Tutorial - Making Realistic Muzzle Flashes

Now, before we get too deep into gun battles, I would like to warn you that shooting a realistic-looking gun in public is not something you want to do. We don't want anyone getting arrested or worse (God forbid), so please use common sense and caution when shooting your gun scenes.

This technique can be extremely useful in certain situations. In my latest film, we were lucky enough to have a prop gun that ejected shells, so we didn't need any visual FX when we were shooting in a basement on a controlled set. However, the following day, we had to shoot in a park, and we didn't feel it was wise or necessary (remember the common sense we talked about?) to shoot a realistic-looking prop gun in public. Enter composited muzzle flashes!

Step 1: Select Your Muzzle Flash

The first thing you need to do is purchase some muzzle flashes. Detonation Films a lot of them for great prices. Select the appropriate muzzle flash for the type of gun you are using. You can get away with a lot here, but you can't go too crazy or your muzzle flashes won't look authentic. You'll also want to keep in mind the perspective of the muzzle fire. You don't want to use a side shot of a muzzle flash when your gun is head on with the camera. If your perspective is off, you can sometimes turn your muzzle flash layer into a 3D layer and adjust it to match the perspective. More on this in Step 3.

Figure 1: Select the appropriate muzzle flash (click to enlarge)

Step 2: Choose the Correct Frame

You want to make sure that you choose the correct frame for your muzzle fire – that is, you want to make sure the muzzle fire happens at the correct point in time. Depending on the type of gun you are using, some have blowback (Airsoft guns have gas or spring blowback), and some don't do anything at all. You want to insert the muzzle flash right when your actor pulls the trigger. Muzzle flashes are really only one frame in length, so pick a good frame where the timing feels right. For more information on blowback and placement, see the accompanying online video tutorial referenced at the end of this article.

I chose the frame in Figure 2 because it happens to be when our actor pulled the trigger. This is the frame right before the recoil.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge)

Step 3: Placement

You want to place the muzzle fire right where the hole of the barrel is. Get some reference pictures. As always, reference is key! A Google search should provide you with plenty of reference photos.

As you may have noticed, the perspective of the muzzle fire is off in Figure 3. The footage of our actor is a quarter-angle view. Our muzzle flash is a side view. Sometimes, depending on the muzzle flash footage, we can turn the muzzle-fire layer into a 3D layer and rotate it along the Y-axis in order to match the perspective. This will not always look correct, so it's best to start off with a muzzle flash shot in the same perspective as the shot of your actor. If, however, a side view is all you have, here is a solution.

Click on the 3D box for the Muzzle Flash layer in the timeline to convert it into a 3D layer (see Figure 4).

As you see in Figure 5, a rotation along the Y-axis (the green arrow) and a rotation along the Z-axis (the blue arrow) have put the footage into an acceptable alignment. Remember, this is going to be only one frame long, so if it feels right, no one will notice.

Realign the barrel and the muzzle flash by changing the position of the muzzle fire (see Figure 6).

Figure 3 (click to enlarge)

Figure 4 (click to enlarge)

Figure 5 (click to enlarge)

Figure 6 (click to enlarge)

Step 4: Tweak for Reality

You may have to desaturate or saturate your muzzle fire, depending on your footage. In this example, we have to desaturate the muzzle flash. Apply the Hue/Saturation effect (Effect > Color Correction > Hue/Saturation). I brought the Master Saturation down to -25 (see Figure 7).

You may also need to add a blur (Effect > Blur & Sharpen > Fast Blur OR Box Blur – these are the two best blurs), in order to make the muzzle fire match your footage. In this case, a blur is not necessary.

Figure 7 (click to enlarge)

Step 5: Shoot 'em Up!

Try Turbulent Displace (Effect>Distort>Turbulent Displace) if the muzzle fire isn't "fiery" enough. I set Amount to 25, Size to 7 and Complexity to 6. See which combination works best for you.

Your muzzle fire is now complete. Be sure to tweak every setting to blend your muzzle flashes properly. Blurs, exposure, color correction and interactive lighting are your friends, so call upon them when the going gets tough.

Again, please remember to use caution and common sense when shooting scenes with guns. Safety is your number one priority, so take this stuff seriously and everyone else will too. We want you all back for my next demo… Light Sabers!

Oh, and yes, that is a La Femme Nikita reference at the beginning of this article.

Figure 7 (click to enlarge)

Paul Del Vecchio is a "do-it-all" director and owns Triple E Productions, a movie/video production company..

Interactive Tutorial Content

To view the tutorial video for Making Realistic Muzzle Flashes, click here.

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