Tutorial - The Sword and the Light

With the immense popularity of the Star Wars franchise, the light sword seems to have become the most recognizable special effect in cinema history.

Immense isn’t even a strong enough word – light swords have to be the most popular special effect ever created. Men, women and children ages 5 to 105 will be able to tell you what the light sword is and where it’s from.

Here’s some tips on how to create this popular special effect, so that you can impress your friends, your parents and even your high school crush. Who knows, maybe, like Han Solo or Princess Leia, your crush will think you’re so cool and finally profess undying love for you… but we wouldn’t count on it. So, whether it be to impress members of the opposite sex or to finally make that Star Wars fan film you’ve been dying to create, here is a simple (but time-consuming) method for creating the Light Sword Effect. We used Adobe’s After Effects software, so some steps may differ in yours.

Step 1: Props

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Modify a broom handle with some hardware store parts to make the physical sword. (click to enlarge)

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Before you do anything in post production, let’s talk about the product side of things. You’re going to need a false light sword, in order to help you out in post production. You’ll need a guide to see what the glowing blade will look like in 3D space. An on-set practical prop will do just that.

Find a straight stick, whether it be a broom stick or a tree branch. Better still would be a Force FX Lightsaber that you can find at most any toy store. This will give you a glowing stick on set, so the surrounding areas will light up. It will run you probably around $100, however. If you don’t want to spend that kind of money, a light-colored broom stick will do just fine.

In this example, we bought a cheap broom at the market. Dave shoved it into a base handle he created with parts from a hardware store. I’ll leave that up to you to decide what looks best.

Step 2: Rotoscoping (The Fun Part)

Create a pale yellow solid and make it the size of the composition.

Turn the opacity down to 30%, so you can see your footage beneath it.

Now comes the fun part. This is tedious and time-consuming, but necessary for creating this effect. Basically, you want to take your pen tool and trace the outline of your broom stick with your pen tool, creating a mask around it. Place three points at each end, taking care to slightly round off the tips of the light sword.

Notice how there are three points on the tip, slightly rounding off the top part of the blade:
And three more points at the bottom slightly round out the bottom near the base: Press M twice on the keyboard to bring up the Mask Properties, then press the Stopwatch next to Mask Path to set a keyframe.

Carefully follow each key point around the entire broom stick, making sure you don’t cover the handle.

Now move to the next frame by pressing Page Down on your keyboard, and realign the points on the mask shape to the broomstick.

In the picture below, notice how the outline does not cover the broomstick anymore – obviously, this is because the broomstick is moving in the video. You need to adjust the points on your mask in order to cover up the broomstick. Basically, you are tracing the broomstick frame by frame.

You’ll need to painstakingly follow the sword in each frame as it moves around the clip, to keep the mask over the broom handle as it moves during “battle”.

Repeat this process until the end of the shot, taking care to keep the outline on the broomstick the entire time. You need to do this so that, when you add the glow and color later, they will follow the movements of the broomstick.

Once you have completed this for the entire shot, you should have a complete set of keyframes, and your outline should follow the movement of the broomstick. Play it back by pressing 0 (zero) on the numberpad, so that you can make sure your outline looks correct. If it does not, make the necessary adjustments.

After you’ve made key frames throughout the entire clip to mask the broom stick completely,play it back slowly to check for points that may need adjusting.


Step 3: The Core

What you have been creating here is the core of the light sword. You need the core to remain that pale yellowish-white color, but gradually transition into the outer glow. In order for this to happen, you need to blur the core. Before this, however, turn the opacity of the pale yellow solid from 30% back up to 100%.

Now that you have the mask, you need to blur the image a bit. Set blur to about 3.0% and add a fast blur to the pale yellow solid stick.

Add a Fast Blur to the pale yellow solid, and set Blurriness to around 3.0. This will blur the core (obviously) and give you a softer edge.

You also want to bring up the exposure of the blade a tad, so add an Exposure effect (Effects>Color Correction>Exposure) to the pale yellow solid, and set the Exposure up a little bit. In this case, 0.6 works.

Step 4: The Glow

Now, you finally get to colorize the light sword. Duplicate your Core Layer (the pale yellow solid layer) by pressing CTRL+D on the keyboard. This will create an exact copy of the Core Layer, with all the effects, keyframes and the mask that you created.

Duplicate your Core Layer.

Now you’ll need to change the transfer mode of this new layer to Add.

The top layer is now your Glow Layer. Select that layer, press Enter on the keyboard and rename the layer to Glow Layer, just so you can make sure you stay organized.

Rename the dupe and lay the duplicate layer above the original layer.

With that layer still selected, press CTRL+SHIFT+Y on the keyboard to bring up the solid’s properties. You can change the color of the solid to whatever color you want your light sword to be. I chose a deep purple color for the light sword, but you might like green or hot pink.

The inner yellow glow will remain the same, but you’re changing the color of the outer edges. Select a color that will show throughout your video.

You will hardly see a difference in the look of the light sword. However, you will notice that the outer part of the light sword is slightly tinted the color that you chose. In order to colorize the light sword, you need to do the following:

  • Change the Fast Blur of the Glow Layer to 36.
  • Change the Exposure to 7.8.

You will see the glow on the light sword in the color you chose.

Now your light sword is complete. Remember, you can tweak the appearance of the Glow by adjusting the Exposure, Fast Blur and the Opacity of the Glow Layer and dropping the Glow Layer below the Core Layer. You can even try switching the Transfer Mode of the Glow Layer in order to get different results.

Tweak the light sword glow by adjusting Exposure, fast blur and opacity.

As with everything else in Visual FX, these settings are not set in stone. You have to experiment each step of the way. What looks good to my eye might not fit your taste. Just experiment and play around with the settings in order to achieve results that are to your liking.
Good luck, and May the Force Be with You! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Interactive Tutorial Content

View the tutorial video for The Sword and the Light.

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