The (Alien) Sky's the Limit!

The (Alien) Sky's the Limit!

Your color creation palette is limited only to the imagination when you understand how to use the simple video filters in your editing software.

"I fired the set designer!" bellowed Yuri, barging into the editing room in a gleeful rage.

"You fired Manfred?!" I squeaked. Manfred was the best science fiction set designer in town who would still work for pizza.

"Yeah!" shouted Yuri, waving his gigantic meaty fists in the air, "and I fired that idiotic special effects team too! Bunch of losers!"

Firing the set designer and the special effects team halfway into Alien Zombie Revenge (or is it Zombie Alien Revenge? I keep forgetting), was one of those things Yuri did without thinking. He did a lot of things without thinking, but he was the director, and he was signing the checks, so I figured that was his business. Though it left me with a lot of questions.

"How are we going to shoot the scenes on the alien planet, Frabjuous-5, where the Brainclaw Warriors live?" I asked.

"I've already shot it!" beamed Yuri confidently. He handed me the tapes. I stuck one in the editing deck.

"Yuri, this is the playground outside of the middle school, it's just not an alien homeworld."

"Hey!" barked Yuri, pointing a thick, wet finger at me. "You're the whiz-kid editor. Make me an alien planet. I'm not in a talking mood tonight. I'm in a firing mood." He slammed the door.

Using Filters

Video is no more than a string of digital still images. Just as you might manipulate a graphic image in a program such as PhotoShop, you can manipulate video in your editor using filters in ways that would have knocked the socks off any linear editor plugging away 20 years ago.

Almost every editor comes with built-in filters. Typically found under "effects" or "tools", they apply changes to blocks of selected video frames. There are two types of filters, ones that adjust the image quality of a clip, and ones that add visual effects. The first type allows you to tweak things such as brightness, contrast, sharpness, etc. The second type do things like blur, add motion like ripples on the surface of a pond or even twirling the image around on the screen. You can also create transparency effects using things such as Chroma key filters and mattes. Multiple filters can be applied to a single clip; you may, for example, brighten and sharpen a clip. I figured filters might save this editing job.

Real World Example:

Making an Alien Landscape with Hue and Stop Motion Filters The Hue of an image is the color map it's using. Changing the hue of a clip replaces the original colors by shifting the color wheel in one direction or another. I figured radical color changes might make our park look like an alien planet. I selected the clip in my timeline, went to the filter menu, and added a Hue filter. The preview window let me see what the filter would do. When I was happy that the colors looked sufficiently other-worldly, I applied it.

Figuring that aliens might look or move a little differently on their homeworld, I also added a Stop Motion Blur filter. This is a visual effects filter that fades multiple copies of the clip over itself with a bit of a shift in time. The result is a slow-moving, weird-looking image. It's frequently used for POV shots of people who are drunk, sick, or taking dangerous drugs. I figured aliens would look like that on their blue-grassed home planet, and it would disguise the fact that the nearest building was a jungle gym. I applied that filter. When I played the clip back with both filters, it looked very other-worldly. Pleased with myself, I turned off the lights. And went home.

Color Correcting

The next morning I was waiting around for praise like an anxious puppy. Yuri, chewing on a slice of pizza that looked like a wet napkin, watched the alien footage and didn't do more than grunt. He gave me some new tapes and left. Yuri had plenty of bad habits. Firing people on a whim was hardly the worst. Another of Yuri's faults was that he never sets the white balance on his camera. The white balance was off on all the tapes.

Not all light is created equal. Light has varying "temperatures" which affect its color, ranging from "cold" (bluish) to "hot" (reddish). Mercury vapor and quartz lights have a "cool" look and incandescent bulbs have a "warm" tone. The color white looks different under each of these light sources. So if your video footage involves several different light sources, your cast's costumes will change color as they walk from room to room. How much will they change color? Not so much that nobody will recognize that they're the same clothes, but enough so that you'll never win an Oscar and when you're sitting in the alley crying about that, other videographers will walk past laughing and pointing. You'll hear them say " ... never sets his white balance! Hahaha!" as their limos whisk them away to trendy parties. You can check your own footage out yourself by using a special effects wipe on a single monitor and showing both sources at once.

Well, Yuri hadn't set his white balance, and he didn't have a limo, but he did have me. I selected the offending clips, and readjusted them with the color balance filter.

Making Black and White or Sepia Tone

"The aliens are going back in time!" bellowed Yuri, pointing a copy of the script at me in an accusatory manner. He was wearing one of those orange hats with ear flaps that hunters wear. "They're going back to 1954!" Because they want to meet Ike! "

"Period sets? Vintage cars?!" Suddenly this turkey was getting exciting.

"Are you looking for a job, Cassidy? Because you should be. We don't have the money for period sets or vintage cars. I'm going to do the whole thing in closeup, but in black and white! So you know it's old!" He thought that was a pretty great idea.

Yuri was tickled pink when I told him that we could do the whole thing with software filters in our editing program. By selecting a clip and adding a desaturation filter, a color clip can be rendered black and white. This pleased Yuri so much, he sent the aliens back in time again, to 1863, because they suddenly wanted to meet Abraham Lincoln. This time we used two filters, one to remove all the color, and another to add red, which gives a sepia toned result. (Some programs have a separate sepia filter already installed.)

Yuri was so excited with the results, he asked me to show him what some of the other filters in our editing software can do.

Changing Brightness and Contrast

Brightness and contrast are useful, especially in conjunction with Gamma correction, to lighten or darken a shot. Typically I use it to punch up detail in an underexposed scene.


The sharpen filter doesn't really sharpen your clip, it only makes it seem sharper. It does this by increasing the contrast between pixels. It won't save a chronically out of focus clip, but it can do a lot to enhance a slightly out of focus shot.


Blurring a clip is just like sharpening it, only in reverse. Why on earth would you want to blur something? Well, how about blurring your title card, then fading from the blurred one to a sharp one. That's why Yuri hires me. The Big Ideas.


Some editors (Final Cut Pro, for example) also ship with a filter which will add the timecode to the bottom of the video image (producing what is known in the biz as a window dub.) I find this very useful for two things: first, when people are viewing the rough edit and want to comment, they can be very precise, and second, it obviously identifies the cut as rough.


Yuri forgot to pick me up for the premiere, so I missed the red carpet, the paparazzi, and a supermodel who showed up with one of the actors and then got in a big fight. I made it in time to see the video filters do their magic on the big screen. I was the only person who could tell that one clip had been a little fuzzy to begin with, or that at one point in time the color balance was way off between some of the shots, and it gave me a nice feeling. With all the money we saved after firing the special effects team and set designers, Yuri gave me a big bonus and told me he'd be sure to call me for Son of Zombie Alien. I'm sure that'll start shooting pretty soon, hopefully before the reviews start to come in.

Kyle Cassidy is a network engineer and a video artist.


Tue, 03/01/2005 - 12:00am