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tutorial 1

the easy stuff

we’ll start with something really simple. select the “star trail 2” emitter from the library window if it's not currently selected (the library window is #5 from above).

selecting an emitter in the library window

simply l-click (click the left mouse button) on the words “star trail 2” and it will be highlighted. this action is called selecting a library emitter. an emitter stays selected until you choose a different emitter, and only one library emitter can be selected at a time. it's also possible to select a library folder -- in that case the previously-selected emitter stays selected.

note that when you select a library emitter the preview window activates and shows you what the emitter is going to look like when it is animated. (if a library folder is selected, the preview window will not change.)

star trails 2 in preview window

here the "star trail 2" emitter is shown in the preview window. click and drag around the preview window to get a feel for what the selected library emitter will look like when added to the stage.

in the stage window there are 2 main "modes": select mode and add mode. one of them (and only one) is always active at a time. in select mode clicking in the stage window will always select an object (if you clicked on one), and the mouse cursor will be the standard windows arrow pointer. in add mode clicking in the stage window will always add an object (usually an emitter, but can also be a deflector or blocker which we'll talk about much later), and the cursor will change to a small emitter symbol (a circle with a dot in it). the arrow button on the toolbar also indicates which mode is active; the select button will be pressed when in select mode:


since we want to add an emitter to the stage now, make sure we're in add mode (make sure the select button is unpressed). you can either click on the select button or use the keyboard shortcut of a to toggle between select and add modes.

now move your mouse to the stage. click once near middle of the stage and a small white circle will appear. (if nothing appears then make sure you're not in select mode.)

symbol for emitter on stage

this circle is the symbol for an emitter (a “point” emitter actually, but we’ll cover that later).

now for the fun part. click the play button on the playback toolbar.

play button

next to the play button is a small window with a number in it: the frame box. the frame box indicates the current frame number, and will change during playback.

the stage should be showing you the sparkle particles emanating from the emitter that you added, the numbers in the frame box should be going up, and you should be reasonably pleased with your performance so far.

stop it!

you have probably noticed that the play button changed to the stop button when you clicked to start playback:

stop button

click on the stop button now. your animation will stop and you will see what frame it stopped on in the frame box. (the stop button will now have changed back into the play button.) there are some other buttons on the playback toolbar. the button to the left of the play button is the rewind button. the smaller black arrow buttons to the right of the frame box move you forward or backward one frame at a time, and the button that is a red circle is the save output button (it looks like the "record" button on a vcr or tape recorder -- more on that button in a minute).

the other two number boxes in the toolbar indicate the project start and end frames, and the button between them is the loop button. during playback you may have seen the frame counter reach the project end frame, then jump back to the project start frame and continue playing. the start and end frame controls define the area of the project in which playback will occur, and the loop button controls looping.

click rewind. you should be at frame 1. using the mouse, select the number in the frame box and type “30”. this will jump you to frame 30. (there are other ways to jump to different frames which we will cover later.) now press play again. playback always starts from the frame number that is displayed in the frame box. stop the playback (using the stop button). now, press the rewind button once. you’ll see that the frame box displays 30. click rewind again. now the frame box displays 1. what’s going on? the rewind button jumps back to the frame that playback last started at when clicked the first time, then jumps back to the project start frame when clicked again. (clicking it again alternates between the playback start frame and project start frame.)

now let’s make a movie.   this will be a short movie just to show you how to make one.

making the first movie

click the save output button and you will see is a dialog box that looks something like this:


this is a standard windows save dialog, so use it as you would in any other program.   at the top choose the folder where you want to save your first movie. in the file name area at the bottom of the dialog you need first to decide on how you are going to save the movie. for this tutorial you will save it as an avi file, but for future reference you can also save animations as image sequences (a series of numbered images). the options for various file formats are found by clicking on the save as type, down arrow, which will show you a dialog that looks like this.


as you can see the first option is avi. there are also several image formats from which you can choose. move the mouse down until the avi format is selected. now type into the file name area, “sparkles movie” and click ok. the avi extension will be added for you.

(note that the avi format is assumed if you don’t choose a file format.)


this dialog is the output options dialog. you can use this to set the start and end frame numbers of your animation (if you want them to be different than the project start and end frames which were set in the playback toolbar), set alpha channel and compression options (based on the file format you're saving in), and other options which we'll ignore right now.

you can leave the start frame at 1 and the end frame at 120. using the default project settings (assuming you haven't changed any of particleillusion's defaults) this will result in a 4-second animation (120 frames at 30 frames per second).

now click on the ok button.

the next dialog you will see is the avi options dialog, which allows you to set the codec (compressor/decompressor) that you wish to use, as well as other compression settings. each codec has different controls so we won’t cover any of them here. just use the codec that you are most familiar with for this tutorial.


choose the compressor you want to use with the drop down arrow at the top of the dialog, and set the other functions as you see fit. it really doesn’t make much difference for this tutorial; all we really want is a movie to look at, right? click on ok and playback will start. the difference is that particleillusion is saving the avi during playback. note that the save output button has been replaced with the stop button. if you press it, you will be asked if you want to stop the output. if you answer “yes” the movie creation will stop (the movie will still exist) and so will playback. if you answer “no” then the movie creation (and playback) will continue.

after a few moments depending on the speed of your computer, you will see particleillusion create the file: "sparkles movie.avi" . not the most interesting movie ever, but not bad for your first particleillusion effort.

let’s get moving!

well now it’s time to get a bit more creative with the emitter. let’s move it around the screen a little and create our second movie.

to make an emitter move in particleillusion you simply create position key frames (or “position keys”) at the position and frame that you want.

in this example we’ll want to make the emitter start at one point at frame 1, then move to another point over the next 30 frames. first click the rewind button until you’re back at frame 1. now move the emitter to the point on the stage that you want it to start at. there are three different ways to move an emitter. the fastest way when there are few emitters on the stage is to click on the emitter symbol (small circle on the stage) and drag it around. we’ll cover the other ways in a minute. so click and drag the emitter to somewhere near the upper left corner of the stage. now change the current frame from 1 to 30. you could do this by typing 30 into the frame box as before, but let’s try a better way.

the window below the stage window is the graph window. at most times the graph window will display a series of numbers along the bottom of the window. these are frame numbers. you can jump to any frame shown in the graph window by just clicking on the frame number you want.


(you must click on the frame number and not the graph area above the frame numbers.)

so click on the 30 in the graph window. you should see the current frame indicator (the gray button with the red number on it and the vertical red line) jump to the frame you clicked. if you don’t get exactly the frame you hoped to (for instance 29 instead of 30) there’s an easy solution: you can drag the current frame indicator left and right until it shows the frame number (in red) that you want.

okay, so now we are at frame 30. click and drag the emitter (on the stage) to the upper right corner of the stage. you should notice two things. first, the graph window now shows two points and a horizontal line. this indicates that a position key (or position key frame) has been created at frame 30 (there is always a position key at frame 1). second, there is now a dotted line on the stage connecting the positions of the emitter.

each dot represents the position of the emitter at a frame.

emitter position path with particles on

let's allow ourselves to be sidetracked for a minute to remove a distraction: the display of particles on the stage. although it's usually preferred to view the particles while you're working in the stage window, there may be times that you want to turn them off. the main toolbar has a show particles button that controls this.

show particles button

click the show particles button to turn off particle display temporarily so we can more easily see the emitter's position path. (note that during playback the show particles button does not have any effect.) you can also use the key shortcut of p to toggle the show particles setting.

emitter position path with particles off

the larger dot at the left end of the dotted line indicates a position key (the position of the emitter at frame 1 in this case). the smaller dot immediately to its right is the position of the emitter at frame 2, the next dot at frame 3, etc.

now grab the current frame indicator (the red frame in the graph window) and drag it to the left. as the frame number changes, the stage updates to show the position of the emitter at each frame. want to know another way to change the current frame? so far we have 3 methods: 1) use the frame box, 2) use the frame box up/down buttons, 3) click on the frame numbers in the graph window. there are two more ways to change the current frame. the left arrow key on the keyboard will move to the previous frame, and the right arrow key will move to the next frame. since we now have more than one position key for this emitter, we can also use a keyboard shortcut to jump between the position key frame numbers. use the up arrow to jump to the frame of the previous position key for this emitter, and the down arrow key to jump to the frame of the next position key for this emitter. (note that the up/down arrow keys will jump between position keys only if the emitter's position graph is displayed in the graph window.)

okay, rewind to frame 1 and click play (ctrl+r is the keyboard shortcut for rewind, and the spacebar is the shortcut for play and stop). you should see the emitter moving from the upper left to the upper right corner of the stage, emitting particles as it goes.

stop playback and we’ll make another position key at frame 60 using one of the other methods of moving an emitter: the move function. jump to frame 60 (using any method) and click the move button on the main toolbar:

move button

the mouse cursor changes to a crosshair shape, and jumps to the current position of the emitter on the stage. don’t click any mouse buttons yet – just move the emitter around the stage. okay, r-click to cancel the move operation and you’ll see the emitter move back to its original position. click move again (or use the key shortcut of m) and position the emitter at the lower right corner of the stage. this time l-click instead of r-clicking and a new position key has now been created. one thing you’ll notice is that the dots connecting this new line segment on the stage are closer together that the dots on the previous segment. this tells you that the emitter will move more slowly over this second segment.

3 position keys now

we’ll look at this in a later example, but for now just realize that the “density” of dots gives you some indication of how fast the emitter is moving.

okay, so why would you ever want to use move to position an emitter when you can just click on it and drag it on the stage? well there may be cases where you have two emitters in nearly the same location on the stage and you just can’t click on the one you want. move is very useful in this case. another place where move comes in handy is when using copy and paste, but we’ll cover that later.

a quick summary of making an emitter move in particleillusion: 1) set the frame number 2) set the position of the emitter on the stage. if you move an emitter and a position key does not exist at that frame, one will always be created. if you move an emitter while at a frame for which a position key already exists, the position will be modified.

save me!

one last thing we need to do to wrap up this tutorial: save the project! to save the particleillusion project (which is not the same thing as when we created and saved an avi earlier) select save or save as from the file menu, click the save button on the main toolbar, or use the key shortcut of ctrl+s.

save button

the save as function will always open the standard windows save dialog so you can choose an existing filename or enter a new filename. the save function will open this same dialog but only if this is a new project that has not been saved yet. if it has been saved or has been loaded from an existing project, then using the save function will just save the project without letting you change the name. (note that this will wipe out the previous version of the file, so be careful.)

project thumbnails

when you save a new project for the first time, the stage window is captured and used as a thumbnail image for the project. this thumbnail is used when opening a saved project file. to open (load) a project file, click the open button on the main toolbar:

open button

you can also use the key shortcut of ctrl+o, or select open from the file menu.

open project dialog

you can see that the project thumbnail is displayed for every particleillusion 3 project file, to help you remember the contents of each file.

the first time you save a new project, the thumbnail image is automatically created from the stage window. what if you change the contents of a project so that its thumbnail no longer gives a good representation of the project? you can manually update the project thumbnail by switching to select mode, clicking in the stage window, then using the key shortcut of ctrl+t. the project thumbnail image will be created from the current contents of the stage window -- whatever the stage window shows when you hit ctrl+t is used as the thumbnail.
tutorial 2

in the first tutorial we made an emitter move between a few points on the stage, but only in a straight line. what if we want the emitter to follow a more complex curved path?

to pick up where we left off, load the project that you saved at the end of the first tutorial. select open from the file menu, click the open button on the main toolbar, or select the filename from the list of “most recently used” filenames on the file menu.

now let’s make a curve. r-click on the middle position key in the stage window (the one at frame 30). the following context menu is displayed:

position key context menu

for now ignore all of the other menu functions except for the curved item. click the curved item to convert the position key from a linear key to a curved or “spline” key.

there are three indications that a key is curved: 1) the path is now visibly curved on the stage; 2) r-click on the emitter again – the curved item is now checked. 3) there are two spline control handles visible.

curved position key

these control handles can be clicked and dragged to change the curve of this key. click on one of the controls (the small points at the ends of the dotted line) and drag it around. you can see that the controls move together when one of them is dragged – this is due to the fact that they are connected by default. if you r-click on the handle or the position key, the connected menu item is now checked. if you select the connected item, the control points become disconnected, and no longer move together.

you’ll notice that once you disconnect the control points the connected menu item is no longer enabled. how do you make the controls connected again? you need to toggle the key linear (non-curved), then back to curved again.

there are shortcuts to the curved and connected functions that do not require the use of the context (r-click) menus. if you alt-click (hold down the alt key while l-clicking) on a position key, it will toggle between linear and curved. similarly if you alt-click on a control handle, it will change from connected to disconnected. (remember that once it is disconnected, the only way to get it connected again is to toggle it linear then curved again.)

make sure the middle position key (the one at frame 30) is curved and move it around. notice that the path segments between the first and last position keys “followed” the key you were moving? not sure what that means? change the position key at frame 1 to curved (so now there are two position keys that are curved). now move the frame 30 position key again. notice the difference in the way that the path segment between the first key and the key you’re moving behaves?

both keys curved         first key linear, second key curved

the image on the left is with the first position key curved and the image on the right is with the first position key linear (non-curved).

easy does it!

let’s go back to linear keys for a minute. if you look at the frame positions (dots) between two linear keys, you’ll see that they are equally spaced. that is, the emitter moves the same amount at each frame. what if you want the emitter to start moving slowly, then move more quickly? (some applications refer to this as “ease in/ease out”, or as acceleration.) in particleillusion there is no specific setting to accomplish this – but you can get the same results in some cases. how? by changing the keys to curved, and adjusting the spline control handles to get the frame spacing you want.

start by reloading the same project file you loaded at the start of this tutorial. change the first and second position keys to curved. make the control handles of the second position key disconnected. now move the control point for the first key so it is approximately on the line between the first and second position keys, and is about 1/3 of the way between the two. do the same for the spline control of the second key. the result should be a very close approximation of a linear segment between the keys (as if they were both non-curved).

approximating linear position keys with curved keys

now to get the evenly-spaced dots the way we want them (closer together near the first key, and farther apart near the second key) we just need to drag the control point for the first key closer to the first key, and the control point for the second key farther from the second key. here’s one way it could look:

approximating ease in/out

so it’s possible to approximate the acceleration that we wanted. note that this will only work in certain cases.

okay, so now we know how to make an emitter move both linearly and along a curved path. what if we need to make precise adjustments to a position key, for instance if it is slightly out of position from where we want it to be? that’s where we use the nudge buttons (on the nudge toolbar):

nudge toolbar

clicking one of the nudge buttons moves the emitter one pixel in the direction the button indicates. note that this is another way (besides dragging or using move) to move an emitter. remember that whenever an emitter is moved (even if only one pixel) and it is not at a position key, a position key will be created. you can also use the key shortcuts of shift+arrow keys; to nudge up, use shift+up arrow for example.

if you need to create a position key at the exact spot that an emitter is currently at – don't try to use move or drag the emitter. use nudge instead (you can nudge the emitter up then down and it will be at the same position, but a position key will have been created for it).

let’s say we’ve just spent quite a bit of time adding position keys, moving them, nudging them and adjusting them until they were just right. now we’ve realized that we’d like the entire path of the emitter to move some amount – we want the path to keep it’s same shape, but want it to start at a different location. it would take too much effort to move each individual position key, so what can we do? the solution is simple: hold down the ctrl key while you click and drag the emitter. this will move the entire emitter path without creating any position keys.

note: you might find that turning off show particles before using this trick makes things more responsive and therefore easier to position.

there may be a time when you don’t need precise placement and movement of an emitter. perhaps you want some sparkles moving around a logo, or just want to play around a little. you certainly don’t want to take the time to set up a spline path for the emitter, so what do you do?

start a new project by clicking the new button on the main toolbar:

new button

you can also use the key shortcut of ctrl+n, or select new from the file menu. if your existing project hasn’t been saved, you will be asked if you want to save the project first. then the project will be reset to its default state (the stage will be cleared). now add an emitter to the stage, r-click on the emitter on the stage, and select record position. a message box is displayed letting us know what is about to happen:

record position on emitter context menu       record position message window

after we click ok, we position the mouse cursor where we want the emitter to start, then click the left mouse button. playback will start and the mouse position will be sampled at each frame, with a position key being created at each frame. use the mouse to “draw” the emitter position path on the stage, then click the left mouse button again to stop playback. note that playback will also stop when the project end frame is reached.

after position recording has stopped, a dialog box will be shown with a slider control that is used to smooth the position keys that were created.

point smoothing dialog

move the dialog away from the stage and adjust the slider, noting the effect on the emitter path on the stage.

if you made quick movements while recording position, then you’ll probably want to use very little or no smoothing. if you made a slow curving path, you may want to use more smoothing.

note that when you use the record position function, all position keys following the frame at which you started recording are deleted and replaced with the recorded position keys. also, record position only works for emitters, not deflectors, blockers, or forces.

undo what you do

suppose while you were trying that last trick of moving the entire emitter path (by holding the ctrl key) you released the key too early, and ended up creating a position key when you didn’t want to. how can you get rid of that key you just created? there are a few ways to do it.

one of them is to just delete the key from the stage. with the emitter at the position key, press ctrl+d. this will delete the position key. note that if you press ctrl+d when the emitter is not at a frame that contains a position key, nothing will happen. also, you can’t delete the first position key (every stage object has a position key at frame 1).

there is also a way to delete a position key using the graph window, but we’ll cover that later when we talk about the graph window in depth.

the most “universal” way of fixing any mistakes you make (such as creating a position key that is not wanted) is to use the undo function. most applications include some sort of undo, so the concept is probably not new to you. if you are not familiar with undo, it simply reverses the last change or changes that you made. there is usually a redo function that goes along with undo, which restores the change – essentially an undo of the undo.

particleillusion supports multiple undo/redo actions. to undo, select undo from the edit menu, use the keyboard shortcut of ctrl+z, or click the undo button on the toolbar:

undo button do it now and see what happens to the emitter on the stage. undo a few times in a row and you’ll see the last changes you made being reversed. ok, now try redo. select redo from the edit menu, or ctrl+y, or click the redo button. redo until you can redo no more.

only changes made to the stage or to the graph window can be undone in particleillusion.

when you use undo, redo is available until you make some new change to the project. the new change “overwrites” the actions that were undone, making them no longer available for redo. a little example to illustrate this. let’s start a new project (click the new toolbar button or use ctrl+n.

(note that you can’t undo new, just as you can’t undo open or save.)

so we now have a clear stage. select the "star trail 2" library emitter again and add it anywhere on the stage. now move the emitter to another location on the stage (still at frame 1). now jump to frame 20 and move the emitter somewhere else on the stage.

at this point we have three actions that can be undone: 1) adding an emitter to the stage 2) moving the emitter 3) moving the emitter and creating a position key. you should be able to use undo three times, and end up with an empty stage again. you can redo three times as well to get all of the changes back. use redo until all changes are back. now undo just one time – you should have the emitter at a single position on the stage.

now just l-click somewhere else on the stage (not on the emitter) to add a second emitter. our list of undoable actions has just changed. it is now: 1) adding an emitter to the stage 2) moving the emitter 3) adding a second emitter. use undo and redo to see that the action of moving the first emitter to create a position key is no longer available. it has been overwritten by the action of adding the second emitter.

by default particleillusion is set to keep 20 actions in the undo list. if you want to be able to undo more actions, you can change this number in the preferences dialog (which we’ll talk about in a later tutorial). note that setting this value higher requires more memory.

project settings

we’re about to start digging into the “guts” of an emitter, but before we do let’s take a look at something completely different: the project settings dialog.

click on the project settings button of the main toolbar (or use the key shortcut of alt+p):

project settings button

this will open the project settings dialog:

project settings dialog

here you see the settings for motion blur (which we discuss shortly), output frame rate for the project, background color for the stage and preview window, stage size, and several other options.

the frame rate value determines how many frames per second particleillusion will display for playback and when saving output. important: some emitters look quite different at different frame rates. therefore, it is important to set the frame rate before you start doing any work on the stage with emitters, or you may not get the results you want.

a note about frame rates. the windows that animate (the stage during playback, and the preview window when displaying a library emitter) will attempt to match the project frame rate. in many cases, the actual frame rate may be lower than the project frame rate. the status bar at the bottom of the particleillusion window displays the achieved frame rate followed by the project frame rate in parentheses.

status bar framerate display

the achieved frame rate is determined by the speed of your computer, the presence of 3d video hardware, the number of particles, and (especially without supported 3d hardware) the size of the particles being drawn. there are other factors involved too, but they involve things that we have not covered yet (the presence of deflectors, blockers, and background images all have an effect on playback speed).

the color setting shows the current color of the background of the stage (and preview window if desired). to change the color, just click on the color box and a color chooser dialog will be shown:

particleillusion color chooser

you can select the color by clicking and dragging in the two color windows, or by entering the color component values directly. there is also a button that looks like an "eyedropper" -- click this to sample the color from anywhere within particleillusion.

a note about background color: some particles (flagged as “intense” which will be covered later) look best on black backgrounds.

the don't erase option has a dramatic effect on your project. when checked, the stage window will not be erased before a new frame is drawn. the result is that each particle leaves a "trail", as if it's painting itself onto the stage. you can acheive some beautiful organic and artistic effects using this option, but it doesn't work under all conditions. don't erase will not work when you are using background images or when using high-quality motion blur (neither of which we have covered yet in these tutorials). also, don't erase only works during playback.

the stage size settings determine the size of the stage, which is the area that will be saved when saving output, and is the only area that displays particles.

stage size section of project settings dialog

the drop-down list shows several common stage sizes. you can also directly enter the width and height values. if there is a stage size that you would like to add to the drop-down list, enter the values for width and height, then click the add button (button with a "+" on it). if there is a stage size in the list that you will never use and want to delete, first select it from the list, then click the delete button (button with an "x" on it).

the aspect overlays section allows you to "mask off" parts of the stage window that will not be visible in the final version of your output. this is most useful for film work, where parts of the original frames will never be seen on the screen; the overlays let you see what parts of the frame will not be visible.

aspect overlays section of project settings dialog

two different overlays can be defined and displayed: a and b. to turn display of an overlay on, check the ratio option, then select the aspect ratio to use. you can select a value from the drop-down list, or type a custom value into the box. the overlay is drawn semi-transparently in the stage window, and you can set the color of the overlay by clicking the color box at the right. a few standard options ("full frame", "academy", etc.) are defined, and can be selected. note that selecting certain options will change the ratio value of overlay a. the final control in this section is the y offset value. you can use this to shift the overlays up by entering a positive value, and shift them down by entering a negative value (using the up/down buttons to the right of the number box).

similar to the aspect overlays is the safe areas display:

safe areas section of project settings dialog

when selected, title safe and action safe areas are indicated in the stage. as with the aspect overlays, you can set the color of the safe area displays by clicking the color box. you don't need to open the project settings dialog in order to turn display of the aspect overlays and safe areas on or off. you can use key shortcuts of ctrl+shift+a and ctrl+shift+b to toggle overlays a and b, and ctrl+shift+s to toggle display of safe areas.

aspect overlay a and safe areas example

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