How to create a realistic smoke effect in After Effects

In collaboration with Rashmiranjan Sahu.

Have you ever seen a movie or a clip where there’s a chimney exhaling smoke? Or a house enveloped by mist? Have you wondered if these were filmed on location or graphically was created on a computer? Given the difficulty of creating such scenes in the real world, most times, the visual effects designer who works his or her magic.

In this tutorial, we’ll learn how to create a similar effect using Adobe After Effects.

If you are new to After Effects, and want to learn to use it, you may want to peep in to some of the following articles:

Let’s cut to the chase and learn how to create the effect of smoke on an image of your choice:

Create the main composition

  1. In After Effects, select Composition > New Composition, or press Ctrl+N (Windows) or Command+N (Mac OS) to create a new composition (1280*720). Provide a meaningful name for the composition, for example “Main Comp”.
  2. Select File > Import, or double-click an empty area of the Project panel, to import a background image for the composition. The image I chose measured 1280*720 pixels, and hence, I set my composition to the same size.

Create a composition for the smoke animation and add basic effects

  1. Create another composition (1280*720). Enter a meaningful name, for example “Smoke Animation”.
  2. Select Layer > New > Solid, or press Ctrl+Y (Win) or Command+N (Mac OS) to add a solid layer to the new composition.
  3. Select Window > Effects & Presets to bring up the Effects and Presets panel.
  4. Add the CC Particle World effect to the newly added layer.
  5. You can play around with the different values under this Effect to achieve the result you desire. For example, I used the following values:















Add more advance effects

  1. Let’s give the smoke a textured feel and to do this, let’s create a third composition (300*300), namely “Smoke Element”. Also, add a solid layer to it.
  2. Add the Fractal Noise effect, and modify the Evolution setting per your creative needs. The Evolution setting provides the animated texture we’re looking for.
  3. Add the following expression to the Evolution setting in the Fractal Noise effect to ensure that the spiraling smoke effect retains the animated effect: time*80. To add the expression, select the Evolution setting, select the stop watch, and press the Alt key and left mouse button simultaneously. For more information, see Expressions.
  4. Create a mask around the smoke and add the Roughen Edges effect to make the smoke look a little rougher. For more information, see Creating Shapes and Masks.
  5. Lastly, set the Mask Feather (Mask Properties) value to 48.9.












Add finishing touches

  1. Duplicate the layer and set the top layer to Screen Mode. Delete the Roughen Edges effect from the bottom layer. For more information, see Blending Modes and Layer styles.
  2. Drag the Smoke element comp to the Smoke Animation comp.
  3. Under the Particle setting, set Particle Type to Textured Disc.
  4. Set the Textured layer to the Smoke Element composition.
  5. We have now completed the smoke animation, and we have to add this animation to the main composition.
  6. Enable Time remapping (Ctrl + Alt +T) in the main composition to stretch the key frame so that the animation is slower or faster according to the scenario.
  7. Duplicate the background layer.
  8. Drag it to top the of the smoke animation layer and mask the chimney layer.

Ta da! You’re done, if you’ve followed the steps correctly so far, the animated clip should appear as follows: