Let’s explore ways to get auto-filling sci-fi maps in After Effects. We will use the popular AutoFill plugin for this purpose.

One of my favorite forms of animations found across all forms of visual entertainment, usually a sci-fi film or game, is when a digital map expands through its geographical routes or when the map’s shape is presented through a series of networks. Usually, when denoting the spread of a virus (I know, I’m sorry!), a connection relay, or advancements that the allied force must make—or the land the enemy has captured.

It can look a little something like this.

Image via Liu zishan

From point to point, these animations move in organic nature, like water flowing through a stream. This form of animation can be tedious due to the meticulous nature of having each strand/route on the map animate in an individual direction. It’s not as if we can apply a linear wipe and be done with it. However, there is a new After Effects plugin on the market called AutoFill, which helps us get such an effect.

Today, we’re going to take this image from Vjom.

And turn it into this.

As noted in my initial coverage of AutoFill, this After Effects plugin is incredibly easy to use. In most cases, it’s as simple as adding the effect, choosing the source point, and hitting play. However, I have created this specific task of ‘Returning home, a warning signal flares up, showing the planet’s infected networks.’ As it requires me to use the majority of the plugin settings. Therefore, whether you intend to create a sci-fi map or are just looking for tips on using the plugin, this should help you.

Step 1 – Growth Points

The plugin works with everything with an alpha channel; shapes, vectors, masks, TIFF files, and PNG files. It’s essential to format your map before importing it into After Effects. I’ve used the image from Vjom, and I’ve also pulled a select number of individual routes from the map as a separate PNG  to act as the ‘infected network route.’

Create a new composition, add the PNG to the comp, and then add AutoFill.

The source of the growth will be dependent on your story, but in our example, we’re going to have the network relay activate in California, and simultaneously France and Australia. Therefore I’m going to position a source point near the relay in California, then add another two by selecting the drop-down menu and switching the number of points to three. I’ll then position these two additional points in the locality of France and Australia.

After hitting play, we already have this. This plugin is so simple and easy to use. We already have a very nice-looking map reveal, and we’ve only added the effect to the file. Can we even call this a tutorial?

If you find that the AutoFill isn’t reaching individual connections or routes of your map, decrease the border strength to a setting that starts to fill the desired areas, but make sure you don’t make the setting weak enough that it connects paths that are visually disconnected.

Step 2 – Speed

While I think the animation is cool, the speed is too slow, and the way it spreads, although organic, is too equal. Therefore, we’re going to increase the speed and then create a speed map to disrupt the spread’s fluidity.

To do this, duplicate the map PNG, and remove the AutoFill effect. Then, add CC fractal noise, and change the properties until you have a disparagement of dark and light areas on your map.

The settings will ultimately be different for everyone’s map, but I found that using the noise type Block and turning up the contrast to 250 helped created a sporadic mixture of dark and lighter areas.

If you missed my initial overview, I noted that you could use a speed map to control your animation’s speed in different areas. The lighter the site, the faster the animation will be, and in the darker areas, the animation will fill slower.

With the speed map complete, we’re going to turn off this layer (hide it if you must), go back to our map layer with the AutoFill, select the layer with the fractal noise, and change the influence 50%.

Step 3 – Compositing Settings

To conclude the use of AutoFill, we’re going to add our selected routes PNG to the composition and copy the autofill effect from the map PNG.

We’re going to leave all of the AutoFill settings as is, and will only activate the color fill under the compositing settings, and then change the color to a bright red. This will be our network virus indicator.

We’re then going to delay the process by 12 frames to give the map reveal a slight head start. The individual links, especially the route from Europe to Africa better promotes the auto-filling animation better as you can see each link naturally progress.

From PNG to Spherical Projection

Ok, so with the above, we’ve now run through the extensive properties AutoFill, which was the primary purpose of the tutorial. However, to effect some real-world use, let’s apply it to the theoretical assignment, and I’ll list how to take this map and make it into a digital globe.

First, add the initial composition into a new composition with the same settings. We’re going to add CC Sphere and reduce every shading property to 0 bar ambient, which will be increased to 200. I’m also going to add a Sharpen with 20 because the map’s clarity can get lost with many effects.

Next, add an adjustment layer to add a glow effect. I’ve added Trapcode Starglow. However, this is a paid plugin. Additionally, you could also use the built-in glow effect. But the important aspect is to give the glow intensity a wiggle expression (2,50 would suffice). This will help create the illusion of the projected flicker—because even though these characters have spaceships, the hologram technology is still iffy!

Next, pre-compose this composition and the adjustment layer (or bring this composition into a new comp). Now, the location of your sci-fi scene is going to be dependent on your story. This graphic could appear on a computer screen, it could be part of a HUD (think Iron Man), or it could be a projected hologram. It’s a projector hologram in my sequence, so we’re going to need to create the projector light.

To do this, we’re simply going to use a built-in lens flare and position it just out of frame at the bottom of the composition. The light falloff from the flare is somewhat similar to that of a projector, likewise, the flare also produces a variety of lens artifacts that add to the scene. Like the globe, we’re also going to give the opacity a wiggle expression of the light flickers. Additionally, I’ve added curves and brought up the blue color channel to match the globe’s glow.

To cement the effect, I’m going to add a slight camera push and add a small degree of rotation to the planet. The background was taken from sdecoret, and was simply pushed out of focus with a gaussian blur when the map appears.

I’m still at the start of my relationship with AutoFill. If I discover any more cool techniques, they will be shared on this blog.

For more plugins, check out the articles below: