Archive for » February, 2009 «

Friday, February 13th, 2009 | Author:

Recently I had a small job which was really fun to work on.  Martin Scanlan, a London based writer/director, has written a fantastic feature film screenplay called “Complicated” and I was asked to create several potential posters to advertise it. Without giving too much away, one of the characters is a chaos mathematician and as a fan of fractals I incorporated a Mandelbrot Set into one of the designs.  As it’s the day before Valentines Day I’ve stripped down the original project…

…and here – just in time for Valentines Day – is a Valentines Day themed After Effects project just in case the special someone in your life is a real geek and you’re having trouble finding a suitably geeky card…

But be warned – this takes ages to render!

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Friday, February 13th, 2009 | Author:

Original article: Flying through a tunnel with After Effects

Tunnel effect using the Polar Coordinates filter

This article was written in July 2004 (AE v5.5) and demonstrates how a tunnel fly-through effect can be achieved by using the polar coordinates filter. I make it quite clear in the introduction that you cannot get a “Hollywood level” tunnel effect using only After Effects, because you can’t get twisty 3D geometry in AE.  So this tutorial was only ever intended to demonstrate a “quick and dirty” technique for faking it.

The tutorial is still relevant and the technique is still valid- none of the techniques or plugins used have dated and if I needed a tunnel effect today I might still use this process… but there are alternatives to consider.

In fact the basic trick demonstrated in the tutorial – using the polar coordinates filter – is so simple that the article’s substance comes from detailing additional procedures with fractal noise and reshape.

So really, there are three stages to this tutorial:

1) creating a texture for the tunnel with fractal noise

2) using the polar coordinates effect to create the tunnel

3) using the reshape effect to add twists and turns to the tunnel

The polar coordinates filter is one way to make a tunnel effect, and in July 2004 with AE version 5.5 it was the only feasible option without 3rd party plugins. But these days another option is to use the CC cylinder effect and align it so the camera is pointing down the middle of the cylinder – the CC Cylinder effect was included with After Effects from version 6.5 onwards. CC Cylinder creates a nicer looking tunnel than using polar coordinates but even using this approach the process of creating the fractal texture would be generally the same, and you’d still end up with a straight tunnel and so the reshape effect technique would still need to be used for bends.

I have tried creating a truly 3D tunnel in After Effects by arranging thousands of 2D circles with small offsets in their Z-space. It’s not difficult to do with expressions and you can try it yourself using the pattern generator project on the downloads page.  But although this can be done it’s really just an academic curiosity – you need thousands of layers to get a decent result and the render times go through the roof – especially with lights and shadows which are needed to give the illusion of depth. So you end up with a project that takes longer to render than a 3D application, doesn’t look as good, and can’t be controlled as easily.

Taking 3rd party plugins into consideration opens up several avenues for creating tunnels and I haven’t looked into them. Even Trapcode’s Particular could be used with circular particles to create a 3D tunnel.

But the original article was always intended to demonstrate a “quick and dirty” After Effects trick and with that in mind it is still relevant today.

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Wednesday, February 11th, 2009 | Author:

Original article: Creating cogs and gears in After Effects

Creative Cow tutorial - creating cogs and gears in AE

Creative Cow tutorial – creating cogs and gears in AE

This is a 5-part behemouth of a tutorial that I wrote a few weeks after finishing the morphing tutorial. I needed to animate some cogs for a corporate presentation and was faced with the problem of how to create cogs in After Effects. When I figured out a solution I was so pleased with myself I wrote these articles as a self-congratulatory exercise.

The original problem that I faced was – how do you get an image to follow a path without changing its size? I needed to have the teeth of a cog wrap around circles of different sizes, but without changing the size of the individual teeth. The solution I came up with was to use the Path Text plug-in, which allowed you to have text follow a mask shape, and use text to create the teeth instead of an image.   So the trick I devised was to build cogs and gears out of letters and punctuation marks…

Looking back this tutorial is dated in several ways but the most obvious is that the Path Text effect is now obsolete – replaced by Text Layers.  I think Text Layers were introduced with version 6.0, although it took so long for me to have the software upgrade approved by the accounts department that I eventually jumped straight from v5.5 to v6.5. The basic principle is still valid and so you could still use this process for creating cogs and gears but use Text Layers instead of the Path Text effect.

There is now a 3rd party plug-in available to distort an image along a path so you could make your cogs and gears that way – Rakka – but not everyone likes buying 3rd party plug-ins.

One thing that has always bugged me is that I rushed this tutorial out the door and the resulting cogs & gears don’t really look that good. If I had spent more time the end result would have been much better – the cogs & gears look flat (no texture) and the colours are garish (no colour grading) and so on…

… however the thing that has embarrased me even more is that I spend ages in part 4 describing how to use trigonometry to animate a piston, completely oblivious to the fact that Dan Ebberts had already posted a much more elegant tutorial on the same thing.  In fact the approach I use with trigonometry is actually incorrect and has a bug in the code, but since November 2002 only 1 person I’m aware of has discovered it and emailed me.

So to summarise:

– Path text is obsolete and you would use Text Layers instead

– The Cycore FX Rakka plug-in is an alternative approach to text

– The textures don’t look great and the colours need grading

– The trigonometry in part 4 of the tutorial is simply wrong, Dan has a better method.


With the release of After Effects CS6, it is now possible to use the same basic technique to create fully ray-traced 3D cogs inside of After Effects. This video tutorial at the ProVideo Coalition demonstrates the process…

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Wednesday, February 11th, 2009 | Author:

The Creative Cow website is an incredible resource and it has certainly grown since its launch. I have been proud to contribute several articles to the Creative Cow site over the years but as software and techniques change with time not all of those articles are still current. I thought it would be interesting to look at the articles I’ve written and make some observations about how they stand up today…

Original article: Morphing with AE.

Creative Cow morphing tutorial using the Reshape effect

This was the first article I had published on the Cow and I’ve often suspected it’s the most popular. It was written in October 2002 and I still get emails from people asking questions or simply thanking me for it.

Ironically, although it’s the oldest article it’s probably still the most relevant because none of the AE upgrades since version 5.5 have directly superceded the Reshape effect. If you want to do a simple morph then you could still follow the tutorial and get a decent result. However for anything more complicated I would almost certainly use the Liquify effect instead of Reshape – it offers much more control over the distortion process. The 3 basic stages of a morph effect outlined in the tutorial introduction would still apply, but by using Liquify instead of Reshape you can manually line up features like eyes and mouths as well as the overall outlines.

So in summary – the article is still relevant but for more control I would use the Liquify effect instead of Reshape.

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Thursday, February 05th, 2009 | Author:

Ever since I started using After Effects I’ve been annoyed at how the pre-compose function works. It’s always bugged me that when you pre-compose a layer the new composition is the duration of the original composition, not the individual layer.

Pre-compose - How it normally works

It bugged me a lot. Then I found a script on Dan Ebbert’s site which solved this quirk and introduced me to the world of scripting. I was absolutely thrilled by this discovery because it meant that a few lines of text could add new features to After Effects without the need to eagerly await the next version release, hope that your feature requests had been included, and then pay for the upgrade.

Although the script on Dan’s site was a great improvement there was one additional tweak I wanted to make: when I pre-compose a layer I sometimes want the layer to begin at the start of the new pre-composition and not maintain its original in-point. So I took Dan’s code, modified it slightly, and came up with a version that did exactly what I wanted.

You can download it here.

Pre-composing by using the script

You may be wondering why this is useful. So let me describe a typical working scenario:

A video production company is working on an fx-intensive project. They’ve pitched the concept, won the job, written the script, shot the images and an editor has come up with an approved edit. The next step is to start the graphics and fx work- which is your job. All the visual-fx in the project will be completed using After Effects. The editor exports the approved edit from Final Cut Pro as a single quicktime file because the production company is too tight to purchase Automatic Duck. You import the quicktime file into After Effects and run the brilliant Magnum edit detector script by Lloyd Alvarez. This automatically cuts the Quicktime file into individual shots. But if you were to build all of the graphics and fx into this one composition you’d end up with a monstrous creation that has thousands of layers! So you decide to pre-compose each fx shot into its own composition. Some of the shots will have additional elements in them that have been rendered out of a 3D program like Cinema 4D, and the 3D artist has rendered them out as TIFF sequences that all begin at 0. To make sure they line up properly it helps if each pre-composition in After Effects also begins at frame 0. This way if you need to alter shots or identify specific frames then the frame number in AE will be the same as the frame number in Cinema 4D. So this is where the script comes in handy… and also explains why it renames each pre-composition according to the original layer number.

Your finished timeline would look like this:

And your project window would look like this:

Other AE users have also generously modified the script to add different functionality they would prefer and you try them all over at the AE Enhancers web site.

If you’re not familiar with scripts then all you need to do is drop the downloaded .jsx file into the “Scripts” folder of the After Effects application folder. Next time you start After Effects it will appear in the list with the other scripts.

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Sunday, February 01st, 2009 | Author:

Printed images are made up of loads of dots and there are several 3rd party plug-ins around which simulate this effect. But what if you want to achieve a halftone effect using only standard AE plug-ins?

If we consider how halftone works then we can think of some solutions. Basically an image is divided up into a fine grid, usually of circles, and the size of each circle is proportional to the brightness of the image under it. In After Effects terms this sounds like how compound effects work – the scale of one layer is being controlled by the brightness of another layer. All we have to do is figure out which compound effect will do what we want.

My first thought was Particle Playground – often overlooked but still very powerful. We could set up Particle Playground to create a grid of circles using text bullet-points and then have a controlling layer – our source image – determine the size of each circle. This is exactly what we want and this approach would work perfectly…

…except that Particle Playground is slow. Really, incredibly, frustratingly slow. So it’s worth looking for a better alternative.

Another plug-in which will do what we want is Card Dance. Card Dance divides our source image into a grid of cards and then sets the size of each card according to luminance of another layer- exactly what we’re looking for. And Card Dance is much, much faster than Particle Playground.

So by separating our source image into primary colours, applying our halftone effect using Card Dance to each individual colour layer, and then combining them with small position offsets we can create a passable halftone effect:

Halftone effect using Card Dance

Halftone effect using Card Dance

Another advantage of using Card Dance is that it’s aware of the AE comp camera and can be used to create a 3D halftone effect. The layer itself isn’t a true 3D layer but behaves as though it is. This opens up a whole load of possibilities for interesting 3D halftone effects.

While Card Dance provides the finished halftone effect we also have several options for creating our grid of circles. It’s actually interesting to consider how many different ways there are to create a grid of circles in After Effects – including:

• Use the circle effect, then CC Repetile / Motion Tile

• Use a solid and CC Ball Action

• Use a solid and Brush Strokes (size 5,length 1, density & randomness 0)

• Use Particle Playground and a text grid of bullet points

But the one I went for is to use a Shape Layer, and then a repeater. This has the added advantage of allowing me to set up some simple expressions to drive the size, position and alignment of the circles.

There are a few other expressions in this project designed to help the end result look as good as possible. The slider which sets the size of the circles has a simple expression applied to ensure that they’re evenly spaced out horizontally – with no half-circles sticking out the side. Unfortunately I haven’t figured out how to ensure that the same limitation works vertically. If the DotSize you select gives you half a circle at the bottom of the screen then the finished result will look a bit odd, as the Card Dance effect doesn’t do half-cards.

The size of the circles is linked to the Card Dance effect so that the correct number of rows and columns is automatically set, and the colour layers are slightly offset to simulate the printing process. The offset is also linked with an expression to the size of the dot being used. This way you can adjust the size of the overall halftone effect with the one slider.

The paper background was created with fractal noise and you can find an article detailing the process here.

Here are two AE projects – one which creates an ordinary halftone effect on a flat layer and one which demonstrates a 3D camera move. There are options for a black & white image, RGB and CMYK colour space.

You can download the After Effects project here: halftonepatterns-withcardwipe.

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Sunday, February 01st, 2009 | Author:

According to my website statistics the original watercolour wipe project (further below) is incredibly popular. I’ve always found this intriguing as it’s a very simple project that only took a few minutes to put together. And although it’s useful as a teaching aide it doesn’t look especially great, and honestly it doesn’t look much like a watercolour.

So – as promised – here’s a revised and updated project which hopefully looks a lot nicer.

A watercolour style effect - revised and updated

A watercolour style effect – revised and updated

The project is driven by two basic compositions – one contains the image to be wiped on and the other contains a very basic gradient to control the direction of the wipe. You can easily import your own image to replace my holiday snap, and any greyscale gradient can be used to replace the simple ramp that I’ve used.

The difficult part is making the image look as though it’s part of the paper and not just superimposed on top of it. The next step is to adjust the matte patterns so that they also have some texture, otherwise the image simply looks like it’s fading up.

The paper in the project was created using only Fractal Noise in a separate project, and if you’re interested in the process then head over to the Cow.

You can download the updated project watercolourwash-revised.


I have revised and tweaked this project yet again, and have created a 2-part video tutorial examining how everything works.  You can download the latest version of the watercolour wipe project (2013) here – and you can watch the video tutorial here.

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