Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives

Wrap Your Mind Around Warp: Adobe After Effects CS5.5 Warp Stabilization

By Jack Reznicki

Mid-number software upgrades rarely impress me. When Adobe’s Creative Suite had an inter-number upgrade, from 5.0 to 5.5, I was expecting just the usual bug fixes and minor adjustments. But buried in After Effects is a real “WOW!!” feature I would expect in a whole-point release. This new feature should really amaze and wow video shooters and the vast army of still shooters venturing into the video realm. The name for this feature, Warp Stabilization sounds like a feature you’d hear in an old Star Trek episode. “Captain, the Wrap Stabilization has seized up! She can't hold on much longer!”

Warp Stabilization is just Adobe’s name for a feature that takes shaky video footage and, well, stabilizes it to look like you used a Steadicam or shot the scene with your camera mounted on a dolly. It really doesn’t sound like much until you see it in action. Then your jaw drops. To me this feature alone is worth the total price of After Effects. The first video here is the raw footage, and the video embedded below it is the stabilized version.

What really blows my mind is not just what it does, which is amazing and magical, but the fact that it’s so automatic and simple. It’s drag and drop. There have been ways to stabilize shaky sequences before, but you had to know what you were doing, you had to find a fixed point, play with the parameters, input numbers. It took a lot of time, skill and praying. With CS 5.5, you drag and drop Warp Stabilization adjustment into the video sequence and After Effects does it all in a shockingly easy and fast way. No entering numbers, moving sliders, or looking up complex steps in the manual. It analyzes the footage on its own, and then processes the clip in the computer’s background, so you can continue working on something else, like more photo editing, web surfing, or solitaire. No waiting for spinning beach balls or slow status bars.

While it’s at it, fixing your shaky take behind the curtain, it also fixes another inherent problem prevalent with DSLR footage—the cursed rolling shutter artifacts. 

Rolling shutter artifacts happen because DSLRs, with their large sensors, do not capture every frame all at once. It actually scans the image as it captures motion. So while the top portion is captured, it’s a tiny bit later when the bottom portion is captured. So if you move or pan the shot quickly during capture, or run it through most current stabilization applications, you’ll really notice the rolling shutter artifacting. The effect on straight lines reminds me of how in grammar school we would hold a pencil loosely between two fingers and move it up and down until the optical illusion made the pencil look like it was made of rubber. Objects in your video have that same rubbery look when you have a rolling shutter issue.

Warp stabilization in After Effects CS 5.5 has a checkbox that lets you correct the rolling shutter issue when you stabilize the shot. Basically the same technology and algorithms that look at the frame before and after to remove the shakes, does the same for a rolling shutter in removing that rubbery look.

So if you’re a wedding shooter and you only have enough time to get your Canon 5D switched to video and handhold it for a great moment in the wedding on video, but it’s a bit shaky (and unprofessional looking), you now have a solution. Now you know that your handheld movements can be easily straightened out perfectly later on and look like you have rock steady hands. Of course it will not fix the drastic camera movement when Uncle Charlie jarred you as he jumped in front of you to get his snapshot. There is a limit. But it’s amazing just how much it can stabilize.

When you have a clip that needs stabilization, you need enough image around the subject so the scaling doesn’t cut into your subject. In the past, stabilizing usually meant cropping into the frame or ending up with black patches around the frame as the software tilted and shifted the frame to stabilize the shot. The amazing thing about warp stabilization is that with the new technology at hand, like content aware fill, warp stabilization will “create” the parts of the image frame to fill in the black areas with image content. Amazing. In video-speak, what we still photographers call cropping is called scaling. Here's an example of the video stabilized, but not scaled. You can see in the black areas that appear on the sides just how much the camera was moving.

I also ran into a difficult difference in language use when it came time to get the video clip out of After Effects. While we photographers will normally look for save as or export, what you need to do is place the file in the Render Queue and process it. 

I can go on and on about how amazing this feature is, but as the old Russian proverb says, seeing it once is worth a thousand explanations. 

Here's what the video looks like when you have the software lock the background in place.