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Create ripples and waving flags in After Effects

After Effects CS5 now includes Digieffects FreeForm AE, a powerful 3D distortion plugin that can do all kinds of warps and displacements in true 3D space that have previously been unavailable in After Effects itself. Here, we're going to introduce you to FreeForm with a simple waving flag project.

All you'll need to reproduce this is a public domain flag image of your own, or any kind of image you'd like to turn into flowing fabric. Let's get started.

Step 1 - Apply FreeForm

In After Effects, create a 10-second composition (Composition > New Composition... or Command/Ctrl-N) at whatever size you like (mine is a standard HD-format 1280x720). Add your flag image to it, and apply FreeForm to the flag layer (Effects > Digieffects FreeForm > DE_FreeFormAE).

For my flag image I'm using a public-domain image of the Fort Sumter flag from the American Civil War days.

Set up FreeForm as follows:

Some important things to note here are that I'm using FreeForm's own 3D controls to change the position of the flag in 3D space (the Rotation X-Y-Z settings), so we can see the ripples more easily.

Also, I've set the Mesh Subdivision value up quite high. FreeForm works by turning your layer into a 3D surface, and the higher this Mesh Subdivision setting, the smoother the resulting displacement will be. You won't see much change yet, however.

Step 2 - Create the Displacement Map

Next we're going to make the animation that will create the rippling fabric effect. Add a new solid (Layer > New > Solid... or Command/Ctrl-Y). Make it the size and length of your comp, and apply Turbulent Noise to it (Effect > Noise & Grain > Turbulent Noise). Set up Turbulent Noise like this:

Then, click on the stopwatch icons for the Offset Turbulence and Evolution properties in the Turbulent Noise Effect Controls window, move your Current Time Indicator to the end of your comp, and set the value for Offset Turbulence to 3000, 1500 (assuming you're working in a 1280x720 comp. If you're working in a smaller comp, set these values to roughly twice your comp dimensions), and the value for Evolution to 2X, as shown below:

What this will do is create large, clumpy noise that moves across the screen and changes internally as it does so.

Next, pre-compose this Turbulent Noise layer (Layer > Pre-compose...), choosing the option to "move all attributes into the new composition."

Step 3 - Make the Flag Ripple

Finally, select your Flag Layer, and back in the FreeForm Effect Controls, roll down your  Displacement Controls, and for Displace Layer, choose your Turbulent Noise pre-comp. You should immediately see a ripple distortion in your flag layer, and if you preview this, you should get something like this:

Adjust the Displace Height value in the Displacement Controls to increase or decrease the amount of distortion, and adjust the animation speed in your Turbulent Noise composition to speed up or slow down the rippling.

Have fun with FreeForm - you can create some very cool effects with it, and we'll be looking at it again in a future tutorial.

Find out more essential techniques and tricks in these After Effects tutorials.

Richard Lainhart

Richard Lainhart | Articles by this author

Richard Lainhart is an award-winning composer, filmmaker, and author. His compositions have been performed in the US, Europe Asia, and Australia, and recordings of his music have appeared on the Periodic Music, Vacant Lot, XI Records, Airglow Music, Tobira Records, Infrequency, VICMOD, and ExOvo labels. His animations and short films have been shown in festivals in the US, Europe, and Asia, and online at ResFest, The New Venue, The Bitscreen, and Streaming Cinema 2.0. He has authored over a dozen technical manuals for music and video hardware and software, served as Contributing Editor for Interactivity and 3D Design Magazines, and contributed to books on digital media production published by IDG, Peachpit Press, McGraw Hill, and Miller Freeman Books. Previously an Adobe Certified Expert in After Effects and Premiere, a demo artist for Adobe Systems, and co-founder of the official New York City After Effects User Group, he was, from 2000-2009, Technical Director for Total Training Productions, an innovative digital media training company based in New York and California.

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