Lightsaber Effect Rotoscoping In A Premiere Filmstrip

Click thumbnail to view QuickTime movie.

© Copyright 2000, 2005 Darel Rex Finley

This tutorial is also featured on TheForce.Net.

NEW!!!  Check out the Yellow Text Crawl tutorial!

The rotoscoping technique described in this page has been substantially improved since the original "Henry and His New Toy" tutorial!  The benefits of the new method are:
* Easier and faster — ends of saber round automatically.
* Better look — truer to the Lucasfilm effect.
* More detailed tutorial — explicit step-by-step instructions.
Or, visit the Actions Tutorial to avoid the use of filmstrip files, and simplify the aura steps.

(Copyright Notice:  The word "lightsaber" is probably owned by Lucasfilm Ltd., and "Star Wars" definitely is.  This webpage is for informational purposes only, and I recommend using the authentic lightsaber effect only for non-commercial, experimental, amateur filmmaking.)

Ever since we saw the original Star Wars in 1977 (when it didn't say "Episode IV A New Hope"), enthusiasts such as myself have been wanting to have the ability to generate similar effects.  Well it's been a long wait, but finally the equipment and the technique are within our grasp!

1.  Making the Sabers

First, make one or more fake lightsabers.  This consists of some kind of handle with a strong rod coming off of it for the beam.  For "Henry" I used the plastic tube from the center of a roll of CalComp plotter paper.  Then I wrapped blue and black electrical tape around one end to simulate the handle.  (I left the blue end-cap on the taped end, to give it a little extra length.)  The result kind of looks like a lightsaber already since the tube is white, but this is irrelevant since no one's going to be seeing the rod anyway.

For a more authentic look, buy a saber prop from one of the various sites that sell them.  I found the best bargains (and very high-quality sabers) at ParkSabers.  A 0.75 inch dowel can be securely installed in these sabers, by backing out a few screws from the central tube, inserting the dowel, and driving the screws back in through the dowel.  The screws aren't wood screws, but they drive easily into a wooden dowel with just an allen wrench.  Here are two views of the "Avenger" model from ParkSabers:

The rod should extend about 30 inches beyond the end of the handle, and should be somewhere between 0.5 and 0.75 inches in diameter.  (The plastic tube Henry is waving around is a lot thicker than that — 1.3 inches — which creates problems because even with a white tube, there are times when it is darker than the local background, and it's hard to cover it all up.  But with a 0.75 inch dowel rod this shouldn't be a problem.)

Next I painted alternating bands of paint up the dowel, making it look something like a marquee selector.  Plus a different color at the tip.  This is so when the beam is moving fast and blurring badly, you can still see clearly what area it traverses.  It also helps to ensure that no matter what color the local background (black, white, or whatever), you'll be able to see the rod.  (Naturally, these goofy-looking bands won't be visible anywhere in your finished film.)  I didn't go to the effort to do this banding for the Henry clip, so maybe you won't need to either.  Here's my attempt at this banding.  To simplify, I painted 3-inch-wide stripes, and used the wood color for the alternation.  So I only had to paint 5 bands on each rod:

Use different coloration on each saber to make them easily differentiable in closeup shots where the fighters have crossed beams and are glaring/sneering at each other.  Otherwise it will be difficult to tell whose beam is whose.

2.  Film the actors.

Don't try to frame everything neatly in the shot.  If the saber goes out of view partially, so what?  It happened in the Star Wars movies all the time.  Trying to get everything neatly in the shot just draws attention to the fact that it isn't real.

(WARNING:  Mock fighting with mock lightsabers can be dangerous.  Try it at your own risk.)

3.  Capture To Filmstrip File

3a.  After capturing a raw saber clip into Premiere, place it into the timeline of your film project, then move the pale blue "work area" bar to include just the saber clip.  Then select File > Export > Movie.

3b.  Click the Settings button.

3c.  Under "General Settings" select a File Type of "Filmstrip" and a Range of "Work Area".

3d.  Under "Video Settings" select the appropriate frame size and frame rate for your movie.  For my red-saber example movie, I chose 320x240, 15 fps.

3e.  Click the OK button, name your filmstrip "Raw Filmstrip", then click the other OK button and your filmstrip will be created.

Tip: Filmstrip files are very huge, and unless you have a lot of memory, they will be an enormous headache to deal with in Photoshop.  I recommend that you have at least 128 megabytes of real RAM, and process saber footage in filmstrips of only a few seconds at most.  If you have a Mac running OS 9 or older, it is a good idea to turn virtual memory off (which will require a reboot), and allocate a lot of RAM to Photoshop (in the Get Info dialog).

(Optional:  If your scene contains a lot of really bright areas, like bright sky, especially areas that might be pure white and would make a saber blade turn completely invisible, then before rotoscoping any saber beams onto the original filmstrip, darken it slightly by reducing the upper output level from 255 to 223.)

4.  Rotoscoping

"Rotoscoping" is just a fancy term for doctoring something frame-by-frame.  These instructions look complicated, but once you try it you'll find it's really pretty easy.

4a.  After closing Premiere, open the file "Raw Filmstrip" in Photoshop.  Then, select File > Save As, and save the file with a new name of "White Blades", and a file type of Photoshop (not Filmstrip).

4b.  (You now should be in Photoshop, editing the file "White Blades".)  Make sure the Layers window is available by choosing Windows > Layers, then double click the only layer there and name it "Rods".

4c.  Select Layers > New Layer, and name your new layer "Blades".

4d.  Before proceeding to the actual rotoscoping, make sure that the "Blades" layer is hilighted (active).  Otherwise, you could do a lot of rotoscoping work only to realize later that you have to start all over!

4e.  Click once on the foreground color (the frontmost big colored square at the bottom of the toolbar), and choose pure white (255,255,255).  This is the color you will be using to draw the blades.

4f.  Select the magnifying glass tool, and click it a few times on your Blades window until the window's title bar says that it is being displayed at a magnification of 400%.  Working at this magnification will greatly improve the accuracy of your rotoscoping work, and thus reduce the "quiver" problem which might otherwise result.  Note:  You might think that magnifcation doesn't matter, since the number of pixels in the image is still the same, but it actually matters a lot:  Photoshop will use fractional pixel filling (anti-aliasing) to draw your line in the fractional position where you placed it.

4g.  Double-click on the line tool (which may be hiding behind the pencil tool — hold down the mouse button on the pencil to find it) and choose a line width about half or two-thirds as thick as your wooden dowel when it is still.  I chose a thickness of 2 for this particular example project.  Also, make sure that Anti-Aliased is checked.  (Find it right next to the line width.)

4h.  (the actual rotoscoping)  This is the only step you have to do for every frame in the filmstrip.  (The aura stuff is done on all frames simultaneously.) Use the line tool to draw a line over the rod in every frame.  (Save periodically to avoid losing your work in the event of an accident.)  The line will not cover the rod, but this is OK — just draw one line per frame.

(NOTE: If you are using Photoshop 6, drawing a line will automatically create a new layer if you recently used the polygonal lasso tool.  To get rid of this new layer, merge it with the layer you were drawing in, by choosing Layer > Merge Layers.)

(Note:  In the above picture, it looks like there is a white bulge at the end of the white line, but this is just an artifact of the background image.)

If the beam is fanned (moving), then use the polygonal lasso tool (not the curvy lasso) to draw a polygon around the area covered by the fanning rod, then choose Edit > Fill to fill your polygon with white.  Be careful to avoid premature closing of the polygon which can happen when a point is too close to the starting point.  This will cause very noticable glitches on playback!  Do not try to make the blade blur or fade when moving — that's just too much trouble and it won't look authentic if you do.

(NOTE: If you are using Photoshop 6, you may find that Edit > Fill is dimmed out and cannot be selected.  To cure this situation, choose Layer > Rasterize > Layer; then you will be able to choose Edit > Fill.)

Tip: Turn the caps-lock on when using the polygonal lasso, and the mousecursor will appear as a precise crosshair.

If only part of the blade is visible (such as when it's partially behind a person), then only paint white over the part that is visible (use the paintbrush when necessary).  However, if the blade is behind the blade of another saber, draw over it anyway, even though the beam you're painting now is behind the other one.

IMPORTANT:  If there is more than one blade in the shot, do only one blade right now, then go back later (after step 6 is completed) and do the other one.  Do not do both at once!  This is necessary to ensure that the beams can be different colors, but even if they are the same color you should still do just one to ensure that the auras are properly shaped.

Tip: Do not bother trying to give the end of the beam a rounded appearance.  That will happen automatically in step 5.

Thanks to the layering of Photoshop, if you botch a frame up, you can just erase the white paint with the eraser and the "Rods" layer shows through.

4i.  When you have finished rotoscoping all the frames, select the Background layer by clicking once on it, then choose Image > Adjust > Levels.

4j.  Change the upper output level to 0.  The Background layer will become completely black and the image will appear to be a bunch of boring white blades on a black background.

4k.  Select Layers > Flatten Image, then select File > Save.

4l.  Next, select File > Save As, and save the file as "Blades With Auras" (still in Photoshop format).

5.  Generating The Auras

Although a lightsaber blade is always white, it has a soft, colored, transparent aura around it which suggests the color of the blade.

5a.  (You now should be in Photoshop, editing the file "Blades With Auras".)  Select Filters > Gaussian Blur and do a blur about equal to your line width — in this case, 2.0.

5b.  Select Image > Adjust > Levels and change the lower input level to 30, and the upper input level to 50.  Then click OK.

5c.  Select Layer > Duplicate to create a copy of the Background layer.  Name the new layer Loose Auras.  For now, don't worry about the fact that the Loose Auras layer is on top.  Make sure the Loose Auras layer is selected before proceeding to the next step.

5d.  Select Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, and choose a blur level about twice your line width — in this case, 4.0.  Click OK.

5e.  Select Image > Adjust > Levels and change the upper input level to 10.  Then click OK.

5f.  Repeat step 5d (Gaussian Blur 4.0).

5g.  Select Image > Adjust > Levels and drop the upper output levels of the Red, Green, and Blue channels individually, to make the aura color of your choice.  In this case, I will drop the Green and Blue upper output levels to 0, but leave the Red channel alone (255,0,0).  If you want a blue saber, use (0,127,255).  For green, use (0,255,0).  Then click OK.

5h.  Select Image > Adjust > Levels and change the upper output level to 127.  Click OK.

5i.  Double-click the "Background" layer and rename it "Blades".  Then move it to the top of the layer list.  Make sure the Blades layer is selected before proceeding to the next step.

5j.  Select Layer > Duplicate to create a copy of the Blades layer.  Name the new layer Tight Auras.  For now, don't worry about the fact that the Tight Auras layer is on top.  Make sure the Tight Auras layer is selected before proceeding to the next step.

5k.  Select Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, and choose a blur level about half your line width — in this case, 1.0.  Click OK.

5l.  Select Image > Adjust > Levels and change the upper input level to 10.  Then click OK.

5m.  Select Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, and choose a blur level about equal to your line width — in this case, 2.0.  Click OK.

5n.  Drop the individual Red, Green, and Blue upper output levels exactly the same as you did in step 5g.

5o.  Drag the Blades layer to the top of the list.  Make sure the Blades layer is selected before proceeding to the next step.

5p.  Select Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, and choose a blur level about 3/8 your line width — in this case, 0.75.  Then click OK.

5q.  The Blades layer should currently be selected — change its mode from "Normal" to "Screen".  (If you are using Photoshop LE, you will not be able to do this — skip to step 5t now.)

5r.  Select the Tight Auras layer and change its mode to Screen.

5s.  Select Layer > Flatten Image.  Then select File > Save.

5t.  This step is for users of Photoshop LE only — otherwise skip to step 6.  Since the Screen mode is unavailable, do this instead:  (1) Hide the Blades layer by turning off its eye icon in the layers list.  (2) Select the Tight Auras layer and change its opacity to 50%.  (3) Select Layer > Merge Layers.  (4) Select Image > Adjust > Levels and change the upper input level to 127.  Click OK.  (5) Unhide the Blades layer and select it, then change its opacity to 50%.  (7) Select Layer > Flatten Image.  (8) Select Image > Adjust > Levels and change the upper input level to 127.  Click OK.  (9) Select File > Save.

6.  Compositing The Final Results

6a.  Select Select > All, then select Edit > Copy.

6b.  Select File > Open, choose the Raw Filmstrip file, then click the Open button.

6c.  Select Edit > Paste.

6d.  If you are using Photoshop LE, skip to step 6g.

6e.  Change the top layer's mode to Screen.  Voila!  Your saber blades are composited into the original source material.

6f.  Select Layer > Flatten Image.

6g.  This step is for users of Photoshop LE only — otherwise skip to step 6h.  (1) Select the top layer.  (2) Change its opacity to 50%.  (3) Select Layer > Flatten Image.  (4) Select Image > Adjust > Levels and change the upper input level to 127.  Click OK.

6h.  Select File > Save As.  Change the name to Filmstrip Ready, and click the Save button — but first be sure you are saving as a Filmstrip, not as Photoshop.

You can now open Filmstrip Ready in Premiere and use it in your movie!  (Note that the results look best if you used the real Screen mode from the full Photoshop.  The Photoshop LE cheat is not as realistic.)

Multiple Sabers: If you have multiple sabers visible in this particular clip, then now is the time to go back to step 4 and do it all again for the other beam.  But when you get to step 6, composite your new "Beams With Auras" into the results of the first step-6 composite, not into the original Raw Filmstrip.  Note:  When two saber beams cross, their white centers merge and there is no visual cue as to which one is in front.  This is normal — view any of the Star Wars movies and you'll see that's how it's supposed to look.

Touch-ups: Before you use your final result filmstrip in Premiere, you'll probably want to use Photoshop to touch it up with a few flashy effects.  For example, whenever two beams strike each other, there should be a very bright white/yellow flare at the point of contact.  This flare should subside over the next 1 or 2 frames.  I used a milder flare at the start of the "Henry" clip, to simulate the energy of activating his saber.  (This was created with three radial foreground-to-transparent "screen" gradients; a large magenta one, a medium-sized light-magenta one, and a very small white one.)  I also airbrushed away the white part of the tube in the very first frame, so it looks like he's just holding a handle with no beam extended from it yet.  These little touch-ups might seem superfluous, but they are really vital for creating professional-looking results.

(Another good touch-up idea:  When you show a close up of the actor holding his saber at the ready, with just the lowest part of the beam showing, add a little bright spot at the base of the beam, using radial gradients.  It would look something like the third frame of "Henry".)

Making your saber extend/rectract: I haven't done this, but for any scene where the saber simply extends or retracts, I would just have no rod present, and draw it in as if there was one.  Use some reference point in the picture to make sure you're aiming each piece in the same direction.  Faster extension looks cooler and is easier to fake convincingly.  If you want to have an actor extend his beam and immediately go into a fight without cutting to a different view, then consider airbrushing out the part of the rod that doesn't belong during the beam-extension frames.

Making your saber slice through things: I would use a short rod — say about 10 inches past the handle — and have the actor swing it just past the other actor.  Then when you rotoscope it, simply draw the beam at it's full length, using the short rod as a guide.

Well, that's about it.  Good luck, and I hope your movie knocks their socks off!


(This list is very old; badly in need of updating.  Until I find time to do that, enjoy this newest addition:  SaberSwingII (1.3 megabytes, Windows Media Video) by Cameron.)

DUALITY Wow!  And did I say wow!  By Mark Thomas and David Macomber.  (42 megabytes, QuickTime, or click here for the DIVX version)
New World: Final Training Practicing with lightsabers in a wood-panelled room.  (Probably the best amateur lightsaber effect yet.) By Clay Kronke, hosted by  (31 megabytes, QuickTime)
The ultimate fantasy/sci-fi Duel Rotoscoping at a whole new level!  By Jason Hargenrader.  (38 megabytes, MPEG)
The Duel A saber fight in a well-made sci-fi environment.  By Cyco Productions.  (40 megabytes, MPEG)
Red/green fight at the park Well-choreographed fight near an apartment complex, by LoGiK.  (3.5 megabytes, MPEG)
Attack Droids Movie-like encounter between killer droids and a lone Jedi, by Scott Layman, hosted by  (2.7 megabytes, QuickTime)
Final Battle, Wilke Battle, and Experimentation WMV Three slick lightsaber sparring clips, by Rene Trevino.  (1.5, 1.7, and 9.9 megabytes, MPEG, MPEG, ZIPped XXX)
Red practice by the woods An up-and-coming Sith practices his art, by Philip Williams.  (1.5 megabytes, QuickTime)
Saber Practice Smug, cool Jedis practice the arts of saber duelling and teleporting.  By Jake Gostylo.  (7.7 megabytes, MPEG)
The Wedding Duel A humorous saber fight breaks out in the aftermath of a wedding reception.  By Philip Williams.  (3.4 megabytes, MPEG)
Duel in the desert After crash-landing on a desert planet, a lone Jedi gets unwelcome company.  By Mark Thomas and David Macomber, hosted by  (17 megabytes, QuickTime)
Casa de Jedi An aspiring Jedi Knight practices his art in his ornate living room.  By Jose Ballesteros.  (0.6 megabytes, MPEG)
Fight At the Lab An ugly saber fight breaks out at a computer lab, with a twist at the end!  By Devon Read.  (1.6 megabytes, QuickTime)
David's Sabers Goofing around in the living room with 4-year-old David's lightsaber collection.  By Darel.  (15 megabytes, QuickTime)
The Phantom Pick List Harrowing battle (well, sort-of) in a warehouse!  By Sir Anthony Wilson.  (1.5 megabytes, QuickTime)
Jedi Jim's Saber Shack For all your saber needs!  By Inbred Brothers Productions.  (13 megabytes, QuickTime)
Bad Boys Cops with lightsabers?  Could be a recipe for disaster.  By Seth Johnson.  (20 megabytes, .ZIPped QuickTime)
Backyard Encounter Quick sparring by the garage.  By Mark Heiliger.  (0.7 megabytes, MPEG)
Jedis-In-Training Several experimental saber films.  By Roie Gat.
Cal Wushu Saber Training Well-choreographed sparring in a martial arts training center.  By James Chen.
Juggling Jedi Self-explanatory!  By Marshall Savitt.
Green Closeup Very authentic-looking closeup of a green saber.  By Johan Bjornell.  (1 megabyte AVI, or try this 3.5-megabyte "Indeo Video" QuickTime file.)
Saber Planet Waving a red saber in front of a receding planet — a good test of rotoscoping and greenscreening combined.  By SRC.  (0.7 megabytes, MPEG)
Rainbow Saber Saber with continuously changing color.  By Ryan Mast.  (0.5 megabytes, QuickTime)
Jedi Showdown Saber fight with nice materialization effect.  By Mario Leone.  (5.5 megabytes, QuickTime)
Backyard Jedi Well-done saber fight in the backyard, plus a very authentic Star Wars-style text crawl.  By Tim Scott.  (20.6 megabytes, QuickTime)

Applications List — apps which have been used to generate this effect.  (If you know of any apps that are missing from this list, e-mail me!)
After EffectsAdobe
CommotionPinnacle Systems
Flare EffectsAxion Software
Knoll Light FactoryPinnacle Systems
MediaStudio ProUlead
NEW!  Try LSMaker a free app for rotoscoping a great-looking lightsaber effect with minimal effort.

Also visit the Naboo Ship Bluescreening Page!

Special thanks to George Lucas and the ILM wizards for dreaming it all up in the first place, and to Jim & Laura, and Bob & Cindy, for loaning me their enthusiastic young apprentice Jedis (Siths?).