AEFlame is a free, immensely powerful After Effects plugin capable of generating gorgeous fractals which evolve over time. You can use it to create elegant abstract backgrounds, swirly patterns that bounce around to music, even images that look like something from deep space.
And did I mention it’s free? You can download it here.
It’s also really, really intimidating at first glance. It has more than eighty different keyframable parameters, and almost all of them have extremely vague names like “Xform 2 Var 6 bent” or “spatial oversample factor.” It’s also slow to render, sparsely documented and more than happy to crash on a regular basis.
So, like, how do you make it… do stuff?
It’s not quite as scary as it looks.
1. Make sure the AEFlame plugin is installed and the presets file is hanging out in your C:/ directory before launching After Effects.
2. Create a new composition.
I’m working in NTSC D1 widescreen 720×486. Create a new comp-size solid — color doesn’t matter.
3. Choose Render -> AEFlame from the Filters menu.
Look, fractals! You may want to work at draft quality and quarter resolution until you’re sure of your design — it helps to cut down on the crashes. (You can set AEFlame itself to draft quality through the Global Commands drop-down menu as well.)
4. And now for the secret of AEFlame: one little slider changes everything. I think you’d see this plugin in much wider use if this option was off on its own with a big “USE THIS ONE” label and a friendly red arrow pointing to it. But it’s not. So instead, you need to look for “Parameter Set,” the first option under Global Parameters.
You can put any number you want in here, but it needs to be between 0 and 300 for anything to happen.
5. Choose a set of colors for your fractal by scrolling through the “Colormap #” option (also under Global Parameters). There are 83 to pick from. Number 36 looks good for now.
Adding a couple keyframes to the Colormap Rotation parameter can give you an instant color-shifting background pattern, and is an easy way to create something that’s not too distracting.
Now that you’ve created a fractal, it’s time to add some motion. There are several different approaches you can take at this point, but all of them require at least a little bit of digging into the Scary Confusing Other Menus that we have heretofore avoided:
Fortunately, AEFlame has automated the process for us a bit. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, some attempted explanation of what all this actually means:
It’s easiest to think of each Xform as an “influencer” — play with the numbers, and you’ll change the shape of the fractal. We’re going to stick with Xform 0 and Xform 1 for this exercise. (Xform 2 and 3 are disabled by default. You can enable them if you want to experiment, but they tend to slow processing down and you get perfectly good results without them.)
The first two options are Density, which affects how strong an influence each Xform menu has over the fractal as a whole, and Color, which decides how much power that menu has over the color mapping. I tend to leave them alone.
The remaining parameters fall into two categories: vars and coefficients. As best I can figure, there are multiple ways of drawing and distorting a fractal, and the var controls decide how much of each to use. Linear creates straight lines, sinusoidal waves, spherical circles, swirl, well, swirls… you get the idea. The coefficient numbers get added into the mix as multipliers. The fact is, all you really need to know is that fiddling with the numbers will give you different shapes.
So. On we go.
6. You can tweak all 30 or so of these parameters individually, but AEFlame is happy to do it for you! Set keyframes for all the vars and coefficients in Xform 0 and 1, then move a few seconds down the timeline.
7. Choose Insert Keys from the Global Commands menu to automatically create keyframes for every parameter you’re animating.
This saves a surprising amount of time.
8. Use one of the options on the Global Randomize menu to randomize everything at once, or the individual Xform menus to randomize one section at a time. There are lots of different choices, and they vary in intensity. Your fractals can morph into something wildly different, or evolve smoothly and gently. And if you don’t like the result of randomizing, just click it again!
(Choosing “Vector all coeffs forward” (left) tends to produce a nice subtle effect, whereas it’s a pretty good bet that “Randomize All” (right) is going to give you something that looks nothing like what you started with.)
9. Experiment until you get something you like, then adjust the keyframes to control timing — some animations really need ease in/ease out to look natural.
10. So now you’ve made a cool shape and have it swirling around in space. Time to add a final bit of polish and make your work smooth and shiny and ready to render.
Before you begin this step, SAVE YOUR WORK. Messing with AEFlame’s quality settings is a good way to crash After Effects, especially when you’re working with high-res files. Experiment with care and try to keep these settings as low as possible.
There are several different ways to adjust the image quality. The simplest method is to choose an option from the Global Commands menu. Do you need to go all the way up to “Ultra High Quality”? Probably not. High is probably enough, and a better compromise between smoothness and render time. (Ultra High could easily be relabeled Ultra Slow.)
If you want to adjust quality manually, there are three sliders in particular that you need to pay attention to, all located next to each other on in the Global Parameters menu. They should seem quite familiar if you’re used to rendering in 3D software:
A) Sample Density. Think of this as an “overall quality” setting — lower values give you grainy results, higher values give you beautiful swirled images but will likely crash your PC. Cranking it all the way up to 200 will give you beautiful, virtually grain-free results, but I find values around 30 still render with reasonable speed and look quite good.
B) Spatial Oversample Factor. This performs a function similar to anti-aliasing, smoothing edges and getting rid of jaggy bits. It’s very processor-intensive, as it essentially requires re-rendering areas multiple times in order to smooth them (someone please correct me if I’ve explained this wrong). You don’t need a large value here — even choosing Ultra High Quality only sets oversampling to 10 out of a possible 20. If the Sample Density slider is set too low, a high oversample value will darken your image.
C) Spatial Filter Radius. This increases the antialiased look by blurring the resulting image. Keep it set low — the default values are around .5, and you won’t need much more.
For comparison’s sake, check out the following (click for big):
The difference in quality between #2 and #3 just isn’t worth the difference in render time.
MOVING BEYOND AEFLAME
You can stop animating here, render out your fractal sequence and be done for the day. But AEFlame produces even more interesting results when combined with other features of After Effects. (Although it’s a good idea to pre-render the flame layer once you’re satisfied with it. Your subsequent experiments will be faster and less prone to crashing.)
Here are a few things to try to make your flame fractals more unique:
- Composite your AEflame layer over a background — even a simple gradient ramp can be very effective, and choosing various blend modes will allow you to create many different looks from a single fractal.
- Add additional filters. CC Time Blend can do stunning things when given AEFlame as input. The “composite under” setting generates animations with a soft, dreamlike quality. Time Blend can be slow, but it’s a great deal faster than AEFlame at Ultra High Quality. Glow and radial blur also produce some nice effects.
- Create multiple flame layers with different parameter sets, set their blend modes to “add” and composite them in 3D so they swirl around each other.
- Use some basic color correction techniques to make things pop. Levels and Curves are always useful, and duplicating a layer, blurring it slightly then setting it to “Overlay” will give you tons of glowy contrast.
- Write a bit of code. AEFlame handles expressions well. I find I get nice results when I map various parameters to an audio clip. You can do this either by using a plugin like Trapcode SoundKeys or converting your music to keyframes (Animation -> Keyframe Assistant -> Convert Audio to Keyframes) and mapping things to the amplitude. Check out Dan Ebberts’ fantastic guide to expressions at MotionScript.com — he has some helpful tutorials on how to do it. Mapping a waveform to brightness and scale creates a nice pulsing effect.
And, most importantly, play around! You have approximately one meelyun parameters here to experiment with — see what they do! The best things I’ve created with AEFlame started out as complete accidents.
So there you have it. Not SO scary after all, is it? And with so many options at your disposal, you’ll never create the same fractal twice!