Review: Serious Magic ULTRA 2--EDITOR'S CHOICE
Posted Sep 8, 2005

The Editor's Choice-winning ULTRA 2 is one of the easiest, most efficient, and effective chromakey tools we've seen. Having the ability to see real-time previews while tweaking a chromakey shoot is terrific, and the fast rendering times (with appropriate equipment) really speed up the entire process. You can get a decent key in and out of the system in minutes, but the ability to polish up the look and feel of a keyed effect is amazing, and shadows and reflections alone are worth the price of admission.

Serious Magic's ULTRA 2, like the original package ULTRA, is remarkable for the ease with which a quality chromakey can be created. Imported DV—and now HDV—footage, graphic overlays, and even 3D animation files can be arranged with a few simple mouse clicks.

Most simple chromakeys are just four or five steps (including administrative or housekeeping issues like naming a file) from raw background and foreground images to a saved clip ready for output.

It can be just that simple.

But, if you love to tweak, ULTRA 2 will let you fine-tune to your heart's content. Keying parameters such as threshold, transparency, and alpha threshold can be modified with sliders and numerical input. Colors can be selected from a new color wheel and adjusted for saturation, hue, contrast, and more. Shadows and reflections can be placed with precision. Camera moves and virtual backgrounds can be incorporated.

All this and more can be seen in real time using the Live Preview function (using DV camera, PC, and a live input source). The right laptop will even preview ULTRA 2 chromakeys in the field.

ULTRA 2 is a standalone keying application; it's not a plug-in, and not a video editor. It is designed to work with existing editing tools (PC and Mac users can take advantage of all it has to offer) and it is compatible with a wide variety of video formats.

It's especially designed to deal with DV, of course, and the challenges that DV—even poorly lit DV—can pose to good chromakeys.

DV—Losing 2 to 1
Let's start with a little historical perspective: anyone remember those little buttons worn at industry events several years ago? Printed on the face were the numbers 4:1:1. Cutting diagonally across the front was the dreaded red slash. When DV was first introduced, waves of horror swept across the video production landscape, owing to the drastically reduced chroma (color saturation) content of the new format's video signal.

Until DV, most video was known as 4:2:2; green, red, and blue colors were sampled in that ratio. With DV, half the color information is tossed out the window—hence, 4:1:1. Now, with HDV, we are at a rate of 4:2:0!

Video folks said the DV codec would be brutal on colors, especially the keying techniques that depend on color, like green- and blue-screen chromakey. And for the most part, they were right.

Not just the reduced color information, but also other characteristics of the DV format were troubling: DV is compressed at a 5:1 ratio, using DCT compression. That means more challenges for effects-based production. DV cameras are light and inexpensive, but many are also rather lo-res, using CCDs with fewer pixels than in the past. That's tough on effects and compositing. Digital video processing, like pixel shift and edging, can do terrible things to video, from a keyer's perspective.

To counter these issues, Serious Magic ULTRA uses what it calls Vector Keying technology, a trademarked concept that uses special algorithms to analyze elements of a video scene, especially the background. Uneven lighting (hot spots, unwanted shadows or wrinkles affecting light reflection and therefore, key quality) is identified and compensated for during the actual key process. Spatial, chromatic, and temporal image information is assessed for artifacts and anomalies, and a range of key controls and image adjustments are applied as required.

Technicalities aside, what results is a nice, clean, tight key—even with poorly lit footage.

The latest version of ULTRA, a much ballyhooed award-winner at NAB 2005, was released in June with several enhancements and upgrades to the original release.

Compatibility, first off, is a big deal in the new package. With new QuickTime input and output support, Mac users can take advantage of this powerful keying tool, although they'll need a PC to work with the software itself. Compatibility with Avid's MFX video editing format, as well as Macromedia Flash, also greatly expands the use—and potential user base—for ULTRA 2.

Version 2 adds 16:9 and HDV support, as well, including 24p input and 1080i, 1080p, and 720p I/O support. Selectable output formats include AVI, WMV, QuickTime, and MPEG-2. Users can re-imported files in these formats for further processing in any number of software packages on the market. There's a handy still-image sequence output just for this purpose.

For matching foreground and background elements (maintaining a natural skin tone with on-camera talent in chromakey situations can be a challenge), ULTRA has real-time color correction on input and output clips, along with color curve, desaturation, and spill suppression controls. New in version 2 are added color controls like RGB Offset and Gamma Correction. Luckily, there's a handy on-screen display that shows what correction is being applied, because new users can get lost in all the choices and options here.

ULTRA also comes with a complete virtual set library; 3D living rooms, anchor desks, corporate boardrooms, and more are included for immediate use. More than 50 animated backgrounds, a dozen different virtual sets (many with multiple-camera shots and angles in the same virtual environment), as well as new master virtual set and background packages (sold separately) can be used to create immersive environments for more dramatic keying efforts.

Two Faces
Serious Magic has kept the same basic ULTRA user interface, albeit with some minor tweaks. The input window can be zoomed in and out, for example, to closely monitor video composition and keying edges. The new color wheel makes picking and adjusting colors to be keyed out much easier and more precise.

ULTRA 2's technical interface has changed significantly. Not only does it come with its own 4:4:4:4, 128-bit, floating-point processing engine, it can now also take advantage of the host system's (see system requirements) graphic processing unit (GPU) for extra processing power, taking the load away from the system's main CPU. GPU Boost requires a graphics card with Pixel Shader 2.0, which many of the popular cards have (Radeon 9600/9800 cards from ATI and some GeForce cards from NVIDIA do the job nicely).

I didn't actually measure any processing that was "faster than real time" as the manufacturer boasts, but keying and compositing sure were fast. Some of our more basic key builds rendered out in mere seconds (no overlays, inserts, or perspective tricks were added).

Rendering quality can be set to 32-bit, and especially when dealing with HDV, the rendering enhancements are a big bonus over ULTRA 1, which had software-only rendering.

HD Plus 90
Not to be missed is HD Plus 90, a new tool that can (literally) turn you on your head. It's ULTRA 2's tricky way of getting HD out of SD—specifically, getting 720 lines of vertical resolution from a standard-def camera, turned on its side. Wider than they are tall, SD-camera images can capture a person's entire standing height (without excessive empty space all around), for example, when rotated 90 degrees.

Dump this sideways video into ULTRA 2, then key it against a background with at least 1280x720 size. With ULTRA 2's Plus 90 mode switched on, the camera image is rotated and keyed against the high-res background. An on-camera host can be captured head-to-toe, without acres of empty comp to their sides. There's also a new Size-in-Scene and a Scale-to-Fit mode to help fine-tune this bit of serious digital magic.

For those who have an HDV camera and already can output 720 or more lines vertically, ULTRA 2 has even more to offer: with its Pan & Zoom feature, one could take advantage of a chromakey background of 1920 lines, and avoid any pixelation that may occur when zooming "too far" into a digital image. Shadows, Good or Bad For those who have shot many times in a chromakey studio, or up against a portable green screen, you know that unwanted shadows can drive you and your keyer absolutely nuts. Shadows on the screen can radically change the color temperature of the reflected light, causing no end of troubles when trying to get a nice, clean artifact-free key.

ULTRA 2 comes with its own shadows. The creators know that realistic shadows, reflections, and depth of field are crucial to the illusion that someone really is standing in front of the background that they appear to be.

With ULTRA 2, shadows and reflections can be rendered on the walls and floor of a scene. Shadows come with adjustable size, perspective, transparency, and other controls so that they can move with the actor and look very realistic. As many as three shadows and a reflection can be added, and each can be adjusted for position and appearance.

Whether or not you are trying to retain natural shadows from the input video footage or not, you enable individual shadows and reflections with a simple click on a checkbox. Then, using an inter-related series of four controls (Baseline, Angle, Spread, and Length), you can place shadows and reflections relative to the talent and imagined light source. Wall shadows (two per scene) are added in a similar fashion. Other shadow and reflection controls include opacity, falloff, and falloff edge.

It seems like a lot to contend with, and the entire process can be a bit intimidating at first. All the controls interact with each other, so you need to set a system and follow a protocol for which one you do first, and in which order. Your own workflow and preferences come into account, but we found the sequence as named above to make the most sense, and the easiest to master. After a few tries, we were able to add shadows and reflections to great effect in a minute or two.

The implied depth of field in any video scene is crucial to its overall effectiveness, and the same is doubly true for keyed effects. It just doesn't cut it if the background and foreground have the same focus, for example, looking like they are only a foot or so away from each other.

Again, ULTRA understands. Its Blur and Defocus Source controls, applicable to any layer in the effect, are very useful for this. A simple slider in the Background Timing and Settings control panel can soften the background plane enough so that the illusion of depth and distance is greatly enhanced on-screen.

Other Tools, Other Approaches
Of course, some of you may be wondering why you'd want a standalone chromakey tool anyway. Most of the NLEs we use in our work come with chromakey built in, and there are other third-party solutions on the market.

Mac users who don't want to buy a PC to run something like ULTRA have long had chromakey capabilities anyway. In FCP 4, the tools were significantly enhanced, too, with Color Smoothing added to address the issues mentioned around 4:1:1 and 4:2:2 video. When used before the regular chromakey filtering, this approach works well with DV footage. FCP also offers a wealth of adjustment tools, among them color, saturation, and luma control strips. Despite all the improvements and enhancements, there still can be some 15-plus steps to get from raw footage to the render stage in FCP, so ULTRA can be faster and easier to use.

Chromakey in Sony Vegas takes advantage of its Chroma Blur tools to smooth out the edges of DV footage, and it has a unique color range selector, not just a spot color picker, to accommodate uneven lighting on chromakey source material. Vegas does allow users to place background footage on a track beneath (behind) the key source, but ULTRA lets four sources be combined just as easily (an overlay graphic track, like for a logo bug, and a picture-in-picture capability for pasting another video source into a virtual on-screen TV set or plasma display).

Setting the Virtual Table
Regardless of individual tools and user preferences, ULTRA 2 is more than just a chromakey tool; it's a pretty good virtual set tool, too. Using supplied, purchased, or self-created backgrounds, you can not only place talent into 3D backgrounds, but you can use different camera compositions (close-up, medium, or long shot) with many of them. You can use a variety of camera pans and zooms, as many as 64 with the Multi-Point pan-and-zoom command. With ULTRA's VirtualTrak system, virtual camera moves can be created from stationary camera shots.

Serious Magic includes not only the virtual environments you might expect—a boardroom, newsroom, or talk show setting, for example—but they've also thrown in interesting outdoor and wedding cake environments that can be cleverly used as backdrops or even transition scenes in wedding videos. Imagine panning along a 3D wedding cake, to reveal a chromakeyed subject or two, standing in front of secondary video source material!

It all gets pretty elaborate if you want it to. The fact that the virtual sets can be exported to other graphic packages for manipulation means they are almost unlimited in their expandability. While direct importation of virtual sets created entirely in other 3D packages is not yet supported in ULTRA 2, there are workarounds so that you could create sets in, say, 3ds Max or Maya, and bring them into ULTRA as AVI sequences.

Rendering a Conclusion
ULTRA 2 is one of the easiest, most efficient, and effective chromakey tools we have used for the price and the power. Having the ability to see real-time previews while tweaking a chromakey shoot is terrific, and the fast rendering times (with appropriate equipment) really speed up the entire process.

There are so many image/key adjustments and fine-tuning capabilities within the program that it's almost overwhelming (we got a little lost trying to control four overlays, three shadows, and two image angles in the same key sequence). While you can get a decent key in and out of the system in minutes, the ability to polish up the look and feel of a keyed effect is amazing, too. Shadows and reflections alone are worth the price of admission, compared to some chromakey tools out there.

As the product progresses, expect more control over mattes and filters, along with enhanced NLE timeline integration tools, an expanded selection of virtual sets and backgrounds, and added import/export capabilities.

But don't wait for those future enhancements—start working with ULTRA 2 right now.