1. 3D & Motion Graphics

Create an Elegant Signature Written With a Wisp of Smoke

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Read Time: 12 min

In this tutorial you'll learn how to create a written title that appears to be written in smoke with the use of Trapcode Particular. The final effect can be used for many purposes, particularly to create a very unique personal signature for your work.

NOTE: This effect was inspired by renowned visual artist Pierre Michel. The original effect can be seen at the end of this video. It should also be taken into account that I'm not saying I created this effect or that this IS the exact way to achieve the effect Pierre uses. It is simply what I have found to be fairly similar looking.

Step 1

Open up your drawing program of choice and create an 800x450 (16:9) work area. I’ll be using Adobe Photoshop.


Step 2

Before writing your signature on the computer, practice writing it on a piece of paper. It will help you break down what should go into each layer. What I mean by this is: each time you lift your pencil off the paper, there should be a new layer. Doing this will make the animation of the Stroke steps easier.

With my name, I make the ‘A’ with one strike, the dash through the A with the second strike, and ‘ndrew’ with the third. I’ve used different colors for each layer to help you understand what I mean, but don’t actually make each layer a different color. Make them all the same. I’ll be using red.

Note that the thinner the brush size the better the effect looks. As you can see in the image below, my brush size was a tad thick.


Step 3

Ctrl(or command) + click each layer to select everything inside and copy the contents.


Step 4

Create a new file (which should default to the exact size of the layer you selected if you copied it) and paste. Save this as .png and name it what it is. For this one (below) I’m saving it as ‘A.’ For the next two, I’d save them as ‘dash’ and ‘ndrew.’

Step 5

Open up After Effects and create a new comp with the parameters: 800x450, 29.97fps, and a duration of five (5) seconds.


Step 6

Import each one of the files (‘A’, ‘dash’, and ‘ndrew’) into the new project.

Step 7

Create a new black solid, name it 'background' and lock the layer.

Step 8

Drag each one of the image files into the comp and scale them down a bit so they aren't so bold and don't take up too much of the screen. As you can see, I've scaled mine down a bit so the lines are thinner, which will in turn make the smoke effect look more convincing.

Step 9

Hide each layer except layer 'A.' This will allow you to be more focused when doing the next step.

Step 10

Select layer 'A' and click the pen tool. With the pen tool selected, follow the path you followed when writing your name on top of the layer, as if you were just drawing over it again. In the picture below, I've placed numbers next to where each major 'point' of my signature is, giving you an idea of the path it follows. Unless your name starts with an A and is written the exact same way I write mine, you'll have to do it accordingly.

Step 11

With the layer still selected, go up to Effect > Generate > Stroke. This will create a thin white line over your letter.

Step 12

Once the stroke is created, increase the parameter 'Brush Size' (under the effect settings) until the stroke fits perfectly over your letter. If the width of the stroke is right, but the positioning of some of the pen points are off, you can add vertexes to the mask and manipulate them so it looks perfect.

Step 13

Under the stroke settings, select the dropdown box next to Paint Style and select 'Reveal Original Image.'

Step 14

Go forward in the comp two (2) frames and click the stopwatch next to End under the stroke settings and set the % to 0.

Step 15

Go forward to frame fifteen (15) and set the End % to 100. This will make the stroke effect reveal the letter A over the course of 13 frames.

Step 16

Duplicate layer A, select it, hit enter (or return), and rename it 'A (New)' and place it below the original layer. This will apply the same stroke that layer A had.

Step 17:

With layer 'A (New)' selected (the bottom layer of the letter), go up to Effect > Blur & Sharpen > Fast Blur.

Step 18:

Set the Bluriness parameter under the Fast Blur effect to 10.0.

Step 19:

Select layer 'A' and hit T on your keyboard to bring up the Opacity. Set this parameter down to 60%.

Step 20

Follow steps 9 - 19 again for each of the other sections of letters (or dashes) and set the keyframes (which reveal the letters in question) like this: First letter--and any subsequent dashes--go the fastest, all the rest of the letters that are connected go slower. You can see the distances between each keyframe I've set below, and can use this as a guide. Depending on the length of your name and set of letters, your settings will probably be different. Your keyframes will actually be diamonds, but I minimized the layers to save space.

Step 21

Now onto the good stuff. Go to Layer > New > Light...

Step 22

Set the light name as 'Emitter' (without quotes). This is so that Particular will recognize the light and use it as a motion path. Also, set the light type as Point. When the little Warning box comes up talking about 3D layers, hit 'OK'.

Step 23

Go to Layer > New > Solid... and make the name 'Particles'.

Step 24

Select the Particles layer and go to Effect > Trapcode > Particular.

Step 25

On the first frame (00000) of the comp, under the Emitter settings of Particular, set Particles/sec to 0 and set the Emitter Type to Light. This will default to follow the first Light titled Emitter.

Step 26

Select the Emitter layer. Go to frame 00002 and hit P on your keyboard to bring up the Position settings. Hit the stopwatch next to Position and move the emitter to where your first letter is going to begin. You don't have to use the green Y arrow or the red X arrow to move it, just drag it by that little beige star-looking thing.

Step 27

Go forward in time to where each major point (see Step 10 if you don't know what I'm talking about) is made and move the emitter accordingly. When you do this, it will not be perfect on the first sweep, but you can drag and manipulate the points once you make them. You can also twist the little pole things so the turns actually look the way the letter does.

As you can see in mine, I didn't do 6 points like I said before because this part doesn't have to be perfect. I don't really advise you to make it perfect either, as that could make it come out looking mechanical--the opposite of what we actually want.

Note: The picture below actually has the keyframes in the wrong place, so don't follow the picture exactly. I'm typing this now as the tutorial is finished because I just realized it after proof-reading it. I did catch my mistake as I was editing and changed it as you'll see in Step 28, so please refer to the keyframes in Step 28.

Step 28

Re-do step 27 for the rest of the letters in your name, following the rate at which they are revealed. Don't forget that this doesn't have to be perfect. As you can see with mine, in the 'ndrew' section, the Emitter path is basically just a straight line except at the points where a raised letter comes up (d and w). This is the only time you want to follow the path exactly instead of just making straight lines. You should also do this the other way if you have a letter in your name that goes down, like a j or a y.

Step 29

Now for the particles. Go to frame 00002 and select the Particles layer. Set the Particles/sec to 2000, the Velocity and Velocity Random [%] to 0.0, Velocity from Motion [%] to 9.0, and the Emitter Size X, Y, and Z to 0. You should come up with a little white ball. If you scrub forward through the timeline, you'll get a peek at a very rough version of what we're trying to accomplish.

Step 30

Select the Particles layer and go to Effect > Color Correction > Hue/Saturation

Scrub forward a few frames in the timeline so a letter is there to reference when coloring your particles. Hit the Colorize checkbox under Hue/Saturation. Drag Colorize Lightness down to about -50 and Colorize Saturation up to 100. Moving around the +0.0° parameter next to Colorize Hue will create a change in the actual color. For the color I've used, I fiddled around with the settings a bit until I got it to a point where I think it looks good. If you're using the same color I am, use my settings as a guide.

Step 31

Here's where this technique becomes a bit tricky. I only say this because there are so many variables that could make yours look different to mine. These variables include the exact size of your letters and the exact length of time between keyframes, so try to stick close to the tutorial and use my settings as a guide.

On the Particles layer, in the Particular settings, under the Particle section put in the following parameters: Life [sec]: 1.2, Life Random [%]: 85, Size: 2.0, Opacity: 12, Opacity Random [%]: 75.

Again, keep in mind that these settings may not work perfectly for your unique signature, but it should get you to a point where a little further tweaking can get things just right for you. The key to seeing if you like the settings is to just keep scrubbing through the timeline to preview it. If the particles are too fat or they're lasting too long, try fiddling around with a few of the settings we just changed.

Step 32

This step will probably be of the least help to you in determining exactly what numbers to use, but it will help you isolate the variables you should be experimenting with. Different settings will look good or bad depending on the composition of your signature, so you'll need to experiment.

Under the Particular settings of the Particles layer, under the Air section, I used these parameters: Air Resistence: 47.5, Wind X: 168 (you want the wind to be blowing the particles to the right of the screen), Wind Y: -147 (you want the particles to be blown upward).

Under the Turbulence Field section I used these parameters: Affect Position: 610, Time Before Affect [sec]: 0.6, Scale: 15.1. This will affect how many twists and turns your particles do. You don't want too much and you don't want too little.

Complexity: 3 (This field almost has the same effect the Scale field has, but it affects how many twists and turns the particles do after they've twisted and turned from the Scale--confusing, I know!), Octave Multiplier: 0.5, Octave Scale: 1.5, Evolution Speed: 16.0 (This really sends the particles all over the place and makes them move really quickly if you set it too high. We want this effect to be slow and steady.), and Move With Wind [%]: 77 (You want this to be around here, because of course, you want the particles to float up and to the right, the direction the text is being written)

Step 33

Now we're out of crazy territory. From here on out, it gets pretty simple (seeing as there are only three more steps--phew!). After you've made sure your particles are floating in a way that resembles the preview video and/or looks nice to you, select your Particles layer and under the Particular settings, go to the Emitter section. Hit U on your keyboard to bring up the keyframes created under the Particles layer.

Step 34

For each time your imaginary pen stops writing or 'lifts off the paper' (as an example, for me, it's right after the arc of the A is made and before the dash is made), go one keyframe before when it stops (so if you lift off of the paper at 00005 frames, go to 00004 frames) and hit create keyframe. Again, this button is the little diamond to the left under the Particles layer in the same row as the stopwatch for Particles/sec.

On the next frame, the frame where the pen actually lifts off the paper, set the Particles/sec to 0. This will make it so the particles are not still emitting while nothing is actually being written.

Step 35

Now it's time to do the opposite of Step 35, meaning that one frame before then pen touches down again, create a keyframe, go forward one frame, and set Particles/sec back up to 2000, followed by Step 35 again for each time the pen touches and leaves the paper.

Step 36

You're pretty much done if the settings you made inside of Particular came out to be exactly what you wanted. The pictures for each step don't actually perfectly represent what each frame is in the preview video because I actually went back and fiddled with a few of the settings afterwards. The settings I gave you at those steps were averages that seemed to come out looking good all of the times I've tried the effect, which should mean they'll be helpful to you when you get to using this effect with your own signature.

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