Corel KnockOut 1.5

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Advanced masking software that helps isolate objects from their background ready for compositing.

One of the most common and important photo-editing tasks is to isolate an object from its background so that it can be used as part of a new composition. Using the traditional magic wand or magnetic lasso this is relatively straightforward when the object is simple and clearly defined, but in real life such occasions are the exception rather than the rule. Try isolating someone’s hair from a complex background, for example, and you’ll soon be tearing your own out. The ideal would be if the computer could somehow determine for itself what is foreground and what is background - and that’s exactly what Corel Knockout promises to do.

Of course the program can’t recognise objects in the same way as the eye does, so you have to start off the process by first marking out the area of transition. In KnockOut this involves using the Inside Object and Outside Object tools to mark off the inner and outer borders of the object you want to process. To help make things more accurate you can add to and subtract from each border and use the new Loupe magnifier to enlarge just the area of the image that the cursor is over. You then set a level of Transition Complexity depending on the number of colours in the foreground and background and finally hit the Process command. It’s not exactly difficult, but it could and should be simpler. In particular the Extract command in the latest Photoshop 5.5 works in a similar way, but allows you to mark out the transition border with a simple highlighter pen and then refine it with an eraser.

The transition area is set up by defining inner and outer borders.

The Photoshop command is simpler in practice, but what really counts is the end result and this is where KnockOut is in a different league. Although Photoshop’s Extract command successfully isolates most objects complete with semi-transparent edges to help the object blend in with its new background, the mask is still pretty crude. If you zoom in on the alpha channel mask that KnockOut produces, however, you’ll see that every pixel has been given its own unique transparency level. What this means in practice is that while the Photoshop isolated object still seems slightly separate and artificial, the KnockOut object really does become an integral part of its new composition. To help you visually check that the generated mask is working seamlessly, KnockOut allows you to quickly choose a colour or image to use as a backdrop.

What sets KnockOut apart is the subtlety of the mask it generates.

This transition-based system works well with typical difficult images, such as hair against coloured backgrounds, but often objects are even more complicated than this. How does KnockOut cope with semi-transparent elements such as a glass or shadow? In the case of glass, you hold down the Ctrl key to turn the Inside Object tool into the PushPin tool. You then click on single opaque pixels and these are used as the basis for generating the final mask. This works rather like Photoshop’s Select Colour Range tool, but with the serious limitation that you aren’t given any feedback on exactly what you’re selecting until you finally process the image. Much more successful is KnockOut’s handling of shadows. This is handled by marking out the shadows just as you do the main object using Inside Shadow and Outside Shadow tools and KnockOut then intelligently isolates the luminance of the shadow areas as separate masks. Realistic shadows are essential to producing realistic final compositions and this is a good way of including them with your isolated object.

Generally KnockOut makes a pretty good job of determining what elements of the transition area belong to the foreground and background, but of course it’s not infallible. Sometimes when the foreground object merges seamlessly with the background the mask that is generated is jagged and unrealistic. To compensate for this you can mark off areas with the Edge Feather tool to ensure that edges are softened. On other occasions, KnockOut will make the foreground object’s edges too soft or include some unwanted background. To avoid these two problems you use the Inside and Outside Syringe tools to select colours that will be injected into or removed from the transition area to restore foreground detail or remove background colour respectively. These are useful compensations but the program would benefit even more from the ability to interactively refine the generated mask through painting.

All told it’s clear that KnockOut isn’t a miracle cure and that creating a successful mask and successful end composition remains a complex task. As such most users, especially Photoshop 5.5 users, will be happy to stick with the tools that their own photo-editor provides. For professionals where masking is a crucial part of their jobs however, KnockOut could be a useful tool to add to their armoury.

Ease of Use
3
Features
4
Value for Money
3
Overall
4

Tom Arah

June 2000


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