Lens Flares in After Effects [updated]
By Rich Young | November 11, 2011
The built-in lens flares in Adobe products are quite long-in-the-tooth, but there are a bunch of tutorials, tools, and real world examples to help you get beyond the common look. The most recent tutorial by VinhSon Nguyen aims to Breathe Life Back Into After Effects Lens Flares. [Plus, two noteworthy plug-in comparisons have been added to the Tools section.]
This tutorial is hardly the first one to try. It's inspired by Harry Frank and adds additional controls:
Several years ago, Graymachine posted Breath life into stale Lens Flares, which explained "using shapes, Trapcode Shine (or the built-in CC Lightburst), and expressions to breath new life into the old AE Lens Flare". It comes with a CS3 project that has Brainstorm variations from Shape ‘points' and Position and Trapcode Shine Colors:
Grant Swanson shows you one way to think outside the box in his After Effects tutorial video, Anamorphic Lens Flare. He used the Glow filter with Glow Dimensions set to "Horizontal" only and several refinements to quickly get a different look.
Michael Park posted a tutorial on how to create a Harry Potter "lumos" wand effect, with the added bonus of tips on After Effects tracking, a zoom blurred Lens Flare, and homemade animated chroma hoop without 3rd party filters.
The very basics can be found in Adding a Lens Flare Effect at Adobe Press, and in AE Help pages Apply tracking data to a new target and About alpha channels and mattes.
Ben Rollason posted a tutorial video, Lens Flare in AE and Premultiplication Explained.
Tibor Miklos wrote a tutorial for AEtuts, Switch On This Casino Style Text Effect Tonight, which uses Video Copilot Optical Flares on a ton of layers and CC Particle World to create a distinctive look (preview below). He also did Illuminate A Lovely Logo Light Reveal, which features the ever popular 'flare leading a particle write-on'.
Optical Flares comes with an advanced tutorial that builds a light wall.
Andrew Kramer posted several suggestions answering a question on a tutorial in Lens Flare on 3D Lights?, which includes an expression on the Flare Center (thisComp.layer("Light name").toComp([0,0,0]);) mentioned in a 2008 VCP tutorial on bump maps. Felt Tips showed something similar in Quick After Effects Expressions #2 - Glue a lens flare to a light and circle it:
Add Anamorphic Lens Flares to Video is an After Effects tutorial by Next Wave DV. Host Tony Reale uses flares from Video Copilot Optical Flares to show how and why to use flares:
"This is a great alternative to spending thousands of dollars on anamorphic lenses for your camera. The results are very realistic and highly customizable. I also show you how to add realistic handheld camera shake to your footage. This can be very important when working with DSLR footage since most DSLRs have rolling shutter problems that create a "jello-cam" effect when moved quickly."
Three leading tools for flares in After Effects have design and compositing features far more advanced than other options. They're all impressive, and feature complete custom design, tons of presets, 3D lens flares with AE Lights, 2D + 3D occlusion or obscuration, edge flare-ups, auto-tracking, auto-animation, textures, etc. Boris Continuum Complete appears to have many similar features now too (take a peek after 34 min in a recent BCC8 webinar).
[Michele Yamazaki started an already useful comparison series, Indepth: Lens Flare Plug-ins for After Effects (Part 1 of 5) at Toolfarm, a concern long associated with Red Giant Software.]
[Longtime AE lens flare connoisseur Mylenium followed up with an ambitious lens flare plug-in comparison chart in Full Flares ahead! -- updated in April 2013. You have to zoom way in to read, but little escapes Lutz's critical gaze. Expository excerpts from the PDFs would likely give this work the audience it deserves, but dig in now for valuable nuggets.]
Video Copilot's After Effects filter Optical Flares is a deep filter with a low price, and includes a good number of demos and advanced tutorials, plus access to the Video Copilot Preset Network for sharing lens flare presets. Video Copilot has also released Pro Presets 2 for Optical Flares, which includes 50 new presets, 10 After Effect template projects, 7 professional fonts, and 3 new video tutorials. And as you'd expect there's a nice video product tour and other demos. Here's a partial demo:
John Knoll's Knoll Light Factory Pro set the standard for lens flares long ago, but rested on its laurels.
[There's since been a massive upgrade for the venerable lens flare plug-in Knoll Light Factory. With extra "believable" flares, new light behaviors, "more realistic scenes", and a host of other features at a reduced price (explained in-depth by Harry Frank), it's hard to tell if KLF has reached parity or leapfrogged Video Copilot Optical Flares.]
Red Giant had posted the David Vincent's Knoll Light Factory Pro & Editors Training DVD to introduce the set. They have plenty of additional video tutorials as well. Here's the intro to 16 DVD videos:
GenArts Sapphire now has features very similar to Optical Flares and Knoll Light Factory, plus it can be used in NLEs. They recently posted Sapphire v.6 LensFlare and Flare Designer Tutorial, GenArts Sapphire v.6 3D LensFlare for After Effects, and Sapphire v.6 LensFlare Occlusion Tutorial:
Overuse of lens flares is too common, even when they rise above the common cliche of the Photoshop default. But individual flare elements can be used as the base, as seen almost everywhere, or as elements of design. Use in more realistic shots may take some extra observation and self-control. For a wrinkle, check out similar effects of user-induced imperfections, light leaks, in "Lens Wacking" to Create Video Flares by Chris Meyer and Extra Extra, Free Light Leak Clips! by Matt Jeppsen of FreshDV.
There's a lot going on beyond the basics with lighting, camera filters and lenses, etc. that lens flares can become obsessions to avoid, create, and recreate with shaders and filters. One good resource for further study is Mylenium's Building a Lensflare with Expressions, which looks at the components of lens flares very effectively. Another good resource is a cache of QuickTime movies of real world lens flares by Claudio Miranda, and a newer small batch of unique ones from Peter Prevec in Lens Flares.
More recently there was a SIGGRAPH 2011 paper, Physically-Based Real-Time Lens Flare Rendering, which has a video:
Another obvious resource is J.J. Abrams' "ridiculous" use of kinetic halos in the latest Star Trek movie (Andrew Kramer did the titles). See various discussions of these mostly in-camera effects done by cinematographer Dan Mindel in Where No DP Has Gone Before at ICG Magazine, and more about ILM custom matching "SunSpot" CG in Back on Trek (Flare Madness) at Millimeter and Star Trek Returns at Post Magazine.
It's interesting to see how the idea grew for 3D lens flares in After Effects. From at least 2004, there were forum requests for help to go beyond parenting to a 3D layer. AE expression guru Dan Ebberts provided examples at MotionScript and explained a bit more about layer space transforms, which were also discussed by Chris Meyer not long ago at PVC. A few years later Mylenium's Building a Lensflare with Expressions (and Trent Armstrong's Making Light Disappear & Reappear Behind Objects Using Expressions) appeared at Creative Cow. Then in 2009, Andrew Kramer spread the idea further in Lens Flare on 3D Lights? and the race was on to incorporate 3D lens flares into an After Effects filter.
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