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Create A Lunar Landscape in After Effects CS5.5

Check out our After Effects: Core After Effects CS5 course!

In this article I’ll show you how to create a cool lunar landscape using FreeForm that comes bundled with After Effects CS5.

final image

FreeForm from Mettle allows you to distort or ‘warp’ a Solid or Composition in 3D space with a mesh. The mesh can be distorted by using the points of a grid or by applying a displacement map. Here’s how you do it.

Step 1 - Create Some Comps

First I’ll make a new Composition 1280 x 720px and call it Main Comp. Then I’ll make another Composition: I’ll make it 1920 x 1080 px and call it Surface Texture, then drag it into Main Comp. Inside this Comp I’m going to create this texture for my moon surface.


Step 2 - Create The Surface Texture

I’ll create two solids, both 50% grey. On the top solid I’ll apply a Fractal Noise plugin. After that I’ll blur it slightly using a Fast Blur. Here are my settings:

Fast blur

I’ll then create another grey solid and apply another Fractal Noise with a higher contrast setting:

Fractal noise

I’ll then use this as a Luma Matte for Gray Solid 2 to thin out the noise. Done!

Luma matte

Step 3 - Create the Displacement Map

This is the image we’re going to use to distort our mesh. 50% grey has no effect on the mesh. White pixels move the mesh in a positive direction and black pixels in a negative direction.

For this I’ll make a new Composition called Displacement Map and make it 1920 x 1080px. On a new 50% gray Solid I’ll add a Fractal Noise and Fast Blur it quite a bit. This will create the terrain.

Displacement Map layer

My next layer is a PNG I made in Photoshop. This will make the large craters. It’s just some stroked black circles that are blurred. You could do this in After Effects if you like using Shape Layers and a Fast Blur. 

Planning the large craters

Finally on my top layer are some smaller craters made with CC Particle World. These are just sphere particles. As these move over time you’ll want to pick a frame you like.

Pick a frame

I’ll now mix all these together. My large craters are set to Overlay.

Set to Overlay

Step 4 - Save the Displacement Map

To get around the fact that the particles from CC Particle World will move, I’m going to save this frame out as a PNG. Go to Composition > Save Frame As > File...

Save frame as PNG

Name it and choose a location.

Choose location

This will appear in the Render Queue. Hit Render.

Choose to Render

Now Import this file back into your project.

Import it into project

Drag it into the Main Comp and hide the layer.

Hide layer

Step 5 - FreeForm Your Surface Texture

Inside ‘Main Comp’ create a Camera and a Point Light. You’ll need the light to see the effects of FreeForm. Find FreeForm in your effects list and drag it onto your surface texture. 


Under ‘Displacement Controls’ choose your displacement map.

I’ve rotated it 80 degrees (so it becomes more of a floor) and moved it closer to the Camera. Now you can see the effects of FreeForm: The Mesh Subdivision is set low (about 30) and it looks a bit jagged.

Jagged edges

If you choose Wireframe under Rendering (3D Mesh Quality) you can see what’s happening:

Switch to wireframe view

Increasing Mesh Subdivision to a much higher level will give you a much better result. Antialiasing is also set to ‘High’. The only drawback is the render times increase sharply so while you're working use a lower setting.

Increase mesh subdivision

Step 6 - Make Some Space

I’ve created a quick space background again using CC Particle World for the stars and a picture of the Earth.

Create Space

Here are the settings for the stars.

Star settings

Step 7 - Put It All Together

Now just put the two elements together!

The result so far

With some color correction and effects you can get some quite nice results!

Final image

You could also animate your camera across the surface, if you like! 

Check out our After Effects: Core After Effects CS5 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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