After Effects tutorial: Master particles in After Effects

Shatter and Card Dance are two of After Effects CS4’s most underrated particle effects. Both were created by Brain Maffitt’s Atomic Power Corporation, before being bought by Adobe to include in After Effects.

Both Card Dance and Shatter allow you to divide your layer into particles determined by layer map. They also allow you to animate pieces in 3D space, and interact with After Effects’ cameras and lights.

This tutorial will help you understand how layers can be used as displacement maps or control layers for other layers in your compositions. This process is just as useful when controlling VFX as it is for motion graphics.

Step 1
Open the PrisonBreak.aep project on the cover CD. To make this, I created a composition from PrisonBreak.psd, which is also on the CD. I prepared this image in Adobe Photoshop CS4, using some of my own photographs. I overlaid text, designed with the Cracked typeface ( I also added barbed wire created with some free Photoshop brushes courtesy of Susan Libertiny at Brush Portfolio (

Step 2
Select the Skull&BG Layer in the Timeline. Go to Effect > Simulation > Card Dance. This divides your layer into particles determined by rows and columns. In the Effect Controls panel (ECP) choose the ‘Skull&BG’ layer from the Gradient Layer 1 menu. This will use the layer as a displacement map to control the particles’ geometric properties.

Step 3
To apply the change, open the Z Position section and choose Intensity 1 from the Source menu. Notice the cards move apart. Change the Rows and Columns values to 200. The image looks like a pin picture. Let’s animate it: in the Effect Controls panel, click the stopwatch next to the Z Position Multiplier value. This creates a keyframe at the start of the timeline.

Step 4
Move the Time marker to the three-second mark and change the Z Position Multiplier value to 0.1. RAM preview to see the animation. At the default setting, areas that are brighter than 50% will move towards the camera, while darker areas will move away, creating this extruded effect. Consider this when preparing your images for the Card Dance effect.

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