Ultra Key
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 11 (November 2003)

Ultra Key

By David Singer

If you've worked with chroma key (electronically matting or inserting an image from one camera into a picture produced by another), you know it requires time and money to do correctly. Building a set, installing the proper lighting, renting or purchasing the necessary equipment—it can become expensive very quickly. Serious Magic has changed all that with the release of Ultra Key chroma key and virtual set software for broadcast and video professionals.

Serious Magic took great care to produce a powerful tool with an intuitive graphical interface.

According to Serious Magic, Ultra Key enables video editors to produce high-quality keys from less-than-ideal sources and conditions, such as unevenly lit and wrinkled backdrops, frizzy hair, and DV sources with reduced color bandwidth. The company promised it could produce complex keys featuring smoke, glass, and liquids with minimal effort. And it ships with animated backgrounds and a library of professional 3D virtual sets, with features such as multiple camera views, virtual camera moves, and floor reflections. All this was listed with a price of only $795. Skeptical? Such a product at that price, if it performed as advertised, could change chroma keying forever.

Upon receiving Ultra Key, I immediately began preparations to see if these promises would ring true. Remembering the adage, "Garbage in, garbage out," I began by building the epitome of a less-than-ideal set. I wanted to create the absolutely worst environment I could think of, so I framed a 8x8-foot wall. After hanging the drywall, I laid two pieces of 4x8-foot plywood on the floor in front of the wall, placing a quarter round along the edge where the floor met the wall. I spread joint compound wide and thick on the seams in the wall and floor, and it hardened into a lumpy mess. The next step was to paint the set, using the cheapest off-the-shelf green paint I could find at the local hardware store.

My studio lighting, a $40 work light, was placed to one side of the backdrop to create an unevenly lit background. My subject, dressed from head to toe in black, stood close enough to the wall to throw a strong shadow. After filming sample footage with a Canon 3CCD MiniDV camera, and an inexpensive Sony Digital8 for good measure, I took off for the studio, where I brought the captured video clips into Ultra Key.

Well thought out and highly intuitive, Ultra Key's user interface effectively contains three main areas: an Input window, a Preview window, and a work space consisting of tabbed sections along the bottom. The tabs provide access to sources, backgrounds, virtual sets, and controls for tweaking the key to my heart's content.

I brought in my source, which appeared in both the Input and Preview windows. By switching to the Input tab, I could move and crop the clip to eliminate anything beyond the edges of the greenscreen. Switching back to the Keyer tab, I used the cursor to select various points covering the range, from a bright green to a deep green to a dark grayish-green, cast by having a single light on the green background. After selecting the points, I clicked Apply Points and the background vanished. Except for slight spill (edge discoloration caused by light reflecting off the background) and some remaining shadow, I had a near-perfect key in roughly one minute. In the Input window, I. selected a few additional points, this time focusing on the shadow itself. When I clicked Apply Points, the shadow was gone. After spending no more than another two minutes adjusting spill suppression and highlights/ shadows, I had a perfect key.

Moving to the Virtual Set or Background tabs, I selected my environment by dragging the appropriate icon to the virtual set or background box. The talent was transported to the location of choice in the Preview window. All that was left to do was select the Output tab, choose a codec (coder/decoder) from the drop-down list, name the file, choose the target location, and Save Output. On a 2.26ghz Pentium 4 with 768mb of PC800 RDRAM, the one-minute test clip rendered in less than three minutes. I quit Ultra Key, brought the keyed clip into an NLE, dropped it on the timeline, added "eye candy," and output it.

I could not only create pan and zoom points, but also control alpha and color curves, transparency, spill suppression, hue, brightness, saturation, and contrast. I recommend Ultra Key. The level of control and flexibility it offers is astounding.

David Singer (singercreativeservices@ charter.net) is a founding partner of Singer Creative Services offering digital photographic, video, and other services.


Price: $795
Minimum System Requirements: Windows XP or 2000, 800mhz processor, 256mb of RAM, DVD-ROM drive, 1gb hard disk space, 16mb AGP graphics card with 3D acceleration, Windows-compatible PC audio card, Windows-compatible DV input, and an IDE hard drive or Ethernet card

Serious Magic; www.seriousmagic.com