By Tor Rolf Seemann
Issue: May 1, 2004


PRODUCT: Serious Magic Ultra Key

WEB SITE: ukoverview.cfm

PRICE: Ultra $795; Master Sets Library 2 $495

· pulls clean keys from DV footage

· one click keying

· reads and writes standard AVI or DV video

Serious Magic's Ultra Key is a breakthrough that transforms chroma keying into an incredibly easy and practical tool for all types of video producers. Within an hour of opening the software, I was wedding my foreground "talent" to highly realistic virtual background renderings that are convincing in every detail, even when my source footage was mediocre in quality. It seems Ultra Key has tamed the requirements for pulling a good - that previously made greenscreen work prohibitive for the average DV shooter. A new algorithm called Adaptive 4-Space Vector Keying makes this all possible, specifically designed to compensate for keying nightmares, such as uneven lighting, wrinkled backdrops and frizzy hair. From quick stand-ups to sit-down interviews, you can now do background replacement in less time than it takes to light one wall. Ultra Key also offers One-Click Key feature that analyzes your video and automatically calibrates to your source material.

Advanced controls, such as spill suppression, color restoration and edge softening can also be applied to fine tune composites. Ultra Key can even achieve complex keys featuring smoke, glass and liquids, and delivers excellent results from the reduced color bandwidth of today's DV 4:1:1 video sources. It also works on laptops so you can connect your DV camera and preview keyed output in realtime.

Previously, high-end virtual set systems with features like camera motion, reflections and secondary video sources mapped in the environment could cost tens-of-thousands of dollars. These systems also require specialized motion tracking cameras and expensive 3D graphics workstations. Ultra Key eliminates all that expense and complexity with a new twist to post production virtual sets. Traditional motion tracking is simulated by Ultra Key's VirtualTrak system, which creates virtual camera moves from stationary camera shots and inserts video reflections into virtual scenes.

With Ultra Key you don't need a huge greenscreen room to appear in large virtual environments. The Virtual Zoom feature lets you scale input video sources to match backgrounds. Ultra Key's full-body shots are dramatic, but it's also incredibly useful for head-and-shoulder shots and sit-down interviews where only a few feet of green backdrop are needed. Professional-looking talking head shots often contain a slow zoom-in, which would be impossible to achieve with an ordinary chroma key. Ultra Key lets you virtually zoom or pan any static camera shot in perfect sync with the keyed background.

Ultra Key includes a Master Library of professional 3D virtual sets and animated backgrounds to dramatically enhance your productions while saving time and money. There are a wide range of broadcast-quality sets, from visually compelling corporate and educational settings to cutting-edge newsrooms and futuristic studios where you might expect to find Yoda as the anchor. And now, with the new release of the Master Library Set 2, there are even 12 more fantastic sets to work with, including an award show set, a game show set, and my personal favorite, the Scandinavian Townhouse set. Brings me back to the homeland, only without the jetlag. Bruk oss på havbruk!

The Master Library's pre-rendered virtual sets include multiple angles, such as wide, medium, tight and alternate views. Whether you are shooting head-and-shoulder or full-body shots, the views are coordinated allowing one stationary camera to easily create the illusion of multiple cameras within spacious studio environments. Additionally, some sets are further enhanced with special effects, such as virtual camera fly-throughs and moving elements that interact with the environment. These work in conjunction with Ultra Key's VirtualTrak virtual camera technology to simulate realistic motion tracking within the scene even from your own footage, that was shot completely static.


Ultra Key fit into my production workflow seamlessly. It works as a stand-alone application to ensure uncompromised speed and maximum compatibility across video editing systems. Using it is as simple as specifying an input clip and a background source which can be a video clip or a still image. Video inputs can include standard AVI and DV files or any file format for which you have a compatible codec installed (Microsoft DirectShow). Output files can be uncompressed AVI, DV or 32-bit AVIs with alpha channel for later compositing with your NLE.

The Live Preview function enables you to connect a DV camera to your PC and view a keyed shot in realtime with a live source. It's very useful for testing the lighting and angles to the background you plan on using. However, I should note: the Live Preview function in Ultra is not designed to meet the needs of live television production. It is a useful tool for tweaking your greenscreen during setup, rather than trying to fix flaws in the edit bay.


I found Ultra to be quite zippy. You are always working with full resolution, 30fps, realtime preview of your final composite as you make changes. The screen updates instantly while sliders are dragged, clips are scrubbed and scenes are played. The only limitation is the performance of the PC and the number of clips. For example, if you use several large uncompressed AVIs in one scene, the preview may not update all secondary sources while scrubbing until the scrub bar stops moving.

Ultra relies on Microsoft's DirectX architecture to generate high-speed output from PC graphics cards. Microsoft does not offer this architecture on the Mac at this time. However, Ultra does read QuickTime clips and can exchange clips and stills seamlessly over a network with Mac-based production systems such as Final Cut Pro. It is also currently an NTSC-only product, but I'm told a PAL version is in the works.