May 26, 2008

The 'Top Gear' Effect
By Jude Cotter

I was working on a car show recently, cutting to a very tight deadline, and I had a segment that covered a nicely overheated Holden VE ute. Now, the car looked fine, it was going fast around corners and making lots of nasty noises, but for some reason it just seemed to lack a bit of ... edge. I mean, this thing was a 7 litre V8 punching 507kw and really it looked just like any other ute being flung around by any other maniac.

So I needed to give it some kind of funk. Something that said 'cool' and, as usual, I needed it quickly.

So I thought about what Top Gear - one of my all time favourite car shows - would do, and I immediately knew the sort of look I was going for.

What I needed was the 'Top Gear effect'. This is the grungy, vignetted, slightly cooled colour look that they use on all their supercar footage. If this is unfamiliar to you, do a search on YouTube for 'Top Gear', I'm sure you'll come across some in action on any of the supercar segments. By the way, if you're reading this, Top Gear, great work. Thank you for garnering a budget that would choke a humpback and squandering it on strapping rockets to Minis to fire them off ski slopes. That's entertainment!

Anyway, what I normally would have done would have been to add a vignette, adjust the gamma, add a bit of colour correction and then just copy-paste the effects to all the clips on the timeline. Easy. Except I was using the 2001 version of FCP (2), and that meant there was no vignette and no three way colour corrector, so I was forced to 'think different'.

So now I had a tight deadline, no vignette, and no 3 way colour correction. What to do? It had to be a composite job.

One of my favourite things about FCP is its freedom of movement in the composite arena. Even on this ancient FCP 2 machine, I had access to the composition tools to do this job quickly and easily. In fact, this method turned out to be better than the vignette-gamma-colour one, as you'll see later. Although I first created this effect in a very old version of FCP, this tutorial was made in FCP 6. The good thing about that is that this effect should work for you no matter which version of FCP you are running.

First of all, slip all the clips up to V2. Most people know how to do this effectively, but if you're new to FCP, an easy way is to unlink your audio by clicking the small 'linked selection' button at the top right of your timeline so that it is 'up'. This is so when you shift your video, you audio will not try to shift at the same time and possibly get jammed by other audio on lower lines.

Next, hit 't' once to get the 'select track forward' tool. It looks like a small arrow pointing right. Then click at the head of the first clip you want to shift on V1. This should select all the clips on V1 ahead of the point you clicked on.

Then, holding shift to restrain your clips from slipping sideways in the timeline and going out of sync, click and drag upwards to move all the clips up one layer. Hit 'a' to reselect your normal arrow tool, then click the linked selection button again to relink your audio and video, if this is how you like it.

Sweet. Step one done. Now for the vignette.

Since I wanted to darken the edges and brighten the centre of the picture, I decided to add a radial gradient, and use a composite mode to blend the two pictures together.

If that sounds confusing and difficult, take heart. It's not.

At the bottom right hand of your viewer there is a small button with a capital A on it. This is the 'Video generators' shortcut menu. You can also find this in the 'Effects' tab in the browser. In this menu, find the 'Custom Gradient' generator. Early versions of FCP don't have the custom option, so if this is you, just choose 'gradient' - you will have a few less options, but this will still work.

Now you should have a gradient loaded into your viewer that looks something like this.

Add this to V1 somewhere after your clips on the timeline, then double click it to load the timeline copy into the viewer. Make sure your playhead is sitting over the clip you are adjusting in the timeline, so you can see the results of your changes in the canvas.

Go to the 'controls' tab and change the shape to 'radial'.

Next, click on the small cross next to 'start' so that the button becomes depressed, go to your canvas and click and hold while you drag around on the canvas. It should look like a spotlight is being waved around on your canvas.

If you let go of the mouse the bright area will be set to the current position, and you will need to click the small cross again to make further adjustments. Set the light to be centered on the canvas, which is 0,0, and turn on the dither and gaussian settings.

When done, it should look like this.

OK. Part two done. Told you this was easy.

Now slip and extend your gradient so that all the clips you want to be effected have the gradient underneath them. If you need the gradient clip to be longer, just type the duration you need in the top left hand corner of the viewer like in this example, then drag the timeline copy out to be longer.

If this is a bit confusing, you can also just drag extra copies of the gradient to the timeline on V1, butting them up together like this.

Now for the blending. Locate the first clip on V2 in the timeline that you want to adjust and right click on it, or use control click if you don't have a two button mouse.

From this drop down menu, choose Composite mode > Hard Light.

After render, your clip should go from something like this

To something more like this

To transfer this look to all your clips at once, use the 'select forward' tool (t), select the clips on V2, right click and change the composite mode to 'hard light'.

One thing I noted on this footage was that it often caused excess saturation. This was OK for the car in this instance, but take a look at how the orange traffic cones have been pushed way out of broadcast spec by this process.

To me, this explained why the Top Gear footage is always slightly desaturated. Bright colours can be a problem for broadcast, and besides, a bit of desaturation always helps the 'cool' factor.

So let's do it. Add a desaturation filter to the first clip on V2 under Effects > Video Filters > Image Control > Desaturate. There are two options to choose from in more modern versions of FCP - I usually choose the first one, which gives me luminance options. In this case I set the desaturation to .38 and chose PAL luminance purely because I liked the look. You can choose whatever settings work well with your footage.

To add this filter to all the clips in your timeline at once, select the clip you have effected, and copy it. Then select all the clips forward of that clip and go to Edit > Paste Attributes (option v) and select 'Filters'.

Also, make sure to check your luma using View > Range check > Excess luma , as this method can tend to push the centre out of legal. To fix this, you can either lower the opacity of the gradient, or add a three way colour corrector and reduce the whites.

And there you have it. If all has gone well, you should now have a basic Top Gear effect applied to all the clips on your timeline. Render, tech check, run on air, have a Gin Sling and a bit of a cry about impossible deadlines.

But once you're done crying, maybe, like me, you'd like to continue experimenting with this method.

For example, I started to think about the fact that the gradient colours are adjustable, and that made me wonder about the possibilities of warming up or cooling down the picture.

So I did. Here's the same clip with a slightly warmed white, and the light source moved slightly.

And some other variations

Of course, you can mess with both colours to any degree, choosing a sympathetic palette or a contrasting one to see how this changes the feel of the vision.

I also thought that this may be a useful method for adding interest to still photographs, especially when you're forced to use lots in a single program as is common in historical accounts.

Here's a photograph taken at a recent Agricultural Show. It's quite pretty, but a bit flat. I'm going to pretend that this is an archival shot of an important sire and his breeder, and use the Top Gear effect to give it a bit more nostalgia.

First I've just cropped the bottom of the picture a little to make it more balanced, then centred it on the canvas.

Then bump it up to V2 and add a standard radial gradient like the one we just made to V1.

Now warm up the gradient a little, and crop the edges of the gradient to make a border for the photo.

Already this looks a lot less flat, but I wanted to add a bit of an old-timey feel, so I bumped the pic up to V3, and added a rectangle to V2

Then I changed the colour, size, softness and aspect of my rectangle to suit my picture like this.

This was still very bright, so I reduced the opacity of the rectangle in the timeline to about 50%, and got a final comp that looks like this

While the centred light works well for this particular photo, don't forget that you can move the light to any part of the frame, and so highlight different parts of your picture. That means you can centre the attention on one person in a group shot, or add a bit of lighting where none exists, as I did with this photo from the web.

Again, bump up to V2, and add a gradient to V1, but in this case, I shifted the centre of the gradient to the top right of the tree.

Trim off the excess gradient on V1 and this looks a lot more interesting than the original backplate.

Also, you can add multiple gradients which you can overlay on each other to create interesting light boxes. Of course, these could all be animated with keyframes to drift over each other, and make the still even more complex and interesting.

Changing colours or modes on a picture like this would also cause some interesting results, as would colour correcting or inverting the channels on the picture itself.

And that's about it for this time. I hope you enjoy experimenting with the techniques outlined here, and maybe even push further to discover more of the funky stuff you can achieve with composite modes in FCP.

Thanks to Black Olive Productions and Sam Wallin for images used in this tutorial. Winter 'Tree' Photograph courtesy of

Jude Cotter lives and works in the wilds of Western Australia as a freelance broadcast editor, FCP trainer and trouble-shooter.


copyright © 2008

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