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Producing Volumetric Light In After Effects CS6

While After Effects has a pretty good feature set when it comes to lighting a scene, one thing it sorely lacks is a native way to produce volumetric light.

So what is volumetric light? Well if you’ve ever stood in a street on a foggy night you’ll have noticed that the street lights are surrounded by a halo of light. This is the light interacting with the moisture in the air. You can obviously see the bulb too.

Another good example are spotlights. You can see a cone of light as it passes and interacts with the dust in the air.

Volumetric Light In 3D

In any 3D application, volumetric light is very easy to achieve. Take this basic 3D scene in Cinema 4D. The light behind the wall is set to Volumetric and a falloff distance is set. As it comes through the windows we get pretty much the effect we would expect to see in the real world.

Volumetric in Cinema 4D

All the light you see on the other side of the window is volumetric light too.

After Effects Lights

After Affects lights are very different. If you look at the picture below can you see what’s missing? 

After Effects lights

Something is missing, yes? Yes! The light source! The Point light is reflecting and interacting with the solid below but no light source is generated. Very unnatural! 

If you want to produce volumetric lighting effects easily in AE, you're going to have to get yourself a third party plugin. The main player is Trapcode Lux available from Red Giant Software but there are other options too.

What is Lux?

When applied to any Solid or Adjustment Layer, Lux will identify and track any light in your comp and create a visible volumetric light source. Here’s my scene with Lux applied.

Same scene with Lux applied

Here you can see the plugin applied to a plain grey solid. You can see the settings for Point lights.

settings for Point lights

You can add as many lights as you want, Lux will track them in 3D space (or 2.5D). 

Same scene with more lights

Change the color of your lights. Lux tracks that as well!!

Changing the color of your lights

Lux can also simulate the behavior for After Effects Spot lights too. 

Lux can also simulate the behavior for After Effects Spot lights

The direction and cone width are set by the lights. You can even choose a layer (like the floor solid) to calculate the distance of the falloff length.

choose a layer to calculate the distance of the falloff length

Lux can handle both Spot and Point lights from just one instance which is great.

Lux handle both Spot and Point lights from one instance

Other Options

There are other options for creating this sort of volumetric lighting effect. One good example is Video Copilots Optical Flares (Knoll Light Factory also) track lights and create volumetric effects.

Here I have a simple setup of a couple of flare glows in Optical Flares. 

Flare glows in Optical Flares

If I set the flares to Track Lights...

Set the flares to Track Lights

I get a very similar effect to Lux. Notice the light color is taken on too.

Similar effects to Lux

You can of course select a more complex flare like one we have here called Evening Sun which give a more stylized effect.

Evening Sun

I can even use both Lux and Optical Flares on different light by changing the names of some and telling Optical Flares to only track lights that start with the letter A.

Using both Lux and Optical Flares on different light

There’s no doubt that these volumetric effects can add a much more dynamic look to your scenes. They are also almost essential for many other effects used in motion graphics and well worth investing in.

Toby Pitman

Toby Pitman | Articles by this author

For the past 20 years Toby has worked as a professional guitarist, programmer and producer. Clients include Sir Paul McCartney, George Michael, Shirley Bassey, Yusuf Islam, Giles Martin as well as the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies. He has also worked extensively in TV, Advertising and Film. As well as composing himself he has also worked alongside many composers like David Arnold, Clint Mansell and Simon Franglen on many major film releases. An expert in synthesis and sound design Toby has also lectured for Apple on their Logic Pro music software which he has used since its days on the Atari. He has also worked as an educator for the International Guitar Foundation and the Brighton Institute of Modern Music teaching guitar. In his spare time (of which there is very little) he moonlights as a motion graphics artist specialising in Cinema 4D and After Effects.


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