Feb 2012 28

So! Here’s a quick intro graphic I made for the good dudes over at StopGoLove. It was super fun to work on, and presented some unique challenges and puzzles to make on the screen what I had in my head, so I thought that I would put together a little breakdown of the effects used, and walk through what my process was for this piece. Maybe it will be helpful to you as you work your way through your own design challenges.

Part 1: Thumbnails and Research

So, like all projects – this one starts with concepting and making some thumbnail sketches based on what I’d discussed with the client. I can’t stress enough the importance of thumbnail sketches. They don’t take more than a few minutes, and you can get rough layouts down on paper that will guide you through the whole rest of the project.

They don’t have to be detailed – focus on shapes and layout. Get the big things blocked in. Thumbnail sketches also help you identify and solve layout & design problems before you animate a single frame. You can see from the below – the final design was essentially the same as my quick thumbnail sketch.

Ok. So I’ve got the basic design and layout down on paper to guide me. I know that I want to have the tree grow, or have some kind of organic growth happening in the shot, to go with the “Stories of Growth” theme. So now it’s time to figure out how exactly I can pull that off. As with any effect or animation challenge, there are a hundred different ways to tackle a problem like this. I could painstakingly animate every single element – branches, leaves, etc. I could use masks to reveal individual elements by hand-animating the masks, I could use a 3D software package to simulate the process, etc. But, assessing the budget and time allotted for this project, I knew I did not have time for something as complex as that.

After a bunch of research and some experiments, I managed to find a two-step method of getting the growth effect I wanted: building the project in After Effects using Advanced Lightning to animate the growth of the root system, and Particular to animate the tree and leaf growth. I opted for Advanced Lightning and Particular because I knew that I could get a very slick looking end result, while still moving quickly and keeping my effect controls centralized – instead of a ton of different elements to keep track of, animate, and control, I could use a few effect instances to drive the entire process. I use Particular frequently for situations like this – rather than manually dealing with a large number of objects, using particular to dynamically control the whole set lets me work much more efficiently.

During my research, I got very lucky and found some great photos of a tree shot from about the same position and angle in spring and winter. This was perfect for my needs. I could isolate the tree and its branches and leaves, and I’d have identical (or close enough) copies of a tree with and without leaves. Having these assets was essential to the process I developed for doing a complex-looking growing tree effect without having to simulate every piece of it by hand.

Part 2: The Roots

The root system was pretty simple to build. Advanced Lightning is perfect for this. By playing with the settings, I built randomly-generated root-like structures that had easy-to-animate parameters for growth from point a to point b. I used several instances of this effect with slightly different settings to create a network of roots that would grow out from a central point (see below).

Once I had the growth animation looking how I wanted it, I precomped the entire set of these root layers, and used this new comp as a track matte for a woody-root texture to give the growing roots the right visual look.

Part 3: The Tree

Ok, so, Advanced Lightning worked great for the root system…but I need more precision and control for the growth of the tree and its branches. My starting point is the image of the tree in winter. Isolating the tree and its branches in photoshop is the first step. Now, to make it appear to grow, I’m going to build a series of mattes in After Effects that I can use to selectively reveal the pieces of the tree over time. Using particular lets me do this relatively quickly, and gives me a nice organic look to the growth by using particles that grow over time, and Particular’s own built-in turbulence settings.

I knew that for the tree, I did not have to be precisely exact – every branch did not have to grow in perfectly on its own as it would in real life. Thinking of the end product, I knew this whole title animation would last a few seconds at the most, and then the real meat of the video would play. So I knew I didn’t have to get the growth to be realistically perfect – I just had to give the viewer the impression of realistic growth. Mattes generated via particular would work perfectly for that.

I used three different mattes to handle the growth of the trunk and branches.


Using a light as an emitter to control movement in an upward sweep, the emitted particles grow from small to big to give it that nice growing look. This takes care of the trunk of the tree and serves as a starting point for the other mattes to build on.


For this matte, I’ve got Particular emitting from a fixed point on the trunk. Using particular’s Aux System, the particles fired off from that center point give off more particles as they fly out (like a small explosion). Notice that I don’t bother having it match the actual distribution of branches in the tree, i.e. each particle stream doesnt correspond to a specific branch. They’ll randomly intersect with enough of them to give a growing effect. It doesnt have to be exact – I’m going for the impression of something happening rather than precisely making that happen.


Nearly identical to the Thin Branches Matte – but the particles and their trails are fat and soft. It extends past the reach of the previous matte and fills in all the gaps that the other mattes may have missed. It’s my clean-up hitter.

Once the mattes are done, I just lined them up on the timeline so that their positioning and timing all work together to create a unified matte that I could use to reveal the leafless tree. Here’s what that looks like when the mattes are applied to the image of the leafless tree.

So, now we’ve got roots, we’ve got the trunk, we’ve got branches – only thing left that we need is to get some leaves growing on there and we’re about done!

To get the leaves to grow on in a nice, natural-looking way, I used the same concept I used for the growing branches: use particular to create mattes which can then be applied to my images of the tree. The first step was to isolate the leaves in Photoshop. Once I had the leaves all cut out from the image of the Spring-time leafy tree, I could use a matte to reveal them in a way that feels natural and gives the impression of growth.

Again – because this is all going to happen so quickly in the final animation, and it’s just going to act as a quick intro graphic at the beginning of the piece, the key thing here was to give the impression of the leaves growing on the tree rather than actual making each individual leaf grow onto specific branches.

To get the leaves growing on the tree, I used two key features of particular to give the reveal of the leaves a nice, organic, “growing” feel: custom particles and a layer emitter. As the particles were generated to make the matte that would reveal my leafy tree image, I knew I wanted them to have vaguely leafy shapes. So I made a very quick comp that was only a few frames long, and for each frame, I drew a little leaf shape. These were never going to be very large, and there were going to be quite a lot of them, so the shapes could be rough and quick. No need for total accuracy here.

Once I had my emitter set up using these little leafy shapes as custom particles, and I set the parameters so they’d be about the right size I wanted for the leaves on the tree, it was time to make them grow along with the branches. I’ve got my branch-revealing matte growing outward from the top of the trunk and growing and getting thicker over time outward from that point – so I want my leaves to grow on in a similar way in order to match the timing of the growing branches. To get that done, I took advantage of Particular’s ability to use a layer (or in this case, another comp) as my particle emitter.

Using the isolated image of the tree’s leaves as an alpha matte, I made a couple of soft feathered growing circles at different opacities that would grow outward from the point that the branches grew from, softly filling in the image of the isolated leaves in with white.

Using this as the layer emitter for my leaf matte particles, I can use the brightness of the white in this black and white comp to make my leaf particles grow in from nothing to full-size leaves, starting from where the branches started growing, while still limiting the growing leaf particles to just the space that my isolated leaves image takes up. Pretty nifty, huh? Stuff like this is why I’m pretty much addicted to using particular.

Here’s how it looks with the matte applied to the isolated image of leaves.

So that’s pretty much it – we’ve got roots, we’ve got a trunk, we’ve got branches, and we’ve got leaves. Comp all that together with some dirt, rocks, grass, and a farmland background, add the title graphic with the unrolling paper scrolls (those were made in Cinema 4D), and that’s the piece!

Hope this was interesting and helpful! Thanks for reading, and if you have any specific questions, please feel free to email me at simon@simonsayscreative.com, or hit me up on twitter @sstutts.

(Quick FYI: I’m not getting paid by Trapcode or anybody to talk about any of this. Although hey – if you’re from Trapcode and want to give me money, I’m not gonna turn you down.)

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