This Masterclass from multidisciplinary designer Emilio Cassanese shows that particle systems aren’t just for dusty VFX or for setting logos on fire in motion graphics projects. Used well, they can help you generate dynamic textures that lend an organic feel even to abstract elements in artwork.
Here Emilio shows how make generative elements using After Effects’ particle system, and how to blend the results compellingly with photo-illustration.
Besides Adobe software, Emilio also takes advantage of Red Giant’s Trapcode Suite of plug-ins (
redgiantsoftware.com), used to create VFX and titles for Hollywood films such as The Day After Tomorrow.
If you don’t have After Effects and Trapcode, you can use the PSDs in the project files to follow the Photoshop sections of this tutorial.
Time to complete
After Effects CS5 or higher, Photoshop, Red Giant Trapcode Suite
Files for this tutorial are downloadable from
Let’s start by revisiting the basics. In a computer graphics particle system, the emitter is where particles are born. The lifetime is how long the particle is in existence for. Each particle is affected by wind and gravity. The motion line is determined by a random expression, combined with algorithms for wind dispersion and a graph called size over life, which controls the particles’ dimensions. With just these parameters, you can create particles for most systems you will ever need to simulate.
Create a new After Effects composition at 2,000 by 2,828px (suitable for a portrait print), lasting 10s with a frame rate of 29.97. Use light grey for the Background Color. Also create a new Solid layer (
Cmd/Ctrl + Y) and name it ‘Particular’.
Type ‘particular’ in the search box in the Effects and Presets panel to bring up Trapcode’s preset of that name. Drag it onto your solid to apply the effect with default parameters. Change the emitter type to Box so the particles begin in an area rather than a point, and the direction to Directional so they flow in a direction we choose.
Go to your layer’s Timeline and select
Effects > Particular > Emitter. Alt + click on the stopwatches for Position XY and Position Z in turn and type in ‘wiggle (0.5, 700)’. This will produce a random wave animation in 3D, giving you a more organic look.
In the Emitter settings in the Effects panel, change Velocity Random [%] to 100.0 and Velocity from Motion to 128.0. Again the randomness creates a more organic effect. Set the Emitter Size parameters to X 130, Y 160 and Z 190. This enlarges the particle emitter and makes the whole effect look more dynamic.
In the Particle settings, change Life [sec] to 1,5 and the Size to 0,0. This ensures the particles are invisible to start with and that, having appeared, they die off after 5s. Now add basic wind. Go to the Air section of the Physics settings, look for Affect Position and change the value to 66.0.
Now let’s explore the Particular preset more deeply to discover just what it offers over After Effects. We’ll be using the Aux System to add a comet-like tail to our particles.
In the Aux System settings, set Emit to Continuously. Increase Particle/sec to 200, Life [sec] to 2.5, and Size to 21. Go to the Size over Life section and, with your mouse, make a graph similar what’s shown; the peaks are the maximum size. Move the time indicator to create different shapes throughout the lifespan of the particles.
Time to change the particle colour. In the Aux System settings, go to the Color over Life section; the gradient shown is the colour throughout the particles’ life. Choose the colours you want. Go to the Shading settings and turn on Shadowlet For Aux to create shadows. Select Particular in the Timeline, and duplicate it four times. Move each copy around to build your composition.
It’s time to output the project for use in Photoshop, so go to Composition > Save Frame As > Photoshop Layers and call the resulting file generative_1.psd.
We need some generative textures, so create a new composition in After Effects with width 2,828px, height 2,000px, a framerate of 29.97 and duration 10s, and with a light grey background.
Create a new Solid layer (
Cmd/Ctrl + Y) and call it ‘Form’. Find Trapcode’s Form inside the Effects and Presets panel and drag the effect onto your solid to create a grid. Enter the values shown above (note that 1414,0 means 1414.0, and so on) – this sets the dimensions of the grid to cover the whole project and specifies the number of particles.
Now we will shake the grid. In the Effects panel, open the Fractal Field settings and change Affect Size to 3, Affect Opacity to 40, Displace to 156, and F Scale 4.0. The high Displace value gives a strong level of repetition, while the low F Scale means fewer repeated objects. Save the frame as generative_back.psd.
Find a stock shot of a model and open it in Photoshop. Select the model with the Pen tool (P) and paste him or her into a new A4 portrait document. Rotate the figure 90° and place it at the top of the composition. Put the model in its own layer group (I’ve named it ‘girl’).
Desaturate the model using
Image > Adjustments > Black & White. Select the model’s clothes with the Pen tool and make a new layer group – I’ve called it ‘dress’ – at the top of the ‘girl’ group’s layer stack. Click the Add layer mask button. Open generative_1.psd, select all and copy and paste it inside the ‘dress’ group. Apply shadow and highlights using a large soft brush in a new layer with a Soft Light blending mode.
Select the girl’s hair with the Pen tool, make a new group called ‘hair’ at the top of the ‘girl’ group’s layer stack and click on Add layer mask button. Add a Solid Color fill layer and use a light grey. Create a texture for the hair by painting inside a layer above the fill layer, using a hard brush between 1px and 3px in size.
To give a hand-drawn effect, make a layer at the top of the model group’s layer stack and create tiny black and white lines. Use a tablet for best results.
Place generative_back.psd into your composition in a new group at the top of the layer stack and position it below the girl. Select the girl’s outline with the Pen tool, add a layer mask and invert it (
Cmd/Ctrl + I). Create a new layer inside the group, and mark out a cone-shaped selection with the Lasso tool ( L). Fill it with black, make a mask and paint in white with an eroded brush to simulate a gaping tear in the texture.
To construct the fluid falling across the model’s face and down the composition, make a new layer and paint inside it with a medium-sized hard black brush. Import generative_1.psd and place it above this layer.
Right click on the layer and choose Create Clipping Mask to add the generative element. Use the Eraser tool ( E) on the bottom of the fluid drip so it appear to fall into the tear.
Also known as Eshwar, Emilio Cassanese says he loves to mix disciplines – including digital and handmade art. Based in Salerno, Italy, he recently completed a degree in Graphic Design though he already has several years’ experience under his belt. Contact