Type designers understand that text is fundamentally a collection of graphic shapes. And any graphic designer who builds on that idea by exploiting those shapes effectively—either in 2D or 3D—can create more powerful designs. In this article, we’ll create a believable illusion of type on fire, first by transforming ordinary text into glowing, molten embers, and then by adding real flames.
Here’s a summary of how to build this amazing effect:
- Start by applying four layer effects to a smart object
- This includes applying the Ripple filter two different ways
- Add the rarely used Bas Relief filter to make the letters look crispy
- Add a few photos of real flames
- Use a combination of masking and blend modes to create the final result
By encasing the text in a Smart Object, you ensure that the type remains editable. In other words, you’ll actually be able to change the text at will without getting your fingers burned.
Today’s tip comes from Deke’s Techniques 008 and 009 from the lynda.com Online Training Library. For a free video demo of the first few steps, see Deke’s Techniques 005: “Creating a Molten Letter Effect.” (Note that the numbering of these videos is different on this site from those at lynda.com, because some videos are free and others are not. But this article is free to all members of dekeOnline.)
Creating Molten Type
We’ll begin with plain white type on a black background and make it look molten. The illustrations are based on a 1200 x 480 pixel document, and the text is 75pt Adobe Garamond Pro.
When we’re done, the insides will appear dark, toasted, and burnt. The outsides will be glowing embers. You’ll see ripples going through the letters, too, the kind of optical effect you see when you look at hot coals in a charcoal grill.
With slight modification, this technique is equally applicable to hot type, neon type, and any look where the outside of the letters are bright and the insides are dark.
- Click in the Layers panel to select the type layer
- Select Color Overlay from the menu under the fx icon. The layer style dialog will appear.
- Click the color swatch to open the color picker.
- Select H:30, S:100, B:100
- Click OK. The text is now orange.
The Layer Style dialog is still open, and we’re going to apply several more styles before closing it. Next, we’ll apply an inner glow.
- Click Inner Glow to activate the effect.
- Click the color swatch to open the color picker.
- Set the color values to H:50, S:100, B:100 and then click OK
- Set the Opacity to 100%
- Set the Blend mode Linear Dodge (Add) - the hottest of the brightening modes.
- Set the Size to 7px
Next, we’ll apply an outer glow:
- Click Outer Glow to activate the effect
- Click the color swatch to open its color picker
- Set the HSB values to 15,100, and 100 respectively
- Set the Opacity to 100%
- Set the Size to 10 px
Next, we’ll click the Satin effect to darken the centers of the letters with a dark scarlet color.
- Set the Blend mode to Multiply
- In the Quality section, set the Contour to Gaussian
- Click color swatch to open the picker.
- Set the color to HSB 15, 100, 50
- Click OK to close the color picker
- Set the Opacity to 100%
You can drag inside the letters to customize the effect. The Angle, Distance, and Size values will track with your mouse movements. Deke’s settings: 19 deg, Distance = 6px , Size = 13px.
The layer styles are now complete. Click OK to save and close the dialog.
At this point we have an effect that looks much like neon, but the letters don’t look distressed, and you cant see the rippling effect of heat. We’ll use the Ripple and Bas Relief filters to address this.
We want the text to remain editable, so at this point, we’ll convert the layer to a Smart Object. Right-click/Control-click in the label area (not on the thumbnail) and select Convert to Smart Object from the menu.
After conversion, the effects settings and editable text will be inside the Smart Object. (You can double click the Smart Object to alter the text of change the settings.)
Now, we’ll apply the first Ripple filter.
- Select Filter > Distort > Ripple from the menu bar
- Set the Size to Large
- Set the Amount to 15%
- Click OK to apply the effect and dismiss the dialog.
We’ll apply the Ripple filter a second time with different setttings. Since we just used the filter, we can use a keyboard shortcut to recall the dialog.
- Use Ctrl/Commmand + F to open the dialog again
- Change Size to Medium and set the Amount to 50%
- Click OK
To refine the application of the first Ripple effect, we’ll reduce its opacity.
- Double-click the setting icon on the top Ripple effect in the Smart Filter to bring up its Blending Options.
- Reduce the Opacity to 50% (Mode remains Normal)
The last step in creating our ember letters is to apply the Bas Relief filter. The filter uses the current foreground and background colors to create its effect, so be sure to tap the D key to insure that they default to black and white before you apply the filter. Then, you can apply the filter:
- Select Filter > Sketch > Bas Relief from the menu bar
- Default settings for Detail (13) and Smoothness (3) are fine
- Change the Light setting to Top
At this point, the letters will look like they’re made of steel.
- In the Layers panel, double-click the Blending Options icon for Bas Relief
- Change the Mode to Overlay
- Click OK to apply the effect and exit
And voilà - we have glowing ember text:
The Filter Mask is just taking up space in the panel, so remove it: Right-click/Control-click on the filter mask to display a menu and choose Delete Filter Mask. Your layers panel will now look like this:
Now, Flame On
Now, let’s light the type up, using real flames. We’re using photographs of real fire from the Fotolia image library (image # 14771929, © Transition), instead of synthetic fire. That’s because Deke experimented with a lot of the synthetic fire techniques that are out there, and none of them came across as very credible.
For the purpose of the video, Deke rearranged the flame photos in a row and created a flattened, rectangular image for easier workflow:
Dropping the flames on top of the letters and switching to Screen mode would make the darks disappear and blend the flames, but they would overwhelm the text. Instead, we want just the brightest details, and we can do that with a luminance-based selection.
The green channel is ideal for our purposes. It looks like a black and white version of the flames. The Blue channel wouldn’t select enough, and the Red channel is over the top.
- Go to the Channels panel and Ctrl-click/Command-click on the Green channel to load it as a selection.
- Click the RGB channel to reactivate all the colors
- Switch to the Layers panel and activate the Background layer.
- Use Ctrl + Alt + J (Command + Option + J on Mac) to copy the selected bits of flame onto their own layer. Enter the name “Layer 1” and click OK to finish creating the layer.
Now, we’ll prep the flames for incorporation into the final composite: Change the blend mode of Layer 1 to Screen and poke the Background layer in the eye to turn it off.
- With Layer 1 selected, Use the Lasso tool (Tap L) to loosely select all but the leftmost flame, being careful not to slice into any of the flames.
- Use Ctrl + Shift + J (Command + Shift + J) to cut the selected flames out of Layer 1 and place them on their own layer, leaving the one flame behind.
- Be sure the second flame layer is called “Layer 2”
From here on, Photoshop will automatically name and number the remaining layers you create. Notice, too, that the new layer inherited the Screen blending mode from the previous layer.
Repeat the process of lassoing all but the leftmost flame on the top layer and cutting the rest to a new layer until each of the flames is on a layer of its own. Now, we’ll organize the flames a bit more before we incorporate them with our text.
- Select the flame layers (click the topmost layer then Shift-click on the label of the bottom-most).
- Use Ctrl/Command + G to put them inside a new group.
- Double-click the name of the group and change the name to “flames”.
Now, we’ll combine the flame layers with the glowing ember type that we created earlier. If your “embers” file is not open, go ahead and open it so that it appears in a tab along with the tab for your flames file.
Activate the Move tool. (Tap V)
With the flames group selected active in the layers panel, click in the image and drag up to the “embers” tab.
Wait for Photoshop to show the glowing embers image and then drag down into the image and release the mouse button drop the flames.
You can click the disclosure triangele on the right side of the firetype Smart Object to hide its filters and make the layer more compact.
We don’t want the flames to overwhelm the letters in our composition, so we’ll drop the flames group below the firetype object before we move on.
Click the disclosure triangle on the left side of the flames group to show its layers.
Click Layer 1 to select it and use the Move tool to position the first flame as desired.
By the way, if your flames file is bigger than your text embers file, you may not see the Layer 1 flame at first. However, if you zoom out before you start to drag, Photoshop will show a rectangle around the flame, even if it is hidden by the pasteboard.
Now, drag each of the remaining flames into place.
When you’re done, you’ll probably notice that the flames look like they’re sitting beneath the type, instead of the type being on fire. We’ll do a little masking to correct that.
- Click on the flames group to select it and then click on the layer mask icon to add a mask to the group.
- Click the thumbnail of the group mask to select it
- Activate the Gradient tool and set it to create a black to white gradient
- Draw a small gradient on the mask, starting from the bottom
You can tweak the flames a bit by hand- masking to remove bits that don’t work. With the mask selected, use a soft brush (set the Hardness to ), set the foreground color to black and then paint in the image to black out the mask and conceal parts of the flame that don’t work.
You can also smear parts of the mask with the Smudge tool to reveal a few tendrils of flame in some areas after you’ve masked them out. Smudge from the inside of the flame (the white part of the mask) to the areas where you’ve masked the flame away to reveal the tendrils.
To make the transitions where the flames fade away look more realistic, you need to add a little red around those edges. We’ll sample a little of the red above the E and tweak that color to create realistic redness.
- Select the top layer in the flames group
- Add a new layer (use Shift + Ctrl/Command + N)
- Call the layer “redness” and click OK.
- Tap B to activate the Brush tool
- Hold the Alt/Option key down to temporarily convert the Brush tool to the eyedropper
- Click in a redder part of the flame to sample it, and then release the Alt/Option key. The foreground color will now be set to the sampled color.
You can modify the color you sampled via the Color panel, or you can click on the foreground color swatch in the Tools panel to use the Color Picker. Deke ended up using HSB 13, 93, 41.
- Paint in the redness layer to add flat color to some of the edges around the bottom.
- Switch the blending mode for the redness layer to Multiply.
- You can tweak the flames further by returning to the layer mask and painting with white to reveal more flames or black to hide more.
At this point, we have a pretty good effect, but it looks as if the backs of the letters are on fire. We want letters that are more engulfed in flame.
- Click the “firetype” Smart Object to activate it.
- Click the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel
- Draw a big gradient (black to white) by dragging from the top to very near the bottom of the letters.
This will make the tops of the letters slightly translucent.
Now it looks like the flames are beginning to engulf the letters, and we’re pretty close to the result we want. A couple more tweaks will do the trick.
- Click the disclosure triangle on the Flames group to collapse it
- Click the flames group to select it
- Right-click/Control-click on the group to display a menu and choose Duplicate Group
- Name the new group “Hotter” and then click OK.
- Move the new group above the firetype layer. This will temporarily overwhelm the letters.
- Change the blending mode of the “Hotter” group to Hard Light.
The letters still look a bit overwhelmed, so we’ll punch them up a bit by blending a copy of the letters on top of the layer stack.
- Duplicate the firetype layer by clicking on it and then hitting Ctrl + Alt + J (Mac: Command + Option + J).
- Name the layer “support” and then click OK.
- Move the Support layer to the top of the layer stack
- Change its blending mode to Soft Light
And below, we have our final conflagration. You could call it superheated typography, and it looks so glorious, I just know some of you are thinking of a Bon Jovi song right about now…
You can use the technique as is, or use parts of it in your own projects. For example:
- Use the tabbed interface in Photoshop CS5 to duplicate groups of layers from one Photoshop file to another by dragging and dropping.
- Select the brightest parts of a layer by loading a luminosity-based selection (Ctrl/Command-click on a channel).
- Use a selection to copy parts of a layer or create a mask.
- Make the contents of one layer more prominent by duplicating it and using a mode such as Soft Light to blend the copy into the composition
- Use a gradient mask to make the contents of a layer fade gracefully.
Well, that’s it for this article. Have fun with type and happy compositing!