By Brady Betzel
Color grading is an art unto itself. A dedicated colorist can make your footage look so good, your response upon seeing it will likely be, “I had no idea it could look like this.”
Unfortunately, as an editor you don’t have the opportunity to spend 10 hours a day honing the craft of color correction. You don’t sit in front of high-end color correction panels while surrounded by thousands of dollars worth of equipment whose reason for being is taking everyday footage and pulling peoples’ minds inside out.
Even with Blackmagic’s free version of DaVinci Resolve out in the wild, color correction is a skill that takes a lot of time to hone. Don’t fool yourself, one, two or three years doesn’t really even scratch the surface of the dedication you need to dive into the dark art of color correction, and most color correction artists are more than willing to tell you that. Hopefully, that doesn’t discourage you on your journey to becoming a color master, because it is an awesome career in my opinion. I mean how many people get to play with what are essentially digital crayons all day and get paid to do it?
For those who don’t have hundreds of hours to learn the magic of apps like Resolve, Pablo Rio and Baselight, or even color correction inside of an NLE like Avid Symphony or Adobe Premiere for that matter — you still have the ability to create stunning footage with plug-ins like Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Suite.
The Magic Bullet Suite is a set of color correction and video finishing plug-ins that work in multiple multimedia apps like Adobe’s Premiere and After Effects, and some even work inside of Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Resolve and Avid Media Composer/Symphony.
If you’ve been around editing for a while, you’ve probably heard of Magic Bullet Looks; it’s one of the most common color correction plug-ins that people use to quickly and easily color correct and grade their footage. The full contents in Magic Bullet Suite 13 include Magic Bullet Looks, Magic Bullet Colorista IV, Magic Bullet Film, Magic Bullet Cosmo II, Magic Bullet Denoiser III, Magic Bullet Mojo II and Magic Bullet Denoiser. While all of these Magic Bullet plug-ins can be purchased separately, they are available as a suite for $899 as well as at an academic price of $449. There is also an upgrade price of $299 if you are a previous version user.
Magic Bullet Suite 13 has been overhauled, with one of the biggest additions being OpenGL and OpenCL support, allowing incredible speed gains. In this review, I am going to provide a plug-in-by-plug-in review, so you can see if $899 is an investment you should make. Up first is the heavy hitter of the suite: Magic Bullet Looks.
Magic Bullet Looks
At $399, Magic Bullet Looks 4 is just one piece of the Magic Bullet Suite 13 set, but it’s probably the most well known. Looks is a color correction plug-in that works with most major nonlinear editing apps, including Premiere Pro CC, After Effects CC, Final Cut Pro X 10.2.3 and up, Apple Motion 5.2.3 and up, Magix Vegas Pro 14, Avid Media Composer 8.5-8.7, Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 12.5, Edius 8.2 and Hit Film Pro 2017.
Essentially, Magic Bullet Looks 4 is a color correction plug-in that you would typically start with a preset correction or grade that Looks has built in. Think of it like a set of over 200 color grading LUTs (Look-Up Tables) that can be finessed, changed and layered — from there you can add vignetting, video noise or even one of my favorites: chromatic aberration.
There are a few new updates in Looks 4 that make this version the one to purchase. Version 3 had GPU acceleration, but Version 4 includes OpenCL- and OpenGL-compatibility for better realtime playback with color graded footage; the Renoiser Tool which can help to add video noise or film grain back into denoised footage; and my favorite technical feature that I hope other apps include — the ability to resize the color scopes and even zoom into the Hue/Saturation scope.
While using Magic Bullet Looks, I discovered just how easy Red Giant made it to add a “look” to footage, add some grain and a vignette and then export. While the Lumetri Color tools in Premiere Pro CC were a great addition, they left some things to be desired, and in my opinion, Red Giant Magic Bullet Looks picks up where Premiere’s Lumetri Color tools left off. To apply Magic Bullet Looks 4, you can find it in the Effects drop-down under Video Effects > Magic Bullet > Looks, scrub over to the Effect Controls window and click on “Edit Look.” From there you will be launched into the Magic Bullet Looks plugin GUI. Before you get started it might be handy to open up the Magic Bullet Looks user guide, especially the keyboard shortcuts.
To try out Magic Bullet Looks, I had some Sony a6300 footage lying around waiting to be color corrected. Once inside of the Magic Bullet Looks’ GUI I saw another new feature called the Source tool, which quickly allows you to specify if you are working with Log, flat or video footage — basically, a quick LUT to get you to a starting point — nothing ground breaking, but definitely handy. From there you can open the “Looks” slideout and choose from the hundreds of preset looks. I immediately found “Color Play” and chose “Skydance,” a trippy, ultra-saturated preset with a couple of color gradients, a preset color grade using Colorista (which I will cover later in this space) and some curve adjustments.
If you want to check the values against a scope you can click on the “Scopes” slideout. If you are on a small monitor you may have to close the “Looks” slideout to see the scopes. From here you can check out your footage on a scalable RGB Parade, Slice Graph (displays color values from one line in your image), zoomable Hue/Saturation, Hue/Lightness, Memory Colors (really interesting and deserves a read), and Skin Tone Overlay, which adds lines over your image where it believes the true skin tone colors are coming through.
To apply and begin customizing a look, you can add a preset by double clicking it. It will then apply itself to your clip or adjustment layer. At the same time, it will layout any specific tools used into what Red Giant calls the “Tool Chain,” or the row of tools along the bottom of the GUI. This Tool Chain is important because it is the order of operations. If you put a tool on the right side of the Tool Chain it will impact the preceding tools on the left. For example, if you double click the Print Bleach Bypass tool (which is also awesome and gives a shiny silvery-like polish) it will place the effect naturally at the end of the Tool Chain. This impacts all previous effects, basically creating an end to the order of operations. If you want to get tricky, Magic Bullet Looks allows you to disrupt the order of operations in the Tool Chain by Alt+dragging the tool to a different spot in the Tool Chain. This can be a great method for building a unique look, essentially disrupting the normal order of operations to get a new perspective (on a Mac it is Option+drag).
Once I completed my quick look build, I clicked the check mark on the bottom of the window and was back in Premiere Pro CC 2017 playing my Sony a6300 footage in realtime with the Magic Bullet Look applied at 100 percent strength with no slowdowns. To be clear, I am not running a super-fast machine. In fact, it’s essentially a powerful tablet with an Intel i7 3.10Ghz processor, 8GB of RAM and an Intel Iris GPU, so playing down this look in realtime is pretty amazing.
For a test I trimmed my clip down to one minute in length and added Magic Bullet Look’s Color Play preset “Skydance” — which I mentioned earlier adds chromatic aberration inside of the plugin. I then exported it as a 1080p H.264 QuickTime at around 10 to12 Mb/s, which is basically a highly compressed QuickTime for YouTube, Instagram or Twitter. It took about four minutes and eighteen seconds with the look applied, and one minute without the look applied. So it took quite a bit longer to export with the look, but that can expected with a heavy color grading process. Obviously, with a fast system with a GPU like an Nvidia GTX 1080, you will be chewing through this type of export.
In the end, Magic Bullet Looks 4 is a great paint-by-numbers way of color correcting and grading, but with the ability to highly modify what is being used to create that look. I really love it. As someone who color corrects most of his footage the “old” way with wheels and such, it’s a breath of fresh air to jump into a plug-in that will give you a pretty great output with the same ability to dial in your look that a colorist may be used to but in half the time.
One thing you will notice as I review the rest of the plug-ins in the rest of the Magic Bullet Suite 13 is that the plugins Colorista, Renoiser, and Mojo II are also included with Magic Bullet Looks 4 but only when used inside of the plug-in. When you purchase the entire Magic Bullet Suite 13 you get those as standalone plugins, a feature that I actually like a lot better than working inside of the Looks plug-in. It’s something to consider if you can’t shell out the full $899.
Colorista IV is a color correction and grading plug-in that is similar in function to Adobe’s Lumetri color tools, but surpasses it. It is compatible with Premiere Pro CC, After Effects CC, Final Cut Pro X 10.2.3 and up, and Motion 5.2.3 and up. Inside of Premiere, Colorista IV offers a much more intuitive workflow for color correction and color grading than Lumetri. But I really think Colorista shines in apps like After Effects where you don’t have as robust color correction options.
Colorista IV consists of a three-way color corrector with the standard Shadows, Midtones and Highlight adjustments, new Temperature and Tint controls to help adjust white balance issues, an exposure compensation, Highlight Recovery, Pop, Hue-Saturation-Lightness wheels and many more adjustments. Right off the bat you can now specify whether your footage is video (basically Rec.709) or Log. When you specify Log, Colorista will actually work a little differently and a little better for your footage than if you tried to use the video color mode. While that is not an uncommon feature/workflow in color correction apps, it is an important update to the Colorista toolset.
Another update is the Guided Color correction, which walks you through color balancing an image in seven steps. I have to say it’s not too bad. After about five different guided color balances using the Guided Color Correction I came to the same conclusion: it looks a little too contrasty but it’s not a bad starting point. Think of it like a guided auto correct. It even shows before and afters of your image while making adjustments in the Guided section. In fact, if you are learning to color correct this is a great way to simply understand a basic initial step when correcting.
After you run through the guided correction, you can fine-tune anything you did in that process, including using Colorista’s Key Mode. The Key Mode of Colorista is a simplified version of secondary keying in color correcting apps. If you want to isolate a skin tone or a specific color that is possibly too saturated, you can enable the Key Mode, select the color you want to adjust by using the color selectors or even using the HSL Cube, and adjust your selection From here Colorista gives you a few options: “Apply” the key, “Cutout” the key, or “Show Key” which will turn the image into a black and white matte for some more advanced adjustments that reach beyond the scope of this review but can be fun and extremely helpful.. You can also select the “Show Skin Overlay” checkbox that will overlay a checkerboard-like pattern on the parts of your image when they have “proper” skin tone colors; it’s pretty useful when doing beauty work and keys in Colorista.
The last two categories in Colorista IV are the Structure & Lighting and Tone Curve & LUT. Structure allows for quick adjustments to the shadows, highlights, pop (basically sharpness) and adding a vignette. The Tone Curve is a multipoint curve, much like curves in every other color correcting app, and at the bottom is where you can load your own LUT or choose a specific technical LUT, such as Sony’s Slog 2 or 3.
In the end, Magic Bullet Looks and Colorist IV are plug-ins that can be super simple or very meticulous depending on your mood or skill level. While almost everything in these plug-ins can be achieved without a plug-in, Colorista IV and Looks gives a simple and straightforward interface for accomplishing great color balance, a correction and grade.
One of my favorite features inside the updated Colorista IV is the new panel, which can be opened by clicking on the menu bar: Window > Extensions > Magic Bullet Colorista IV. You can keep this panel open and instantly begin color correcting a clip without having to drag the effect onto every clip you want to correct; it will automatically apply it to whichever layer is selected. If you are interested in color correction and want to ease into the complexity, Magic Bullet Looks 4 and Colorist IV are a great way to learn.
In the next Magic Bullet review I will be covering the rest of the plugins that comprise the Suite 13 plug-in set, including Magic Bullet Denoiser III which has been revamped and rivals Neat Video (an industry standard noise reduction plug-in), Cosmo II, Renoiser and Film. To buy all of these together check this out, where you can occasionally find everything at a discount.