Adobe AfterEffects Tutorial: How to Create a Lightsaber Effect

Lightsabers are probably one of the coolest things movies have thought up of. Even non Star Wars junkies would admit that lightsabers are cool. With this tutorial, you will be able to edit your own footage and add a lightsaber effect. Of course, as is with many things in computer art, there are a million ways to accomplish the same goal. This guide is just one way to creating the lightsaber effect, I am in no way saying this is how the people at ILM did it for the Star Wars movies. Another thing to note before diving into this tutorial is that knowing how to rotoscope is required. Rotoscoping is, however, the way the people at ILM did the lightsabers for the original three Star Wars movies.

Step 1: Masking
This tutorial will assume that you have footage of someone with a prop stick acting as the lightsaber. As mentioned earlier, you will need to know how to rotoscope, and that is the first step. Rotoscope the movement of the prop stick that will eventually be the lightsaber. For the sake of the tutorial, I will call the original footage comp “Original”.

Step 2: Make a new Comp
After you have finished making your mask, create a new composition. Name this comp “Lightsaber Effect”. Once that is done, add a solid white layer to this comp and copy and paste the mask from Original to the solid white layer. This should mask out most of the viewable surface and leave you with what would look like a white stick. The white will end up being the core of the lightsaber.

Once that is done, add two more solid layers. The color of these layers should be the color of the lightsaber that you want. For example, if you want a red lightsaber, make both layers red. For this tutorial, that’s the color I will be using. After you have created both red layers, copy and paste the mask from Original to both layers.

The reason for two layers of the same color is to add volume to the color. You can try making the lightsaber with just one layer, but eventually, after the lightsaber effect as been added, it will look transparent.

Step 3: The Lightsaber
Once you have those three layers set up, make the white solid the active layer and go into the Effects menu. Go to Gaussian Blur or Fast Blur, doesn’t really matter which. Change the value of the Blur to about 10. Then switch to the first red layer and add a Gaussian or Fast Blur effect of about 20-30. Finally, switch to the final red layer and apply the same type of blur effect this time at about 30-40. Of course, these numbers are not meant to be used exactly; you’re going to have to look at how it looks and tweak the numbers a bit, these are just for rough guides.

Once you have applied the effects, it should look like a lightsaber. Play with the layer order to figure out which way you like it best. Also, play with the blur settings as mentioned above as well to finalize your lightsaber effect.

Step 4: Finalizing
After you have finished creating the lightsaber, go back to the original comp. Then, drag in the Lightsaber Effect Comp into the Original Comp as a layer. Make the Lightsaber Effect Comp the topmost layer. Assuming that you didn’t change the position of the mask AFTER it was created, the new lightsaber should match up perfectly over the prop lightsaber found in the original footage.. Now, if you hit play, the person in the footage will now be swinging around a lightsaber instead of a prop stick.

Another effect you can add to make it look more realistic is the Motion Blur effect. Make the Lightsaber Effect Comp the active layer and go into Effects>Motion Blur. Again, the amount of blurriness is up to you and you should play around with it to see how much blurriness you want.

As with all moving objects, you should always hit the M found on your time line window. It is one of three buttons between the name of the layer and its corresponding time line. This will add an additional blur, a very minute one, that will make the added layer look like it was from the original. It will also make it look less “digital”.

With these steps, you can make almost any lightsaber effect. How complex you want to make it really depends on how much you want to rotoscope as that will be where most of your time will be spent.

If you do not know how to rotoscope, here is a very simple way to do a lightsaber effect. This however requires that you have very simple movements of the lightsaber, simple as in it moves unidirectionally. The footage of the lightsaber cannot change angles and the view of the blade cannot be interrupted by anything, that is the limitation of this method.

Basically, all you do is create a lightsaber through Photoshop with a transparent background. Bring the layer into the AfterEffects comp and make it the top most layer. Align it so that it is on top of the prop lightsaber and using the Position and Rotation effects, match the lightsaber with the movement of the prop lightsaber. Again, add the Motion Blur Effect and the hit the M button to make it look more believable. However, this method is not recommended if you know how to rotoscope. It’s very limiting and doesn’t quite achieve the same effect as you would if you had rotoscoped it.

However, as mentioned earlier, there are many ways to create a lightsaber effect. These are just two simple ways. They can be used separately or they can be use together. You should also implement your own knowledge of AfterEffects to find better and more suitable ways for the type of project you will be doing.

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