Day/Dusk for Night Fun!

Today I was putting together a little motion graphics project for a promotional video at work. I work in corporate video, so extra creative projects don’t come by all the time. When I do get a project I can potentially put more creativity in to, I like to take the time to try some things I haven’t done before. For this project, I wanted a night time interstate driving scene with semis and cars driving by, with a city in the distance in the background, and some snow. The problem was that I had none of those things. So I decided to attempt to create it, and I think I did a reasonably good job. I’ve actually never tried to do anything like this before..sort of a digital matte day for night composite type of a thing. It was fun to play around with freehand rather than trying to look up a specific tutorial and copy someone else’s work. It is nice to be quite comfortable in After Effects most days.

It does need some tweaking and revision when I get back into the project next week, though. I decided to post the process of putting this together in case someone is out there trying to get tips on pulling off day for night shots. And if anyone has any input about how I could make this better, that’d be interesting to hear as well. I wasn’t going for total 100% crazy realism here obviously. There is text in the upper left area so I didn’t put any lights over there.

So here’s what I did:

I knew I wanted night time driving, but I had no night time shots. And I didn’t want to get any. So I looked through my footage library to find footage that might work. With day for night, it’s important when you’re shooting to keep in mind that it needs to look right when it’s altered for night – no harsh shadows, no bright sunlight. Of course, I didn’t shoot any of this source footage, so I had to look for something that might work in which the shadows wouldn’t look like crap and the sky wouldn’t look crazy. The first bit of footage I thought might work looked good, but I realized since it was shot during the day, the headlights on the cars weren’t on. I would have to motion track convincing headlights on a dozen cars, and tail lights on a dozen cars. And the perspective of the shot had the cars traveling straight to or straight away from the camera, so I’d have to deal with perspective. Screw that! I then remembered I had this awful useless dusk traffic footage in my library that might work for me, so I decided to give it a go.

It’s pretty dark so I guess it’s not totally day for night…more like dusk for night. Anyway, I masked out the sky and flag portion with the intention of fading the top of the dark area into more black. There is a black solid at the bottom of the composition.

I feathered the top of the mask a little bit. After that, I added Levels, Color Balance, Hue/Saturation, and Curves.

With the Levels filter, I made everything overall darker. I made the mids darker, decreased the gamma, and lowered the white output.

Typically in day for night, blue is added in (if it isn’t shot with a blue filter already) because night time has blue tones. I added in a bit of blue. Not too much or it looks lame.

With the Hue/Saturation, I simply decreased the saturation a bit and made everything more muted.

And with Curves, I adjusted the white and black ends of the curve to make everything darker and blacker while preserving the headlights properly.

So then I needed some kind of lights or cityscape in the background, I decided. I went on and found a couple of free use images.

I have no idea what cities these are. Ha!

I decided to use the top image as the skyline, and the bottom image as sort of a way to frame the bottom of the skyline since the weird random bridges won’t work. I figured it would look like maybe a city sitting in the background in the hills, otherwise dark and lonely. I took the framing lights first, and masked out everything except for the light area and dropped it in the comp.

I did similar treatments to this to make the colors and lights look better. I feathered the mask a little bit to get rid of the harsh edges, and Color Balance’d to get rid of the excessive blue from the original image. I also added a little bit of blur to make it not seem perfectly clear.

For the city, I did a similar thing. Masked it first, keeping some of the gradient sky and working it as the distant glow of the city.

I did some Color Balance, Hue/Saturation, and Curves to take out the extra blue, make the yellow less bold, and make it darker overall. I also added the little bit of lens blur.

Then I stuck them together and adjusted the feathering and mask shape to make the glow look more natural. I also reduced the opacity of both.

Then I put in the interstate part – but I put that layer behind the cityscape.

I figured that I’d be able to sell the effect a lot easier if the foreground and background overlapped and sort of interacted. The interstate section has two semis that are higher than the cars. If this were an actual scene, you’d see them passing in front of the lights. So I duplicated the interstate layer twice and rotoscoped both semis. I moved those layers with just the semis above everything else.

So now when the semis pass by, they briefly cover the background as though it exists back there for real. Magic!

And then finally, I wanted some snow because it’s a holiday thing. I added an adjustment layer with CC Snow. I think CC Snow is a bit cheesy, but I don’t have any 3rd party particle plugins so it’ll have to do.

And here’s what I have now:

Night Scene – Dusk for Night

Like I said, it needs some tweaking with the glow on the city for one thing. The mask on the second semi is a bit off in some parts, which I fixed but apparently rendered out the old version. I’ll see what I can do with it with a fresh mind on Monday. But still, it was an interesting experiment in compositing and for the purposes of this project, I think it’ll work well.

As a side note, since the footage I ended up using was from dusk, some of the car headlights weren’t on yet. I don’t think lots of people will realize in my night footage that there are cars driving without headlights on in the middle of the night. I could probably put in some headlights on these few cars now, but it kind of amuses me.