Serious Magic ULTRA Keying and Virtual Set Software

We get lots of questions from readers wondering how to create a good chromakey. Most of these questions come from folks who just want to play around and don’t actually have a use for keying in mind. ULTRA solves this creative problem by providing a set of 15 virtual sets that you can insert yourself into. Granted, for $795, this isn’t a product for the Average Jane who just wants to play around. If you would like to replace your fake Ficus and cloth backdrop with a high tech studio environment, ULTRA is what you need.

The Key

A good key starts and ends with good lighting. Somewhere in the middle is the software. A basic keyer, such as the filter plug-in that likely came with your editing software can handle a perfectly lit key. Usually you’ll have a bit of control selecting a range of colors centered around a particular hue that you’ll make transparent. More advanced keying software will give you a lot more control.

The ULTRA keyer, for example, has an entire control panel of sliders and boxes with mysterious names for you to play with. You start by clicking around in the preview for your source video clip to create a number of points that sample the variations in your green screen backdrop. After hitting the bright areas, the shadows and the creases (if using a cloth backdrop), you click the Apply Points button and watch the background disappear. You can click to add more points, but you need to click the Apply Points button to finish. CTRL+Z will undo added points, but, again, you’ll need to click the Apply points button to see the results. We could see a few usability improvements in how the software works, for example, perhaps a View Points command so we could see what we were trying to key, but the results of the key are very good. In fact, we found that a click of the two preset buttons was often a good way to start, and sometimes even finish, the key.

Got a Key, Now What?

Now that you have a clean key, you’ll have to find something to put in the background. ULTRA comes with 15 complex virtual sets that include multiple angles, animations, video monitors that you can add your own video to and even camera moves. To use these sets effectively, you’ll have to study the set and then script and shoot footage that matches. Fortunately, the manual shows some examples and the shots are no more complex than shooting wide, medium and tight.

The coolest sets include dramatic flying camera moves. The best part of these moves is that you don’t need to do anything special to use them. Just shoot a standard wide shot of your talent and the software will automatically position and animate the camera move so it looks right on the set. Camera moves include pans to and from video monitors, dolly shots, huge boom shots and zooms. Each set will require you to plan your shots, perhaps even sketch a little storyboard, and coach your talent for blocking, but it isn’t hard.

The sets themselves are beautiful and we’ve seen worse on network television programs, but they still have a digital feel. Virtual sets like these can be expensive and even one of this quality might cost $100 by itself. Some sets can even incorporate your talent’s shadow (if you light your shot right) and a few even have highly polished floors that will bounce a virtual reflection that will totally sell the illusion. Even if your special effects aware audience realizes it is a digital set, these tricks will still impress.

One of the best features is a realtime preview while you shoot. This will definitely help get everything lined up properly. The only downside is that you’ll have to drag your computer into the studio.

A Diamond in the Rough

The manual is basic, but pleasant to read. The tutorials and sample files are perhaps the most useful, especially for shooting. We did encounter a serious problem when trying to activate the product online, but when we called tech support, we were immediately talking with Karl who walked us through a manual activation process. The product is not perfect yet. For example, you can zoom in on your output preview window (which is useful), but you can’t zoom in on the source preview, which would be useful when adding keying points. All in all, the product is very simple to use, however, and the results, especially the tracking shots, are quite impressive.

D. Eric Franks is Videomaker‘s Technical Editor.


Version: 1.0

Platform: PC

Operating System: Windows 2000/XP

Processor: 800MHz

RAM: 256MB

Hard Disk: 100MB (minimum)

Additional Requirements: 16 MB AGP display card, DVD-ROM drive, IDE hard drive or Ethernet card required for activation.

Demo Version: none

Upgrade: n/a


  • Easy, sophisticated keying
  • Quality, animated virtual sets


  • Rough user interface
  • Activation annoyances


Throw out your backdrops and that fake Ficus, it’s time to change your Wayne’s World basement set into a high-tech virtual dream studio.


Serious Magic

2870-B Gold Tailings Ct

Rancho Cordova, CA 95670

(916) 859-0100

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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