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Building a Lensflare with Expressions

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Building a Lensflare with Expressions
A Adobe After Effects Tutorial
Building a lensflare with Expressions in Adobe After Effects


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In this tutorial, Creativecow's Mylenium demonstrates various lens flares and how to create them. The main focus of this tutorial is not the lensflare itself - there are enough plugins out there, that do a far better job than even the most complex setup we can cobble together. Much more is it meant to again teach you some tricks to work efficiently with expressions and breaking down projects into workable parts. Lensflares lend themselves to illustrating the benefits of expressions because they involve lots of layers and effects.

Download the Project Files here

Building a lensflare with expressions:

Everybody loves lensflares! I certainly do as an 3D artist. They can make boring scenes so much more interesting by adding that tiny bright spot somewhere in the image and can be used to imitate a series of other phenomena as well. Though they are not exactly en vogue at the moment, they still can be used to beef up your motion graphics stuff as well by adding glares, glints and flashovers to logo animations and intros. However, the main focus of this tutorial is not the lensflare itself - there are enough plugins out there, that do a far better job than even the most complex setup we can cobble together. Much more is it meant to again teach you some tricks to work efficiently with expressions and breaking down projects into workable parts. Lensflares lend themselves to illustrating the benefits of expressions because they involve lots of layers and effects.

Anatomy of a lensflare

First let's look at how a lensflare is actually structured so we can decide how to re-create each of the phenomena. Keep in mind that a lensflare is a phenomenon which happens completely inside the lens system of your camera and thus the look of it is completely dependent of the optical and mechanical construction principles of this lens system. There are two easily discernible main parts: The glow of the light source itself and the secondary reflections. Further scrutiny reveals that the main visual components again are made up of a series of separate effects. Let's look at some images for analysis.

A green laser pointing at the camera. Notice the prominent horizontal streaks near the lightsource and the overall clearness.
©Paramount Pictures, "Event Horizon"
  Laser almost perpendicular to the camera.
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Desert sunset. Notice the hexagonal shape of the secondary elements and their large variation in sizes.
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  Plane fly-by. Lensflare is very soft and unspectacular.
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A good example for strong chromatic aberration and caustics (lower left corner)
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  Another example for strong chromatic effects.
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Sunset with very soft secondary elements.
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  Very clear streaks with large secondaries.
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Very clear lens flare with a strong chromatic near the lightsource.
©Lightstorm Entertainment, "True Lies"

Please note: The above images are based on holiday snapshots I found in web galleries (unless stated otherwise). They were unlabeled and I could not find any contact info. They are placed here for merely explanatory reasons. If you are the owner of one of the pictures, please feel free to contact us if you want your image to be removed.

Now that we've studied the examples, let's give all of the things we see some proper names and explore how they come into existence. Keep those names in the back of your head because I will use them later.

Basic Glow - This is the base of all lensflares. In those areas the light is so bright, it creates a multitude of reflections in the lens system that add up. Depending on at which angle the light source is in relation to the camera, the glow will vary in intensity. In a foggy/ misty/ smoky environment the partially scattered light in the fog will make the glow look even bigger.

Glow Ring/ Halo - At the edges of the physical lenses a certain amount of light can become "trapped", thus showing you distinct rings around your lightsource, mainly in red and purple colors. Usually you only see those rings when the light source is very close to the camera and it starts to fade the further the lightsource gets away.

Random Streaks - They are probably the most frequent phenomenon. They are often quite dense and look like a massive disk, but are actually a series of infinitely fine lines. On real lenses these fine lines start to get curved in their outward areas, something which is usually not captured by lensflare effect filters.

Star Streaks - When random streaks overlap in a certain manner, thicker, more pronounced areas appear that form regularly spaced star streaks. This phenomenon is to large degrees dependent on the aperture settings and in part also on the lens shape.

Anamorphic Streaks - These are the wide horizontal streaks you can see in the first image. This is a phenomenon unique to anamorphic (ellipsoid) film camera lenses, you won't find it in photographs. When used with normal lights, these streaks show a blueish tint or are rather bright, almost white.

Secondary Reflections - Next to the basic glow, they are the most noticeable effect. They are parts of light that get reflected back and forth between lenses and thus become part of the image. Since there is an infinite number of lenses (or lens systems, as each lens adaptor is made up of multiple separate lenses in their original physical meaning), there is also an infinite number of combinations of how those can look. This extends to their density, size, color and shape. The most common secondary shapes are circular, pentagonal and hexagonal, reflecting the shape and curvature of the aperture blades.

Rainbow Ring - This is a special type of secondary reflection and represents an "echo" lightsource's glow. Its size is directly dependent on the size of the initial glow. Since the light has crossed more lenses however, the colors will start to get separated and look like a rainbow.

Chroma Hoop - Like the rainbow ring, this phenomenon creates a multi-colored effect. On real lenses, this effect only occurs if you have really intense light sources very close to the lens. The look of this varies from a few distinct streaks to almost solid rings. Due to the closeness of the light source, this effect is very angle dependent and will disappear and re-appear permanently. There can also be multiple such rings.

There are a few other things that can contribute to a lens flare such as caustics , but they are not always very noticeable and difficult to control so for reasons of simplicity we won't include them in our considerations. It's also worth mentioning that of course all of the above phenomena are influenced by things such as chromatic aberration, dispersion and absorption which also affects how they look. Now that we've analyzed what we want to re-create, let's no longer waste time and get to work.

Structuring the project

According to our analysis above, we'll need at least 8 layers for each lensflare. This effectively becomes at least 8 separate compositions since we want a maximum level of control and some effects are made up of multiple layers themselves. In addition to this, we don't want to limit ourselves to just one lensflare. That would be too easy, wouldn't it? To start off, we will use 3 lights and their flares, respectively. To facilitate things further, we will keep the composition for the actual light separate from the lensflares so we can work without interfering in our expressions. Below is a flowchart of how the separate comps work together. It illustrates how things look for one lensflare but of course the general approach is the same for the other flares.

All in all you will end up with 26 compositions for 3 lensflares and not have even added a tiny shred of footage let alone created more compositions. As you can see, it may not be the most practical thing to rely on our project for creating lensflares in your productions. I therefore suggest you mainly see this as an exercise and still save the money to get one of the "real" lensflare plugins if you can.

Controller mania

If you have followed one of my other tutorials, you will know that I like to control things from a central place. This project is no exception. The techniques are no different, there is just a lot more going on. This time around I will not explain every single slider and checkbox, so here just the snapshots of the Controller layers and their sliders (click on the image to see them at full resolution)

I've changed one thing though. Since we are going to use multiple parameters from the same compositions or layers, I'm not directly referencing them but use special constructs. This will save us lots of typing later on. If we use

options_layer=comp("Lensflares Main").layer("Options for Secondaries");
secondaries_comp=comp("LF a");
we can later reference effects using this shortened syntax:

secondaries_size=options_layer.effect("Secondaries Maximum Size")("Slider");
weight_center=secondaries_comp.layer("Secondaries Weighting Helper").position;
The full text using conventional direct syntax would be much more complex :

secondaries_size=comp("Lensflares Main").layer("Options for Secondaries").effect("Secondaries Maximum Size")("Slider");
weight_center=comp("LF a").layer("Secondaries Weighting Helper").position;
You can take this principle even further, but I think you get the idea. Another thing to consider is that there is an Expression Control effect called Layer that can also help you in some situations with all this referencing stuff. However, for our project it's of no use since it does not work across compositions (it can only see layers in its own composition)

Finding your place in the universe

Now let's get to the important part - the math behind a lens flare. It may surprise you, but that is really simple. By their very nature all elements of a lens flare are placed on circles (or ellipses for anamorphic lens flares) around the center of the lens. In our case this equals to the center of our composition. So the only things we actually have to do is find out the angle at which our light source is in relation to the center and its "depth". If you have followed one of my earlier tutorials, you will know, that we can find the angle using the Math.atan() or Math.atan2() functions. To minimize redundancies, I'm not going to explain that again. If you're interested, take a look at my Spreading Worldmap tutorial.

Still, we have yet to find out the position of our light in relation to our composition. The problem is, that 3D space is much larger than what is displayed in your composition. More or less your composition is just a window allowing you to peek in this 3D world. To be able to use any information from a 3D layer in a 2D environment, we need to project its position towards the camera and determine the intersection point with our 2D plane. This sounds very abstract, so I've created a little image to illustrate things.

Relation of 3D elements in relation to composition window/ 2D plane

As you can see, it doesn't look as frightening as it sounds. It would require some vector math and since we all don't want to deal with this if we don't have to, Adobe already have implemented it as a method in After Effects' expression language along with some other similar functions. This is called layer space transforms. The actual usage is very simple so I'm giving you the code right away.
light_layer = comp("Lights Main").layer("Flare Light a");
light_2D = light_layer.toComp([0,0,0]);
So what happens here? First we are telling After Effects which layer we want to use. The second line does the actual magic. toComp() is a method, so it is used as a subset of the light layer, separated by the point. For it to function properly, we need to tell it which point on our 3D layer it shall calculate the 2D coordinates for. Since lights do not have any dimensionality, this is always [0,0,0] . For a "real" layer, you would possibly use (light_layer.anchorPoint) as the argument.

Once we have the 2D information, all that we need to do is find the differences in position between the light and the center and use that to calculate the angle. But hey, isn't there something more? Yes, there is.

Getting there with a detour

As indicated earlier, for such complex projects a direct approach is not always the best solution. Yes, we know how to calculate the angle, but does that mean we will do it for every element again and again? Certainly not! Just like we use a special syntax in expressions to reference layers, we are using additional layers to simplify our calculations. This may sound counter-productive, since we already will have so many layers, but trust me, it's the easiest way and will save us from a lot of headaches.

So what do we do? During the course of building the lensflares I have added several helper layers. This is nothing fancy, just some small solids that are hidden and labeled as guide layers so they don't show up during rendering. There are 6 such layers. It's logical that we must have one layer representing our lightsource's position in 2D coordinates. I also added a layer for the center. This is not a must, but in keeping with everything else makes our calculations much simpler. Another layer to add is something that will allow us to easily derive and control the "length" of our string of secondary reflections. For a simple lensflare we would already be happy with those three layers, but that's not how we work. Therefore we need some more layers.

One distinct feature of most lensflares is an area in the secondaries that is more pronounced than the others, be it in brightness or size of the reflections. We are going to control this by adding a layer for this. Chroma hoops are not part of every lensflare, but since I included them, let's just add another layer. The last and perhaps most
important layer is for controlling the overall fading and intensity of our lensflare. More specifically we actually only need a slider that can hold a value for us for later reference (because we don't have a way to use global variables with After Effects' expressions), but to keep things clean, I decided to give it a separate layer.

After going thru all this trouble, what are the benefits?

a) Shorter syntax. Instead of using lengthy references to other compositions and their layers, we can simply use thisComp.layer() and similar constructs.

b) Simpler math. As opposed to worrying about the intricacies of trigonometry, we can resort to simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division operations.

c) Less redundance. We need to calculate values once and can use them on multiple layers using simple referencing.

I can see the light!

Now that we've discussed some theoretical stuff, let's really begin to work on the visuals. There's a million ways to create shapes in after effects, but for our purposes we are going to rely on the Circle effect and the Circle effect and - guess - the Circle effect again. The only exception are the polygonal secondaries, which I just included for a more varied look. The reason behind using the Circle effect is its flexibility in use. From blendmodes to feathered edges, it offers all options that would require extra work if we e.g. wanted to use a masked layers. Since it is an effect, we can also use multiple instances of it on one layer and combine the results. The following is just a short explanation of the intentions and logic behind creating the various elements. For the full expressions please study the project files provided with this article.

Basic Glow

This is just your standard Circle effect used 3 times. One creates the base color, another the bright center. The third one will add a red outer glow. This is a phenomenon seen on lights with warm colors. Because due to the larger wavelengths more red light reaches the lens, you will get some red "bleed" in the outer areas. In our setup color, size and intensity are derived/ calculated based on the light the flare is linked to.

Star Glow

This again uses the Circle effect (2 instances), but the layer is scaled to form the streaks. The layer is then cloned and rotates automatically based on a expression. More star streaks can be achieved by increasing the number of layers. Colors are slightly shifted from the original light color to make the effect more distinct once combined with the basic glow. More streaks can be achieved by simply cloning layers.

Random Streaks

As an exception from our rule, this is made up of multiple copies of a very thin solid. There are a few expressions that will randomize and arrange the streaks for you. If you study the project closely, you will also notice a problem: If we make the streaks too thin, After Effects will produce rendering errors. Again, cloning is the motto of the day to control the number of streaks.

Anamorphic Streak

Just two circles squeezed vertically to form the streak with no expression controlled parameters at all. 100% hand-made

Source Ring/ Halo

It couldn't possibly get much simpler than this one - a single instance of the Circle effect with parameters linked to the Controller layer.

Secondary Reflection

The secondaries are perhaps the most tricky elements of them all. They require major code for placing them, varying their sizes, colors and opacity as well as making them react to weighting. The hexagonal secondary is created in a sub-comp by arranging a few solids. Color variations are introduced by linking the Fill effect to some expressions. The circular element is a combination of multiple Circle effects that are combined depending on what options you choose. Either they add to each other to accentuate e.g. the edges, fade the center (as in the sample image) or blend from one type to another based on weighting. as you might expect, their number is controlled by cloning them or deleting them as needed.

Rainbow Ring

Yet another time lots of instances of our favorite effect used in a sub-composition. The trick here was to find a clever way of combining them to represent the spectrum colors.

Chroma Hoop

The streak element is again represented by a circle, this time however created using a masked layer in a pre-composition. The rainbow colors are applied by remapping the greyscale values of a simple Ramp effect using Colorama.

All of the elements are more or less based on random variations of a theme. The goal here is to provide a way for creating large numbers of elements at once, not so much to re-create a specific lensflare from the real world. You could for instance also combine just the secondaries with After Effects' built-in Lens Flare effect. If you still need more control, simply disable expressions on parameters that you want to tweak manually.

When it all adds up...

Once you start to bring together the various elements, you are beginning to have a problem. In nature all light blends additively, meaning that that if you combine a red, a green and a blue light source you get white light. In the computer world things work similarly. However, since all computer graphics is simplified math and does not figure in additional effects you experience in reality, sooner than later you'd end up with a completely white flare. To avoid this, there are a few rules and simple tricks.

Rule number one is subtlety. Nothing looks more ridiculous than exaggerated lensflares. This also helps to avoid our technical problems. In most cases it is sufficient to use all elements with low or very low opacity values. This way they will remain "transparent" and only be more pronounced where they overlap.

Another thing to consider is playing with blend modes. Add may be the correct one, but Screen and Overlay can look so much better. Unfortunately there are some limitations if you want to control this using expressions. The main factor is that you cannot access the blend mode for the entire layer this way. Lucky for us there are however some effects that provide this functionality and our beloved Circle is one of them. There is still one downside: Not all effects offer all blend modes and if you want to access them, you have to resort to referencing them by a number. Blend modes are stored in lists (arrays) and their position in this list defines how you can reach them. There is a gotcha in there that can lead to confusion. Some lists use dividers to separate elements into groups visually. Though it does not sound logical, such a divider also is a valid member of the list and counts. Take a look at the image, to understand what I mean.

Blend mode dropdown of the Circle effect

As you can see, if you wanted to refer to the Add mode, you would have to use 4 and not 3 as expected (numerical arrays always start with zero unless specified otherwise). The more down the list you get, the more the actual number is shifted because of additional dividers. Keep that in mind and don't be surprised, if you analyze the project. The different looks for the circular secondary elements are created using this technique.

Lastly I've one more trick for you up my sleeve and a big one it is. Of course it is not, but it's one function that is regularly overlooked in every respect. Just as it allows you to maintain quality and 3D properties on nested compositions and keeps sharp edges on vector based footage, the Collapse Transformations switch will also carry thru your blend modes from sub-compositions. This is so damn useful for us. As you remember we have multiple elements in separate compositions and if we don't use the aforementioned switch, they will be treated like normal footage layers and After Effects will just use the overall end result. With the switch turned on it will calculate the color and opacity for each pixel based on the blend modes in the pre-comp. This way for instance transparencies can be maintained and don't simply add up until the pixel is completely opaque. As you may have guessed, this makes things a bit slower, which is one minor downside.

Not so random randomness

Since we were primarily aiming at creating a large number of elements without a lot of work, we used randomness from the getgo. Now that's a good intention, but to make it work for us, we need to tame After Effects' randomness rather stringently. As a first countermeasure we have to tell After Effects to not use a new random seed for every frame. This can be done easily by using a fixed value. However, if used the same value for every parameter on every layer, we would not have any variation at all. an elegant way to circumvent this dilemma is using the layer's index. The code for this is dead simple:

Now it can happen, that your layers with just that might look a bit uninteresting because a "bad" random value is picked. Therefore we need a way to to jumble things up again. This can be best achieved by adding or subtracting values which are fed-in externally from a simple slider control.

seedRandom(index + thisLayer.effect("Randomness Helper")("Slider"),true);
It may not be obvious, but you can combine both methods to get some very controllable randomness. In case of the lensflare, this is done by using a Slider expression control to generate a random a value which in turn is used to drive the random seed of all other expressions that are used for size, opacity and so on. Again, this is a very elegant way to minimize overhead because we create a value that is shared by many expressions in one central place.

Light - Weight

A crucial contributing factor for successfully "selling" our lensflare is the weighting. On real lens systems there can be such a a large variety of actual lenses that you will have very large variations e.g. in the sizes of your secondary reflections. Now we could introduce variations manually by creating special elements such as we do with the rainbow ring, but that would be a rather tedious job and not very flexible if we decide to completely change the look of our flare. Once more one of After Effects' underestimated expression tools comes to the rescue.

Interpolation methods are usually associated by users with some kind of driven-key animation - one layer's parameter drives another parameter on another layer but interpolation methods are used to change the value ranges or invert the results. However, those methods are not dependent on any animation actually happening. They can just as well change static values and we are using this to our advantage.

opacity_weighted = options_layer.effect("Secondaries Weighted Opacity")("Slider");

weight_center = secondaries_comp.layer("Secondaries Weighting Helper").position;
weight_spread = options_layer.effect("Secondaries Weight Spread")("Slider");
weight_length = length(position,weight_center);

weight_factor_base = ease(weight_length,weight_spread,0,opacity_weighted/100,1);
The above code snippet is taken from the opacity of the secondaries. As you can see, it calculates the distance of the element to our Secondaries Weighting Helper we created earlier. It then takes this value and compares it to another value that tells it how far along the string of secondaries the weighting should work as a maximum. If the distance is zero ( = our element is in the exact same spot as our helper), our weighting affects it the most. I used the ease() method because instead of abruptly changing values it will create smooth transitions where our weighting range fades out. this works pretty much like when you adjust keys using one of the Easy Ease keyframe assistants

When you study the project, you will find expression code similar to the above on many parameters. For one we are using this to control the sizes of the secondary reflections. We do the same for their opacity and color. The coolest use though is that we are actually using this to blend two different types of secondaries together.

Fading away

So far we have only cared to create the lensflare as such without giving any consideration to it interacting with 3D. Here our Fading Helper comes into play that we created at the beginning of the project. As stated there, it doesn't serve any other purpose than just again calculating a value for us that can be shared by other expressions.

The fading itself can be achieved pretty easily, but requires a little trick. We need to use what commonly is referred to as normal distance. This is the distance where all our effects have the intensity as you set them up with the expression controls and it is necessary due to the fact that we are working with abstract mathematical values from the start instead of having physically based formulas. Think of this as some imaginary range or threshold in the 3D world and if your light moves beyond this threshold, its values change. If it comes closer, it will get more intense, if it moves away it will become less noticeable. To that end we need to compare the normal distance to the actual distance of the light from the camera. The first is a fixed value that you should not change over the course of your animation, the latter can easily be measured using a built-in expression function in After Effects. You see a simple example as it is used in our project below.

light_comp=comp("Lights Main");
light_layer=light_comp.layer("Flare Light a");


One of the specific characteristics of light in the real world is that its brightness does not increase/ decrease linearly but rather works with a square multiplier. This means that energy of the light will dissipate very quickly near the light source but will then fade away ever slower and less noticeable. It will also never reach an intensity of 0 - one of the main reasons we can even see stars millions of light-years away. The following graphic illustrates this behavior. The blue curve represents a square falloff, the green one the fading if it were linear.

Linear and square falloff

For working practically with our lensflare effect this means that if we are using square falloff, we have to be extra careful and it will only look good at a certain range. If it's far away, it will never really go away but always be some indiscernible point in the distance, if we get to close the lensflare will literally explode into light because it will get so big and bright. Therefore the project also contains a linear falloff type - it's not true to nature, but much more controllable. If even that fails to do the trick, you may want to turn of the function and keyframe the intensity manually.

Of course your lensflare will also fade behind objects or at the edges of your field of view. We are not integrating this functionality to keep things understandable and halfway simple, but if you need it for your projects, you can always try to implement it.

Hook me up

Some properties are unique to each of our three lensflares, others are shared by all. Due to the physics involved all lensflares filmed with the same lens system will have the same arrangement of secondary reflections, chroma hoops, star streaks and so on. They will mainly only vary in their intensity and color. Therefore be wary not to use extremely different lensflares in one shot/ composition. This is perhaps the most common trap even big effects facilities fall into when they use synthetic lensflare filters.

In order to be able to share properties between different lensflares, we use two methodologies:

a) Elements that are not dependent on info from the lightsource itself are created in a global composition.

b) All other elements are referred to by using some simple expression applied to each property that makes sure exactly the same values that already have been calculated are used based on the index of the layer being referred to. The code below for instance reads the radius of a secondary reflection element and only needs to be changed to accommodate for different effects and properties.

ref_layer=comp("LF a Secondaries pre").layer(index);
ref_value=ref_layer.effect("Circle Sharp")("Radius");

With that this little tutorial comes to a conclusion. I would like to point out again, that this is more meant as an overview about different concepts and tricks when working with expressions in complex projects. By no means is it a complete walkthrough or meant to give you the ultimate lensflare generator for your everyday projects. Still, I hope you can find it useful, be it for the lensflare itself or the code examples contained within.


Now that you've successfully made it thru all theoretical considerations, here comes a little goody for you. In addition to the original project, I've created another project that contains a few examples to give you a quicker start (should you be so crazy as to really use this for a project) and show you some of the possibilities. All setups contain the same number of secondaries, star streaks and so on. Only the colors, opacities, types and other settings are varied. you could of course create many, many more crazy looks by experimenting a little.

Simple sun flare with pentagon secondaries   Anamorphic green flare
Anamorphic red flare with anamorphic streak   Cold blue star
All the fancies used to create a somewhat off-worldish flare. Notice the combination of ring type secondaries with glow balls to accentuate the focus plane.
  Moving the rainbow ring close towards the light source will blend the both together and give some interesting distortion like effect.
The eye of evil. Manipulating the anamorphic ratio can give interesting effects like this.    

Enjoy and feel free to ask your questions regarding this tutorial in the After Effects forum at

Please visit our forums at if you found this page from a direct link.


Re: Building a Lensflare with Expressions
by Noel Powell
Interesting article. I built a tool like this to compete with the plugins. It's called Creation Lens Flares and it's a user-friendly After Effects template with a lot of features for making detailed and realistic lens flares. You can see the demo video at

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mocha AE Planar Tracker for Absolute Beginners

mocha AE Planar Tracker for Absolute Beginners

Want to learn how to create advanced visual effects? Learn how to use mocha AE to track your shot and add advanced visual effects to live action footage inside Adobe After Effects. mocha can help you track shots that would be hard to track using traditional 2D point or feature trackers because it is a PLANAR TRACKER. A planar tracker uses planes and textures to track as opposed to points or groups of pixels. This allows the tracker to stay on track even if your shot contains motion blur or a very shallow depth of field. mocha AE comes included with Adobe After Effects and is available since CS3 and there is no reason for you not to use this awesome tool to make it easier for you to track your shot, replace screens or rotoscope!

Tobias Gleissenberger
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