possible. It can also free up time to focus on other parts of the project that really could benefit from your talents.
So in that light, what follows is my review of Red Giants Magic Looks Suite 12. It’s a collect of plug-ins designed to make it fast and easy to bring the best out of your footage. I’ve been using it extensively for years, but recently upgraded to the version 12 suite and have been testing it on both FCPx and Premiere Pro CC/After Effects and wanted to share my impressions of it. The comments that follow apply to any host application that you choose to use them in, not just FCPx or Premiere.
The suite is very rich in what it offers and I can’t cover every detail of every plug-in in the package, but I will share my experiences on some of my favorite parts of the suite.
I first discovered the suite when it was just Magic Bullet Looks, and fell in love with it right away. It allowed me to take just average corporate footage and with very little time make it look more stylized. I still remember the first job I used it on and the producer just going nuts over the “look I created”, when in truth it was just a drag-and-drop preset from the package (but I didn’t think it was right for me to correct him – he still thinks I’m amazing).
But through all the version of the looks package, the one thing that always made me crazy was the interface. It was VERY frustrating, not at all intuitive to new users and fraught with frustrating “features” (like the side panel that would disappear if you moved your mouse just a bit to far to the right). But I was pleasantly surprised to see this issue was finally addressed. In fact, the entire interface for Looks has received an overhaul and it so much nicer to use now.
The interface has a much simpler and cleaner look and somehow seems easier to make sense of. They seem to borrow some of the ideas of the FCPx interface (a good thing) and make great use of the screen size available by only showing what you need at the time you need it, and making it easy to hide the things you don’t need (and give more space of other panels).
The presets seem more thought out to me and are much easier and faster to preview. In the past I felt a lot of the presets where on the extreme side, but these seem so much more subtle and useful and in some cases downright beautiful. I was able to take some GoPro footage and really make it shine in a way I’m not sure I could have done manually. Certainly not as fast even if I could.
As before, you can still apply any preset and tweak it to your hearts content but I find that I normally just make slight adjustments to account for differences in exposure, but don’t spend too much time trying to design my own look. The main reason I enjoy using these presets is that it allows me to make meaningful changes to my footage while saving me the time necessary to create one myself.
Real-time playback seems to be improved as well. It’s not full frame rate playback on my system but close to it, whereas before it seemed close to impossible most of the time to get anything close to realtime. It certainly plays back well enough to audition your look before rendering it and I’m pretty impressed with this improvement. I’ve tested this out on both a mid-range 2013 MacPro (garbage can model) and a Hackintosh system I build at home earlier this year and it performs pretty well in both cases.
One of the most exciting parts of the package is the all new Magic Bullet Film plugin that’s part of the suite. It seems we’re always trying to get things to look less like video and more cinematic. Over the years I’ve tried SO MANY different techniques and plugins and most of the time I’m left feeling “meh”. But not this time.
Like much of the suite, this plugin is designed to make quick work of getting a look that you want. There are three main settings that do much of the work, and lots of tweaks you can make should you feel the need.
First, you tell the plugin what type of footage you are using with it. The choices are Video, Flat and Log. In my experience, if you’ve shot footage with a Flat exposure it works best with this plug-in.
Next, you choose what negative stock you want to emulate from a list of more than 20, including common stocks from Kodak and Fuji. I’m not going to claim to understand all of the differences between these choices but I understand the concept, that film had a kind of personality/common look based on chemical processing. And if you ever shot on film and have a favorite, this is likely to get you close to what you’re looking for.
Finally, you choose a print stock (there are 4 options here). By just playing around with these 3 settings, you can get some amazing looks. They’re subtle, but very effective. When I say they’re subtle I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s a very good thing because none of it seems over the top. I was able to come up with some really solid looks that made it look like my kids GoPro footage was actually film.
There are other tweaks you can make such as adjustments to skin tone, exposure, grain and vignette (among others) and that can enhance the look even more.
As much as I do love this new plugin, my favorite “film look” plugin is still FilmConvert. However, it does cost a pretty penny to purchase it for all of the standard host programs so it’s not the same great value you get with the MBL Suite. But if you’re really into the whole film look, it may be the way to go. For most people I think the Magic Bullet Film plugin will make them plenty happy. Especially for the price.
I have been a big fan of Colorista II for a long time. It’s one of my go-to plugins for color correction inside AE or Pr because it’s not only powerful but fast and easy to use. I can make some pretty major footage corrections quick and easy. But now there’s a new version called Colorista III.
This updated plugin has a cleaner interface but actually packs more power than previous versions. Two of the big improvements that seemed lacking before include being individual point editing when using curves, and adding a vignette look. My go-to vignette plugin is still MisFire Vignette (included in this package) but this is still a very handy addition. However in playing around with the vignette slider inside Colorista III I was able to get some very interesting looks when using a negative setting. Kind of a blown out edges look that draws the eyes inward. Not ideal in many cases, but can have it’s place for sure.
There are some serious improvements in the internal keying and tracking abilities of this plug-in, but this is not a feature that I myself use very often so I can’t really say too much on the subject.
These days there are so many options when it comes to making your footage look different and more creative. But in my opinion the real strength of this package is the fact that it does so much with so little effort. The suite is very easy to learn and put into your workflow, and the results you get will be instantaneous and noticeable to anyone working on your project.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked by other editors and graphics people how I made the footage “look so cool”. And in every case it has come down to me using some go-to favorite plugins or presets from the Magic Bullet Suite. And this suite offers even more than in the past.
On occasion I find myself setting up a new system to replace an old one, or formatting a drive for a new OS and re-installing everything. On my short list of things that need to be installed is always the Magic Bullet suite.
I do a few travel jobs every year in addition to the work at my office, and on the road it’s even more critical to work fast and efficient, and these plugins hands down just make me look good.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the downside that I have experienced on every version of the Magic Bullet Looks suite. At times (not all the time) it can be “crashy”.
This happened a lot more often when I was using FCP7 than it does now using Premiere, but sometimes I get random crashes when trying to playback timelines that have the plugins applied, but not yet rendered. And this has happened on multiple systems over the years, different OS versions and I’ve had other editors ask me about it after they too had issues. My point is, I don’t think it’s just my setup.
But I have found a work around that, in most cases, makes this a non-issue. And it’s simple. Once you’re happy with the look you’re applying, render the clip(s) before doing lots of playbacks of the timeline. Once it’s rendered I don’t have any problems, but it’s always the real-time playback that seems to crash Pr. Not all the time, and not even right away. But if I keep editing and forgot to render the timeline because I’m in the zone, I’m quickly reminded by a unexpected crash.
Because rendering does seem to fix this issue, I don’t think it’s a deal breaker. I think it’s just something to be aware of so that you can work around it. So much of the technology these days is very complex and not always rock solid, but knowing what the work arounds can go a long way. So be aware of it, but don’t let it put you off.
The demo that Red Giant created for this package has got to be one of the best done for any plugin set. They have a habit of doing awesome short films to demonstrate a product, but this one is unique.
First off, it doesn’t hit you over the head with the product. It’s not a demo on how to use the product. In fact, there is literally no mention of the product in the whole thing. It is however, tied to the theme/general spirit of how you might use the product. Very clever.
It is a great example of what professionals do each and every day. They tell compelling stories and use tools to make those stories visually engaging. I’ve watched the demo a few times and even showed it at a creative meeting recently because the story itself is very good and highly produced.
There is even a “Behind The Scenes” video that you can watch on YouTube. That one is just as interesting and you may be surprised as just how many shots required VFX. Honestly, the whole thing just made me want to get a job at Red Giant! It’s a creative company that really has a passion for filmmaking and story telling, and it shows. It’s no wonder they make such great tools. Passion always creates the best results.
Two of my other favorites that I don’t cover here are the Mojo and Cosmo plugins that are in this package. I’m not sure how I would categorize these but Mojo is in some ways simplified version of the Looks plugins, but even quicker and easier to use. Cosmo is used primarily to help with skin issues of talent. These have been updated in this suite as well and are worth checking out if you download the demo.
If you already own the previous version of the Magic Bullet Suite and get use out of it, to me it’s a no brainer to upgrade. I would upgrade for the interface update to Looks alone. And then throw in all the other goodies including the new Film plugin and it’s a great value. Just get it. It’s only $199 and well worth it. This update has made me excited about using the plugin set again because I really like the way they improved the interface. If you used it before but haven’t in awhile, it’s a great time to check out their updated offerings.
If you’re new to the suite, I urge you to download the free trial and try it out. But I will also warn you that once you try it, you will want it. It’s kind of an addictive add on to any NLE. And as a new user the $799 price tag is nothing to sneeze at. But if you make your income as I do from post production, it’s still well worth the price. You need to invest in your tools to always up your game and offer new things to your clients, and this is one easy way to do that in a way that every client you work with will notice.
I have one client in particular that ALWAYS wants a different look for every project. Sometimes it’s even over the top for my taste, but he loves what I do with the footage and still thinks I have some great super power that I’m able to pull it off quickly and different each time.
I’m still not going to tell him that it’s just the Magic Bullet Looks suite. I hope you don’t tell him either.