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Pro tips for particles

Most visual effects would be impossible without them. Animators rely on them for complex scenes that would be ludicrously time-consuming to keyframe. You can even use them to create fur, feathers or grass. Yet particles remain one of the most under-exploited tools in 3D software.

The problem is that the enormous versatility of particle systems is also their undoing. Faced with a bewildering array of controls, drop-downs and parameters, many artists simply opt for the default settings. The result is either one of the tell-tale signs of CG animation - sparks that seem to move in slow motion, synthetic-looking flames, and smoke that fails to respond to the prevailing wind - or flames that take days to render. Yet all that is often needed to transform such problem systems into flexible, fast-rendering effects is a few simple parameter tweaks.

Over the course of this article, our three visual effects professionals will be revealing some of the tricks they use to vary the homogeneity of their software's default particle settings, and translate complex real-world phenomena into manageable 3D simulations. They will also be suggesting some more creative uses of particle systems, beyond the standard repertoire of smoke trails, explosions and starbursts.

Although we'll be focusing on four applications - LightWave, 3ds max, Maya and Cinema 4D - most of the techniques set out here can also be adapted for use in other software packages.

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