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Tutorial: How to create film burns in After Effects


I got a request at my ”Ask a question”-tab to do a tutorial on how to create the classical ”Film burn effect” (You know when the screen flickers in red and yellow). It may have other names, but that’s my name for it.

The film burn effect, together with the 8mm-film effects, is probably the most played-out effect in actionsports film history. There are many reasons for it, the biggest one is historical.

Before the rise of digital cameras like the hi-8 and DV, all actionsports films were shot on 8mm film (some also on 16mm, which was the weapon of choice for higher-end films). This is relevant because that’s where these effects come from, they are actually analog distortions, artifacts that weren’t really meant to be there! (Film burns appear when the film is exposed to light in other ways than it’s supposed to – like when the film is removed from the camera, cut/stiched during editing etc.)
When actionsport filmers moved on to using digital cameras, the image was often concieved as ”too clean”. It turned out that the analog distortions had aesthetical value – film burns are simply quite beautiful! Adding them to digital footage was also simply a way for low-budget films to mimic the look of the big players. That is still the case – now with DSLRs takin the filmic look even further – film burns have become a common addition to any low budget project, wishing to achieve a more expensive look.

Personally I like to look at videos and try to figure out whether the film burns are real or not. Quite nerdy I know, but sometimes I look at my granddads old double-8mm films just to see how 100% authentical film burns ”behave”. So anyways… Film burns are an easy (maybe not so original) way of adding an extra ”creddiness” to your film. I’ve made this tutorial since I myself searched the internet (without result) for a tutorial on film burns only a few years ago.

Before we start, here’s a list of what you need:

1. Adobe After Effects, and basic user skills (most versions should do).
2. Actual stock footage of film burns on black video.
3. Some kind of videoclip.
4. A nice cup of coffee to help with your artistry!

Note: Actual stock footage of film burns can be bought from several stock video sites like and others. Prices vary, and if you are not the kind of  honest person with a concience (as if you paid for a legit version of After Effects!), you’ll probably find it somewhere else for free. However! I managed to find some free clips for downloading (crappy quality, and I’m not sure about the copyright…). Download from this link:

When you’ve got a hold of some film burns and After Effects, it’s quite simple. Just follow these simple steps. If you can’t see the details, click to enlarge the photos!

1. Open After Effects. Import your film burns and your ready-to-get-burnt-footage into the project. Make a new composition from your footage and drag both the footage and the film burns into the comp. Settings don’t really matter, but here’s what I did:

2. Make sure the filmburns layer is on top of the footage in the comp.

3. If the blending modes aren’t visible for the layer, click the ”Expand or Collapse the Transfer Controls pane”-button.

4. Set the blending mode for the film burn layer to ”screen”.

5. Hit RAM-preview and check it out! If you need to time it out differently, just click-and-drag the film burns layer to the part of your clip you wish to burn.

What you end up with should look somewhat like this:

We could just be happy with that result, or we could take it even further and add some vertical rolls. This is to mimic the analog distortion that happens when the film frames have been misaligned to the projector. It looks like the images roll or jump up and down. There are several ways to do this, but this is how I prefer doing it:

6. Select the two layers, choose Composition/Pre-compose and click ok.

7. Select the new layer, and hit Ctrl+D (duplicate layer) two times. This is what your timeline should look like:

8. Select the top layer on the timeline, and in the Composition-window, shift-click-drag it to just above the frame.

9 Select the middle layer and  click-drag it to just below the frame.

10. Parent the top and middle layer to the bottom layer by selecting them both, then choose the bottom layer (layer number 3) in the parenting-box in the timeline/comp.

11. Now for the actual roll: select the bottom layer and click P to bring up the position value. Find the point in time when you want the vertical roll to start. Click the stopwatch button to add a keyframe.

12. Then find the point in time when you want the roll to stop. Add another keyframe here.

13. Select the two keyframes you just made the timeline-window.

14. Now bring out the wiggle-window. You’ll find it under Window/Wiggler. Make sure your keyframes are still selected. In the wiggler-window, choose the following settings. Then click apply.

15. Now the wiggler will add a random vertical position for your bottom layer by +/- 500 pixels every second. The other layers will follow the bottom one, since they are parented to the bottom layer. Your keyframes should look something like this now:
Now hit RAM Preview to see how the roll looks like!  If you think the roll is too slow/fast adjust the time value. If you think the roll is too violent adjust the amount.

16. To add to the film-look even further you should also add some colour correction and grain to the original footage. If you don’t already know how to do this, don’t worry, i’ll explain it in another tutorial. This is what I ended up with:

Voilá! Now you should have created the illusion of a really burnt out film on a faulty projector. There are several more ways to further mimic the film look (apart from making beautiful images from the start), but that’ll have to wait until next time. So long!

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