Lightsaber Rotoscoping With Photoshop Actions

Tutorial copyright April 2002, Darel Finley.  Some images, sounds, and concepts are copyright Lucasfilm Ltd. and/or Hasbro Inc., and are used here without permission for non-commercial, informational purposes only.

[image = night fight raw thumbnail] [image = night fight thumbnail]

Click image to view
QuickTime movie.  Requires QuickTime 5.

This page is a specialized variation on the Lightsaber Effect Rotoscoping In A Premiere Filmstrip tutorial.  The method described on this page has some advantages over the filmstrip tutorial:

      No use of bulky, slow filmstrip files — uses numbered stills instead.
      All the complicated aura steps are contained in pre-built "action" files.

But it also has a few disadvantages:

      Slower to move from one frame to another, since each frame is contained in its own file.
      No way to re-render with a different color without re-doing all the rod rotoscoping.
      Requires a recent version of Photoshop that supports actions (6.0 or higher, I think).

Decide which method works best for you!  As computers get more powerful over the years, the filmstrip method may eventually be better, but for now this method can be better for many users, especially if you are using video-resolution images scoping 640x480 or larger.

1.  Install Actions

If you haven't already, download this actions file and decompress it with Stuffit Expander or WinZip.  Load each .ATN file into Photoshop's Actions panel by clicking on the little triangle and choosing "Load Actions...".

[image = loading actions]

2.  Assign Function Keys

Assign F-keys to the actions as follows:

    F3 = Grow Margins
    F4 = Shrink Margins
    F5 = Green Soft 2.0
    F6 = Green Hard 2.0
    F7 = Red Soft 2.0
    F8 = Red Hard 2.0
    F9 = Polygon Layer Fill

Double click on the name of an action to assign its F-key.  Be careful to notice if any of the "Shift", "Option", "Command", or "Control" checkboxes comes on automatically when you choose your F-key — if so, then you are already using this F-key for some other action, and you must go find it and disable it.

Note:  For this tutorial, we will be doing the shot with the sparring, so we have chosen the colors green and red, and a line width of 2.0.  Choose other colors and line widths as may be appropriate for your movie.

Tip:  You may want to create a paper strip to lay above the F-keys on your keyboard, with each key labelled, to avoid confusion during rotoscoping.

3.  Acquire Sabers

Get some sabers.  These eight-dollar Hasbro toys work very well, and look pretty good too.

[image = hasbro sabers]

4.  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 toy lightsabers can be dangerous.  Try it at your own risk.)

5.  Capture To Numbered Stills

5a.  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.

5b.  Click the Settings button.

5c.  Under "General Settings" select a File Type of "PICT Sequence" or "TIFF Sequence", and a Range of "Work Area".

5d.  Under "Video Settings" select the appropriate frame size and frame rate for your movie.  For anything captured from an NTSC videocamera, that shouldbe 29.97 fps, and a size of 320x240 (or 640x480 if you want to go all-out).

5e.  Click the settings dialog's OK button, enter a filename of "frame" (Mac) or "frame.tif" (Windows), then choose where to save the stills and click the other OK button — your set of numbered stills will be created.  Choose wisely where to put your stills — there will be a lot of them!  You may want to create a new folder with the New Folder button.

5f.  Optional:  Duplicate the folder containing your numbered stills, so you will have a backup set of stills to revert to if you make a mistake during rotoscoping and need to restore the original image.

6. Rotoscoping

6a.  After closing Premiere, open the first file in your set of numbered stills, in Photoshop.

6b.  Set the foreground color to white, select the line tool, and give it a width of 2 pixels.

6c.  Draw a white line over one of the rods in the image.  Drawing this line will automatically create a new layer which must be called "Shape 1".  NOTE:  This line should be drawn as accurately and consistently as possible.  Use a high magnification (say, 400%) for accurate positioning, and remember exactly where you started and ended the line, so you can do it the same way on subsequent frames.

[image = drawing line 1]
NOTE:  Although the toy sabers have rods that taper to a point, do not attempt to rotoscope this tapering — just draw a straight line.  Lightsabers have straight beams, despite much fantasy art that depicts them with tapered beams, such as the original Star Wars movie poster.

6d.  Press the F5 key (Green Soft 2.0).  After a brief pause, a green-glowing beam will appear:

[image = green beam]

6e.  Draw another white line over the other rod:

[image = drawing line 2]

6f.  Press the F7 key (Red Soft 2.0).  After a pause, a red-glowing beam will appear:

[image = red beam]

6g.  Press Command-S (or Control-S) to save the file, then Command-W (or Control-W) to close the image.

6h.  Open the next image in the set and go back to step 6c.

Continue this procedure until all the frames are rotoscoped.

When a rod is fanned (moving), follow these steps to rotoscope it:

6i.  Using the polygonal lasso tool, draw a polygon around the rod.  (Do not create a new layer, just draw the polygon.)

[image = drawing polygon]

6j.  Press the F9 key (Polygon Layer Fill).  The polygon will automatically fill with white in a new layer called "Shape 1".

[image = drawing line 1]

6k.  Press the F6 key (Green Hard 2.0).  This will generate the glowing beam without rounding the corners of the polygon.  NOTE:  Also use the "Hard" actions for closeup shots where the precise shape of the beam must be retained.

[image = drawing line 1]

IMPORTANT:  When using the "Soft" actions, if the rod goes off the edge of the image, there will be some undesired distortion at the edge of the image, and the colored aura around the beam may not extend out of the shot as desired.  To remedy this, follow these steps:

6l.  After loading the image, press the F3 key (Grow Margins) to create a large border area around the image.

6m.  Do the beam rotoscoping as described above in steps 6c through 6f.  (Draw your line so it goes off the edge of the image.)

6n.  Press the F4 key (Shrink Margins) to crop the image back to its original size.

6o.  Save the image as described in step 6g and continue with the next image.

Voila!  That's it — you can now open your sequence of numbered stills in Premiere and place the sequence in your timeline.

Hope you like it, and don't hesitate to contact me with questions or comments.  —Darel

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