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"An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age:" Creating Lightsabre FX
Part 1: Observation and References of Lightsabres
by Jedi Knight Toren Depor

    Let's face it, there are millions of people doing all sorts of computer special effects, and most of them suck at it. I've seen photorealistic fire and terrible looking fire done in the exact same version of the exact same program. The problem is that allot of these folks try to create an effect off the top of their head without doing any research. They don't bother to go out and get reference images or videos, study the real thing, and that is why most computer effects look artificial.
    When it comes lightsabre effects most Fan Filmmakers are getting it right. Years ago, when people were adding lightsabres to their photos and Fan Films were just beginning, the lightsabre effects out there had allot of flaws. Most people were making the core of their blades a lighter color of the glow, when it is actually white. But they didn't know any better because that is how they remembered it. Most people didn't remember lightsabres blurring and streaking as they moved. Most people thought that lightsabres didn't cast shadows. The bottom line is, whenever you try to recreate something in CG or miniature, take the time to study the original.

OBSERVATION 1: Lightsabres Cast Shadows
    Allot of people get confused when they here the word Lightsabre; they take it far too literally. They think Lightsabre means "sabre made of light." This couldn't be further from the truth. It really means "a sabre that looks like it's made of light." Even semi-transparent objects, such as smoke, cast some sort of shadow. You can't see through a Lightsabre blade, it's totally opaque.
    I have always stood by the fact that lightsabres cast shadows, even when most others said that the reason sabres cast shadows was because the technology didn't exist for them to remove them in the original trilogy. Just watch the Special Edition Trilogy, they sure had the technology to remove them then, but they didn't. Look at Episode I: The Phantom Menace. During the Lightsabre duel in the desert between Qui-Gon and Darth Maul, a close-up of Qui-Gon yelling "Tell them to take off!" shows a very distinct shadow on his shoulder, and there isn't anything else in that flat, wide-open desert that could be casting that shadow. If you want to remove lightsabre shadows from your videos, you are welcome to, but it will be inaccurate. However, it usually won't be noticed. The desert duel is one of the only places in TPM where the lighting is harsh enough to show the Lightsabre shadow. In my Lightsabre Animation Tutorials I cover how to make the lightsabres cast shadows.

Figure 1-1

OBSERVATION 2: White Core, Colored Glow
    I can't tell you how many times I have been surfing the net and someone has added Lightsabre blades to their photos, but they did them wrong! People usually make their sabres with a brighter version of the glow color, and it looks fake. The "real lightsabres" have white hot cores and colored glows. Some images on the Internet, when sampled in a paint program seem to support the brighter glow color cores. However, keep in mind that most of these references are screen shots from VHS videos, which have low resolution (about 220 lines in NTSC) and are being distributed as moderate to highly-compressed JPEG files. The slight tint to the cores can be attributed to color bleeding and JPEG compression. If you sample any photo or high-quality image from TPM, you will see that the cores are perfectly white.
    Another common source for inaccurate reference images comes from images produced for magazine ads and Star Wars products. Example: I have a ROTJ coloring book that has solid green Lightsabre in Luke's hands. I also have a TPM mouse pad that has very phony looking sabres on it as well. Properly creating this is covered in the modeling and texturing tutorials.

Figure 1-2

OBSERVATION 3: Sabres are the same width from top to bottom
    Yet another common mistake made when creating lightsabres is to make the blade very wide at the base, and very narrow at the tip. Lightsabres are the same width from top to bottom, except for the very tip, because it is rounded off. Again, many inaccurate images are produced for products and ads. Another source of inaccuracy are the Lightsabre toys produced by Hasbro, which are narrower towards the tip in order to make sure that the blade can collapse and telescope. Another common source of reference images confusing people is the films themselves. Many people see a narrower blade towards the tip and assume that the blade is that way. However, this is due to the fact that the sabre blades are almost always at an angle towards the camera, so they appear to get narrower. The modeling tutorials make sure that you do not mess this up.

Figure 1-3

Figure 1-4

OBSERVATION 4: A lightsabre's shape fans out as it moves
    Anyone who disagrees with the above statement just hasn't watched the movies close enough, so here are some reference images showing this. Animating this is covered in the tutorials.

Figure 1-5

Figure 1-6

OBSERVATION 5: Deflection and Collision Flares
    Whenever a lightsabre blade deflects a blaster bolt or collides with another lightsabre blade, there is a lens flare at the point of collision. The flares for lightsabre collision (Figure 1-7) and blaster deflection (Figure 1-8) are different as shown in the images below.

Figure 1-7

Figure 1-8

Part 2: Modeling and Texturing the Lightsabre Blade
    Creating a Lightsabre shaped plane that glows.
Part 3: Preparing the Lightsabre for Animation
    Adding a simple skeleton and creating two poses.
Part 4: Creating Lightsabre Collision and Blaster Deflection Lens Flares
    Creating a lens flare using A:M's built-in lens flare tools.
Part 5: Animating the Lightsabre

        Animation #1: Making the Lightsabre Pulse
            Animating the ambiance of the glowing materials so that they pulse.
        Animation #2: Making the Lightsabre Activate and Deactivate
            Animating the ambiance and the scale of the blade.
        Animation #3: Making the Lightsabre Swing
            Making the sabre appear to stretch as it is swung.
        Animation #4: Creating a Lightsabre Duel
            Making two lightsabres produce a clashing effect when they collide.

Completed Project File 70.4 KB
    Contains all of the materials, models, actions, and choreographies used in this tutorial.
Tutorial: Off-Line Version 996KB
    All of these tutorials downloadable as a ZIP Archive.
Tutorial: Off-Line Version 1.06MB
    All of these tutorials downloadable as a SIT Archive.

Tutorial by Jedi Knight Toren Depor (a.k.a. Filmmaker Matt Pfingsten)
Special Thanks to
Hal Hickel of ILM for verifying the existence of lightsabre shadows
Loring Veenstra for Beta testing my lightsabre tutorial
Jan Horjus for Beta testing my lightsabre tutorial
TheForce.Net for hosting this tutorial
Hash Inc. for making such powerful 3D software
George Lucas for creating Star Wars



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