Get Better Looking Gunshots in the Dark

Gunshots: one of the most popular visual effects techniques used on YouTube. Getting gunshots to look great can take some tweaking - and achieving a realistic gunshot effect in the dark is even more difficult. But there are some things YOU can do to help achieve a realistic gunshot in the dark.

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A gunshot is essentially a small explosion. And an explosion primarily produces light and sound. The sound part of this technique is pretty straight forward. You download a gunshot sound effect, sync it to the muzzle flash, tweak the sound a bit, and away you go.

If your gunshots are sounding too similar and you are starting to hear some repetition, we have a video about how to make them sound better:

The explosion from the gunshot produces a massive amount of light in a split second, and in a dark scene this will be amplified.

You CAN add some fake light spill in post-production for your daytime shots. You can do this by duplicating your layer, mask around the subject where you want it to brighten, brighten it up with something like a curves or exposure adjustment, and feather out the mask to blend it all together. It only shows for a single frame so it works well enough. But this won’t work for a dark environment because you simply can’t fake a realistic fall-off of light.

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In this case, you’ll need to produce a real-life flash during the gunshot. This is what we learned from the process:

Using a Flash


The initial idea was to use a portable camera flash. It has a button on it to test the flash so the plan was to hit the flash whenever the subject fires. After trying this out we soon realised that because of the small differences in shutter speed, frame rate, and rolling shutter, the flash was giving us shutter interference, resulting in a frame that looked like this. No good.

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Next on the list was a flashlight. This was getting us closer to the result but it simply wasn’t bright enough.

Aputure LED panel

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Finally we tried this LED panel from Aputure. The great thing about this light for this effect in particular is that it has a light switch separate from the intensity dial. Some cheaper lights have a dial which clicks on then turns up. But if you can get a light which switches on and off with a simple click, it will make this effect a lot easier. 

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Our findings

So the light must be super bright. You want it to highlight your subjects face and light up some of the background for maximum effect. We dialled it in so it didn’t completely blow out but produced a very hot highlight.

Now the most important part of making this effect look good are the steps you’ll take to capture the light flash.

A muzzle flash from the gun happens directly after pulling the trigger, but BEFORE the recoil from the explosion. The recoil is the pressure of the gun jolting your wrist back, so the steps are very important to make it look realistic.

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Pull the trigger, then freeze in place. Flick the light on, then flick the light off. Then simulate the recoil. Rinse and repeat.

In your editor you will make a cut on the frame the trigger is pulled. Then go to where the light is at its brightest, make a cut, delete the footage in between and join it together. Then scroll along and find the moment of recoil. Make a cut and take out the gap here too. The light should be on screen for only a single frame, and this is where you will add your muzzle flash and smoke elements.

One downside to this effect is that we were only able to produce it from a static camera angle. We tested a few different ways to simulate the light in a moving shot: one by shooting a take without the light, then shooting a take with the light on, and trying to match up the takes. But unless the takes are near identical, the cut looks far too jarring. So if you guys think you have a solution for producing this in a moving shot, let us know in the comments below, or better yet, show us how you did it in a video!

Visual effects work most effectively when they EMBED into the physical scene. Compositing effects onto footage without ANY physical interaction will result in tacky-looking VFX. So if you want your visual effects to shine, think about what those effects would produce in the real-world and try to replicate it.

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