What are Particles and How to Use Them!

Written by Tony Richardson on . Posted in Design, Articles

In order to be a competent Graphics artist and especially for 3D animations or graphics, one must become familiar with Particle Simulation and Particle plugins for your graphics and animation software! At first, you may think of sparks and smoke effects, but there have been amazing advances with particle plugins that have taken graphic artists and animation creators to mind-boggling levels.

If you are not familiar with particles, allow me to give a quick overview.  In short, particle plugins are just what they appear to be in their simplest form…they produce particles. The particle defaults are usually small points or dots that emit from the plugin’s emitter area.  There are several types of particle plugins, but most have settings that allow to change the type of particle, its size and rate and the physics of the environment around it.  Some particle plugins allow for extrusion of the particle to create a 3D shape.  An example of debris or glass exploding or shattering could be created with certain particle simulators.  Here are a few examples of particle use for graphics and animation effects. 

particle 1

Simple Particle Effect



particle 2

Particle and Light Effect



particle 3

A More Complicated Particle Effect

Now the above examples are used for 3D animations or graphic advertising.  As you can see with a little creativity, you could create some wonderful effects for your projects.  Many of these plugins can use a 3D object and then replicate it as a particle.  The nice thing about that is you can have some amazing scenes like we’ve seen in the matrix.  One method for creating the following scene is to use a detailed bullet created in a 3D program and used in a particle plugin as the particle type.  Advanced plugins can have custom 3D objects as the particle source.  As the source it could be replicated and used to create the famous scene we all remember.  With some physics parameters applied and some good lighting adjustments to the particle layers, the final result seems absolutely realistic. 


Particle Simulation using a 3D object as the particle type


Now the above example is one of the more complicated uses of particle simulation, but not necessarily the most impressive.  In other movies, I’ve notice several scenes that have amazing effects but use relatively basic particle effects.  The use of particles to create environments and energy trails can make a good movie great.  Below is such an example.


Particle and other effects for energy trails


These effects are not difficult to create with todays particle plugins.  The key to getting the footage to look realistic comes with compositing skills.  To properly composite an energy trail or debris explosion into a movie clip and have realistic results is something that takes both know-how and experience.  However, particle plugins are the first step to the process.  Below is an example of an airplane that has suffered some damage.  The wing has debris, but to really sell the effect, additional particles are created to give the illusion of an actual explosion.  Once the particles are replicated an the final image is created, then scene lighting and compositing take over to give realism to the materials.  Thats a topic of discussion for another article.  But in order to have a good grasp of graphics and animations effects, one must learn particle simulations for their software.  These next images show Video Copilots 3D creation of an airplane and then the composited image.

airplaine particles

3D Objects and Particle Simulations of debris


airplaine composite

Compositing, Fire effects, particle materials,  lighting, and motion blur to finalize

Now depending on your software, there are several options for a good particle plugin.  I personally use Adobe After Effects for final compositing and Cinema 4D and 3D Studio Max for my 3D objects.  After Effects comes with some standard Particle Simulators that can give good effects for basic animations.  But I do recommend Trapcode Particular for the more serious animators out there.  Trapcode allows for the use of 3D objects as particles which gives you more options for your animations.  Additionally, there are other resources like Video Copilot which now has its 3D Element Plugin.  Out of all the plugins, this gives the most power and options for realistic and fast rendering effects.  If you would like more information or need help with your projects please feel free to contact me via the contact page with your request…. and good compositing!

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  • Ahmed Taroudant

    Thanks for the great tips

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