How to Easily Stabilize Video Footage in After Effects
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After several years of making cinemagraphs and having to pass on moments I wanted to capture because I didn't have a tripod, I got a little obsessive about figuring out how to stabilize video footage. Back then, the best route was using the tracker in After Effects, picking a high contrast spot and then crossing your fingers. These days, I use warp stabilizer and it works about 90% of the time. I know, I skipped right to the end. The thing with warp stabilizer isn't so much the tool because it does all the work for you but knowing and understanding how to shoot footage to increase your chances of having something usable at the end. So I'll go over how to get to it and how to use it but mostly, I think the most helpful bit is learning about what sort of footage will give you the best end result.
Locating stabilizer tools in After Effects
One thing about Adobe products is that as the evolve, they often create multiple paths for getting to the same tool. I really like subscribing to the Adobe Creative Cloud because the changes feel small and progressive. Back when you had to buy a licensed copy and update every so often, the jumps felt jarring. These days, you can get to the stabilizer tool by going to "Tracker" or through "Effects & Presets". Either way, it’s the same tool.
Personally, I always search “warp” in the effects panel on the right hand side to get to the warp stabilizer. From there, you just select the clip you want stabilized. I would recommend cutting it down to the exact bit of footage you want to use before stabilizing if you haven’t. With the clip selected, double click on “warp stabilizer” and that should start the clip analysis. If that doesn’t work for some reason, just hit “Analyze” in the Effect Controls panel.
Side note: when I was first starting out with After Effects I would often accidentally move my panels and mess them all up. For some reason that always really frazzled me and I found it extremely difficult to figure out how to get everything back to how it was. If this happens to you, just go to Window - Workspace - Reset “Default” to Saved Layout.
Usually, I work with very short clips that are at most 20 seconds long. The effect takes a bit of time to process but usually no more than 2 or 3 minutes. I would be hesitant to try to use this for a very long clip. Anyway, once the clip is done analyzing, play it through to make sure you don’t have any wonky bits.
Types of footage YOU CAN SMOOTH OUT
It is surprising to me how often warp stabilizer works. Zoom shots and detail shots tend to do surprisingly well. A few obvious things that don’t work well are quick movements and low contrast shots. Panning shots are also hit or miss.
As often as possible, I think it’s best to try and get as close to your desired shot as possible while filming (unless FX is your thing, in which case go to town doing whatever magic it is you do!). Using a tripod or gimbal while shooting will guarantee that you get the shot you actually want or need. This is a decent back up if you just happen to be out and about and are caught unprepared but really want to shoot something quick.
So above is a rough example of a piece of footage that I would use to morph into a cinemagraph. I smoothed out the footage with the warp stabilizer. It’s not perfect but it’s a decent start. I wouldn’t recommend counting on the warp stabilizer for everything but it’s a good back up to keep in your pocket.