Movie-style action scene

Photoshop has all the tools you need to turn a day trip to an air museum into an action-packed war movie-style action scene…

Seeing really is believing – even if what we’re seeing isn’t exactly what was photographed in real life. In many movies a shot will be augmented with hundreds of digitally manipulated elements. The result is that wires holding up props are removed, unwanted buildings are painted out, explosions are added and bland skies are replaced with immensely dramatic cloudscapes. Blockbusters like The Lord of the Rings trilogy require piles of PCs and whole armies of technicians in order to bring spectacular action sequences to life in a photo-realistic way.

We bring the special effects battle to our desktops by unleashing Photoshop’s powerful tools on our source image. The photo was taken on a trip to a local Air Museum. (Our would-be movie star is my little brother John, who posed in front of two genuine Spitfires.) We use the Paths tool combined with layer masks to replace the image’s dull suburban background with something more dramatic. The new elements were created in Maya, a 3D package embraced by many of Hollywood’s Digital Artisans. So,  time to turn an ordinary photo into a big budget battle scene.

Download files for this project [ 18.9MB]

Part 1: Getting organised

Set up the project correctly to ensure a smooth work-flow

1. Open the original image (Source.psd). Go to Windows > Layers to open the Layers palette. To allow easier navigation around a multi-layered file, make the layer thumbnails bigger than the default setting. Click on the small triangle on the top right of the palette and then select Palette Options. Choose a bigger thumbnail icon.

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2. At the moment, the source image is simply a locked background layer. To make it editable, double-click on the background layer icon in the Layers palette. A New Layer box will appear Label the layer Original Image.

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3. You’re going to do lots of things to this image, so it’s wise to keep an untouched copy of the original in case you need to refer to it. In the Layers palette drag the Original Image layer onto the Create New Layer icon at the bottom. Hide the new layer by clicking on the adjacent Eye icon.

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Part 2: Perfect paths

Use the Paths tool to create a mask that will hide the Images unwanted elements

Curve those paths

The secret to a happy path life is ‘less is more’ Instead of drawing lots of path anchor points, keep them to a minimum. If you clickdrag as you lay a point then you can create an adjustable curve between the new path point and the previous one. This is a powerful way of selecting curved areas with the minimum of work Press Caps Lock to give you a cross-hair icon. This helps you to place your anchor points.
more accurately.

4. With the Original Image layer selected, choose the Pen tool [P] from the tool bar. Organise your paths as you would do your layers. Next, select the Paths tab from the palette. Click on the little triangle on the top right and then choose New Path, Label it Under Wings Path.

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5. Click the Pen tool [P] to place path anchor points under the wings. You can create curved and straight lines with ease to follow the outline of the plane. After creating a curved line between two points (see ‘Curve those paths’ above) add a new anchor point directly on top of the last one so that the line joining the next anchor point is straight.

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6. Draw the path so that it follows the areas below the plane right up to the actor. Make sure that you keep the image zoomed in so you can select the path accurately. Then, hold down the spacebar and click-drag to pan to the next part of the image that you want to work on.

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7. If you make a mistake, undo it (Command+Z), To undo earlier anchor points, go to Window > History. Now you can see a chronological list of all the anchor points you’ve created. To retrace your steps, drag the last few anchor points in the list to the trashcan icon.

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8. Zoom out to complete the first path. Press [F] to hide your desktop icons. Now you can draw a few anchor points outside the image to allow the last point of the path to join up the very first anchor point. The path will then turn into a solid line indicating that it’s complete.

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9. You can fine-tune a path once you’ve created it. Choose the Direct Selection tool [A] from the tool bar. Use this tool to re-position existing points on the path, You can also use the tool to adjust existing curves by dragging on the twin handles that appear on each side of an anchor point.

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10. You can adjust the curves on each side of an anchor point independently by holding Alt and click-dragging on the handle you want to adjust. This makes editing curved sections of the path as easy as pie.

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11. When we created the path we tried to be as economical as possible with the anchor points to save time and keep the selection smooth and flowing. If you need to add extra anchor points to a problem area, use the Add Anchor Point Pen Tool.

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12. Once you’re happy that the path is selecting the desired area, click on the palette’s little triangle Icon to toggle open the Paths options. Go to Paths > Make Selection. Set it to Anti-aliased. Make the Feather Radius 0.5 pixels. Set Operation to New Selection. Click OK.

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Part 3: Marvellous masks

You can convert the path selections Into masks which will hide the bits of the image you don’t want to see. This is how to create an Alpha Channel style mask for the original image.

13. Once you’ve chosen Make Selection from the Paths palette, click on the Layers palette. You’ll see the dotted ‘marching ants’ selection that’s been created from your path. Go to Select Inverse from the top menu. (This bit is important don’t miss out inverting the selection.) Now everything outside the path is selected.

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14. With the ‘marching ants’ still active, click on the Layers palette’s Add Layer Mask Icon Now the area that you created the path for has disappeared leaving a chequerboard background The chequerboard indicates that that part of the layer is now transparent. We can now insert Images on layers behind the original image.

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15. Next to the Original Layer thumbnail you can see another thumbnail for the layer mask. Alt-click (Option-click on a Mac) on this thumbnail to see how the black and white mask is shaping up. You could use a black airbrush to paint additional transparent areas. Transparent areas can be made solid again by painting white onto the layer mask.

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16. Continue adding to your layer mask. In the Paths palette click on the Create New Path icon. Label it ‘Right Hand Side’. Draw a path to select the area to the right of the actor just under the plane’s wing. Make Selection.

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17. Click on the layer mask thumbnail. From the top menu bar choose Edit > Fill > Black. The selected area of the layer will now become transparent. You’ve created a mask that hides the unwanted parts in the lower section of the image. Deselect the ‘marching ants’ (Command-D) then create another new path.

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18. Slowly but surely create paths for the rest of the image’s unwanted background elements. Select each path and in the layer mask fill the selections with black. Eventually you’ll have created a layer mask that hides all the unwanted elements in the scene. The image’s Alpha Channel will then be complete.

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Part 4: Fun with filters

Add a sense of movement and menace as you set the propeller blades whirling.

19. Select the propeller using the Path tool and the techniques you learnt in Part 3. Once the propeller has been selected. go to Edit > Copy from the top menu bar. Then choose Edit > Paste. The prop will be copied into a new layer of its own.
Label the new layer Propeller Copy.

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20. Select the Propeller Copy layer. Press Command + T to activate the Free Transform tool. Move the tool’s centre pivot point so it rests on the tip of the nose cone. Click-drag just outside the selected area to rotate the copied propeller.

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21. Select Filter > Blur > Radial Blur. Set the Blur amount to 10. Set the Blur Method to Spin. Set the quality to Good. Click OK. Duplicate another propeller layer and Radial Blur it at 16 on Best Quality. Now partially fade the tips of the original propeller’s blades by spraying those bits of its layer mask with a soft brush. Add some Motion Blur to selected parts of the rear plane.

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Part 5 is a section on Maya Software and will not be included.

Part 6: Sky and clouds

Add more elements to create a new environment for your action scene

Layer sets

Large project like this can leave yo with dozens of layers, which means lots of scrolling around the palette. Group the related layers of the project in folders. Create a folder by clicking on the triangle on the top right of the palette and choosing New layer Set. A folder icon appears. Put all related elements – clouds, for example – into a set of own.

28. Import the background image (Buildings.psd’) and place it on a layer underneath the others. The digitally rendered edges of the buildings are a little too crisp compared to the softer edges in the foreground photograph. Select the Buildings layer’s mask and apply a gentle Gaussian Blur to it. This will soften the edges of the buildings.

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29. Create a new layer for the sky. Click in the Set Foreground and Background Colour Icons in the toolbar to choose a dark foreground blue and a lighter background blue. Select the Gradient tool [G]. Click-drag from the top of the image to the bottom to draw a linear gradient.

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30. Create a new layer and label it Clouds. Press [D] to return the Foreground and Background colours on the toolbar to the default black and white. Choose Filter > Render > Clouds. Select Image-Adjustments > Equalise to emphasise the contrast between the black and white clouds.

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31. On the Clouds layer, click the Add Layer Mask icon. Click on the mask and apply another cloud filter to it. The darker areas on the layer mask will poke holes through the clouds on the main layer. Adjust the Auto Levels of the clouds on the mask like you did in the previous step.

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32. The flat sheet of clouds needs a sense of perspective. Press [F] to hide the rest of the desktop. Zoom out of the view a little. Go to the top menu bar and choose Edit > Transform > Perspective. Drag the top handles of the view outwards to stretch the top section of the Clouds layer. When that’s done, go to Layer > Remove Layer Mask > Apply.

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33. Give the Cloud layer a new layer mask. Draw a black and white gradient onto the mask to make the clouds recede. Make the layer opacity 40 per cent. Now drag the Cloud layer onto the Create a New Layer icon to duplicate it. Set the blending mode for the layer to Hard Light. Go to Image > Hue/Saturation-Colourise and experiment with the sliders to get more dramatically coloured clouds.

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Part 7: Obligatory explosions

As the Spitfires attack, their strafing bullets cause barrels of fuel to explode, Turn up the heat on our action hero with some in-house Photoshop fireballs.

34. Create a new layer and then label it Explosion. Place it behind the original Spitfire layer. Select the Lasso tool [L] from the tool bar. Set the Feather to 17 to give the selection a softer edge. Draw an area representing an explosion. Choose Filter > Render > Clouds. Press Command-D to deselect the area.

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35. Go to Image > Adjustments > Equalise to increase the contrast between black and white. Copy the explosion onto a new layer and place it above the original Explosion layer. Choose Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation > Colourise. Make the colour of the new layer red.

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36. In the Layers palette set the blending mode of the copied Explosion layer to Colour Dodge. Reduce the layer’s opacity to around 61 per cent. Notice how some of the explosion’s detail burns out in an effectively dramatic way.

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Zooming in and out

On a project like this need to zoom in and out of various details. The Navigator is a handy way get to specific areas of the image quickly. Alternatively use the Command or “-“ icons to zoom in and out, Or use keyboard commands like Command+D to fit the entire image onto the screen.

37. Now copy the Explosion Copy and place that above the two other Explosion layers, Keep the layer blending mode on Colour Dodge. Colourise the layer again using the settings in the above image, Whacking the Saturation levels right up to the max helps emphasise that fiery look.

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38. The flying fuel drums were 3D models created using Maya. A dynamic field was applied to the 3D barrels to blast them into the air. This saved manual positioning of each barrel. A red point light in the 3D scene simulated the interactive lighting of the Photoshop explosion. 3D modelling packages are excellent tools to create components for Photoshop illustrations.

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39. Maya also calculated a realistic looking motion blur for each barrel so there was no need :: blur every barrel individually in Photoshop, Add the rendered 3D barrels (BarrelBoom.psd from the download) to the image. Copy and cut some of the barrels from the layer and paste them in front and behind the explosion to create a sense of depth.

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Part 8: Finishing touches

Give the action the look and feel of Band Of Brothers.

40. Give the barrels some shadows to anchor them in the image, Ctrl-click on the Barrels layer in the Layers palette, Select Layer Transparency, Create a new layer and fill the selected shapes with black (Edit > Fill). Use the Transform tools (Edit > Transform > Skew etc.) to squash and distort the shadow shapes, Apply a Gaussian Blur to them and reduce the layer’s opacity.

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41. Create a burst of machine-gun fire for the attacking Spitfire. Firstly, choose the Freehand Lasso tool. Set its Feather to 10 to give it a soft edge and then select an area to represent the machine gun blast. Apply the Cloud Filter Experiment with the same technique you used to create the explosion to get a dynamic-looking burst of fire.

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42. The cockpit of the main plane is too washed out. You need to make it stand out against the glare of the explosion. Select the Burn tool [O] from the tool bar Choose a brush size of 133 and burn in some detail on the canopy area.

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43. To link all the elements of the image together ~ the explosion needs to light the ground around it. Use the Elliptical Marquee tool [M] from the tool bar to select an area of ground from the Buildings layer Next, give the selection a soft edge by setting feather to 16, Copy and paste the selection onto a new layer and then set the layer blend mode to Colour Dodge.

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44. The source image was shot on 35mm film so has noticeable film grain. The digitally created 3D background elements are grain free, You need to add grain to the digital elements to make them match the film grain. Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise, A value of 2 per cent should do don’t go over the top. Apply the noise filter to the barrels, explosions, shadows, cloud and blur layers.

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45. The 2D and 3D components have different colour levels. De-saturate some of the layers to give the image that historical Band Of Brothers washed-out look, Go to the main source image layer. It’s a bit too vivid in colour Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation and reduce the Master saturation. Do the same for the 3D barrels, Now all the elements look like they belong together.

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