There are many ways to create digital effects using After Effects, but organic elements can bring even more to your project.

Cover image from The Fountain via Warner Bros.

One of the most powerful ways to maximize your design and VFX shots is finding new and creative ways to incorporate organic elements. All things considered, the randomness and natural movement of real elements like fire, smoke, and water will always look better than an effect like Particular (hands down the best particle emitter for After Effects), CC Particle Worldor a Fractal Noise effect.

Alternatives to Particle Effects

Use Organic Elements To Enhance Your Motion Graphics — Alternatives

Some of the most commonly used organic video elements are fire, smoke, or explosion elements. There are a lot of great sources for these elements out there, like the Video Copilot action essentials packs and many others — Shutterstock also has a huge library of these elements.

These have their common uses, like setting buildings, cars, trees, etc. on fire without actually burning anything. However, these types of elements can also be extremely useful for creating atmospheres, textures, or entire galaxies.

Use Organic Elements To Enhance Your Motion Graphics — Polar Coordinates

In the example above, the polar coordinates effect converts a standard fire element into a flaming sphere. Just move your fire layer near the middle of the frame and add the polar coordinates effect. From there switch the dropdown from Pola to Rect to Rect to Pola and then turn the effect all the way up to 100%.

With some alteration and some more elements, you could use this method create a pretty convincing star burning in space.

Use Organic Elements To Enhance Your Motion Graphics — Star

In the example above, we took our flaming sphere and merged it with a black ink drop element from the Shutterstock library.

Just take the ink drop layer and duplicate it. Then set the track matte on the bottom layer to Luma Matte Inverted, and use color correction and glow tools to alter it however you like. In this example, I used invert, hue/saturation, curves, and glow.

By using different color correction and transfer mode techniques, you can create endless possibilities with these types of elements.

Macro and Tabletop Footage

Use Organic Elements To Enhance Your Motion Graphics — Macro Footage
Image via Kinetek.

Sometimes, an organic approach can blur the line between motion graphics and something else entirely. Cinematographer Matthew Rosen has a fantastic library of videos on his YouTube channel that teach quite a few cinematographic processes and techniques. On his channel, you’ll find a few great examples of ways to blur that line.

In the preceding video, Rosen shows how to create an identity package for a television network. In this example, he uses all organic elements to create looks and frames that would traditionally call for a motion graphics designer and a completely digital approach.

This is a great example of how to think about graphics and effects differently — even though, you could technically say these aren’t even graphics at all.

Here, Rosen uses a macro bellows on his Blackmagic Design cinema camera to shoot entire landscapes of mold spores. This is yet another great example of using a completely organic element to create something that you would traditionally use a particle emitter or similar effect to achieve. The result is highly detailed, natural, and extremely effective.

Lens Flares and Light Leaks

Use Organic Elements To Enhance Your Motion Graphics — Lens Flares and Light Leaks

A useful way to tie all of your elements together or make the light in your design much more convincing is to add an organically created light leak or lens flare to your scene. There are many ways to use these elements to elevate the production value of your work.

RocketStock offers two different libraries of these elements (Radium and Illuminate). The packs feature organically shot light leaks and lens flare elements.

Putting It All Together

Use Organic Elements To Enhance Your Motion Graphics — The Fountain
Image from The Fountain via Warner Bros.

“The CGI guys have ultimate control over everything they do. They can repeat shots over and over and get everything to end up exactly where they want it. But they’re forever seeking the ability to randomize, so that they’re not limited by their imaginations.” — Optical Effects Supervisor Peter Parks, via Wired Magazine.

When filmmaker Darren Aranofsky set out (for the second time) to make The Fountainhe had a vision for a sci-fi space epic that utilized all organic and practical effects to create the film’s world. The studios involved didn’t believe it was possible to make the film without CGI, and as a result (among other things) the film had a storied past of rewrites and false starts. However, the studios were wrong. Aranofsky created his film without the use of CGI, and he did it with a lot of top-notch compositing and macro images of chemical reactions in petri dishes.

To create the amazing outer space environments and nebulae in the film,The Fountains VFX designers Jeremy Dawson and Dan Schrecker called upon Peter Parks and his son Chris Parks to use their device called the Microzoom Optical Bench to create the organic space environments and nebulae for the film. You can see the process at around 7:20 in the video below.

Bristling with digital and film cameras, lenses, and Victorian prisms, their contraption can magnify a microliter of water up to 500,000 times or fill an Imax screen with the period at the end of this sentence. — Wired Magazine

This is one of my favorite examples of using an organic approach over a digital one. The visual effects in The Fountain are some of the most beautiful and otherworldly effects I can think of, and their reliance on real physics and elements makes for some very convincing and realistic imagery.

The showreel of Abstract Artist Chris Parks.

Using organic elements isn’t going to be the right choice for every project, but it’s an interesting way to think differently about your work. Sometimes, it helps to be able to touch what you’re working on. Roll up your sleeves, grab a camera, and create entire worlds that you didn’t know were possible.

Do you have tips for using organic elements? Let us know in the comments.