Muzzle flashes are an integral element in every movie shootout. Though they might seem like a small detail, it can make the difference between a movie gunshot seeming cheap and fake or real and exciting. Muzzle flashes can be executed in a few different ways, and we’ll be explaining everything you need to know about this effect. But, before we dive into movie muzzle flashes, it’s important to understand the real-life counterparts.
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Where to find muzzle flash assets
Muzzle flashes in movies can be executed using VFX or practical methods. Using VFX is cheaper, faster, and safer than practical methods but it can also wind up looking fake unless executed expertly. So, let’s make sure we have the best muzzle flash assets and know how to use them.
The first thing you need to pull of convincing VFX gunfire is a collection of convincing flash assets. There are plenty of free muzzle flash assets to be found on the internet, including those from the video above, and there are other assets that can be purchased for varying prices. Here are a few places where you can find muzzle flash effect assets.
Premiumbeat.com is best known for the music licensing side of the website, but they also offer After Effects templates as well as stock photos and video assets. In addition to the raw assets, there are also educational and instructional guides for creating gun flash VFX on the Premium Beat blog.
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Actionvfx.com is more than just a repository for VFX stock footage. The team behind the website are also responsible for creating fresh, high-quality assets. They offer all sorts of VFX assets and have an entire category dedicated to gun VFX to make your search easy. Muzzle flares can be purchased in combo packages or individually.
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Triunedigital.com is run by the fine folks behind the Film Riot YouTube channel, who have been making educational filmmaking videos for more than a decade. In the Triune Digital shop, they sell all manner of filmmaking resources created in-house. If you like their muzzle flare asset pack, they also offer custom SFX bundles as well to complete the audio execution of your movie gunshots.
Muzzle flash effect
Videocopilot.net is one of the original names in VFX. Their line of “Action Essentials” packages has been utilized in more short films and YouTube videos than perhaps any other VFX package. The site is also packed with tons of tutorials that can walk you through every step of the VFX process.
What is muzzle flash?
Other muzzle flash effect considerations
The good thing about doing a quick and simple muzzle flare is that the flash can technically be a still image since it will only be on screen for a frame or two. Adding smoke and glow is a bit more complicated, but we’ll get into that later.
Before we jump into instructions for carrying out muzzle flash VFX in Adobe After Effects, a quick pro-tip: VFX assets are often recorded and released in slow motion. So, be sure to speed the footage up if you are using it in a scene taking place in real-time, otherwise it will look unnatural. Next, let’s explore how real-life muzzle flares differ from movie muzzle flashes.
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Muzzle flares in real life
Muzzle flashes aren’t purely a cinematic invention, but they are certainly bigger and, pardon the pun, flashier than their real-life equivalents. To design VFX or SPFX muzzle flashes, it’s important to have a basic understanding of what real muzzle flashes look like. This helps ensure a level of realism and to understand the proper level of exaggeration needed for the screen.
The above video showcases Keanu Reeves undergoing live-fire weapons training for the John Wick movies, some of the best action films ever made. Pay close attention to the discharge around the front of these real guns as they are fired, then compare them to the muzzle flashes found in the John Wick movies. There is a clear difference. And, be sure to check out our tips for writing John Wick style action scenes.
Realism isn’t always a high priority for action movies. But if you want your movie shootouts to have some semblance of realism, then researching real guns is a good idea. Different guns and different muzzle shapes produce flashes that look different from one another.
It is worth researching the real-life equivalent to the particular gun used in your action scene before designing the VFX/SPFX for the scene.
One muzzle type might project the flash directly from the end of the gun barrel. Another muzzle type might project the flame from the sides of the barrel or in a “flower” shape around the barrel. Later on in this post, we’ll share assets for flash shapes of all different types.
On Set Effects
Muzzle flashes in movies
As with many aspects of filmmaking, muzzle flashes are more often than not an exaggeration of reality rather than a direct reproduction of it. Different movies handle muzzle flares in different ways, but the intent is always the same: to best sell the moment.
Watch the final shootout in Christopher McQuarrie's The Way of the Gun and pay attention to how much the flares add to the intensity.
Before we get into digital muzzle flashes, let’s take a look at the practical ways special effects artists have made them over the years. Even as the popularity of digital flashes continues to rise, practical muzzle flares are still used. In fact, they were the only option for capturing a flash on camera until recently.
The two most common practical effects for muzzle flashes are #1: flash paper, and #2: blanks. Flash paper, also known as Nitrocellulose, has three characteristics that make it work well for movie gunshots.
It burns extremely quickly, it burns brightly, and it leaves behind little-to-no visible residue. Flash paper can be fed through modified prop guns to simulate the gun flare as it's being fired. Here's a quick science demonstration to illustrate how flash paper works.
The other main practical method, blanks, produces even more convincing results but there are some drawbacks. A blank-firing gun is, for all intents and purposes, a real firearm and requires far more supervision and caution when used on a set. Actor Brandon Lee was fatally wounded by a blank-firing gun on the set of The Crow. If you're unfamiliar with this story, here's the backstory.
Even though blank-firing guns are not meant to fire projectiles, they are still capable of doing so accidentally if something happens to get lodged in the barrel. Also, the area directly in front of the barrel is always a danger zone that can cause serious harm or even death. The dangerous nature of blank-firing guns is one of the main reasons — along with increased costs — that blanks are less frequently used than VFX muzzle flashes in modern filmmaking.
There are other considerations to take into account when using blanks, such as the sound produced by blanks, which is at a decibel level comparable to actual gunshots. This loud bang can be both a boon and a hindrance. A loud bang can help actors sell their performances and nail the timing of gunshot reactions. But it can also lead to concerns of noise pollution when filming in public/crowded areas and can be a challenge for the recording of clean production audio.
Also worth taking into account is a camera’s shutter speed and frame rate. It is possible for a camera to miss a muzzle flash since it happens so quickly. This can eat up time and money to film additional takes. Or it might not even be discovered until the footage has already been processed and, by then, it may be too late. With fully automatic weapons, missing some muzzle flashes is nearly guaranteed. This is not an issue when using VFX to add muzzle flashes.
The way the SPFX team pulled this off was by attaching the prop gun with an electronic-synchronization device which timed the firing of each gunshot directly to the camera’s shutter, ensuring that each and every muzzle flash was captured with perfect clarity.
Without this, only a fraction of the muzzle flashes fired on set would have been captured on camera. The resulting shootout would be just that much less exciting than the real final product.
The film Act of Valor took a decidedly different approach to the matter of muzzle flashes. The gimmick for Act of Valor was that the cast was filled with real-life Navy Seals firing real guns with live ammunition on set. No need to fake muzzle flashes when you’re capturing the real deal.
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How to create VFX muzzle flashes
While it may be possible to execute VFX muzzle flashes in other editing programs, After Effects is the number one choice of consumer-friendly editing software for these kinds of VFX.
After Effects makes muzzle flashes, complete with smoke and glow, a fairly easy effect to pull off if you put in the time and effort.
This muzzle flash tutorial might be more than 10 years old at this point, but the advice and instructions within remain just as solid. Following these steps will give you a great foundation to build upon, refine, and eventually perfect your VFX muzzle flashes.
The above video offers additional tips, tricks, and concepts to keep in mind when crafting VFX muzzle flashes. If you start with good assets, incorporate smoke, environmental glow, blur, and motion-tracking when appropriate, then you’ll be making professional VFX muzzle flashes in no time.
How to Write Great Action Scenes
You now know everything you need to know about muzzle flashes. But remember, a great muzzle flash is nothing without great footage. Prepare yourself to make the best action sequences possible, starting out at the script level and building up from there. Learn how to write killer action sequences in a screenplay, up next.