Picture this: you're working in an edit suite and the director comes and looks over your shoulder. "Let's try a lens flare”, he says, and your heart sinks, knowing the cheesy '90s digital video effect he wants. Two decades on from those awful effects, we have Optical Flares, Video Copilot's lens-flare solution for After Effects.
Video Copilot have meticulously picked apart the elements that comprise a real lens flare in order to create an After Effects plug‑in with a huge amount of depth and realism. Optical Flares' intuitive user interface allows for combinations of both procedural and texture‑based lens-flare elements, with glows, streaks and iris effects being but a few of the assets in the plug‑in's powerful arsenal. The pop‑up interface should be a pretty straightforward affair to users familiar with After Effects, while the recent v1.2 update allows for flexible resizing of the sub‑windows within the display, and has also, thankfully, removed the frustrating 'pop out' navigation of previous versions.
The impressive 'dynamic triggering' feature allows for individual elements within your lens flare to react depending on their position within the frame, faithfully recreating the behaviour of real flares. Users may also find the ability to assign foreground layers to a flare useful. Once assigned, the selected layers in your composition will mask off the light produced from the lens flare, so you can put a flare behind certain objects.
Considering the large numbers of lens elements your flares can consist of, render times are reasonable, and can be shortened further via GPU acceleration. Users lucky enough to be running After Effects CS5 on a 64-bit workstation will be pleased to know that the latest version of Optical Flares will make use of every one of those 64 bits you paid for. The plug‑in runs very stably, though I did run into a few problems in OS X, where the Optical Flares interface was occasionally unresponsive. The sheer magnitude of Optical Flares may feel a little overwhelming at first, but I found the wealth of features inspire creativity more than confuse the user. The presets available are fantastic, but generating your own flares from the ground up is a truly empowering experience.
Whilst Knoll Light Factory has long been the 'go‑to' plug in for generating lens flares in software, I feel that Optical Flares trumps it in terms of both performance and price. Stability in OS X may need some tweaking, but we should see any kinks ironed out in successive updates. Optical flares is definitely worth checking out; who knows, maybe next time someone suggests you use a lens flare, you might just find yourself with a smile on your face. Tom Haig