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The plasma distribution using a cathodic arc plasma source with and without magnetic macroparticle filter has been determined by depositing on a transparent plastic substrate and measuring the film absorption. It was found that the width of the distribution depends on the arc current, and it also depends on the cathode material which leads to a spatial separation of the elements when an alloy cathode is used. By applying a magnetic multicusp field near the exit of the magnetic filter, it was possible to modify the plasma distribution and obtain a flat plasma profile with a constant and homogeneous elemental distribution which was demonstrated by depositing FeNd thin films. © 1996 American Institute of Physics.