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  • Special Effects - Light Saber Fight Scene

    Want to see what this article will teach you to do? Then Download this short video clip Here.

    Before I start here are the things you will need:
    Adobe Premiere
    Adobe Photoshop (v5 or better)
    VirtualDub (optional)

    There are a whole series of special effects you can do with Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere and since so many people have these applications it seems like its the easiest way for them to do it. To buy these products will usually cost quite a bit of money =o\. Anything any good will always cost the earth and this is mainly because they are intended for businesses who can just chuck a wad of money at them because they know they will get it all back through use. Home users and enthusiasts cannot be so flagrant. You may wish to try Ebay or your local newspapers who often show ads selling these excellent applications for a fraction of the retail cost if you wish to buy them. Both Adobe Premiere and Adobe Photoshop are designed for professionals anyway and are even used in big motion picture movies, so I'd say its money well spent. Perhaps Adobe should consider a license that lets home users buy the full versions of these products cheaply but require that businesses pay the full price. The cut down versions are not really good enough for the serious home users and are just too expensive for the normal home user who only really needs to crop, sharpen or change the contrast of their scanned photos! But anyway that's their business not mine.

    Please note that these applications were NOT created specifically to do any special effects! If you are a professional or have money coming out of your ears and want to really do some serious special effects I suggest you look at software such as Adobe After Effects or even better Alias Maya (for 3D work) and you cannot go wrong with Commotion its just amazingly simple to use! All of these products have been used on many of the motion pictures you have seen in the past few years. Okay, onto the project....

    How was the effect done?

    To produce the Star Wars Light Saber effect industrial light and magic (as they are now known) used a special effects method known as rotoscoping. Rotoscoping means to get an animation artist to literally paint over the top of a developed film to create the special effect. This is a very old but effective method and has been used for many years before Star Wars was made; it was used, for example, in some of those old black and white Dracula movies to transform Dracula into a bat!

    As I'm sure you realize Star Wars was based on old Japanese Samurai movies, which is the main reason swords were used as a special feature. Have you ever noticed how close Darth Vader's suit looks to Samurai armour?! Well that's a bit of trivia there for you! Anyway, in the case of the light saber effect the actors were given normal coloured aluminum rods to fight with on screen. It doesn't matter what they used as long as they were bright and very easy to see when the actors fight. Then the animation artist takes the film and projects it onto a clear animation cel and paints in pure colour the shape of the sword. After the many hundreds of cels had been painted they were placed over a black background and recorded with a light diffusing lens over the camera to blur it and give it that glowing edge. Finally, before the original movie was developed, they re-expose the film a second time with this new recording on top.

    The method we are going to use is almost exactly the same. But instead of using a motion picture camera for the original film we are going to use a camcorder. Instead of developing the film we are going to use Adobe Premiere. Instead of using animation cels we are going to use Adobe Photoshop. And instead of using a light diffusing lens we are going to use Photoshops own glow options!


    First things first: Making your Light Saber!

    I made two fake Light Sabers for this fight scene. This is actually easier than it looks. It cost me under two pounds to buy two broom handles from a local hardware store. I then measured about a foot from the base of each and wrapped thick black electrical tape around it. I also stuck on some cardboard under the tape with some no-nails adhesive to make it a little thicker than the blade. For the top I was lucky because I found a pair of old dumbbells. I took one of the round clips that held the weights on the dumbbells and stuck it at the top of the handle. This is what the final light saber looked like:

    The design looks a bit like Darth Vaders Light Saber and not so much like Luke and Ben's weapons. I'm sure many of you can think of better ways to make your own props, or if you really want quality then you can buy a ready made Light Saber, there are a few places that sell them on line, for example try:


    Filming your Movie

    Obviously how you film your movie is up to you. The quality of the camcorder we used certainly wasn't up to scratch in my example so I cannot spout what you should do with any authority until I can produce a movie of better quality. All my video captures are excellent when taken from video but this camcorder just doesn't give a good picture. Nevertheless I'll try and give a little advice. With home movies you need lots and lots of light. This is so important that I suggest that if you are filming a night scene it may be better to film it in the day time and just use VirtualDub filters to darken the image to look like nighttime. For example, in the movie The Mummy they filmed all the night scenes in the daytime and used a blue colour filter over the camera to make it appear like night. Dark scenes work very well with the Light Saber effect because we can see the glow better. The best kind of light to use for movies is usually diffused light, so a bright day that is slightly overcast is the best time. Or if you are filming inside I suggest you get additional lamps. Photographers use frosted lamps and reflectors to cast a diffused light. Direct lamps usually cast too strong shadows so it may be better not to point it directly at the subject. If you have a manual shutter speed on your camera you may wish to set it to a short value for fast moving scenes, most other times better quality is achieved with larger values so check your manual.

    A tripod or stable surface is absolutely vital for good quality videos since nothing spoils a good scene more than a shaky picture. Just taking one single shot of a scene at one angle is not always the best way to tell a story. If you play any Star Wars fight scene it will change the angle of the action every couple of seconds. In our example we only used three camera views. These were produced with a single camcorder and by shooting the same scene over and over again to get the best views. These scenes were planned before the movie was shot! Always plan your movie shots first! Get a comic book and see what angles the action are drawn at or play a tape of an action scene and see what shots the director has chosen to give you an idea. Actually it didn't take long to plan our fight scene since it was only designed to last 15 seconds. The first scene is a side view sword fight. Then it swaps to a rear view to show an almost fatal swing. Then it switches back to a side view to see our bad guy flip back to his feet. Then we have the bad guy using the force to make his light saber magically leap to his hand. Finally we switch back to the side view again and the good guy inflicts the death blow!

    The scene where we used the force to magically bring the light saber to our hand was easier to do than you might suspect. We merely filmed the bad guy throwing his light saber down on the floor. Then later, when we cut the scenes together as one single movie, we played that scene backwards!


    Capturing your Video

    Once you have made your movie you need to record it onto your computer. Special effects take a lot of hard disk space because they will need to be converted into uncompressed AVI. I suggest you capture your master copy as highest quality MJPEG at the largest resolution and best framerate your hardware can handle. The better the original capture the better the final result will be even if you resize them smaller for the final video. You can see my video capture guide for advice on doing that anyway.

    When doing special effects I suggest you split your captures up into single scenes at a time and work on that scene. This is very important! We are not recording a feature length movie! Just a few seconds of video footage will take up gigabytes of hard drive space. I suggest you aim to do your special effects in less than 5 second clips. Since there are about 25 frames per second you'll be editing by hand 125 frames at a time! If you edit too much at once your computer will be under heavy strain and it will be slow to use or even crash loosing everything you have done! If you are only interested in doing small video clips for the Internet you could set your video card to capture at about 14 frames per second (fps) instead of the TV standard of 25 fps. This drastically cuts down on the workload and still looks very real.


    Converting your Movie with Premiere

    Okay, so now you have your star wars fight scene using a couple of broomsticks recorded on your hard disk, what now? We need to be able to open our video file in Adobe Photoshop and paint over every frame of our movie. Don't worry its not as hard as it sounds. But before we can open the video in Photoshop we must be convert it into a special video format that Photoshop can read - this format is called a Filmstrip (*.FLM). The filmstrip format literally takes every frame of the video and pastes it into a huge bitmap -like file. This picture has all the frame photos tiled across it one after the other.

    To convert our captured video into a filmstrip file we must use Adobe Premiere. In some ways its a shame that we must use Adobe Premiere because if we could convert an AVI file into a filmstrip without Premiere and back again then you could cut down your costs since Premiere's main use to us is to convert the video! Perhaps a kind programmer would like to create an application that converts AVIs to filmstrip and back again?

    Anyway, open Adobe Premiere and right-click your mouse button inside the Project Window. Up will pop a bunch of options (as in the picture below), choose: Import > File. And choose your first video clip.

    Note: The Project window in premiere can be imagined as a box where you put your video and audio files to be used in premiere. Once you have them in your project box you can splice them together and use all the other features found in premiere. But before you can do this you need to import them into your project box.

    Next we drag our video clip into the timeline window as shown below:

    Once that is done you can save your video as a Filmstrip by going to: File > Export Timeline > Movie...

    Up will pop the browser box asking where you wish to save your video. But since we do not want to save it as an AVI file we must press the settings... button encircled in red below:

    Up will pop the following dialog box. Choose Filmstrip from the drop down menu and then press OK.

    That's it! You can now save your video as a Filmstrip that is able to be opened in Adobe Photoshop! Once done just close Adobe Premiere.


    Using Adobe Photoshop to make Light Sabers

    Before you do anything you must add a new layer over the top of your movie. This can be imagined as placing a transparent animation cel over your movie so you do not permanently change the original until you are done. To do that simply press the add new layer option encircled in red below. As soon as you press it you will notice a new line appears in the box saying Layer 1 as in the example below.

    The next part is to draw our main light beam, this has to be done to every frame. ONLY do one of the fighters light sabers on this layer otherwise we will end up with both swords the same colour, and we don't want that do we?!

    Choose pure white as your colour and then select the Line tool (A). In options above you must use the fill region option or you are gonna be in agony city with a million layers (B). Next you must choose the thickness of the sword (C) I have chosen 2 px (pixels) but if you are zooming in close to the swords obviously this line needs to be much thicker and vice versa. That's it! It is preferable to keep the anti-alias option turned on when doing all your white lines. Now you can draw a nice white line over each frame. If you make a mistake just use the Eraser tool to delete it and start again. This is possible because we added a clear layer over the top of the original picture, cool huh!

    Note: We are using Photoshop version 6 here but this line tool is found under the pencil option in earlier versions of Adobe Photoshop, you have to click on the pencil and keep your finger on the mouse button to select it.

    But wait! What happens when we come to a fast moving scene like the one below?! When a light saber swings the sword fans out into a triangular shape. The faster the swing the larger the triangle. For this we must use the polygon selection tool encircled in red.

    Draw four points like the picture above to create a fan shape. Once the shape is drawn go to: Edit > Fill...

    It will ask you what colour to fill but you are using white as the foreground anyway so press OK.

    Then Bingo! You will end up with the following result. Notice also that it doesn't matter if the white goes off the edge of the frame as long as it doesn't go into another frame. If it does overlap into another frame don't worry just use the Eraser tool again to rub out the part that does.

    The final problem you may come across is if the light saber comes really close to the camera. The reason for this is because the line tool produces a square ended line like a rectangle. The only way around this is to select the brush tool and double click on the brush options above. Then select a brush size the exact same size as your light saber line with a hardness of 100%. Now you can easily just dot the round tip of your light saber as shown in the picture below:


    If you wish to save your progress so you don't accidentally loose your work in a system crash I suggest you resave your work as a Photoshop *.PSD file. That way you can keep all your layers. But do NOT delete the original *.Flm file because we must copy the final results to that when we are done. Saving as a PSD file will take up almost as much Hard Disk space as the *.flm and AVI files so you can see the wisdom in doing these effects in very small clips at a time. Obviously when we are done



    Once you have drawn your white lines over your first persons stick it is time to make it glow. No, you're not in for a hard time this is the easiest part of all =o). Right-click on Layer 1 and choose: Blending Options...

    This is the most fun since you see the results appear as if by magic! Click on the Outer Glow option. When you do so a whole bunch of options will appear.

    Most of these options explain themselves. First choose the colour of your light saber by pressing the colour square. I have chosen green in this example. Then the only ones you should really be concerned about are the spread and size options. The spread is how much glow and the size is how thick the glow will appear, just play with them until you get the right effect. That's it! You've done it baby!! If you want to continue and do the other light saber just do the same thing again. Add a new layer (this time it will be Layer 2) and draw over the other blokes stick. Then use the blending effect to make it a different colour!

    Note that on close ups of the light saber you may wish to use an Adobe Photoshops Gaussian blur because the inside edge may appear too sharp.


    Resaving the movie

    Okay, the pictures look great, now is the moment of truth. If you saved your work as a *.PSD file then you need to cut and paste the light sabers back over the top of the *.FLM file! This is not too hard, just open both the *.PSD file and the *.FLM file in Adobe Photoshop. Then click on the PSD picture so the title turns blue and select the first layer. Click on that layer and drag it over the original Filmstrip as seen in the picture below:

    This may throw the positioning out a little to use the reposition tool to get it back in place, it looks like this:

    Once you are finished you need to flatten your picture so the transparent layers become part of the original. To do this go to: Layer > Flatten Image

    Now you can go to: File > Save (Ctrl+S). And we are done!


    Converting the Filmstrip back to AVI

    This is a reverse process from what we did to convert it to Filmstrip. Close Photoshop and Adobe Premiere. Right-click your inside the Project Window. Choose: Import > File. And choose your newly created Filmstrip!

    Next we drag our video clip into the timeline window as shown below:

    Once that is done you can save your video as an AVI again by going to: File > Export Timeline > Movie...

    Up will pop the browser box asking where you wish to save your video. But since we want to save it as an AVI file again we must press the settings... button encircled in red:

    Up will pop the following dialog box. Choose Microsoft AVI from the drop down menu. Pressing the next button in the lower right corner of the box will also take you through all the save options for this AVI. You can choose the framerate, the resolution and even choose to compress the video straight to DivX or another compressed format before you finally save.

    Once you have chosen how you want it saved just press OK and you have finished the star wars special effect!


    Extras, Extras Extras!

    At this point you should be amazed at the results you have achieved This effect doesn't just work with Light Sabers you can use exactly the same method to produce very realistic laser beams and other glowing light effects. On my video example I have used the airbrush set to a very low pressure to spray white over the light sabers where they touch. This gives over the idea that they are actually hitting each other and spraying light everywhere.


    Adding Sounds

    Its always hard to write a guide like this because I'm trying to teach people in one page how to use both Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere AND how to do some very advanced effects with them. If you are having trouble with either application I suggest you check the manuals and tutorials that come with the product. If I have time before I grow old and die I'll probably add some more detailed guides on using them too, but until then I'll explain very basically how you add sound to your video with Premiere.

    Obviously you can get your sounds from anywhere. You can buy special effects CD's or you can copy sound files from Game CD's or by recording them from movies. The original Star Wars light saber sounds were a combination of the sound picked up by the hum of a projector and a microphone being waved around at the back of an old television set!

    When you have your sounds Import them all into your Adobe Premiere bin by right-clicking in the Project box and selecting: Import > File.

    Once you have all the effects drag then into the Timeline box where it says Audio 1 or Audio 2 depending on how much space there is in each. It doesn't matter which audio track you use really.

    That's basically it! Use your mouse to drag the audio files left and right until they correspond with the movements in your light saber fight scene. Use the Monitor Window to play the resulting video to make sure the positioning is correct. You can also change the length of the audio clip by clicking your mouse on the edge of it and resizing it. When you are done and the sound matches perfectly just export the Timeline and save your final movie:

    Phew! I hope you enjoy this effect! =o)

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