Classic Course: Natural Lighting Effects

How to add more realism to volumetric lighting effects

Since we’ve been on the subject of lighting recently, we thought we’d follow up the Classic Course on Adding Lighting Effects in Post with one on creating more realistic volumetric lighting effects such as light rays, projected light, glows, etc. As a bonus, this trick also helps reduce banding artifacts that can happen with these effects as a result of compression. The videos below use an older version of After Effects to demonstrate this technique, but it can easily be used as-is in the most recent version of After Effects, or adapted to programs like Apple’s Motion or used when compositing 3D renders.

The basic trick is this: Create an alpha channel for just the lighting effect, and use it as a track matte for footage of dust, smoke, fog, or other swirling, realistic atmospheric effects that would be illuminated by a beam of light. If you don’t have suitable footage, you can synthesize it using the Fractal or Turbulent Noise effects in After Effects.


A quick overview of the technique.


Executing this technique in After Effects using stock footage of smoke, dust, fog, and the such. This technique is demonstrated using Trapcode’s Shine (light rays), Starglow (glow), and Lux (volumetric light effects), and can easily be adapted to other plug-ins or programs.

Synthetic Smoke

Don’t have footage of smoke, dust, or fog lying around? Go shoot your own! Not convenient? Then synthesize the essence of the effect using After Effects’ Turbulent or Fractal Noise effects.

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Chris & Trish Meyer founded Crish Design (formerly known as CyberMotion) in the very earliest days of the desktop motion graphics industry. Their design and animation work has appeared on shows and promos for CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, HBO, PBS, and TLC; in opening titles for several movies including Cold Mountain and The Talented Mr. Ripley; at trade shows and press events for corporate clients ranging from Apple to Xerox; and in special venues encompassing IMAX, CircleVision, the NBC AstroVision sign in Times Square, and the four-block-long Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas. They were among the original users of CoSA (now Adobe) After Effects, and have written the numerous books including “Creating Motion Graphics with After Effects” and “After Effects Apprentice” both published by Focal Press. Both Chris and Trish have backgrounds as musicians, and are currently fascinated with exploring fine art and mixed media in addition to their normal commercial design work. They have recently relocated from Los Angeles to the mountains near Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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