Inspiration, Pro Tips

Light Leaks, Explosions, and More: Creative Uses for Stock Media


These days, stock media is much more than what it used to be. It’s no longer just for establishing shots, photos for blogs, or lower thirds, and it’s not really even correct to call it “stock” in many ways. With a little creativity and some basic editing and motion graphics work, you can use these media assets to add textures and layers that enhance your project both visually and aurally. Here are some of the more creative uses of stock media you may not think of right away.

Replacing a Screen or Monitor

Replacing a screen or monitor in your video can be incredibly easy, and considering just how common it is in every movie and television show you see, it can really bring your footage to life without overwhelming the scene. You may think, “Wait, why not just put a video on the screen instead of doing visual effects?” Well, the reason is that cameras just don’t really work that way. You’ve got to deal with things like reflections, the screen’s clarity changing depending on the angle, and the fact that the replacement screen can be way too dark or bright to fit in correctly with the rest of your scene. Things like radars, generic CG backgrounds, and web/app interfaces are all simulated to make them look their best, rather than the most accurate (you should try to do both, however). This is a screenshot from a Capital One commercial:

stock footage in a screen capital one commercial

The computer screen in the background is blank or green and has been replaced with this animation:

Technology Interface Computer Data Screen GUI Background by eyeidea

As you can see, the stock video isn’t the main focus of the piece, but it does give a tech-y/science-y look and feel to the commercial. It’s not hitting you over the head, but you notice it and it adds another layer to the scene. In other cases, the monitor is the entire focal point of the shot and not in the background, meaning you’ll need to be more precise and deliberate with what you use as the replacement clip.

Related Post 5 Ways Screen and Motion Graphics Can Enhance Your Work

One additional note to this is that there are static or locked down shots where the monitor or screen doesn’t move, and there are moving shots, where the screen will have little black-and-white circles or white/blue crosses on it. Those are tracking points, and they aid with keeping the replacement video in place as the clip moves. Check out an example in our spot here:

You can both make it easier on yourself for post and get beautiful results using this screen-replacement technique, all without having to load a clip onto your tablet or phone that plays in real time.

Extending the Set

Another near-ubiquitous visual effect is the use of green/blue screens. The great thing about being able to place your actors/subjects literally anywhere is that you can extend your set beyond the limits of your physical space, and this is where the stock media comes in. You can use basic shots like driving plates and virtual sets, but you can also use almost any shot as an extension of your set, creating an entire world around your actors. Here is an example of an actor inserted into a clip:

Original clips: Subway Train in Hollywood by crackerclips and Young Woman With Handbag by ChromakeyPeople

Adding Some Style

Unless you’re shooting with a film camera or an older camera, you have to make your video look old in post-production. The same goes for lens flares, which aren’t always guaranteed to work the way you want them to. Many music videos, title sequences, and some feature films and television shows employ these techniques to give the project a unique visual style. Here are a few to try:

Light Leaks: The goal of a light leak is to simulate the imperfections of older film cameras that happened when light leaked into the camera and caused flashes to overexpose the film. Think of the intro credits to Californication or True Blood as an example (although they shot a lot of these sequences with actual film, so they’re real). It gives the piece some character while making it feel gritty, retro, or vintage, and can also be used to hide cuts. Usually, a big orange flash will mask a cut to the next clip.

Light Leak – Film Flash 16mm 03 by CredibleFX

Film Grain or Noise: The goal of film grain is usually the same as that of a light leak. You want the footage to have a gritty and old-school look to it, so you add the grain. Most of the time, you can use compositing to add the effect, but there are some stock After Effects projects that have many different looks and styles, including an ’80s/VHS look that fits in well with today’s filmmaking style.

Creation VHS Effects by nopow

Lens Flares: JJ Abrams brought these back into the public eye when Star Trek (2007) included about 400,000 (actually 721) when it was released. These are used to add drama, as well as a sense of realism to the visuals. There are plenty of tutorials online about using them, but you essentially need to find a light source on your clip, position the flare there, and finesse it to fit with the look and feel of the piece. These are also used as transitions between two clips.

Creation Lens Flares by nopow

Adding Some Danger

Lighting things on fire or blowing things up can be way too much to ask for some filmmakers, so the best thing to do is to grab some stock assets that keep your budget down and your scene intact. People have gotten amazing at re-creating fire, smoke, and explosions in computers, so there are some fantastic and realistic options readily available for your project. Simply place the element where you need it and let it burn. (You may need to add some motion tracking to keep the elements moving along with your clip, so keep that in mind.)

Fire: The most important thing with fire is that you get flames that match the shape and angle of your clip. Fire always burns UP, so you can’t just turn a flame sideways in editing and have it look right. You should be able to find flames for almost any situation, however, so grab some fire with an alpha channel and place it in your scene to dial it in.

Fire Endless With Alpha Mask by silver3d

Smoke: Adding smoke on top of your fire adds another layer of realism to your video. As with the fire, make sure the color, angle, and position all works throughout the entire clip as you’re editing.

Explosions: Adding explosions is fun. Save yourself time and money and don’t get injured!

Nuke Explosion With Alpha Mask by Alexyz3d

Adding Some Mother Nature

Along with the “danger” elements above, you can throw in some other natural elements and save your equipment from any potential damage. You can find rain, snow, fog, and more, all with alpha channels that will just lay directly on top of your scene. You won’t have to get a waterproof housing or have someone stand next to you with an umbrella, and you don’t need to wait for a new season to come along to finish your video when you can put some realistic snow in there. Or a relatively stale scene can be transformed into an eerie, ominous setting with the addition of some fog.

Original clips: Dark Street by Primus1 and Steam Rising Up by DesignsBy3ngine

Filling the Scene with SFX

Adding stock sound effects, ambient room noise, and audio textures to your video can be a game-changer. It’s such a fundamental concept to filmmaking that it’s almost boring. But it’s so vital that you can’t ignore it. The basic sound design is straight forward — you’re in a bar, and when someone opens a bottle, you add that sound. If people are playing pool next to them, you add some billiards sounds. The real fun begins when you add all the other noises and really create a scene just with the audio. Grab some ambient bar-room noise, a stool sliding across the floor, some beeps and bloops for the dartboard in the background, glasses clinking, the sound of a fan or air conditioner, a saloon door flapping as a waiter goes to the kitchen, and you’ve got an entire scene that wasn’t there before! You can accomplish all this with stock media and an eye/ear for all the details, down to the smallest coin drop.

You can use this clip from our “Working With Green Screens” post as an example — every sound in this clip is stock SFX from Pond5:

So what do you think? Do you have any other unique uses for stock media in your productions? Let us know!

Top image: Still from Worker Holding A Smartphone With Green Screen by MotionHill