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After Effects Essentials: Trapcode Form

Check out our After Effects: Secrets of Particle Playground course!

There are some plugins for After Effects that you just can’t live without. For me Trapcode Form is one of these.

Trapcode make some of the most popular plugins for After Effects. The brainchild of Swedish developer, Peder Norrby, Trapcode has become synonymous with being the industry standard in particle systems for After Effects, namely Form and Particular.


What is Form?

Form is a grid based 3D particle system. Unlike its sibling, Particular, the particles generated by Form have no controllable lifespan and remain constant over time. The particles properties can be influenced by a number of tools built into the plugin that will warp, displace, animate, loop, color and mask the particles in the grid. The sheer amount of effects that can be generated by Form is pretty much infinite due to the fact that the grid can also take the shape of any 3D object by importing an .obj file.


The Base Form

Adding Form to a solid in After Effects will produce a basic grid (or Box) 200 x 200 x 200px with 70 particles in X and Y.

add Form to a solid


Adding a camera and rotating around the scene you will see that Form is in fact 3D. The default amount of Particles in Z space is three.

It's actually 3D


You can make the grid denser by adding more particles in Z space like so.

Make grid denser


There are three more base Form options. Box String which produces a grid of horizontal lines.

Form options


A Layered Sphere with the amount of layers controlled by the particles in Z space.

layered sphere


The last one is the OBJ model which we’ll look at later. The grid can be resized, rotated and positioned to taste. The amount of particles can be chosen for all the axis.


The Particles

There are a number of options for actual particles. Here I have a Box grid 400px square with 6 particles on each axis.

The particle is set to Sphere with no feathering at 8px in diameter.

sphere particle


There are a range of particle types from spheres, stars, streaklets, cloudlets (seen below) to two choices of custom particles, Sprites and Textured Polygons. These allow you to make the particle anything you wish by choosing a Pre-Comp with one or multiple shapes or images for the particle. 

Particle types


Here’s the Cloudlet that has been feathered and colored with some random sizing. 

Cloudlet particle


Lighting Form

Form also responds to After Effects lighting when you enable Shading. Here you can see the particles closer to the light (shown using Trapcode’s volumetric lighting effect Lux) are lit more than the more distant particles.

Volumetric lighting


You also have the option to shadow (with Shadowlet) your particles to give the effect of natural shading or ambient occlusion. here you can see a split image for before and after shading.

Shadowlets


You’ll find this option in the Shading parameters.

Shading parameters


Quick Maps

Quick Maps allow you to easily manipulate the properties of your particles over a chosen axis. Here you can see the effect of the Opacity and Color Quick Maps along the Z axis.

Quick maps


There are three additional Quick Maps that are user definable, namely that you can map them to any of the main features in Form. Each map along with the opacity map has a user definable slope that can be drawn in and ‘offset’ which allows you to animate the map across Form over time. Here you can see Map #2 is assigned to size along the Z axis.

Map 2 assigned to Z axis


Quick Maps are very handy for quick transitions and animations in Form but pale in comparison to Layer Maps.


Layer Maps

Layer Maps are a more advanced version of Quick Maps and work by using luminance values to effect the particles. This means you can create your own maps like this gradient below which is a simple Ramp effect on a Solid. These maps need to be Pre-Comped for Form to see them.

layer maps


Here you can see the Gradient comp mapped to size along the XZ axis.

gradient comp


Here is a radial gradient.

radial gradient


Here it is mapped to size over the XY axis. The effect is more complex. The sky is the limit with this and it’s possible to create very complex luminance maps. 

mapped over XY


One thing to remember is that your maps are conformed to the dimensions of the base form. So if you use a widescreen comp in a square grid the map will be squashed to fit. Hence why my radial map is square.

There is a dedicated Layer Map slot for all the main features in Form. In the case of Color and Alpha I can load in a color map like this radial gradient...

loading in a color map


and map it to Color over XY. Notice my size map is still applied.

Color over XY


This feature is so powerful as it can be used to control the strength of Forms displacement effects like Disperse which randomly moves the particles. Here is the Disperse effect applied to my grid. Doing this does not effect any map applied like my Color Map.

control the strength of Forms displacement effects


Now here is the Disperse effect being applied by my via my radial black and white gradient using the Disperse Layer Map.

Disperse effect


Notice only the particles in the center are effected. cool!


Fractal And Spherical Fields

One of the most powerful ways to control Form is with the Fractal Field. This produces 3 dimensional noise that can be used to great effect when displacing your particles. Here I have a regular Box Grid.

Fractal field (box grid)


Applying the Fractal Field to size gives me this...

fractal field applied to size


You can see the randomness of the noise working in 3D. I could also effect Opacity.

effecting opacity


Here’s the same settings applied to the Cloudlet.

and now applied to the Cloudlet


The Fractal noise can also be animated to produce constantly evolving distortions using something called Flow. 


The Spherical Field pushes the particles based on a sphere. Here I have a Box of Strings.

Box of strings


When I apply the Spherical Field I get this.

Spherical field


It becomes very easy to build some nice looks with this.

Create awesomeness


You’ll find Form also reacts very well to Depth Of Field too.

Depth of field


Audio React

Another powerful feature of Form is its ability to animate its particles to sound via the Audio React section. There are 5 of these each being able to target different parameters. This is very similar to what Sound Keys also by Trapcode produces.

If I take a flat plane of Cloudlets and apply a bit of Fractal Field to size I get this.

flatplane of Cloudlets


If I import a WAV and select it in the Audio Layer selector and map the amplitude of the sound file to Size and Displace Y outwards along the X axis I get a rippling effect through my particles in time to the music.

Wave file imported


Here it is in action.


Very cool indeed!!


Object Mode

Version 2 of Form saw the ability to import .obj files as the basis for your grid. An .obj file contains all the positional data of a 3D object made in a 3D program like Cinema 4D or 3DS Max. In Form's case, it puts a particle on each vertex (the points where the corners of the polygons meet) to create the shape of the object in particles. 

So if I take this Torus shape in Cinema 4D and export as a .obj (I use Riptide Pro for this).

Torus shape


Import it into my project..

Import into project


Select OBJ Model as my Base Form and select the ‘torus.obj’ I get the shape from Form.

Obj Mode


I can then start to style this how I want.

super stylin'


Or use Form's modifiers to distort the shape.

modifiers in action


You can use Quick or Layer maps to take things further. Very powerful indeed!!


Try Form!

Form is one of those goto plugins if you're looking for dynamic, interesting particle effects. It can do so much!! From fire....

Fire


to weird cell things...


to abstract shapes and many things in between!!

potential is incredible


This image below was made for a music artist's website I did and was done in After Effects using Form. Took no more than 5 minutes and would be considerably harder and take a lot longer to do in Photoshop!! 

5 minutes in Form


If you don’t have Form you can download a free 30 day trial to check it out from Red Giant Software. Once you do this you’ll wonder how you got along without it!


Check out our After Effects: Secrets of Particle Playground course!

Toby Pitman

Toby Pitman | Articles by this author

For the past 20 years Toby has worked as a professional guitarist, programmer and producer. Clients include Sir Paul McCartney, George Michael, Shirley Bassey, Yusuf Islam, Giles Martin as well as the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies. He has also worked extensively in TV, Advertising and Film. As well as composing himself he has also worked alongside many composers like David Arnold, Clint Mansell and Simon Franglen on many major film releases. An expert in synthesis and sound design Toby has also lectured for Apple on their Logic Pro music software which he has used since its days on the Atari. He has also worked as an educator for the International Guitar Foundation and the Brighton Institute of Modern Music teaching guitar. In his spare time (of which there is very little) he moonlights as a motion graphics artist specialising in Cinema 4D and After Effects.

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