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Lightsabers by Mike Hobson

Battle Droid by Fabio Pessaro, DCS Hallway by Ross Chriss, Lightsabers by Michael Hobson

LightWave Lightsabers with a little help from Adobe After Effects!

I get this one all the time, and it’s been something I’ve worked on for over a year with little success until now. The important thing to note is this: As of this time, it is NOT possible to do realistic lightsabers entirely within LightWave. Here’s why:

LightWave does include a lovely Glow feature for the surfaces. The problem comes from the fact that LW uses the object’s base color as the glow color. As of LW 6.5, there is no way to change the color of the glow without changing the color of the surface. A lightsaber’s core is, for the most part, white (with some small variation depending on the blade color). Therefore, LW will make the blade glow white.

I’ve tried many workarounds for this. I’ve changed the blade’s color to red, and increased it’s luminosity until it was nearly white… and the glow was white. I’ve tried creating two blades.. one white for the core, one colored for the glow.. the colored blade is always visible, which destroys the effect (if you dissolve or make the colored blade “unseen”, the glow will not render at all).

Another workaround I considered was to render the scene three times.. once with a colored blade with glow, once again to create a white matte blade (see below for more information on this), and a third render to composite the white blade as a foreground image using itself as an alpha. It’s a lot of work, and LW doesn’t render foreground alphas that well.. it always leaves matte lines that are difficult to get rid of. I tried this once and abandoned the concept due to the poor results it gave.

So I finally went back to a method I’d heard of over a year ago, from the days of LW 5.6.  It uses a combination of LightWave and Adobe After Effects to create the effect. While the method has been around for some time, I was able to adapt some of my own lightsaber tricks from Adobe Photoshop to create a better-looking blade.  Here’s what we need:

NOTE: The original idea presented here was originally created by Tom Sehenuk.You can download the files from his tutorial at SWMA (in the Tutorials section). His tutorial is almost exactly the same as this one, but I’ve made a couple modifications based on information gathered since I picked up that tutorial, advancements in the technology used, plus the addition of my own “tricks of the trade”.

ANOTHER NOTE: I’ve had some difficulty in getting the blur to work properly for the scene I had created for this tutorial. Primarily because of the fact that the lightsaber was the only object in the scene, and it’s high blur settings. Therefore, I’ll be presenting a “lite” version of the tut using a still-frame, like with the droid image at the top of the page, which I created using this method.

First off, load up your objects. We need to create a specific type of blade in order to get the proper effect. As noticed in the Star Wars films, lightsaber blades don’t blur like other objects, since they’re drawn in frame-by-frame. Normal LightWave Motion Blur won’t cut it, as it will make the edges hazy and blurred, which we don’t want. We’ll be utilizing LW’s Particle Blur to create the blade’s blur.

Go ahead and create a blade in Modeler utilizing the Disc tool or LW’s new Capsule tool (for a rounded tip). Make the mesh EXTREMELY thick, with many many subdivisions. The following settings for a Capsule work well for this:

Once you have the object created, press “K” to kill the polygons. This is different from the normal Cut command, as it will remove the polygons while leaving the points intact.

If you used the Capsule tool, you’ll need to remove the other tip.. we only need one.

Highlight the points along the edge of the blade (leave the tip alone). Activate the Jitter tool and mess up the points a little along the Y axis ONLY (assuming your blade is up and down.. the pic above shows the blade on the X axis since the saber it’s going to be added to is laying on that axis). For this blade, I used a Jitter setting of approximately 1 meter. This will create a more “solid” blade, getting rid of the “bands” that would be caused by the nice smooth subdivision that LW did when creating it. Your result should look something like this:


Click image for 1024×744 screenshot

After creating this image, I realized that a thick blade like this one yielded some unpleasant results when rendered with Particle Blur. To fix it, all I did was resize the blade’s width to approximately 25% of it’s original size, while leaving the length the same. You can see the results of this in the pic below. The thin blade will not affect the final result (I also created a workaround, more info below).

Give it a surface name (“saberblade” works well) and save the file. If you have a lightsaber object, you can load it right into the same mesh as Layer 2, and pre-parent the blade to the saber mesh (as I did here with the Maul saber):


Click image for 1024×744 screenshot

Make sure everything is saved and load it up into Layout. If you have a full animation with a character, you’ll want to set that up first, and parent the lightsaber afterwards to the character’s hand.  In this case, I’m only doing the lightsaber itself.

Anyway, go ahead and setup all of your animation. If you’re activating/deactivating the blade, utlize the “Stretch” channel to adjust the blades length over time. If the blade is setup properly, it will contract directly into the saber’s emitter. You may need to adjust the blade’s Pivot Point so that it retracts right into the handle. You do not want the blade to be inside the lightsaber. The base of the blade should be perfectly even with the emitter. Otherwise, Particle Blur will make sections of the blade protrude from the metal, completely destroying the illusion of reality.

Once your animation is setup, let’s get ready to render. Go into Object Properties for the saber blade and set it as “unseen by camera”. We do NOT want to render the blade yet. Go ahead and leave the other options activated, including shadows (lightsabers cast shadows.. while it’s only a side effect of the physical blades that the actors use, it has become canon and can be seen in all four films, including TPM). Go ahead and setup your camera options to include normal motion blur.

Render it! (I suggest rendering single frames and saving them as TIF files.. this will maintain picture quality for compositing later) You’ll have a lovely animation of a deactivated saber floating around.

Now let’s change everything and do it again! Here’s what we need to do:

Turn off ALL the lights in the scene, including Ambient, down to 0%.

Go into the blade’s Object Properties.  Uncheck “Unseen by Camera”.

If your lightsaber is reflective metal (like this one), go into Render Options and shut off “Raytrace Reflections”. In this case, I also had to remove the reflection map from the lightsaber as well. The saber still needs to be in the frame, so we can’t just Dissolve it or make it Unseen. Turn off any other Raytracing while you’re in there.. we won’t need any of them.

If you really want to get cheap with it, you can use the QuickShade rendering option, instead of realistic. This will automatically kill off any reflections, smoothing, etc in your scene, and will render in a snap. While QuickShade doesn’t allow normal Motion Blur, Particle Blur still works.

So to the surface properties of the saber blade. Make the blade either pure white or a very, very pale variant of the blade’s own color. You’ll also need to adjust the Luminosity of the blade to at least 250%, so take this into account when picking your color.  For this blade, I used the following settings:

Color: 255, 255, 255 (pure white)
Diffuse: 0%
Luminosity: 500%. Everything else remains at the default values (usually 0%)

The reason for the high Luminosity value is because of the Particle Blur. If Luminosity is set too low, parts of the blade may become “dim” if it’s moving quickly (i.e. the base of the blade will be white, while the wide tip will be gray). By increasing the Luminosity to an insane amount, you’re guaranteeing that the blade will remain solid white no matter how fast it’s moving.

Go into Camera settings. Turn off Normal motion blur and activate Particle Blur. You can use the same blur percentage if you like, or you can adjust the blur to your personal preference (i.e. One of the projects I did had a Normal Blur of only 30%, but a Particle Blur of 70%).

Here’s a shot from Tom’s tutorial showing the effect of Particle Blur on the lightsaber:


All meshes by Tom Sehenuk, Saber effect by Michael Hobson

When rendering test shots, find a point where the blade is moving very fast. Render a frame and see if the blade has dimmed towards the tip due to the blur. You may need to further adjust the surface settings.

If your render looks like it should, go ahead and render out the whole scene. Be sure to pick a different filename than before.

Now we’re done with LightWave, and we’re ready to take this into After Effects.

What we’re about to do is almost exactly the same method used to create the lightsabers for the fanfilm Duality. The difference is in the creation of the masks. For Duality, they used Commotion to manually create masks for the lightsaber blades. This was the tedious part of the effect, where each frame had to manually adjusted. These masks were then brought into After Effects to create the glow.

We’re doing the same thing, but we have a bit of a break. That last render in LightWave created all of the masks for us automatically.

Open up AE and load up both sets of footage. Create a new composition with the same frame size/frame rate/length settings as your LW renders. In this case, it’s a still-frame, but you get the idea.

Go ahead and load up the lightsaber footage first. Then drop the blade footage on top of it. Yes, the blade layer will completely over-write the bottom layer. Right-click the Layer under the Composition in the bottom window (or go into the Layer Settings menu) and change the Transfer Mode to “Screen”. You’ll see your background footage pop through and the blade will still be there.  Hopefully it’ll be in the same location as the lightsaber itself. Go ahead and play through the footage (a RAM Preview works well for full-speed previews) to make sure that the blade and the saber are properly aligned throughout the animation.

If you’re editing in sound along with the visual effects, you’ll want to set that up now while AE can still render quickly. As soon as we start adding effects, the render time will go down which will slow down audio previews.

Now we can start working on our blade settings. The following stuff is based on some of the settings they used from Duality, but will alter from project to project based on personal preferences. We’ll be working entirely with the Blade layer, leaving the underlying saber layer alone.

NOTE: Most of the settings here are only generalized. Feel free to adjust them to your project or personal taste.

If you’re using a thick blade, start off by adding a slight Gaussian Blur (Effects>Blur&Sharpen>Gaussian Blur). This is to simulate the white glow of the saber core itself. A setting of 1 or 2 should be plenty.

If needed, apply a low-setting Median effect (Effects>Image Control>Median). This will help round off any sharp edges from the Particle Blur.

If you’re using a thin blade like in this project, the Gaussian Blur and Median aren’t needed. Instead, we’ll add another Glow to it.

Start off by creating a small white glow around your blade (you can set the color by choosing “A&B Colors” as the Glow Colors, and changing both the A and the B color to white). Change the Threshold value to 0%. The blade is the only thing in this Layer, so the Threshold setting becomes redundant and worse than useless… just get rid of it. Adjust the Radius and Intensity to your own tastes.

At first, the saber will look incredibly ugly on the display screen. That’s because of AE’s “Draft” settings. Go into Layer>Quality and change the display to “Best”. It will take AE longer to render the frame (couple of seconds depending on your system), but will show you the final output, and what the blade will really look like when the final render is done.

Here’s a screenshot of the AE layout for the picture you see at the top of the page, with some pointers of the important items. I’ve left open windows that I normally close in order to show more detail of what’s going on in the frame:


Click image to bring up 1024×744 screenshot

Once the blade is set up like you want, and the sound is in place, and everything’s looking great… go ahead and render out the Composition. I suggest Quicktime with the Sorenson compressor at 50%, keyframes every 30 frames. This will depend on your project, though. For distribution online, you may want to increase the compression (that’s a whole other story, though).

I do occasionally utilize my own proprietary settings depending on the project. Those little things that I do that make my stuff a little different. What are they? Hehe..  Experiment.  It’s the best way to learn.

3DM3.com
Copyright © Mike Hobson
Edit by Stryker
Source: http://cedar.he.net/~jackal/

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