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Review: Knoll Light Factory

 April, 2001

Knoll Light Factory

Macintosh System Requirements
System 8.1 or later
32 MB of RAM
10 MB of hard-disk space.
Adobe After Effects 3.1 or later required for After Effects version of plug-in. Adobe Photoshop 3.0 or later required for Photoshop version of plug-in.
by Pinnacle Systems/Puffin Designs


Review by
Andrew Balis

Adding some spice to your images

Knoll Light Factory is a series of plug-ins for use in After Effects, Final Cut Pro, Electric Image, Photoshop, Commotion Pro and Commotion DV. They are sold by Pinnacle Systems/Puffin Designs, and retails for $395 US. Previous versions of this product were known as Knoll Lens Flare. I'm glad to see the name change, as Lens Flare alone under-values the myriad of possibilities that you have with Knoll Light Factory. It does much more than create a simple lens flare in a shot. It can create all kinds of lighting effects that can be completely customized, and can also "interact" with the video footage itself, creating effects that can truly take on an integrated 3D effect.

For my tests, I used Knoll Light Factory in After Effects and also in Final Cut Pro. As I will discuss, certain elements work better in After Effects than in Final Cut Pro.

Installation is simple. Simply open the folder Installers on the CD. Inside are four installers. For FCP, or AE, launch the Knoll Light Factory installer. Select the plug-ins folder for FCP(or AE) when prompted where to install.

When you launch FCP, you will find the plug-ins in the Effects Tab of the Browser, under AE Effects.

In After Effects, they are located under the Effects Menu.

They consist of three main plug-ins, Light Factory, Light Factory EZ, and Light Factory Spectacular. In addition, you'll find a series of plug-ins for all the individual elements (Lens Primitives) to make up a flare. Also included in the package is the Unmult filter, which I'll talk about later.

For this article, I'll discuss the Light Factory plug-in in detail, as it is the main plug-in of the package.

The documentation consists of a book manual, and a PDF manual. The paper book manual covers four products by Puffins Designs (now under the Pinnacle umbrella): Knoll Light Factory, Composite Wizard, Image Lounge, and Primatte Keyer. On Composite Wizard, Image Lounge and Primatte Keyer, the documentation appears fairly extensive. Unfortunately, for Light Factory, it is way too brief. The PDF contains the same information as the book, and didn't offer additional help.

As there were tutorials included with the CD, I thought these would be of help. To my surprise, they were all Adobe After Effects projects and of no use to someone only using FCP. Luckily, I had access to After Effects, so I learned the Knoll plug-ins there before going back to FCP to apply what I had learned. This helped a lot, and I don't think I would have faired as well in FCP without understanding how they work with multiple video layers in After Effects first.

In FCP, to apply a lens flare, drag the Light Factory filter on to the clip in the timeline you wish to effect. In After Effects, select the clip in the time layout window, and then select the Knoll Light Factory filter from the Effects Menu. In FCP or AE, this applies the filter at default settings.

In FCP, to customize, open your clip in the Viewer and go to the Filters Tab. In After Effects, double click on the Light Factory filter in the time layout window.

The filter interface
in After Effects
The filter interface
in Final Cut Pro

The interface consists of the following:

The Lens Editor
It appears similarly in After Effects and Final Cut Pro
The Lens Editor: Click on options button to open. Here you'll pick all of the elements of the flare. From how much it glows around the center, the kind of glow, to spikes growing out from the center, to streaks flaring out, to faded shapes (that would be caused by a real lens flare), to many others (you can even create the look of a laser). Each element can be added, or, if not liked, deleted. Each element has a full range of settings that can be individually manipulated for each element. These include color, angle, intensity and position (the settings vary depending on the element type). In the Lens Editor there is also a preview area so you can see the combination of effects you are creating.

Brightness: controls overall intensity of the flare. This is different from the individual brightness that you can apply to the elements individually in the Lens Editor.

Scale: controls overall size of the flare

Light Source Location: Determines where in the frame the flare is located. Just like other elements of this filter, it is keyframeable. Therefore, the flare can animate across the screen. This location can be entered with coordinates, or by simply clicking on the cross-hair and then selecting a place in the Canvas in FCP, or in the Comp Window in After Effects. If a Location Layer is selected, then settings here will be ignored.

Color: Sets the overall color of the flare. In the Lens Editor, you can select the colors for individual elements of the flare.

Angle: Determines the angle for the flare.

Location Layer: If you have a multi-layered video composition, you can select one of the video layers in this box. If there is a location layer selected, then any position included in the position boxes above will be ignored, and the filter will look to the location layer for placement (position). This is very helpful if you wish a flare to track across screen during a shot (i.e. a shot with movement). The location layer must consist of something to track for this to work. In the tutorials, John Knoll uses a white dot on a black background that animates across the screen. The flare will follow this path, no matter what layer the flare is applied. It also seems to be helpful to place this location layer on the bottom-most part of the composition. This way, the location layer is obscured by the other video tracks, but it stills controls the path of the flare.

Obscuration Layer: If you have a multi-layered composition, and you want the flare to appear to go behind a foreground object, or appear from behind an object, then you need to make use of this featur . Select a video layer in this box. This clip will now act as the layer that the effect hides behind, or appears from behind. This is a powerful feature of this filter. As an object starts to obscure the flare, the flare can be manipulated to look like it doesn't simply disappear, but gets gradually hidden. Light behaves differently than a solid object; the way it can look as though it bends around the edges of the object it is starting to be obscured by. The amount of this reaction at the edges can be adjusted by the Source Size.

Obscuration and Location Layer in AE select your video layer in these boxes
  To select a Location or Obscuration Layer for FCP, you will need to drop a video layer from the timeline on to one of these "wells". These wells are similar to wells used by other plug-ins or filters for FCP that use multiple video layers for their effects.

Obscuration Type: The choices here are Alpha, RGB, Alpha + RGB. For a flare that would disappear behind a solid object, you would choose Alpha. For a flare that becomes partially obscured behind an object, and even takes on the color of the foreground object, then use RGB. John Knoll uses a sun shining through a multi-colored stained glass window in one tutorial to show an example of how this works. The sun created here is a flare created by the filter. As the sun moves across the sky behind the stained glass, it "filters" through this opaque surface, taking on the color of the glass that is shining through! It creates an incredible integrated effect.

Source Size: Determines the size for the Obscuration Layer.

The Knoll Light Factory plug-ins will work with a single video clip. But to get the richest effects, a several layer video composition works wonders. This can create effects that can blend with the elements of a shot. Here, it seems best to work with (at the least): a Knoll flare layer, a foreground layer, a background layer, and a location layer.

After a lot of testing in FCP, I found that I could not get certain elements to work properly. Although a Location Layer and an Obscuration Layer can be applied, they don't seem to work. I contacted Pinnacle about this, and they verified my results. They mentioned that these features worked with previous versions of FCP, but apparently do not now. They said that they would work on this. I hope that these things do get worked out, as it would make it much more functional in FCP.

As I couldn't apply a Location Layer and Obscuration Layer in FCP, I tested these functions in After Effects.

The time layout window in After Effects with Knoll Light Factory applied to solid on top layer.

This demonstration comes from one of the tutorials included on the CD.

Layer 1: The manual notes that John Knoll often applies the flare to a solid layer, instead of one of the video layers, giving more flexibility for the effect. This can be easily done in After Effects by creating a black solid. Lay this solid in the time layout window on the top video layer of the comp. Apply the Light Factory filter to this clip. Then apply the Unmult filer to this clip. The Unmult filter comes with the Light Factory plug-ins. This filter alone is worth the price of the package, although it is available for free from the Pinnacle/Puffin website. When applied, this filter will create alpha information from any black pixels. Subsequently, anything that was previously black, is now transparent. It will maintain shades of grey as semi-transparent. As you can imagine, you can use this filter alone for all kinds of applications, not just for working with these flares.

Layer 2: In this example, there is an additional foreground element. This layer is not essential to the comp.

Layer 3: The foreground layer will work best if it is a separated element, such as a person or object filmed(or taped) against a blue-screen. The foreground element can also be a graphic with an alpha channel, like text created in Photoshop. This foreground layer is then used as the obscuration layer on the solid clip with the flare. This clip would now be selected in the box for obscuration layer on the solid clip with the Knoll flare.

Layer 4: The background layer will be the background of the comp. Either a separately filmed background, a matte painting or any other type of graphic to be used as a background.

Layer 5: The location layer can be created any number of ways. John Knoll used a white dot on a black background that animated across the screen. He created this in Electric Image, but this can be created however you wish. This clip would now be selected in the box for Location Layer on the solid clip with the Knoll flare.


Before sun(flare) is obscured.
As the flare is being obscured.
Flare just obscured

Every element on the filter tab for the Knoll Light Factory plug-in is keyframeable(except Obscuration Layer and Location Layer), allowing for the possibility of animating any or all of the effects over time. Through the various settings, and animating them by keyframes, you are not limited to lens flares. You can create explosions, the flicker from a candle (not the flame itself though), a star field, the sun, a sparkle off an object, and many other effects, only limited by your imagination.

The Time Layout Window in After Effects with keyframes for parameters of Knoll Light Factory.

The Viewer Window in FCP of a video clip with Knoll Light Factory applied. Keyframes are present for parameters.

In addition, you may add any or all of the individual flare elements separately, as their own filter, for animating them on their own for even more control.

Like icing on a cake, another really great aspect of the Knoll Light Factory plug-ins is that the individual elements have a checkbox for standard or anamorphic type. This appears when editing parameters in the Lens Editor, or when adding elements on their own (as their own filter). This gives you the flexibility of matching footage shot in an anamorphic format or in a spherical format.

The following are a few examples of different applications for Knoll Light Factory:

Without flare.
With flare.


Without flare.
With flare.


The following are some ideas for adding a little spice to text:


My only problems related to how the filters worked in FCP. The main problem that arose in FCP was that I was not able to get the Location Layer and Obscuration Layer to work correctly. This limits the abilities of Knoll Light Factory in FCP.

And although these elements don't currently work, a lot can still be done. The above pictures are just a few examples of what I did with the plug-in package in FCP.

Important Note: If you are using Final Cut Pro 1.2.5, then your sequence settings should be set to render in RGB mode.

Another problem that I found in FCP was that making settings changes didn't update the effect in the timeline. You could change a setting in the Lens Editor, and that change didn't appear in the timeline.

The only way that I found to get the filter to update itself (after making changes) was to un-check the box for the filter itself, and then re-check it. That seems to force FCP to acknowledge the current settings of the filter. It took a little while of playing around before I found this solution.

This is a FCP specific problem with these filters. I did have completely reliable results in After Effects.

My only other gripe is the lack of documentation for FCP. It definitely hampered my learning curve in FCP.

Aside from these complaints, I found the Knoll Light Factory plug-ins to be very powerful. The customization and possibilities are almost endless, allowing for very interesting effects that can be integrated into your video composition, and not simply sitting over a video clip.

So I sit here thinking about all kinds of past shots that I have worked on, wondering how I can use the Knoll plug-ins to enhance them. A glint here, a sparkle there, a glow, an enhanced sun... just so many possibilities. I get the feeling I'm going to start digging up past projects and see what I can do.

copyright© 2001 by Andrew Balis


Andrew Balis is a director of photography on commercials, music videos and narratives. He has worked in film for a dozen years, having advanced through the ranks up to his current position.

After discovering Final Cut Pro a year and a half ago, he found himself spending many hours here at 2-pop. Currently, when he is not shooting he teaches Final Cut Pro classes and one on one training sessions. Andrew also does consulting and freelance editing on Final Cut Pro systems for production companies in the L.A. area.

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