In the Studio: CoreMelt Lock & Load
Posted Nov 12, 2009

Recently, plug-in provider CoreMelt moved from Noise Industries’ FxFactory engine to its own proprietary engine and relabeled its plug-in roster as “V2.” With the move to V2 came dramatic improvements in the quality, practicality, and capability of these plug-ins. The company’s products run in Final Cut Pro (FCP; with free upgrades to FCP 7 & Snow Leopard), Final Cut Express, and After Effects CS3/CS4. Even more recently, CoreMelt released Lock & Load (Figure 1, right), an intelligent image stabilization plug-in. In this review, I’ll compare Lock & Load to FCP’s Smooth Cam and give you a good overview of what you can expect from it.

Methodology
To do the comparison test, I set up a new Sequence using a 5-second DVCPRO-HD 720p60 23.98fps clip. I selected a clip that I would have never dreamed of attempting to stabilize. It was actually shot to look handheld. I wanted to push both stabilizers, so I picked this specific clip as an unusually extreme situation. Figure 2 (below) shows a composite of stills from each second of the clip. Notice the right edge of the candle and the top-left corner of the book. This is where I’ve made guidelines so you can see how much movement there was in the clip.

Six sequential stills from the shaky test sequence

I made three copies of this clip: one that’s raw, one using Lock & Load, and one using Smooth Cam. Both Lock & Load and Smooth Cam must analyze the clip, which is the first step in image stabilization. Lock & Load took about 3 seconds to analyze the clip, while Smooth Cam took a full 5 minutes (basically analyzing in real time). After the initial analysis stage, you can make whatever tweaks you desire to the stabilization controls. Then, you render—orange with Unlimited RT, red in Safe RT. Both approaches render the changes very, very quickly.

Since I’m very familiar with Smooth Cam and, thus, have a lot of experience manipulating its controls and parameters to make it work well, I took the time to read the PDF user manual that comes with Lock & Load and to play around with it first to level the playing field. So before I tell you about the results, let me tell you about Lock & Load and how it works; it’s a very interesting plug-in.

Raw, Smooth Cam, Lock & Load, Side-by-Side
To begin, while Smooth Cam analyzes the whole Master clip, while Lock & Load analyzes only the section between the In and Out points of your clip. If you change the In and Out points, you’ll have to re-analyze the clip, as only the portion between the original In and Out points will be stabilized. As for the results of both plug-ins right off the bat, without touching anything, Lock & Load wins.

One thing it does very well (part of its stabilizing intelligence) is to ignore foreground movement while focusing on the background of your clip. In the first step in my test, Lock & Load did a better job at setting itself up immediately after the initial analysis process than Smooth Cam did. It’s not better by leaps and bounds, but it’s very noticable and enough to be appreciated.

My original was pretty bad, so the defaults for Lock & Load showed black edges jumping around the left and the bottom of my clip pretty badly in the first half. Smooth Cam handled the zoom better right off the bat, but it did zoom more than Lock & Load did. As most readers probably know, stabilization is always a trade-off between making the shot steadier and sacrificing some measure of image quality from the necessary zoom.

After running the defaults-only test, I fooled around with Lock & Load’s controls a bit. Very easily, I set my zoom to hide all of the black areas that popped up. I should note that the black areas that Lock & Load allowed were outside of the Action Safe area of my frame, which it was developed to do. After very little time, I found it easy to stabilize this horrible shot that I originally had no hope for. My conclusion is that Lock & Load is a superior stabilizer to Smooth Cam, although Smooth Cam is nothing to sneeze at. It will save you time and help you get much better results.

Lock & Load’s Controls

The controls in Lock & Load are relatively easy to deal with. I don’t think, from testing other, more realistic clips, that you’ll need to do much of anything after the initial analyzing. But the controls do make it very powerful and very useful (Figure 3, below). Unlike Apple’s Smooth Cam, Lock & Load features three methods of stabilizing motion in the clip. First is Smooth Single Shot, which is designed to give you the best results in your average single clip. Second is Smooth Multi Shot, which does smoothing in a clip that already contains edits in it. This feature tells Lock & Load to look for edit points and to make adjustments to analyze each segment independently. The third, Lock Down, gives you the hardest form of tracking without smoothing out motion, in the way Smooth Cam makes a clip look more natural. Then, you can control the Overall Strength of the stabilization, just like in Apple’s Smooth Cam.

Lock & Load's stabilization adjustment controls

The “by Direction” section lets you adjust how much Lock & Load emphasizes stabilization to each direction: Horizontal for when the camera shakes side to side more, Vertical for when the camera shakes up and down more, Rotation for when your camera rotates or arcs around, and Zoom to help hide black edges that may appear as a result of the other controls. This section alone comes in very handy for specific clips that have more shake in one direction than another; with it, you get the least amount of natural image degradation caused by stabilization.

The Zoom mode is really nice. Your first choice is Smart Zoom, which allows Lock & Load to intelligently figure out when and where to zoom more or less to keep the frame (at least inside the Action Safe area) filled with the image. With the alternative, Fixed Zoom, you can manually control how much the image is zoomed in to eliminate black edges. Zoom [%] lets you tweak how much the Smart Zoom takes effect and how much overall static zoom is done with Fixed (i.e., “manual”) Zoom.

Finally, as with all FxPlug plug-ins (former or otherwise), there is a Mix control that allows you to blend between the original image and the image as the filter effects it. And best of all, every one of these controls is fully keyframeable. That, to me, is the real kicker. Apple’s Smooth Cam lets you keyframe only the Mix variable. So when you have a very difficult shot to stabilize, you can keyframe over time how the controls change to gain more control over your final outcome.

Conclusion
I wish there were more to say about this plug-in because I’ve really enjoyed telling you about it. But there’s simply not that much to say about it because it’s so simple to use. Lock & Load packs a lot of power in a well-thought-out set of controls. The results in my tests have been very impressive. I may never touch Optical Flow in Motion again. (Well, maybe on occasion, but I’m certainly not as reliant on it now that I have Lock & Load.)

What’s more, at $149, you get a very powerful plug-in for your money. To illustrate that point, CoreMelt has posted a comparison chart on the Lock & Load page on its website (reprinted here, with permission, as Figure 4, below). All in all, Lock & Load is the best motion stabilization plug-in I’ve used.

CoreMelt's comparison chart for Lock & Load (table used by permission from www.coremelt.com)

As I stated at the beginning of this review, I first used a clip that I purposely shot to look handheld and shaky; I had no intention of trying to stabilize it in postproduction for a more conventional effect.

After playing around for a short time with it using Lock & Load, I’ve turned it into a much nicer, much more effective-looking shot by smoothing out the shakes in just the perfect way. Lock & Load has given me a clip that has much more impact and effect as a handheld shaky shot than a natural shot. I’m very impressed at how easy it was. To see the sample clip used in my first test shot showing it raw, with Smooth Cam and with Lock & Load, go to www.bbalser.com/public/LLtest H264.mov and download the video file. You can see the full clips and the side-by-side shots. Open it in QuickTime Player and set it to loop playback.

When you see the clips, I’m sure you’ll see why I’m thrilled with this product. During the split-screen comparisons, be sure to watch the candle in the upper-left corner and the hands in the upper-right corner—they both become way more stable in the Lock & Load version. Even between Smooth Cam and Lock & Load, you’ll see a drastic improvement.

Until next time, rock those edits!

Ben Balser (benb at bbalser.com) is an Apple Certified Trainer and Support Professional based in New Orleans. Along with training and consulting, he also produces documentaries and educational material, and he designs digital signage systems.