Before you start adding in the effects, it’s key to have the necessary software. Without it you’ll find yourself real stuck, real fast. Obviously any filmmaker is on a tight budget, but the at home filmmakers and the indie producers are on an especially tight budget (for many its a $0 budget). So I’ll going to present to you the best software for the job, as well as highlight those programs that are free to download which can produce the same effects you desire.
GIMP – It’s kind of like photoshop (not as intuitive) but for free it’s a great alternative.
Blender – This is a great program for any 3D modeling needs, and there are many uses you could find for this in all of your film projects. It has almost the same features as Maya does, but it’s totally free, with tons of free video tutorials on their site to get you started.
Jahshaka (Formerly CineFX) – Imagine After Effects and Premiere Pro all rolled into one (but for free) and you’ve got CineFX. It’s a nifty little program that can do all you would really want AE to do, allowing you to add excellent motion graphics and effects to your project without breaking the bank. Be prepared to spend some serious time with it though. While it can do what AE and Premiere does, it’s not nearly as user-friendly and has a pretty sharp learning curve. This isn’t a pick-up and go system.
Lightsaber Maker – pretty much exactly what it says. It’s an entire program devoted to putting a Lightsaber into your video footage. It’s simple, fairly easy to use and entirely free to download. Does it give you the very best look? No. But for lack of anything else, it’s suitable.
So you want the best that’s out there but am worried about the price. If you have a one-time project I would suggest going straight to Adobe’s website and downloading the free 30-day trials. This way you get pretty much the full professional experience without hurting your checkbook. While not everyone is keen on their new “renting” model, where you can pay per month for the programs you need, they can be very handy as well. If you’re only going to use the program for a limited time, paying month-to-month for it is a more cost-effective option.
FX Home – They have a great bundle for getting a wide amount of sci-fi effects (cloaking, flying, green screen compositing) including a Lightsaber making software for a very affordable price ($100-$150 tops). If you want to make a wider range of sci-fi films this might be the all-in-one package you’ve been looking for. The only problem is you’re getting what you pay for. Their programs have great work-arounds for the effects you need, but they rarely look professional. But for a quick fun project, like creating you and your best friend’s epic Lightsaber duel, it’s not bad.
If you want to get real authentic with your fan made video, then you’re going to need some props; most notably a hilt for your Lightsaber. Let’s face it nothing says cheap/amateur like seeing a plain wooden handle in your saber video. Fortunately there are some places to get these.
ParkSabers – This is one of the best places to buy a custom hilt. The work is superb and it has a quick turn around time. The problem is that these tend to get a little pricey. But for some of the best props this is the place to go.
UltraSabers – This is another custom Lightsaber maker online that sells lightsabers that are both fun to look at and functional in terms of filming. However, the best aspect of this site, is that fact that it also sells out the individual Lightsaber parts so that you can build your own fully customized saber.
Build Your Own – This handy step-by-step guide will walk you through how to build your own lightsaber using store bought supplies. Best of with this option, is that you can get away pretty cheap, so if budget is a concern, this might be easier for you. It also allows you to easier make more unique sabers, something different from what’s been seen before.
If none of these options are really appealing to you, don’t forget that eBay can be you friend.
There are many different methods in order to put that glow onto a film clip, but most employ some form of rotoscoping. Rotoscoping was (and still is) an old film device that was created and patented by animator Max Fleischer in 1917. What it does is project live-action footage frame-by-frame onto an animator’s drawing board so that other elements can be integrated into the footage. While the device has since been replaced by digital workstations, the term rotoscoping is now used to refer to any frame-by-frame alteration to footage.
It’s a tedious process but if you want the best looking effect for your Lightsabers or and special effect, you will have to go frame-by-frame. Just try to keep that in mind when you’re trying to plan deadlines.
Be warned, the tutorials I’m presenting to you below do require intermediate to advanced knowledge of the programs like Photoshop and After Effects. If you’ve never used these programs, these will more than likely just confuse you. If that’s the case your best options are to go with the LS Maker and FX Home tutorials. Those are designed for beginners and don’t require nearly as much hands on work. The results aren’t as professional, but will save you more time than trying to learn an advanced program.
If you want really great tutorials from a professional who’s been doing this for a while you need to check out Ryan Wieber’s site. Using AE he’s created some of the best looking sabers around, and created one of the best fan-made duels because of it.
Speaking of Ryan Wieber, this video tutorial shows you the most popular way to create Lightsabers in After Effects. Called the Adjustment Layer Method, this video will take you step-by-step how to create the effect. It’s a well put together tutorial and incredibly easy to follow along with. You need to Quick Time to see this one, but you can just right-click and save as to keep this on your hard drive forever. In fact this is the method I used to create this:
This is another great video on how to create the effect in After Effects. It’s very similar to Ryan Wieber’s tutorial (it uses the adjustment layer method) but also has some notable differences.
Remember that FX Home software I pointed you to a little bit ago? If you end up going that route for your rotoscoping needs, be sure to check out this tutorial to make the process simple.
LS Maker is a simple program designed to do one thing (like I mentioned earlier) but even so, sometimes it’s still easier for someone to show you the way. This video walks you through the program’s features so that you can create duels in a snap.
Also, VideoCopilot (who also up tons of general tutorials on all kinds of VFX things) has a nice little Lightsaber tutorial to check out.
One of the smallest details that can totally detract from how well your sabers look, is the contact flash. Most filmmakers completely forget to add this in, and result is noticeable. While your sabers might be perfect and match your footage excellently, they’ll still look off without this 3-4 frame (yeah not much needed) clip. You can use lens flares to create effect, but Ryan Wieber has been nice enough to let the word use his pre-made contact flash for free. Just right-click and save the link above. When you drop this clip into your project be sure to set the clip’s transfer mode to ‘Add’ or ‘Screen’ this will eliminate the surrounding black edges.
This tutorial (along with it’s second part) give a great way to get a ‘wall-cutting’ effect in After Effects. The idea being that you can create the effect like you’ve seen in The Phantom Menace where the Lightsaber is cutting through a wall and leaving molten metal in it’s wake. This requires some advanced knowledge but the end result is fantastic.
In keeping with the Lightsaber cut/burn theme I’ll show you this tutorial which shows how to get a good looking Lightsaber burn. The example he uses here is dragging a saber along the ground, but it could easily be adapted to other objects. Let’s face it at some point in your film you’re probably going to want the saber to actually cut something (that’s what they’re supposed to do) so this tutorial will help you accomplish that.
So you don’t have a video you want to add these effects to, but you could think of a few photos that could be spruced up by some Lightsaber action. This is the video for you. That great thing about Photoshop is the ability to create those presets. So once you do this tutorial you could in theory create a preset based off of that and never have to re-visit this.
If you opted to go with the freeware photo editing software GIMP, don’t worry this tutorial will get you covered for all of your Lightsaber picture needs.
Just for fun, I’m going to present this tutorial on how to make Force Lighting (like Emperor Palpatine/Count Dooku uses in the films) in After Effects.
What’s a Lightsaber without it’s traditional and iconic hum? To truly create a good saber video, you’ll need great sound effects to match the action. Timing them with the action on the screen can be tedious at times, but attention to detail with these sound effects will make it truly amazing. You can download the best Lightsaber sound effects from these sources:
There you have it, your ultimate resource for all of your Lightsaber needs. Being a filmmaker, it’s hard to find the time to track down all of this information. If you’re doing a contest or are working on a schedule, sometimes it’s time you can’t afford to waste. So get out there and make a Lightsaber out of whatever you can find. You have the tools now so use them and don’t forget to show us your best results.
If you have other resources you think should be included in this list, be sure to let us know in the comments and we’ll update our list as we go!