Best of: How to: The tilt-shift technique in video

Posted by Ryan Jerz on Tuesday August 25, 2009.

This is easily one of the most viewed posts ever on this site. I get daily search hits in double digits, which frequently puts it near the top of the daily visits, so that has to rank it among the best of.

I’m a fan of this genre, which is why I did so much experimenting with it. Frankly, I don’t care that it’s fake. In fact, just about all tilt-shift stuff I see online is post-production stuff, and I’m not bothered by that. I look at it because it’s a novelty, and it’s really difficult and expensive to do it for real in video. Therefore, I tried to find a way to do it with the tools most editors and shooters would already have at their disposal. This post details what I found, and I think I nailed it from the standpoint of ease and efficiency in the editing process.

How to: The tilt-shift technique in video

Tilt-shift photography got popular a few years ago, and everyone and their brother has a tutorial on how to create the effect in Photoshop. It’s a simple thing to recreate, for sure. Video poses a slightly different challenge, though. I’ve done some experimenting and come up with what I think is a great method for creating tilt-shift looking videos while keeping video render times to a minimum. Here are the steps it takes to make this happen.

Software needed: Photoshop and Final Cut Express or Pro

Other video software might work, but I don’t know if the particular method I’m going to detail is possible in anything other than the Final Cut series. I use Final Cut Express 3.5 and Photoshop CS3, but have experience in Final Cut Pro as well. There are more methods to do this trick, but I think I’ve refined it to the most efficient (rendering) that’s available using the software I have.

Shoot good video

That should always be the first step in creating anything to do with video, but sometimes people think they can make their crappy video better by adding some goofy effect to it. Your quality doesn’t have to be Oscar-worthy, but it does have to be shot with the right idea in mind. If you want it to look good, you have to know what you’re doing with it. For this effect, I suggest shooting from above the subject. The best tilt-shift stuff is looking down on the subject, further creating the toy model look that will ultimately emerge here. You’ll also do well to disregard much of what you’re taught about the rule of thirds here. Shoot with the subject toward the center of the frame, as it will make the editing easier later on. Other than that, I don’t think there’s much more to it.

Build your gradient

Using Photoshop, create a new document that conforms to the size of the video you’ve shot. In Photoshop CS3, you have the option of choosing from several different video types in the preset sizes:

Preset video document sizes in Photoshop CS3

Once you have the size properly figured out, start building. With a white background, select the gradient tool. Click on the gradient display to edit the gradient (just under the Photoshop along the menu items). Inside the editor, click the black to white gradient, then you’ll have to set several more points along the way. Toward the center, there should be two pure white points at 48% and 52%. I keep them close because you want some perfectly clear video, but not much.

Next, set 50% gray points at 25%, 40%, 60%, and 75%. This gives you the partial blur extending toward the edges. Set pure black points at 10% and 90%. This continues the gradual blurring until the very edges where it really ramps up. It should look like this:

The gradient used in the tilt-shift effect

I use these particular points due to the amount of blur I put on the video, so experimenting with your own gradient to get the look you prefer is always an option.

Once you’ve got the gradient set up, click on the top or bottom of the image and drag across, then let go to insert the gradient on the document. Make sure you extend all the way to the edges or you’ll have it looking funky. It’s also a good idea to slightly tilt the gradient so that the focused area is not directly across the center of the screen. Your video may also play a role in what you’d like to keep in focus. A few experiments with this and you should understand exactly what you want.

Save the gradient and put it in a place that’s protected from inadvertent deleting. I use a folder on my video drive called graphics, where I put anything that’s not video but important to video editing, like name CGs built in Photoshop or something like that.

Edit your video

Now comes the time to string together your video. Edit it normally, producing one track of the video that you want to show.

Once you have that put together, the effect comes into play. You’ll need to import the gradient that you made in Photoshop. Keep it wherever you like once it’s inside Final Cut.

Create a new sequence and drop the video sequence that you’ve already edited onto two layers in the new sequence. It should be duplicated right on top of itself here like this:

The Final Cut Timeline showing the video layered on itself.

Once you have that in place, add two filters to the top layer: Image Mask and Gaussian Blur. I set the blur radius to 25. Only the outer edges of the image will actually be blurred that much due to our gradient. Next, drag the gradient file from the Browser and drop it onto the Mask area of the Image Mask filter (it looks like a film strip with a question mark in it:

Placing the gradient into the image mask filter

Leave the Channel on Luminance, but check the Invert box. You should see the graduated blur across the image with a small portion being clear.

In order to add color and motion effects, you’ll want to create a new sequence and drop the one you’re currently working on into that. You might want to boost the saturation of the image to add to the “toy” look. I add the Color Correction filter and tweak it until I get the desired look.

After that, you may want to make it look more like stop-motion. To do that, add the Strobe filter and adjust it to get the desired look. I typically use a strobe of 10, which should make the video look like it’s about 3 frames per second.

After rendering, you should have the video looking like it is supposed to look. This method cut down on the rendering by a ton for me. Another method has three layers of video and two Garbage Mattes set to varying blur factors. I found that a little investment in building the gradient made for a much shorter wait once I was ready to get this video out of Final Cut.

Examples of video I’ve done like this are here and here.

This was part of the Best of series that I am posting over the next few weeks. The original post is here.

Ryan JerzRyan Jerz is an all-around good guy who wants people to eventually refer to him as "that dude who climbs mountains."

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