Create video with film burn effect

Film burn is a popular 'film-like' video effect. Here's how to achieve it without having to shell out for expensive plug-ins.

When you consider how much care is usually taken to avoid exposing cinefilm to dust, heat, light and mishandling, it's amazing how much effort we put into making our digital productions look like they've just been pulled out of an attic after 10 years of neglect. Watch any surf/skater/indie music piece and the odds are you'll find all sorts of video nastiness on it, but the current effet du jour is film burn - also described as film flash.

Flash and burn

Real film burn is caused by the cartridge popping open or leaking light during recording, but it can also be caused by a misfeed of the film through the camera gate behind the lens. This causes overexposure, bleached-out detail, colour shift and patterns on the final exposure. Okay, so it's a little difficult to explain, but you'll know it when you see it - it looks a little like this. It's popular because it creates a retro look that instantly gives your video that "rough-cut" and authentic feel.

Obviously, no amount of light is going to create the same effect with today's magnetic tape, so a little jiggery tweakery is required. Usually, this would involve the use of heavyweight software like After Effects or Final Cut Pro, or even an investment in some stock footage like ArtBeats' gorgeous-but-pricey Film Clutter clips ( But you can actually get a similar effect with an entry-level editor that supports multiple video tracks and keyframing. I'll be using Premiere Elements for the purpose of this tutorial, but the same principles can be applied to other editing packages.


The first thing you need to do is create an overlay using your image editor of choice. I'll be using the file BURN6.bmp for this example. This overlay looks a little like a misfed film, but there are no hard and fast rules when creating your own - just go for soft edges and glows. When you've got an image that you're happy with, add it to your project library along with the rest of your video clips.

Drag the image into place above the clip you want to apply this effect to and resize it accordingly. As with all intrusive effects, be careful not to overdo it; I'd suggest a clip length of no more than five seconds, but it's a personal thing.

It's not just the overlay that needs to be adjusted in order to make this effect work, we also need to adjust the underlying video clip to simulate the flash and overexposure that we're after. If you're applying the effect to part of a longer clip, it's a good idea to cut the video into sections using the razor tool in order to isolate the effect segment from the rest of the sequence - see this image.

When you've done this, pull the Gamma Correction filter from the Video Effects list down onto the underlying video clip and click on the Setup... button (next to where it says "Gamma Correction" in the Effect Controls pane). Drag the slider down to the 0.3 mark, and it'll get that overexposed look we're after. You can use Brightness/Contrast adjustment, or Levels filters in other editors to achieve a similar look.

Sadly, this filter isn't key­frame­able, but opacity is. Holding down < Ctrl > click on the Opacity guideline (the yellow line running through the clip) to create three keyframes at the beginning of the clip. Drag the middle one downwards, and then repeat this process toward the end of the clip - you should end up with something that looks a little like this - and this adds a strong flicker to the clip. You can add more if you like.

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Laurence Grayson

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