Particle Emitters are one of After Effects’ most versatile tools. By learning how each one works and how to adjust the settings, you can make anything from bubbles to smoke to caustics to even fireworks. There’s an entire menu of just particle simulators in the program, and in this tutorial, we’ll show you how to use three of the most ubiquitous ones.

Getting the Project Files

  1. Download the project files.
  2. After the download has finished, be sure to unzip the file if it hasn’t been done for you. You should end up with an After Effects Particle Emitters folder.

Project Overview

For this tutorial, we’ll be working with these particular effects: Star Burst for that cool interstellar space look, Particle Playground with a Gaussian Blur for the smoke, and CC Particle Systems ll for the engine sparks. Don’t be scared by these big names, the process largely involves just dropping the effects onto your layers and moving some settings around. We’ll also refine the look a bit with some simple Transparency animation. So let’s get started!

Star Field

1. Upon opening the file, you’ll see a few layers already there and animated. We’ll be focusing on adding effects to really pump up the piece, essentially working with only three layers total. So let’s go to Layer > New > Solid

2. Click on Solid.

3. Name the new layer Star Field.

4. Click on the little colored box to bring up a color picker.

5. Change the color to #FFFFFF, pure white, by either sliding the picker to the top left or entering the hex code.

6. Click OK.

7. Click OK on the Solid settings.

8. A new layer now appears in your layer stack. Click and drag it to below the globe layer.

9. We’ll be making a super cool star field effect using Star Burst. You’ll find this by going up to Effects > Simulation > CC Star Burst.

10. Click on Star Burst.

11. This turns your Solid layer into an amazing star field, rushing towards the viewer. And that just took one effect!

12. There’s quite a few stars though, so let’s reduce the Size in the Effect Controls to 50.

13. Hit Spacebar to preview your new effect. Now we really feel like we’re in space!

Smoke

1. Okay, we’ll be making some smoke that jets out of the rocket’s engines. For this, go up to Layer > New > Solid.

2. Click on Solid.

3. Name this layer Smoke.

4. Click OK.

5. Go up to Effects > Simulation > Particle Playground.

6. Click on Particle Playground.

7. Now, in the Effect Controls, toggle open Cannon.

8. Change the Position to 960, 870 so the emitter lines up with the engines.

9. Alter the Direction to 180 degrees to aim the emitter downwards, like the smoke billowing out of an engine.

10. Direction Random Spread will be 150, so the smoke covers a nice wide area as it spreads out.

11. Click on the colored box to bring up the color picker.

12. Change the color to #3F3F3F, a grey color.

13. Hit OK.

14. Now the particles are grey, let’s size them up. Change the Particle Radius to 25.

15. This behaves like smoke, but it doesn’t quite look like it. We’ll have to blur the particles quite a bit so go to Effects > Blur & Sharpen > Gaussian Blur.

16. Now that this new effect appears in your Effects Panel, let’s change up the settings. Alter Blurriness to 100. Now you have actual smoke!

17. Check the box next to Repeat Edge Pixels to make sure the smoke touches the edge of the composition.

18. Finally, click and drag the smoke layer beneath the Rocket Ship Layer. We’ll just add some timing and fade out and the smoke will be done!

19. In the In column on the layer panel  change the timing to 0;00;00;25. This will make the animation bar slide to the left, causing all the keyframes to start sooner and thus begin the animation sooner. Now the smoke is coming out when the rocket ship is gearing up.

20. Move the Playhead  to 00;00;01;27.

21. With the Smoke layer still selected, hit T to bring up Opacity options.

22. Hit the stopwatch  next to the word to enable keyframing.

23. Lower the Opacity to 0°. The smoke might disappear but don’t worry, we’ll be bringing it back soon.

24. Move the Playhead  to 00;00;01;16.

25. Change the Opacity to 100°. This will automatically add a keyframe since we enabled those already.

26. Select both keyframes with Shift-Click.

27. Hit F9 to Easy Ease both keyframes.

28. Move the Playhead back to the beginning, 00;00;00;00.

29. Press Spacebar on your keyboard to preview your animation. Now you have smoke coming out of the engines! Let’s add our final effect, Sparks.

Sparks

1. For the Sparks, go up to Layer > New > Solid.

2. Click on Solid.

3. Name the layer Sparks.

4. Click OK.

5. If it’s not already on top of your layer stack, click and drag it to the top of all the layers so we’ll be able to clearly see what we’re doing.

6. Go up to Effects > Simulation > CC Particle Systems ll.

7. Click on CC Particle Systems ll.

8. In the Effect Controls that pop up, toggle open Producer. This determines the location the Sparks spawn from in the composition.

9. Change the Position to 960,540.

10. Toggle open Physics.

11. Change Gravity to 7.5 to pull the sparks together.

12. Toggle open Particle.

13. In Birth Color, click on the colored box besides it. 

14. Change the color to red, #C31313, in the color picker.

15. Click OK. Your settings should look something like this. Don’t be intimidated, we really changed just a few settings!

16. In the Parent & Link column, click the dropdown menu on the Sparks layer. 

17. Choose Rocket Ship from the menu. Alternatively, you can click and drag from the swirly symbol to the Rocket Ship layer. This will parent the Sparks layer to the ship layer, allowing it to follow the ship’s motion without needing to be keyframed.

18. Now with clicking and dragging, move the Sparks layer below the Rocket Ship layer.

19. Move the Playhead to 00;00;01;17.

20. With the Sparks layer still selected, hit T for Opacity.

21. Click the stopwatch  besides the word Opacity to enable keyframing.

22. Change the Opacity to 0°.

23. Now move the Playhead to 00;00;1;27.

24. Change the Opacity to 100°.

25. Select both keyframes.

26. Hit F9 to Easy Ease them both. And now you’re all done!

Conclusion

And you made it! Just three Particle Emitters and three cool effects add loads more detail and interest to your animation. You can alter any of the settings to create new and exciting personalized effects, like changing the particles themselves to the direction they emit to how fast or slow they're produced. You could make a foamy rim to a coffee animation, dragon’s breath, snowfall, or a nice rainy scene with even just one of the effects we used.

Happy animating!

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