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OnLocation CS4 Review

More than just a facelift

By Steve Hullfish | February 01, 2009

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Last year I wrote a review of various software-based waveform/vectorscopes. In that review I included my praise and criticism of Adobe OnLocation, though technically it's a lot more than just simple wave/vector software.
 
Since that time, Adobe has released the CS4 collection, upgrading most of their apps with significant features and - probably more importantly - increasing the interoperability of the apps in the overall suite. Once of the apps that got a huge overhaul in CS4 was OnLocation, so I wanted to revisit it and share a little of what has changed and why you should consider using this app on your next project.

One big consideration for many is that OnLocation used to be a PC-only application. With CS4, you can run OnLocation on a Mac.

Before I get too far into a review of the new and improved OnLocation, I should point out what this app is designed to do, for those who are unfamiliar with it. OnLocation's name is a pretty good indication of what it does. You generally load OnLocation onto a laptop, though you could have it on a desktop computer, for use monitoring and/or capturing footage in the field from your camera. The monitoring is the big thing, though capturing direct to disk is obviously a huge timesaver in itself. Basically OnLocation turns your laptop into an inexpensive version of a feature film's "Video Village." You can monitor the image itself and see a waveform, vectorscope, VU meters. I've seen plenty of footage come in from the field that could would have looked a LOT better if the DP had had access to a waveform monitor instead of relying on their viewfinder. Having a waveform monitor and vectorscope on a greenscreen shoot is especially useful in eventually being able to pull a good key from the material. A minute or two adjusting lighting can save hours of compositing time and additional rendering.

Another obvious advantage to capturing video in the field through OnLocation is that you can review footage in the field without having to rewind the tape, with the danger that you forget to play all the way through your footage or fast forward back to the blank area of the tape. Of course reviewing footage in the field is also a great way to waste a LOT of time in the field. But if you can save even one shot that has a technical issue that wasn't noticed during the shoot and grab a reshoot before leaving the location or setting up for another angle, then the review process will "pay for itself."

imageIn my previous review of OnLocation, I complained that the interface was actually TOO cool. It was designed to look like gear in a rack. It was a really interesting and fun interface, but it wasted a lot of space and the vectorscope display was very "retro" which actually detracted from its true purpose as an important, high tech tool. The new interface sheds all of the "fun" and assumes that you want to get some business done. The interface is much more modern and adopts many of the same features and operability that Adobe users are used to in apps like After Effects and Photoshop, like tabbed, draggable windows. That's probably the biggest single improvement for me. How a user interfaces with an application is critical, and the change in the UI signals that this is a tool that can be taken seriously. I will miss some of the kitsch of the former UI, but the renovation is a welcome improvement.

The main thing of interest to me is the quality of the scopes. The trace - the part that actually shows the video levels - is very nice. Some software scopes seem very granular in their lack of detail. All you see are big pixels to indicate the levels instead of a nice smooth, wave-like trace. The scopes in OnLocation are very detailed and pleasing to read.


imageI do have a couple of issues with the scopes. The first is that there is no way to zoom the scopes to get a better look at either the top or bottom of the waveform or at the center of the vectorscope. This is a feature of most hardware-based scopes and some software-based scopes. This ability to zoom in is really important for critical monitoring of the signal. Another issue is with the scale of the waveform monitor. When watching the waveform monitor in Y (luma) mode, the scale of the graticule (the part of the monitor that gives you a reference for how high or low the video is) only displays on a 0-255 scale and the black of the video is set at 16. However if you go to RGB Parade mode, black is displayed at 0. In YUV Parade mode it is also set to 16. Most scopes have a user preference to choose the type of scale you want to view in - for example 0-100% or 0-100 IRE - and they allow you to choose where you want to indicate video black - either at 0 or 7.5IRE. And, while you can set OnLocation to show "zebras" to indicate various levels, it would also be nice to have illegal blacks, gamut and gain indicated on the waveform and vectorscope as well. Another small annoyance is that if you change the display of one of the scopes from one type of waveform to another or from viewing the full raster to only a single line (a very nice feature) the scope does not update until you hit play on the clip again. I would prefer if you could make these changes and have the scopes update live or almost live, without the need to restart the video. This is particularly a pain if you are viewing a scope in line mode because the scope doesn't update the information as you drag the line to different positions.

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