Article Focus: In this article, CreativeCOW leader, Aharon Rabinowitz takes thorough look at Red Giant Software's Knoll Light Factory Pro 2.5.
I once read an article on 10 do's and don'ts for demo reels. At the top of the list for Don'ts was "Don't use Lens flares." On the same side of that coin, when I was working at an animation house, my department head told me he hated lens flares. When pressed, he admitted that it wasn't flares he hated but the blatant and non-creative use of flares that he saw in a lot of reels.
An example of poor flare usage. (We all know we've done it at least once.)
That said, I'm a flare junkie. And in the motion graphics world like it or not, you have to use them - a lot. It's all about the flash, and nothing is flashier than a lens flare. The thing is that, at the heart of it, I don't disagree with that 10 things article or my department head. Using any effect or look in an non-creative way, or even using a canned effect creatively, yields the same result for the viewer: "Been there. Done that."
So what's the solution? Well, when a limited toolset yields limited results, it's time for a better toolset. And when it comes to lens flares no one does it better than Red Giant Software's Knoll Light Factory.
Some basic examples of Red Giant's Knoll Lens Flare usage.
In version 2.5, its latest incarnation, Knoll Light factory has seen some major improvements over previous versions, both over and under the hood. While 2.0 had some great flares, it was slow. The latest release takes advantage of you're graphics card's hardware acceleration and delivers major speed improvements.
The new GPU (Open GL) option in Knoll Light Factory 2.5
Unfortunately, for me, there was a hitch: I tested this plug-in on my main desktop which has an nVidia Quadro 3000, a mid-level video card, and couldn't get GPU acceleration. To be fair, the card is not supported by After Effects 7 it never has been, and it's not something I usually think to much about. In this case, however, it was a real liability because the hardware acceleration for Light Factory was unavailable on that machine.
However, that said, I also tested the plug-in on my laptop which has an nVidia 6800 Go a low-end card used more for gaming than anything else. I didn't actually think it would work, but I figured why not give it a test, right? To my surprise, I started up AE, and Graphics acceleration kicked in - here are the results:
When I played back a simple lens flare animation (non-RAM preview), it ran at about 10 FPS However, with GPU acceleration, I was seeing about 15-18 FPS of playback (Non-RAM preview) and much faster RAM Previews It was certainly faster than my desktop (no acceleration) which is a significantly more powerful machine. So if you've got card at mid level, you should see marked increase in performance.
Another new feature in Knoll Light Factory is integrated Alpha Generation, which means that you can create a lens flare that has it's own alpha channel, so it can be composited later. While I don't think I'll be using this much myself, I've seen a bunch of posts here at the cow asking about that very sort of thing, so I though it bared mentioning.
Knoll Light Factory Pro 2.5 has the ability to create an alpha channel for your lens flares. Just add the effect to a solid and choose "Use Unmult" option.
Also, rather than resting on their laurels, and leaving the effects as is, there have been 25 new flare effects presets added. I can't say that all of them are perfect, and some are downright bizarre, but like all of the previous lens flares they are fully customizable, which is the real value in a plug-in like this.
Knoll Light Factory Pro 2.5 comes with 70 Flare types (25 of which are new to this version). Some are standard fare while others are quite interesting.
OK, so those are the major improvements, but let's talk general features so you can get a better idea of the product overall.
Knoll Light Factory 2.5 Pro includes several tools that take into account how much control you want to have and how much time you want to put into it.
For those people like myself who really like to take control of things, Knoll Light Factory (The base plug-in) allows you complete access to every lens flare property, via the Lens Editor. And any changes you make or new looks you create can be saved and added to the library for later use.
The lens editor gives you total control over the look and feel of your lens flares. You can save any changes you make as new presets.
On the other hand if you've got a fast turn around time, or just want to add the basic effect, Light Factory EZ is you're tool of choice giving you instant access to the 70 flare types that ship with the plug-in. You can still make changes to a lot of the look, but some of the more advanced controls are missing.
Knoll Light Factory EZ gives you access to all 70 flare types, but without the advanced parameters found in Light Factory.
Also, if you want to simulate many lens flares at once, tracking may points or just creating shimmering particle effects, Light Factory Spectacular gives you the ability to do that.
Knoll Light Factory Spectacular allows you to create multiple lensflares based on alpha channels and brightness. In this example, the effect was combined with CyCore Effects' CC Star Burst to create 2 different effects.
Finally, if you want access to just one or 2 elements of a lens flare (A knoll lens flare being made up of about 20 separate elements), Light Factory Elements let's you do just that.
There are 19 flare Elements that can be creates separately for different effects.
That said, In all of this, one notable feature is the ability to use an obscuration layer basically, you can use the alpha channel of an existing layer to block out the lens flare, so that if something passes in front of the source point, the lens flare dims or disappears entirely. This saves a lot of time in animation, while giving a realistic effect. This has been in the plug-in since the earliest versions, and continues to be my favorite feature.
So, for the plug-in itself ($349 Download/$399 Box), I'm going to give it 5 Cows. I've always loved lens flares and Light Factory has always delivered the best of that, along with immense flexibility. For the upgrade ($99/$129), I'm torn I like some of the new flares, and speed is always important, but for some, that might not justify the upgrade. Since the speed comes from hardware, I'm giving the upgrade 3 cows for those on older or weaker video cards, but 4.5 for those on newer hardware since they'll get the most benefit.
By the way if you want to get up and running fast (though the plug-in is fairly intuitive), Red Giant offers a Training DVD for Knoll Light Factory Pro and Editors ($79), which you can purchase at www.redgiantsoftware.com. The package includes a DVD meant for your home theater DVD player, and another DVD containing the same content but designed to play on you computer.
Note: At the time of writing this article, GPU support was not available on the nVidia QuadroFX 3000, due to a hardware issue. This issue was discovered through my interaction with the Red Giant Support team, and as it turns out, it is only an issue with this card. Therefore, the software may actually support many older cards, such as the QuadroFX 1500. Please check the Red Giant Website (redgiantsoftware.com) for more details.
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