Accessible, Easy to Use Color-Grading Tools Will Keep You — and Your Stars — Looking Good
As professional storytellers, we understand how audiences understand our intentions as filmmakers. We exploit the cinematic crafts like music, sound, direction, and wardrobe, to communicate genre. Is our story a drama or a comedy? Appropriate titles, set design, framing, and composition can all help communicate the intended genre. Shooting in close-up? Comedies are typically framed more loosely than dramatic fare. Ditto for actors’ performances. A looser, broader presentation suggests a comedy. Audiences read such cues and (hopefully) respond in the appropriate way.
Thus, at every level, our choices as filmmakers matter. They matter a lot.
Communication of genre is the filmmaker’s primary responsibility. Audiences need to know from a program’s first moment, frame, or musical downbeat, whether to laugh or cry; audiences will agreeably do either, but a filmmaker’s intent must be clear from the outset.
This is why the look of a production is so critical. The correct look can go a long way to promoting the effective communication of the filmmaker’s intentions.
Managing the look of a show comprises various elements. Relatively subtle look elements, such as a camera’s shutter angle and the production frame rate, can be barely perceptible by most audiences. Production frame rates under 30fps, for example, suggest a fictional story often set in the past, while frame rates over 30fps tend to communicate a more immediate context, as in most documentaries, news, and sports programs.
Other look elements are more obvious. Deliberate overexposure, for example, by blowing out windows and highlights, can contribute to a sci-fi or otherworldly look. Conversely, deliberate underexposure increases the drama in a scene by lowering the black level and deepening the shadows. Compare this to a flatly lit scene with gentle shadows that effectively communicates to an audience: ‘Hey. This is a comedy. Please laugh.’
While many shooters consider white balance a strictly mechanical process, the appropriate warm or cool balance in a scene can contribute significantly to the effective communication of the visual story. Actors bathed in a warm glow, for instance, are often regarded by audiences as good guys, while talent operating in cool light may be seen as villainous, sinister, bad guys. Color balance can be a powerful cue to audiences how to identify with a particular actor or player in your story.
The look of a production communicates genre and other storytelling goals. In general, a warm cast imparts likeability on a star (left), while cool tones (right) have the opposite effect, communicating the look and feel of a villain.
I have long employed Magic Bullet Suite (MBS) to tweak (or create from scratch) the appropriate look in post-production. MBS offers a robust set of tools that allows broad manipulation of color, diffusion, shadow integrity, and exposure, and it does it all via a simple, easily accessible interface. Other color-grading tools offer comparable capabilities, but only MBS offers the power, performance, and features in such a convenient way. This means MBS is a tool you’ll actually use — and use often.
Today’s digital cameras tend towards a sterile, inorganic look that is frequently inconsistent with storytelling goals. Magic Bullet Renoiser and Magic Bullet Film reintroduce an appropriate amount of noise and film-style artifacts in order to produce a more natural, flattering look.
Magic Bullet Suite 13 has seven distinct tools, including most notably an updated version of Magic Bullet Looks 4 that offers now over 200 preset looks. The preset looks, many inspired by high-profile movies and TV shows, can be a powerful collaboration tool by providing a frame of reference for the creative team. Directors can choose from a warm and fuzzy Jerry Maguire look, for example, or a more heavily diffused feel from Eyes Wide Shut. Such preset looks can serve as a starting point for further exploration and tweaking. Once modified, the user can save the look to the Look Library, providing additional options for filmmakers down the road.
Magic Bullet Suite 13 offers over 200 built-in looks to support a wide range of visual treatments and genres. The library provides filmmakers with a powerful collaboration tool, by providing an initial look that can be further tweaked and explored.
Magic Bullet Looks 4 features GPU acceleration that allows much faster color-grading operations through OpenCL and Cuda support. I evaluated the new Magic Bullet Suite with Premiere Pro CC, and the increased speed was readily apparent.
Other tools in the updated suite include Colorista IV, which allows access to a complete range of color-correction tools directly from the NLE timeline. A new log management utility inside Colorista is convenient to those of us who increasingly shoot in log or raw formats and wish to stay inside the Magic Bullet ecosystem. In this context, the new dedicated Adobe panel should be of particular interest to Premiere Pro users.
Denoiser III is a simple tool that is easy to apply but, like all noise reduction tools, it must be used tastefully and with restraint. Since digital cinema cameras can look more sterile compared to film origination, the Renoiser tool can help by reintroducing a certain amount of noise and film-like artifacts. Renoiser works hand-in-hand with Magic Bullet Film, which emulates the look and feel of film origination and the entire photochemical process, including output to various types of print stocks.
Magic Bullet Mojo II also targets feature filmmakers by improving skin tones and applying a film-look contrast curve that audiences associate commonly with big-budget Hollywood feature films.
The integrity of skin tones is critical when working with stars and talent in close up. Cosmo II may be used cosmetically, as a kind of post-production airbrush, to improve the look of aging stars.
Likewise, Magic Bullet Cosmo II, the final tool in the suite, can be very effective to clean up and smooth out the flesh tones of actors, especially in close ups. In my own work with aging Hollywood stars, Cosmo II has become a crucial tool in my arsenal.
Hey, when our stars look good, we all look good, and we all keep working! And isn’t that the name of the game?
Magic Bullet Suite 13 empowers us to make it all happen.