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This tutorial explains how to perform the trickiest part of lightsaber roto-scoping: activations.
There are a couple easy yet slightly less convincing and less satisfying ways to do this:
1. Have the lightsaber activate when it's out of the shot.
2. Have the person holding the lightsaber move it in way that makes the blade appear to be extending.
There are also a couple harder but more convincing techniques to use:
1. Physically remove the lightsaber props blade.
2. Digitally remove the props blade.
I will now proceed to take an in-depth look at all of these techniques.
Activating lightsaber out of frame
This technique really doesn't require much explaining. Basically, you don't show the lightsaber when it's turning on (so effects aren't even necessary), it could be either outside of the camera view with the person activating it still in view (i.e. the shot is from the waist up and the persons arms are dangling below the camera view and then you hear the saber activate) or you could show someone else when the saber activates (i.e. camera shows very scared assassination victim and you hear the saber turn on). Make sure that when you film this you don't make it obvious that you're using this technique, for example, don't let the camera shot be a full body shot with the character holding his arm and the saber sideways out of frame.
Move the saber in way that gives the allusion of an extending blade
With this technique, the actor/actress moves the prop saber (with the blade in it) at the beginning of the shot in which it activates in way that gives the allusion of an extending blade (i.e. perhaps the person with the saber quickly flicks his or her wrist upwards).
Here is Ryan Wieber activating his red lightsaber using this technique.
Physical blade removal
When using this more advanced technique, the actor/actress holds a saber hilt with no blade attached to it, then animate the effect to extend from the blade. You have to be careful when using this technique as the effect is incredibly difficult to precisely align with the hilt, however, there is a way around this: when drawing the 4-point shape on your first frame, draw it OVER the hilt itself as if it was the blade and then move the top two points above the hilt to how far you want the blade to be out in that frame. Then-without moving the top two points-move the bottom two points to the top of the hilt (where you want the blade to come out of) and move to the next frame. Repeat these steps for every frame, moving the top two points higher each time until you've reached the height of the blade extension in the preferred amount of frames (standard is 5).
Here is a tutorial by NickD using a similar method for the same basic technique.
Digital blade removal
This is the most complex of all the techniques, digitally removing the lightsaber blade. It requires a locked down camera, there can be no moving objects in the background (trees blowing in the wind, people walking, cars moving etc.) and, when in the process of activating, the saber cannot pass in front of the actors.
After filming the actor/actress performing the activation KEEP THE CAMERA IN THE SAME LOCKED DOWN POSITION and film again, without the actor/actress in the shot to get a clean background plate.
Import the footage with the actor/actress and the footage without the actor/actress into EffectsLab or VisionLab as separate video layers with the layer with the actor/actress on top and animate the lightsaber effect crawling up the prop blade as if activating. On the layer with the actor/actress go back to the first frame in which the prop blade appears and (most likely with the saber effect turned off) mask the props blade until the effect is fully extended then (if using EffectsLab) copy the mask and paste it into the layer without the actor/actress and on that layer, invert the mask.
here is a lightsaber activation using this technique
To enhance lightsaber activations, you may want to use an activation flare. I like this one (which also comes in purple and blue.)
That concludes this 4-part tutorial, hope you found it useful.