Introduced with Boris Continuum 2019, Particle Illusion is a 2D, sprite (image) based particle effect system that is preset driven, easy to use, and powerful. A 64-bit update of the original particleIllusion from the early 2000’s, a new UI, reorganized libraries, and thousands of curated presets bring exciting particle effects to artists and editors of any skill level. The addition of Mocha tracking, masking, and transfer modes makes integrating advanced particle effects into your work easier than ever.
There are just 2-3 libraries installed with Particle Illusion: the “Sampler” library, the “Emitters_2020.5” library of new emitters for this release, and an editable “Custom” library. To get the full set of additional emitter libraries use the “Download Emitters” option from the “Help” menu:
A Brief Primer on Particle Effects
If you’ve not used particle effects before, or if you’re new to Particle Illusion — often referred to as “PI” in these docs — a quick look at the terminology will be helpful in understanding the rest of the documentation and tutorials.
Particles: Particles are the visible entities in Particle Illusion. You have no direct control over individual particles; once they are “born” they behave based on the values set in their Particle Type. Particles use images for their appearance.
Particle Type: A particle type is the collection of properties that determine how particles of this type look and behave. A particle type consists of an image (or images), a color gradient, and various properties such as velocity, size, weight, etc.
Emitters: An emitter is not visible, but is the object that creates particles. Emitters come in 4 shapes types: point, line, ellipse (circle), and area. An emitter contains one or more particle types, and “global” duplicates of many of the particle type properties (velocity, size, etc.). Emitters, unlike particles, can be directly controlled and moved over time.
So an emitter is made up of particle types, and particle types are made from images, and particles are created by the emitter based on the properties of its particle types. In other words, an emitter creates particles which combine to form the visual effect.
A more complex type of emitter is a “super emitter”.
Super Emitters: This is a special type of emitter in Particle Illusion that does not create particles directly, but creates other emitters which in turn create the particles.
Free Emitters: The emitters that a super emitter creates. They are similar to particles in that you cannot directly control their position — once they are “born” they behave based on the properties of their Free Emitter Type.
Free Emitter Type: Like a Particle Type, this is the collection of properties that determine how the free emitters of this type will behave.
So a super emitter is made up of free emitter types and free emitters are created by the super emitter based on the properties of its free emitter type. Each free emitter type consists of particle types, and particles are created by each free emitter based on the properties of its particle type. In other words, a super emitter creates free emitters, which in turn create particles which combine to form the visual effect.
Emitter Library: a collection of emitter “presets” saved as a single file. This is not really important in Particle Illusion unless you want to copy or move libraries — to share them as an example. Note that once an emitter is added to a project it is completely independent of that library.
These Emitter Library emitters are the starting point for building new particle effects: the first step in building an animation is to add one or more emitters from the Emitter Library to your project.
Navigating the Particle Illusion User Interface
In this section we will introduce the five primary views used in Particle Illusion to select, modify, animate, and preview effects.
- Emitter Library Browser
The Emitter Library browser displays every emitter library and emitter available. Manually browse the thousands of available emitters or use the emitter search to help you zero in on the effect you’re looking for.
- Emitter Preview
A live view that displays the emitter selected in the Emitter Library Browser. Click and drag in this view to see how the selected effect will behave before adding it to your project.
- Composite View (or “Stage”)
The Composite view displays the composited effect as it will appear in your final output. Click to add the selected library emitter to the project, then adjust the emitter position by dragging if needed. It also offers menu options that adjust some preview settings while you work, such as zoom level, background image preview, and H.U.D. (on-screen overlays). Also known as the “Stage” if you’re an original particleIllusion user.
- Controls View
The Controls view displays the properties and animatable parameters for each emitter. The Controls view allows you to adjust the values for each parameter and choose how to interpolate those values between keyframes. This is also where you can create new layers, to better organize a project that contains multiple emitters.
- Graph View
The graph view gives you a wide range of controls that allow you to animate parameter attributes in the timeline by setting keyframes. A keyframe sets specific parameter values for a parameter at a certain point on the timeline. When you place multiple keyframes on the timeline, PI interpolates, or computes intermediate values, between keyframe values to animate the effect. Keyframes will be covered in detail in a future tutorial.
When browsing emitters, the Emitter Preview (or “Preview”) will show the selected emitter. This is a live window that you can click and drag in to see how the particles behave when moving. There are a few controls below the preview, which will be described here. From left to right…
Motion Blur: When turned on the particles will be drawn with motion blur. This can enhance realism, especially for fast-moving particles. Note that emitters that have “(mb)” in their names were designed to be used with motion blur.
Background Image: When on the background will be an image instead of a solid color. Useful for some effects, especially if they get their colors from the source layer. Note that selecting an emitter that gets its color from the source will use this image automatically for the particles regardless of the setting of this option.
Background Color: Although many particles look best when shown on a black background, some need a lighter color to display correctly (this is often indicated in the thumbnail image for the emitter with a grey or white background). Use this to set the background to any color.
Zoom Level: Controls the zoom level of the preview. Note that this is for display only — it does not modify the settings in the emitters.
Play/Stop Button: This control is in the center of the toolbar and allows you to stop (pause) the preview. Although you usually won’t want to do this, it can be useful when examining an effect or to set the emitter thumbnail image.
Favorites: Click this star icon to add the selected emitter to your “favorites” collection. When selecting an emitter that is already a “favorite”, this icon will be highlighted.
Update Thumbnail: When an emitter in an unlocked library (details later on locked vs. unlocked libraries) is selected, this icon will be enabled. Clicking it will update the thumbnail image for the emitter based on what’s visible in the preview.
There are a few different ways to browse the dozens of different emitter libraries in Particle Illusion, including with an emitter search:
Type a term in the search bar to filter the emitters that are displayed. (This will be covered in more detail later in this document.)
Below the emitter search field there are three icons — these control the type of view used for the emitters: Tree View, List View, and Grid View.
Tree View displays the emitters in a folder structure, showing the libraries and folders.
List View shows more information about each emitter in a flat list:
Note that the heading of each column can be clicked to sort — clicking toggles between A-Z, Z-A, and unsorted. (The default is unsorted.)
Grid View shows the thumbnails and emitter names only:
The display of emitters that you have flagged as “favorites” is different depending on the display mode selected. In Tree View if the selected emitter is in your favorites collection, the star icon below the preview will be highlighted:
This is the only indication of “favorites” while in Tree View. (There is no way to display only your favorites while in Tree View.)
When in List or Grid views, the star icon will also indicate the “favorite” status of the selected emitter, but all of the favorites in these views will have their names drawn in the gold color of the star icon:
In addition, in List and Grid views you will see a “Favorites” button at the right below the search field. When clicked, only the emitters in the “favorites” collection will be displayed:
Adding An Emitter: The Basics
- Select an emitter. Either browse the libraries or use the emitter search to find the type of particle emitter that you’ll want to use in your project. If you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, select something that is close, as you’ll be able to modify at least some aspects of it later.
- Click in the Composite View — this will add the emitter. Alternately you can double-click the emitter name in the library browser to add it to the exact center of the Composite View.
- Adjust parameters. In the Controls View select the appropriate parameter and adjust its value as needed. Experimenting is encouraged. Note that if you want to make the entire effect bigger, use the “Zoom” parameter instead of “Size”.
- Animate position (optional). To animate position, click the “Animate/Static” button (which looks like a big key) so it turns red, jump ahead in time, then drag the emitter position in the Composite View. Note that the position X/Y values in the Controls View are drawn with a red box — this indicates they are animated.
- Click “Apply” to close and return to the host application.
That’s all that is required to add a Particle Illusion effect!
Whether you are running Particle Illusion as a plug-in (from a host application) or standalone, you can save or load Particle Illusion project files at any time. This allows you to save works-in-progress or different versions of your work. Note that saving a project file is not required when running as a plug-in, but it can still be a useful feature — especially to save backup copies outside of your host application project.
To save a project use the File – Save Project menu item, or the Cmd/Ctrl S keyboard shortcut.
A project file can be loaded at any time, even when you’re running as a plug-in. Use the File – Open Project menu item, or the Cmd/Ctrl O shortcut.
Note that the project file contains Stage Settings such as resolution, framerate, and pixel aspect ratio. When running as a host application, it’s possible to load a project that contains settings that do not match those of the host application.
Adding An Emitter: Parameters
Before looking at the parameters in the Controls View, remember from earlier that a regular emitter is made up of one or more particle types, and a super emitter is made up of one or more free emitter types, which in turn contain one or more particle types. In the Controls View these are displayed as a hierarchy, with the emitter parameters at the top level, the free emitter type parameters at the middle level (for super emitters), and the particle type parameters at the lowest level. Since many of the parameters at each level have the same names — for instance you’ll see “Velocity” at the emitter level, free emitter type level, and particle type level — it’s important to know the difference between them.
As an example, you may see that the emitter (top-level) “Spin” value is 100, but the particles are not spinning. If you realize that the emitter level parameters are scale factors, you’ll know that you also need to check the particle type (lowest level) “Spin” value, which is probably set to 0. In order to see spin, the “Spin” values at all levels must be non-zero.
Now let’s take a closer look at the parameters in the Controls View:
We’ll skip the “Properties” group for now.
“Position XY” is the emitter position, which can be controlled here or in the Composite View directly.
The parameters just below the “Position” parameters can be thought of as scaling factors, applied to all similarly-named parameters below them in the hierarchy. Most of these should all be self-explanatory: “Size” controls the size of the particles, “Velocity” how fast they move, etc.
“Motion Rand.” is Motion Randomness.
“Tint Strength” controls the amount of tint color applied, and is used in conjunction with the Tint Color (see below). A value of 100 will completely override the particle colors, while when set to 0 the Tint Color has no effect.
“Emission Angle” and “Emission Range” go together — when “Emission Range” is less than 360 degrees, the “Emission Angle” becomes useful.
Note that “Angle” is used to rotate line, area, and ellipse emitters, and will probably have no visible effect on point or circle emitters.
Going back to the “Properties” group now, you’ll see controls for preload, emitter shape, and more:
“Shape” describes the shape of the emitter from which particles are created, and allows you to switch between “Point”, “Line”, “Area” (rectangle), “Ellipse”, and “Circle”. Note that additional parameters will be visible for some of these shapes, and will be covered in more detail later.
(Emitter Shape is different from the particle “shape” — also called “sprite” — which is the image used for each particle.)
“Frames to Preload” sets the number of frames that the emitter will run before its first frame in the project, allowing it to have many particles visible at the start instead of starting from zero particles. Library emitters that take a while for their effects to evolve will usually have “Frames to Preload” set to a non-zero value.
“Particle Order” determines if the particles will be drawn in order: oldest first, oldest last, or unordered. Unless the specific effect requires particles to be drawn in order, it’s best to set this to “Unordered”. Some types of effects that might require particles to be drawn in order are heavy smoke trails, geometric effects, and effects that are animated to grow/shrink over time (as if the emitter were coming toward or moving away from you). Note that particles flagged as “intense” always combine in a way that makes “in order” drawing inapplicable. (“Intense” particles will be covered in the “particle type” section below).
“Tint Color” is a way to colorize an emitter — change its overall color without editing the individual particle type color gradients. It’s used in conjunction with the “Tint Strength” parameter and can be a quick way to adjust colors of complex emitters or help an effect blend into a shot.
The emitter will have at least one more level of parameters below these top-level parameters, depending on the number of particle types it has, or if it is a super emitter, the number of free emitter types it has. In this example, the emitter is a regular (non-super) emitter with a single particle type named “trail”:
It has many of the same parameters as seen above, with some subtle differences. (As before we’ll skip the “Properties” group initially)
First, the “Weight” and “Spin” parameters can go negative here. Particles with negative weight will rise, and particles with negative spin will rotate in the opposite direction.
There are also “Variation” parameters here that can be used to produce a range of values. In this example the “Size” is 10.0 and the “Size Variation” is 7.0, which means that particles will be created with a size that is anywhere from 6.5 to 13.5.
One thing to note: the values for size, velocity, etc. are relative and without units. So a “size” value of 10 does not mean 10 pixels; the only thing you can say for certain is that a particle with a size of “10” is twice as big as a particle with a size of “5”. Similarly, a “Life” value of 6 does not mean 6 frames or 6 seconds.
The “Over Life” parameters — “Size Over Life” for instance — control the parameter over the life of the particle. They’re a bit different than normal parameters, so let’s take a look at them in more detail.
Normal Parameters vs. “Over Life” Parameters
The normal parameters like “Size” and “Velocity” designate the values that will be used at the instant the particle is created. Even if these parameters are animated (change over time) this is still true. So if the “Velocity” parameter for instance starts at 0 for several frames before increasing, the particles created when velocity was 0 will not move even when the velocity value has increased.
To change the particle velocity over time you use the “Velocity Over Life” parameter. When this or any “Over Life” parameter is selected, the Graph View changes:
For “Over Life” parameters the horizontal scale of the Graph View no longer shows frame numbers, but instead displays the percentage of the particle’s life. On the left is 0.0, the birth of the particle, and on the far right 1.0, the particle’s death. In the example above for “Size Over Life” you can see that the particle starts large, slowly decreases in size until about 70% (0.7) of its life has passed, then more quickly decreases until it ends its life with a size of 0.
Note that this is independent of how long the particle actually lives; whether it is alive for 10 frames or 500 its size will follow this graph over its life.
Parameters that are selected in the Controls View have their animation displayed in the Graph View:
Using the graph view you can change the values of data keys, reposition them, delete keys, or create new ones.
Values that are animated will be outlined in red, and the arrows to the right of the value are used to move between the keyframes. The interpolation type for the key is shown between the arrows, and is changed using the menu that displays when clicked:
To delete a key, select it in the graph window, then press your keyboard’s “delete” key.
Particle Type Properties
The “Properties” group contains most of the low-level controls for particle types: how the particle is drawn, its color, and more:
The “Shape Image” displays a thumbnail of the image (or “sprite”) used by particles of this type. Click it to change the image — but we’ll cover that in more detail shortly.
The “Reference Point” button brings up a dialog that allows you to change the reference point for the sprite, but that too will be covered more shortly.
The “Flip” option determines if the sprite (image) used for the particle is flipped horizontally, vertically, or both.
The “Intense” option makes the particle additive, giving it an “intense” look (hot, bright, glowing, etc.) When checked, the “Preserve Color” option is available, which will help to keep “intense” particles from adding to white, preserving some of their original color.
“Single Particle”: when checked, a single particle of this type will be created. It will be connected to the emitter’s position (velocity and motion randomness will be ignored), and its life will be very long (on the order of 10K frames).
“Attached to Emitter” can be used when you want particles to move with the emitter, but don’t want just a single particle. When “Attached to Emitter” is checked, the attachment amount parameter becomes available — a value of 0 means that the particles won’t move with the emitter, and a value of 100 means that they fully move with the emitter.
There are three subgroups of particle type properties: “Behavior”, “Color”, and “Alpha”.
The “Behavior” group lets you set the particle angle. You can specify the angle (in degrees) and all particles of this type will be created at the same angle, you can select a “Random” angle, where you specify the angle range and offset value, or you can have the particles “Align to Motion”.
When aligned to motion you specify the rotation angle, and the particles will align themselves with their initial motion. If the particles have no initial velocity this may not work as expected.
When the “Keep Aligned to Motion” option is checked the particle angle will continuously update based upon the particle’s motion, changing as the particle falls due to gravity. Note that when this option is checked, the particle spin parameter will be ignored — “Keep Aligned to Motion” overrides the spin value.
The final parameter in the “Behavior” subgroup is “Use Emitter emission”. When checked, this particle type uses the emitter “Emission Angle” and “Emission Range” parameters. If unchecked, you’ll see “Emission Angle” and “Emission Range” parameters added at the particle type level. It’s not common to see this option unchecked.
The next two subgroups, “Color” and “Alpha”, work together to determine the particle colors and transparency.
Clicking the color gradient brings up the gradient editor.
The “Color Type” menu allows you to select between:
- “Full Gradient”: the gradient represents the life of the particle, where the color at the left edge of the gradient is the color when the particle is born, and the right edge is the color when the particle dies. When this option is selected you have a “Repeat” value that can be used to repeat the gradient over the life of the particle.
- “Random Gradient”: a random color from anywhere on the gradient is chosen for the particle at its birth. The particle color does not change over its life. Choosing this option reveals a “Use key colors only” option, when checked the defined gradient colors are the only possible random choices.
- “Next key color”: A specified number X of particles of each defined gradient color are created, then the next gradient color is used for the next X particles, and so on. The number of particles created at each color must be specified.
- “Color from layer”: each particle gets its birth color from the source pixel beneath its creation position. The “Update Color from Layer” option means that the particle resamples the source image as it moves.
The alpha gradient shows the particle alpha over its life, and clicking the alpha gradient opens the alpha editor.
The “Alpha Type” menu allows you to select between:
- “Full Gradient”: the gradient represents the life of the particle, where the alpha at the left edge is the alpha when the particle is born, and right edge indicates the alpha when the particle dies. Note that white is fully opaque, and black is fully transparent. When this option is selected you have a “Repeat” value that can be used to repeat the gradient over the life of the particle.
- “Link To Color”: when selected the particle color gradient is converted to alpha values.
- “Alpha From layer”: each particle gets its birth alpha from the source pixel beneath its creation position. The “Update Alpha from Layer” option means that the particle resamples the source image as it moves.
Changing Particle Shape Images (“Sprites”)
When you click the “Shape Image” thumbnail, the Shape Editor dialog opens:
This dialog lets you either select a new shape from those available in the currently loaded emitter library, or import a shape from a JPG or PNG image file. As you select a shape from those available, the “New Shape” thumbnail will give you a larger preview of the selected shape, but more importantly the particles in the Stage are updated. (Note that you can open the Shape Editor dialog while playback is occurring so it’s possible to see the particles in motion.)
The “Delete Shape” button only enables when an editable library is loaded (more on this in another section). The title bar of this dialog indicates not only the library name, but whether or not the library is locked.
The “Import Shape” button is used to select a PNG or JPG file. After selecting the image file the import options dialog shows:
Here you can scale the image to one of several preset sizes, select whether the image will be used as a “Greyscale” particle shape — where the RGB and Alpha channels are the same with black as fully transparent and white as fully opaque — or as “Full Color” where the existing alpha channel will be used.
If the current emitter library is one that can be edited (is unlocked), then you’ll be able to choose between importing this shape into the library, or just applying it to the current emitter. If the library is locked you’ll only be able to import to the current emitter.
Note that in both the Change Shape and import options dialogs, the transparency of the sprites is shown via checkerboard in all of the previews. You can click the preview to toggle the transparency on and off — with some sprites it will be easier to see them with transparency off.
The “Reference Point” for a particle is the point at which scaling and rotation happens. Most of the time this reference point is set to the center of the particle shape, but it’s often useful to move that reference point — you can do this by clicking the red circle “Reference Point” icon. The resulting dialog lets you click and position the reference point wherever you want:
Note that the stage view will update as you make changes to the reference point, allowing you to see the results of any changes.
If needed you can use the zoom level below the preview to zoom in or out — zooming out is the only way to set the reference point farther away from the center.
You can set the reference point to the center of the image using the “Center” button.
In the emitter properties group you can select different “shapes” for the emitter, and depending on the shape chosen there are additional parameters that are revealed. The options are “Point”, “Line”, “Ellipse”, “Area” and “Circle”.
For “Point” emitters, the particles all emanate from a single point. This is the simplest shape for an emitter, and there are no additional parameters for it.
With “Line” emitters, the particles all emanate from a line or series of connected line segments. After switching the shape to “Line” you will see a line (if the HUD is enabled) from the emitter point to the mouse position. Clicking adds a new line point — double-click or press the ESC key to end the line. Line emitters have the following additional parameters:
- Emission In: particles will be emitted from one side of the line. Note that only when Emission Range is set below 360 degrees will you see this, and it will be most clear when the Emission Range is below 180 degrees.
- Emission Out: particles will be emitted from the other side of the line.
- Emit at Points: When checked the “Number Points” parameter becomes visible. Use this option to create a row of point emitters evenly spaced along the line (or line segments).
Note that on Mac Cmd-click will delete a line emitter point, and Option-click will allow you to add points to the line. On Windows Ctrl-click to delete a line point, and Alt-click to add them.
Set to “Ellipse”, the particles will be created along the ellipse. As with “Line” emitters, these additional parameters are available:
- Emission In: particles will be emitted toward the inside of the ellipse. Note that only when Emission Range is set below 360 degrees will you see this, and it will be most clear when the Emission Range is below 180 degrees.
- Emission Out: particles will be emitted toward the outside of the ellipse.
- Emit at Points: When checked the “Number Points” parameter becomes visible. Use this option to create evenly spaced point emitters along the ellipse.
In addition, “Ellipse” emitters have “X Radius” and “Y Radius” parameters which can be used to resize the ellipse.
Unlike the other shapes, “Area” emitters create particles throughout a rectangular area (not just along the outline). Area emitters add:
- Emit at Points: When checked the “Num Points X” and “Num Points Y” controls are revealed, allowing you to create a grid of point emitters.
- “Width” and “Height” parameters to control the dimensions of the rectangle.
A “Circle” emitter is a special case of “Ellipse”, in that only a single “Radius” parameter is added instead of “Radius X” and “Radius Y” — all other parameters for “Circle” emitters are the same as for “Ellipse” emitters.
One important note about emitter shapes other than “Point”: Line, Ellipse, Circle, and Area emitters emit more particles the “bigger” the shape. For instance, a long line emitter will create many more particles than a short line emitter, a circle emitter with a large radius will create many more particles than a small radius, etc. The most extreme case of this is probably the “Area” emitters — increasing the width and height of an area emitter so it fills the entire frame will most likely create many more particles than you intended, with the result of this being poor performance and greatly reduced responsiveness.
For this reason it’s a good idea to reduce the “Number” value significantly before increasing the dimensions (line length, radius, width and/or height) of any shaped emitter, then increase it again slightly afterward if necessary. This will ensure that performance and responsiveness stays optimal.
Remember that a “super emitter” is a special type of emitter in Particle Illusion that does not create particles directly, but creates other emitters (free emitters) which in turn create the particles.
In the Controls View, this extra complexity is displayed as an extra level in the emitter’s hierarchy:
The “f-” parameters such as “f-Life”, “f-Number”, “f-Velocity”, etc. are applied to the free emitters themselves and do not control particles.
For example, to create more free emitters, increase the “f-Number” value. To make the free emitters move faster, it is “f-Velocity” that must be adjusted.
You’ll notice that there is no “f-Size” parameter. This is because free emitters are not visible, and therefore do not need a “size” control.
Similar to the parameters for particle types which were discussed earlier, there are also “Variation” and “Over Life” controls for the “f-” parameters.
Below the “Over Life” params (specifically after “f-Zoom Over Life”) you will see what looks like the same set of parameters that were visible at both the emitter and particle type levels: “Life”, “Number”, “Size”, etc. These are the scale factors for the corresponding controls in all of the particle types that this Free Emitter Type contains — they control the particles.
This means that for a Super Emitter there are two different levels of scale factors that are applied to the particle type parameters.
This may seem overly complex and a bit difficult to grasp when reading it, and when you’re looking at an emitter that contains only a single particle type, it may be overkill. The advantage of this system of a hierarchy of controls becomes apparent when dealing with emitters that have several different particle types.
Any parameter that can be animated — by manually creating keys to change values over time — displays the keyframe controls to the right of the parameter value in the Controls View:
Note that any parameter that is animated (contains more than one key value) has its value outlined by a red rectangle. The left and right arrows are the key navigation buttons, and clicking them jumps the current time indicator (CTI) to the frame of the appropriate key.
The interpolation control is between the two key navigation buttons, and is used to switch the interpolation type of the current key. Note that if the CTI is not at a keyframe, the interpolation type will not display (will show as an empty box).
Linear: The value changes at this key occur linearly, along a straight line.
Bezier: The value changes along a smooth curve that is adjusted in the Graph View using the control point “handles”.
Constant: Setting a “constant” value removes all keys from this parameter.
To adjust keys in the Graph View, you can just click and drag them. You can also change the parameter value itself in the Controls View. If the CTI is at a keyframe when you change that value, that key will be adjusted. If the CTI is not already at a keyframe and the graph already contains a key, a new key will be created. (If you adjust the value for a “Constant” parameter, the value will change but no key will be created.) More in the “Working with Data Keys” section below.
There is another way to create keys to animate a parameter: using the animation controls. These are found just under the mini-timeline, above the Graph View on the left:
The buttons with the left and right arrows are key navigation controls, and they have the same effect as the buttons to the right of the parameter value in the Controls View: they move the CTI to the next or previous data key (if they exist).
The button with the “+” sign adds a key at the current frame for the current parameter. Note that this works even when the parameter interpolation is set to “Constant”.
The larger key button is a toggle; when turned on any parameter changes will create keys. Since there are other ways of creating keys for most parameters, this may not be a button you’ll use often… with one exception: this button is the only way to animate the position of an emitter.
Animating Emitter Position
Although each emitter has a “Position XY” parameter in the Controls View, selecting that parameter — unlike with all of the other parameters that can be animated — does not display anything in the Graph View.
This is because position changes, for animation or not, must be made in the Stage by clicking and dragging the emitter.
To animate the emitter position:
- Click on the emitter in the Stage and drag it to its starting position.
- Toggle the “Animate” button on.
- Jump the current time indicator (CTI) forward some number of frames
- Drag the emitter in the Stage. You should see the emitter motion path in the Stage now:
You can now continue moving the CTI and dragging the emitter to create new position keys as needed.
To create position keys that are between two existing keys, just move the CTI between those keys and drag the emitter — a new key is created regardless of the stage of the Animate button.
Note that you can click and drag position keys directly in the Stage, similar to the way that you can do this in the Graph View for other parameters.
To change a position key from “Linear” to “Bezier”, use the interpolation control to the right of the Position XY values in the Controls View — just as you would for any other parameter.
Working with Data Keys
We mentioned already that it’s possible to click and drag a data key in the Graph View, and that you can change a data key’s value using the Controls View. There are a few other features that make working with data keys easier:
- Multi-selecting data keys. You can shift-click on keys in the graph view to select multiples, or click and drag to create a selection rectangle that will select multiple keys. All selected keys can be dragged as a group.
- Deleting data keys. Use your keyboard “delete” key to delete all selected keys.
When a data key is set to “Bezier” interpolation, you can drag the control handles to change the curve. In addition, you can:
- On Mac: Option-drag a bezier handle disconnects the two handles and lets them move independently. Option-drag on one of the disconnected handles to reconnect them.
- On Windows: Alt-drag a bezier handle disconnects the two handles and lets them move independently. Alt-drag on one of the disconnected handles to reconnect them.
Using the Playback Controls
The playback controls appear above the Graph View and below the Stage:
These allow you to toggle playback, move one frame forward/back, move 10 frames forward/back, or jump to the start frame (frame 0) or end frame. The spacebar is a keyboard shortcut for the play button.
There is also a “looping” control at the far right that should be self-explanatory.
The area just above the playback buttons — where the blue frame indicator line shows — is called the “Mini Timeline”. You can click anywhere in the Mini Timeline to jump the current time indicator (CTI) to that frame. This is also where keys are shown for the selected parameter — if you want to change the position of any keyframes you can do that in the Mini Timeline. Doing it here removes the risk that you might unintentionally change a keys value when trying to move it in the Graph View.
Just above the Mini Timeline are the trim controls for setting the In and Out points. Drag them to set the playback range, or double-click between them to clear both of them and reset to the full play range.
Emitter Start Frame
Below the playback controls is the Start Frame slider for the selected emitter. By default added emitters are placed so that they start at the current frame. To make the emitter start at a different frame, just slide the head of this Start Frame slider by clicking and dragging it. Note that all data keys contained in this emitter will move with the slider — this is most important for emitters that have significant animation or turn off, such as explosion emitters.
Note that if for some reason you don’t want the data keys to move with the slider you can CMD+click and drag on the slider head (on Windows CTRL+click and drag). This could be useful if, for instance, you want an explosion emitter to create particles for a bit longer before turning off. Instead of moving all of the “number” data keys to a later time (to the right) — and there could be several different “number” parameters where you’d have to do this — you can instead CMD-drag the Start Frame slider to an earlier time (to the left).
Particle Illusion is preset driven, and there are well over 2500 particle emitters in the various emitter libraries. Only two libraries — the locked “Sampler” library and the editable “Custom” library — are installed with Particle Illusion. To get the additional libraries use the link provided in the “Help” menu:
You’ll need to restart Particle Illusion after installing those libraries to make them available.
The concept of libraries is not so important in Particle Illusion because of the search function, but libraries do provide some level of organization. The important thing to know is that the emitters have been grouped into themed libraries, so that most smoke emitters are in the “Smoke” library, explosions are in “Explosions”, etc.
This is only important if you’re manually browsing the libraries, but with so many emitters to look at the only realistic way to browse is to first use the emitter search function.
The emitter search can really help you reduce the number of emitters that you need to browse, and is the best way to quickly find what you’re looking for without a huge amount of scrolling.
To search the emitter libraries, just start typing in the Search box below the preview.
The emitter search works over emitter names and on the tags saved with each emitter, and optionally on the folder names.
In the Preferences for Particle Illusion there are a few options related to emitter searching:
- Search Folder Names: the folders in each emitter library are included in search results. When this option is checked all emitters in that folder will be included in the results if the search term is in the folder name. (This is not usually desired so is unchecked by default.)
- Search Tags: If you want to search only on emitter names you can uncheck this option. (It is checked by default as there are many emitters with names that are not descriptive.)
- Display Tags in emitter library: when checked, each emitter’s tags will display after its name. Note that you’ll need to refresh the emitter display after changing this option in order for the change to show — the easiest way to do this is to click the collapse/expand button to the left of the search box.
Here’s a list of all emitter search tags used in the emitter libraries:
Knowing these can help you search more effectively.
Note that tags can be combined, so searching for “sparkles red” will return all emitters tagged with both “red” and “sparkles”.
Also note that new emitters are included with most major releases. For instance, the new emitters in the Continuum 2020.5 release are in the library “Emitters_2020.5” — you can easily find these using the search tag “2020.5”.
Locked VS Unlocked Libraries
All libraries installed by either Particle Illusion or the Additional Emitter Libraries installer will be “locked” and can’t be edited with one exception: the “Custom” library. This is provided as a place to store your own emitters — it contains just a single very basic (not useful) emitter because emitter libraries can’t be empty.
The locked vs. unlocked status of an emitter library is determined by where the library file resides: there is one folder for “locked” libraries, and one folder for editable libraries. You can manually move or copy emitters from one folder to another as necessary. It is recommended that the emitter libraries released by Boris FX remain locked.
Locked emitter libraries are found in the following folder:
On Mac: /Library/Application Support/BorisFX/EmitterLibraries
On Windows: C:\ProgramData\BorisFX\EmitterLibraries
The unlocked (editable) emitter libraries are found in the following folder:
On Mac: /Library/Application Support/BorisFX/UserEmitterLibraries
On Windows: C:\ProgramData\BorisFX\UserEmitterLibraries
Note that if you used (or are still using) the legacy version of particleIllusion 3.0 and created emitter libraries with it, those libraries can still be used in Particle Illusion. There is no “Load Library” command, so in order for Particle Illusion to find your emitter libraries you’ll need to copy them to one of those folders.
The more emitter libraries that are in those folders, the longer PI will take to load all of them, so you may want to be selective when you’re adding emitter libraries. Note that if you just copy all of the legacy pI3 emitter libraries for use in PI, you will have over 2500 duplicates — we curated the legacy pI3 libraries to create the PI libraries.
Adding an Emitter to a Library
Any emitter in your project can be added to one of the editable libraries. To do this, click the “hamburger” menu button to the right of the emitter in the controls view, then select “Save to Emitter Library…”
The “Save to Emitter Library” dialog then opens….
…and lets you rename the emitter, edit the emitter tags, and then choose the destination library (if more than one unlocked library exists).
As the dialog message indicates, there is no undo of adding an emitter to a library.
To delete an emitter from a library, select the emitter then hit the <delete> key. If the selected emitter is in an editable library, you’ll get a confirmation dialog:
If the selected emitter is in a locked library, you will see an error message instead.
Adding/Removing Particle Types and Free Emitter Types
We’ve discussed all of the parameter changes you can make to a particle type (and to a free emitter type for super emitters), but we have not talked about how you can create a new particle type, or delete an existing one from an emitter.
Once a regular emitter is added to your project, you can create a new “basic” particle type using the “Add New Particle Type” option in the hamburger menu:
This will create a generic particle type using the first particle shape image from this current emitter, default parameters, and solid white for color gradient and alpha. You’ll need to customize everything in order to make it do anything interesting.
If instead you would like to make a copy of an existing particle type in this emitter — which may make setting the various parameters much easier — use the hamburger menu for that particle type (instead of for the emitter) and select “Duplicate Particle Type”:
Note that it’s also possible to Rename and Hide using this menu, as well as Delete and rearrange particle types (Move Up/Down) if the emitter contains more than one particle type.
Super emitters work similarly in that you can create a new “basic” free emitter type using the “Add New Free Emitter Type” menu (it may show as “Add New Emitter Type” in some versions), and can duplicate an existing free emitter type, delete free emitter types, hide them, etc.
Note that the order of particle types and free emitter types usually does not make much difference, but there can be some rendering differences in some cases.
Make Super Emitter
To convert a regular emitter into a super emitter, use the emitter hamburger menu “Make Super Emitter” function:
If your project contains a super emitter, you can add a regular emitter to that super emitter using the “Add to Super Emitter…” menu item:
Note that option is only available if there is a super emitter in the project, and displays only for regular emitters.
A dialog showing all available super emitters will show:
Note that the Free Emitter Type added to the super emitter will have the same name as the emitter that you added, and the original emitter will still be present in the project.
Note that there is no way to extract a regular emitter from a super emitter.
Composite View (aka “Stage”)
The Composite View is pretty straightforward, but there are some controls in the upper left corner of this view that require some explanation:
From left to right…
Zoom: Sets the zoom level for the Composite View.
Preview Background: Select compositing over Black, checkerboard (which shows transparency), Source Frame, or Source Video. Note that the options in this list are ordered by performance, with fastest at the top and slowest at the bottom.
Motion Blur: toggles motion blur for the Composite View. Performance is increased with motion blur off. (Note that the motion blur settings are in the Project Settings dialog covered later).
H.U.D.: Toggles the “heads up display”. When turned on, the overlays for object, position path, etc. are visible. When off only the particles are visible.
Deflector: Used to add a deflector object to the project. (See below)
Force: Used to add a force object to the project. (See below)
The upper right corner of the view displays some useful information too:
This includes the number of particles currently alive, the current frame number, the project duration, and the resolution.
Note that the particle count is usually the main factor in determining performance. If your project is too slow, particle count is most likely too high — reduce the “number” value or disable emitters.
Interacting with the Composite View (Stage)
Besides the zoom and motion blur controls discussed above, there are other ways of controlling the Stage.
- Scroll/Pan the Stage by holding the spacebar then clicking and dragging in it.
- Zoom In using Cmd+ on (macOS) or Ctrl+ (Windows)
- Zoom Out using Cmd- on (macOS) or Ctrl- (Windows)
- Toggle Motion Blur usng Cmd B (macOS) or Ctrl B (Windows)
You can also zoom using the mousewheel or trackpad when the mouse cursor is positioned over the Composite View.
Motion Tracking and Masking
When Particle Illusion is used as a plugin, motion tracking and masking are available, powered by Continuum’s integrated Mocha tracker.
With this tracking you can essentially “pin” an emitter to a feature in your shot — for instance a train’s smokestack — moving it automatically without requiring you to manually animate the emitter position.
To track the position of an emitter, select “Emitter” for the Transforms parameter:
Then expand the “Motion Tracker / Mocha” group and click the “Mocha Motion Tracker” button:
This opens the Mocha interface, where you can then track the emitter position:
The details of how to use Mocha are provided elsewhere, but the key concept to understand when using it with Particle Illusion is that the “Transforms” parameter must be set correctly:
- “Emitter” if you want to track an emitter position in a shot with a stationary camera
- “World” if you want to track the camera movement only (with emitters that don’t move or that you’ll animate manually)
- “World + Emitter” if you want to track both camera movement and emitter position
Mocha not only provides tracking, but also masking via the PixelChooser. When in the Mocha interface, there are several ways to draw masks: freehand, as X-splines, with the magnetic tool, and more.
Once the masks are drawn, they also get tracked by Mocha, reducing or eliminating any manual repositioning. There are parameters for feathering, inverting the mask, and more:
Both the Mocha tracking and masking are essential features to integrate Particle Illusion effects into your projects.
Composite Style / Apply Modes
Also when used as a plugin, Particle Illusion can be applied using a variety of transfer modes. The default setting is “Direct (Classic)”, which composites the particles directly over the source layer — this is the method used by the legacy particleIllusion application.
Although this “Direct” composite style may be ideal for some projects, a wide variety of apply modes become available once the “Alpha + Apply Mode” Composite Style is selected:
With an apply mode selected, you then have the ability to not only mix the selected mode with Normal mode using the “Apply Mix” value, but you can adjust the Opacity of the effect too — both of these give you a huge amount of control in blending the particle effects into your project.
You can also adjust Brightness, Contrast, and Gamma regardless of which Composite Style is chosen, but when “Alpha + Apply Mode” is selected you can also choose to apply these adjustments to just the particles, or to the composition.
Under the “Particle Properties” section you have access to some of the Particle Illusion native parameters:
These are provided not just for convenience — as they let you adjust some aspects of the particles without having to jump back into the PI interface — but also allow you to animate and utilize your host application’s scripting capabilities.
Note that it’s best to think of these parameters as an additional level of scaling factor being applied; they can’t add something that is not there in the emitter already. For example, if the particles in the emitter have a velocity of 0, the “Velocity” parameter in this “Particle Properties” section will have no effect: 100% of 0 is still 0.
You can add glow to the particles by clicking “Glow On”:
Once enabled you can adjust intensity, color, radius and threshold, and when using “Alpha + Apply Modes” as the Composite Style you can choose to apply the glow to the particles alone or the composition.
When talking about the Particle Properties above, it was mentioned that you can animate those parameters or use the host’s scripting capabilities. Even if your host does not have scripting you can still make particles react automatically to an audio track by enabling Beat Reactor:
After selecting an audio layer (or external audio file based on which host application you’re using), you use Beat Reactor to set frequency ranges and tie them to specific Particle Illusion parameters.
Beat Reactor works in the same way in Particle Illusion as it does in the other Continuum effects that contain it — more information on Beat Reactor here.
Note that if you use Beat Reactor to drive specific Particle Property parameters, and have manually animated those same parameters (or have used your host’s scripting to animate them), results may be unpredictable.
Particle Influencers (Deflectors and Forces)
Although Emitters are the main objects you’ll be using in Particle Illusion, there are two other types of objects that will influence particles and make your projects more interesting: Deflectors and Forces.
Deflectors are objects that particles will hit and bounce from. They consist of one or more line segments with parameters to control the amount of bounce and more.
To add a deflector, click the “Deflector” button above the Composite View…
…then click in the Composite View to add points. Double-click or press ESC to end.
Deflectors have only a few parameters:
Angle — allows you to set the angle of the deflector or rotate it.
Bounce — scales the amount of bounce that particles have when colliding. Note that if the particle type or emitter “Bounce” values are zero, adjusting this will have no effect.
Hits — determines what percentage of particles will hit. Usually you’ll leave this at 100 but lower values might be desirable in some circumstances.
Thickness — allows you to increase the thickness of the deflector “line”, which can be useful when you want to simulate particles bouncing off a plane instead of a line.
The deflector itself does not have a position that can be animated, but each point that makes up the deflector will display its position in the controls view under the “Deflector Line Points” group:
You can animate the position of these points in the same way as emitter position can be animated (by dragging in the Stage with the appropriate animate buttons set, by using the “create key” button, etc.)
A few things to note about deflectors:
- When bounce is 0, particles will “sink” through a deflector. (To fix this, set bounce to 0.1 or 1%)
- Only moving particles will hit a deflector. If the particles are not moving but the deflector is, collisions will NOT happen.
- Particles may “leak” where two deflector segments meet.
- You can animate the position of the deflector points, but there is currently no way to view those position keys or modify them.
Force objects apply an acceleration to any particles that enter their area, a bit like wind (or a magnet depending on the force type).
To add a force, click the “Force” button above the Composite View…
…then click in the Composite View (Stage). There are three types of force objects: Area, Grid, and Point. The type is set using the “Type” parameter, with “Area” being the default:
Area Force objects are rectangular, with dimensions set by “Width” and “Height”:
The “Direction” parameters sets the angle of the force, and the “Strength” determines how much force is applied.
Note that “Strength” can go negative, and will then move particles opposite to the direction parameter.
Force objects are a great way to add complex, organic motion to the particles — especially when multiple forces are used together.
Grid Forces are rectangular like Area Forces, but the rectangle is divided into a grid of cells:
In addition to the parameters that the Area Force has (Strength, Direction, Angle, Width, Height), a Grid Force has Grid X and Grid Y parameters to set the number of horizontal and vertical divisions, and Variation parameters for Strength and Direction.
With Strength Variation and Direction Variation both set to “0”, a Grid Force behaves exactly like an Area Force: all particles that enter it are accelerated the same amount, in the same direction:
When Strength Variation or Direction Variation are non-zero though, that’s when things get interesting. Let’s start with Direction Variation, as it has the biggest impact. With Direction Variation set to 90 (degrees) and an 8×8 grid, this is what we get:
The emitter was moved slightly from the previous image to help illustrate a point: each cell of the grid now has a different direction, as indicated by the arrow in each cell.
With Direction Variation set to the maximum (360 degrees), each cell will point in a random direction. Depending on the placement of the emitter, the Strength value, and a few other options (Strength Variation, the velocity of the particles, number of grid cells, etc.) you can get very complex, organic particle motion:
The motion becomes even more interesting if the emitter and particles move into different cells over time. For example animating the Position, Angle or Direction of the Force can result in very sophisticated particle motion.
Note that the “Random Seed” parameter can be changed to get a different pattern for Strength and Direction Variation.
The final type of Forces are Point Forces. A Point Force is quite different from Area and Grid Forces in that it is circular, not rectangular:
Also, it does not have a “Direction” parameter as all particles within its active area are accelerated toward the center point. You can think of Point Forces as “attractors”.
Since particles that pass very close to or even through the center point will have very large acceleration, Point Forces have a “Min. Distance” parameter that creates a smaller circle of no additional acceleration — essentially it makes it easier to avoid “stray” particles that have huge velocities.
In the same way that a negative Strength value will reverse the acceleration direction in Area and Grid Forces, a negative Strength turns a Point Force into a particle repeller:
This makes Point Forces ideal for pushing particles out of the way.
Adding Forces to your projects, especially Grid and Point Forces, will give you advanced particle motion that you won’t be able to get any other way in Particle Illusion.
Note that Force objects can be saved in Particle Illusion project files, as host presets (loadable through the FX Browser), but they cannot be added to an Emitter Library.
Standalone vs Plugin Mode
Although you’ll typically use Particle Illusion as a plugin applied to a layer in your host, it’s also possible to launch it as a standalone application. Only in standalone mode will you be able to modify the Project Settings.
The Project Settings Window allows for customization of the current project: Stage size, Duration, Frame Rate and other features. (When PI is launched from a host such as Adobe After Effects, many of these parameters are pulled directly from the host itself, and cannot be changed).
Motion Blur is a key feature that adds realism to many of the emitters, and when turned on in a project (using the “Enable” checkbox here or the “Stage – Motion Blur” menu) these are the settings used. You probably won’t want to change these values, but this is what they do:
- Total Frames. This sets the number of frames of motion blur to use. Note that motion blur requires multiple copies of each particle to be drawn, so although higher values result in smoother blurring, it takes longer to render. The default value of “4” is a good compromise between quality and performance.
- Blur Amount. The amount of the distance between frames that the blurring occurs. When set to 100% the particles are blurred the entire distance they would move between the two frames. When set to 50%, the blurring will occur in ½ the distance. (When set to 0% no blurring occurs.)
- Intensity Adj. This control is not implemented — it does nothing.
“Mipmap Setting” allows you to override the mipmapping settings contained in each particle type. The default setting is to use the settings contained in the emitter (set per particle type), but you can also force mipmapping on or off for all particles. (As a reminder, mipmapping uses resampled copies of the particle image shape texture for smaller sizes, which reduces aliasing — jagged edges — and can result in a higher-quality but “softer” render.)
The Preferences Pane
The Preferences Panel is where you set the default project settings: Stage Size (resolution), Pixel Aspect ratio, Duration, etc.:
It’s important to realize that changing the Stage Size and other settings in the top part of this dialog does NOT change the current project — it only applies when a new project is created.
The “Click in Stage to Add Emitter” option can be unchecked if you find yourself accidentally adding new emitters to the Stage by clicking. Note that if you uncheck this option, the only way to add an emitter to the project will be to double-click its name in the Emitter Library Browser.
“Show Stage Tool Tips”: When checked, tooltips show in the Stage (Composite View) when the mouse cursor is over something that can be clicked or dragged:
Although these tooltips can help you know what will be clicked — especially useful in projects that contain many overlapping emitters, forces, and deflectors — you may find them to be intrusive. If that’s the case use this preference to turn them off.
“Use High-Quality Playback”: When checked particles are rendered to an offscreen buffer giving highest quality results. When unchecked, particles will render directly to the window, which can give a performance boost on some older hardware and OSes. Note that when motion blur is turned on this setting is ignored — particles are rendered to an offscreen buffer as if this setting were checked.
“Add New Emitters at Frame 0”: When checked an emitter is always added at frame 0. When unchecked, the emitter will be added at the current frame.
The Emitter Search Options:
- “Search Folder Names”: the folders in each emitter library are included in search results. When this option is checked all emitters in that folder will be included in the results if the search term is in the folder name. (This is not usually desired so is unchecked by default.)
- “Search Tags”: If you want to search only on emitter names you can uncheck this option. (It is checked by default as there are many emitters with names that are not descriptive.)
- “Display Tags in emitter library”: when checked, each emitter’s tags will display after its name (only in Tree View). Note that you’ll need to refresh the emitter display after changing this option in order for the change to show — the easiest way to do this is to click the collapse/expand button to the left of each emitter library (in Tree View).
“Clean project data on open”: If you’ve done a lot of work with changing particle shapes in your emitters, or have added particle types, added and deleted emitters, etc., you may find that your PI project (or host project) has become unexpectedly large in size (larger than expected file, using much more memory than seem reasonable, etc.) If you have this preference enabled, using the “load” function to open a saved PI project file should remove any excess bloat from the file and get it back to optimal size.
Enable Verbose Logging: When checked, extra information is added to the Particle Illusion log file. This in theory will decrease performance, but in practice this slowdown is not noticeable. The extra information logged will help us diagnose any problems you may have.
The “Show Log” button will open the log file so you can view it. Note that if you contact support you will probably be asked for this file.
“Mipmap Setting” allows you to override the mipmapping settings contained in each particle type. The default setting is to use the settings contained in the emitter (set per particle type), but you can also force mipmapping on or off for all particles. (As a reminder, mipmapping uses resampled copies of the particle image shape texture for smaller sizes, which reduces aliasing — jagged edges — and can result in a higher-quality but “softer” render.)
Zoom Sensitivity: Input devices have different scrollwheel speeds — for instance a trackpad may be too sensitive to allow it to zoom the Stage in a controllable way. By increasing this value you can decrease the sensitivity of zooming in the Stage: lower values zoom faster, while higher values zoom more slowly.
PgUp or L arrow
PgDn or R arrow
Cmd B/Ctrl B
Shift Cmd/Ctrl S
Shift Cmd/Ctrl Z
Jump 10 frames back
Jump 10 frames forward
Jump to first frame
Jump to last frame
Zoom Stage (when cursor over Stage)
Toggle Motion Blur in Stage
Stage: delete selected object
Graph View: delete selected keys
Emitter Library Browser: remove the selected emitter from library (if unlocked)
Update selected library emitter thumbnail from preview (if library unlocked)
Load the Default View Layout (all views visible in default sizes)
Load the “Edit” View Layout (hides Emitter Library Browser and Preview)
Load the “Create” View Layout
Load the “Browse” View Layout (only Emitter Library Browser and Preview visible)
Save Project (using current file name)
Save Project As (with a new file name)
Save Project (using current file name)
Cmd/Ctrl drag an emitter or force in the Stage to move the entire position path (when position is animated)
Option/Alt click on a bezier handle in the Stage to disconnect from the other handle (disconnected handles move independently of each other). Option/Alt click on either disconnected handle to connect them again.
Cmd/Ctrl drag the start frame handle of an emitter, deflector, or force to change the active frame without moving any keyframes.
Option/Alt click on a deflector or line emitter segment to add a point.