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Billowing Smoke

Fractal Noise works fine for creating and animating thin wispy smoke and mist. It will not, however, help you re-create thick, billowing clouds. When clouds are opaque enough to have their own shape, shading, and topography, re-creating them with built-in After Effects plug-ins no longer does the job. Luckily, all you need is a good still cloud element and you can animate it in After Effects. And all you need to create the element is a high-resolution reference photo—or a bag of cotton puffs.

That's right, cotton puffs, like you get at the pharmacy. I first heard about this trick on a visit to the digital mattedepartment at Industrial Light + Magic about a decade ago (back when the department was made up of four artists), where visionary matte painter Yusei Uesegi was given credit for devising it. He showed me a jaw-dropping shot of a pirate ship in flames, smoke billowing from the masts.


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