Produced by KelbyOne

Smokey Type Effect in After Effects

Type animation is one of the most wonderful functions to play with in After Effects, especially since version 6 introduced actual text character animation control. With CS3 adding per-character 3D control, typographic motion design has never been more fun. Let’s create some cool smoky type.

[If you’d like download the image used in this tutorial to practice this technique and also to preview the final effect, click here. All files are for personal use only.]

Let’s start out by creating a composition to hold our titles. We’re focusing on type animation for this tutorial, so we’ll use simple background elements instead of footage. In After Effects, click on the Create a New Composition icon at the bottom of the Project panel and create a new 20-second composition using the HDV/HDTV 720 29.97 preset, name it “Where there’s Smoke” and click OK. Then double-click in the Project panel to bring up the Import File dialog and import the Backdrop image [Backdrop image is available for download by clicking here]. Drag the backdrop image into the Timeline at 0 seconds.

At 0 seconds, go to Layer>New>Text, to create a new text layer in the center of the comp. Type the words you desire, then use the Character panel to size, track, and style the text accordingly. This first line of text will be our intro for the main title. In my case, I’m using one of my all-time favorite typefaces, Walbaum, from Both classic and modern, it suits clean typographic work nicely.

Go back to the Selection tool (V) so the entire text layer is highlighted, then twirl down the text layer in the Timeline. Next to Text, click on the right-facing arrow next to Animate and choose Opacity from the flyout menu to add an opacity Animator 1. Twirl that down, and then twirl down both Range Selector 1 and Advanced. Set Shape to Ramp Up, and drag the animator’s Opacity value down to 0%. You’ll see the right half of the line fades out. Finally, adjust the Range Selector’s Offset value to –100%, and the type is now invisible.

At 1 second along the Timeline, click the Stopwatch next to Offset to add a keyframe. Then, move along to 4 seconds and adjust the offset to +100%, revealing the type. Control-click (PC: Right-click) on that second keyframe and choose Keyframe Assistant>Easy Ease In. Now, click on the Add option next to Animator 1, and choose Property>Blur from the bottom of the flyout menu. This adds the Blur function into this already animated item. Simply adjust the Blur value to around 30, then scrub the Timeline and see the result!

Now we need the “smoke” that we’ll use to reveal the type. Go back to 0 seconds, then go to Layer>New>Solid. Click the Make Comp Size button, check the color is black, name it “Smoke Solid,” and click OK. Now go to Effect>Noise & Grain>Fractal Noise, and in the Effect Controls panel, set the Contrast to 140, Complexity to 12, and twirl down Transform and set Scale to 160. Animating any and all of these items can create moving smoke nicely, so feel free to play around with these settings at any time.

Go to the Toolbar and select the Ellipse tool. Click-and-drag over the center of the smoke to create a mask shape of your chosen size. Go back to the Selection tool, and in the Timeline click on the Eye icon next to Animator 1 to disable it. Double-click on the edge of the smoke mask, then drag it over the start of the text line. At 1 second, press Shift-Option-M (PC: Shift-Alt-M) to add a mask keyframe, scrub to 4 seconds, and drag the mask to the end of the text line. Be sure to Easy Ease In that second keyframe.

At 1 second, press Shift-T to show the layer’s Opacity. Add a keyframe and change the value to 0%. At 2 seconds, set the value to 100%, and at 4 seconds back to 0%. Shift-click to select all three keyframes and go to Animation>Keyframe Assistant>Easy Ease. Press Shift-F to show the Mask Feather value and adjust it to 100 pixels. In the Mode column, set the layer blend mode to Screen to remove the black edges. (If you don’t see the Mode column, Control-click [PC: Right-click] on Source Name and select Columns>Modes.) Finally, turn back on the visibility icon for Animator 1 on the text layer, and view your results. Very smoky, very nice!

Now we want to use another animator to “wipe” the text back off before the main title appears. Twirl up Animator 1 (be sure it’s not selected). Click on Animate next to Text and choose Opacity once again. This adds Animator 2. Use the exact same settings as in Step 3 but set the Shape to Ramp Down instead. Then, keyframe the Range Selector’s Offset from –100% at 5 seconds to +100% at 7 seconds. Select the first keyframe, use Easy Ease Out, and your text intro is perfectly animated.

Twirl up the text and smoke layers, and at 8 seconds go to Layer>New>Text. Add and style your main title accordingly, making sure to keep all the words on this one layer. This example uses a font called Freebooter Script. Use different font sizes and change the baseline shift as needed. For example, we set the smaller text at 45 pixels and the larger text at 175 pixels. We then added Returns after each “There’s,” adjusted the baseline shift for the various lines, and then added a few spaces before the word “Smoke.” Position the text layer in the center as shown here.

Twirl down the new text layer and add a new opacity Animator. Twirl down all the options, and set them once again to the same values we used in Step 3 (Opacity 0%, Ramp Up, Offset –100%), but change the Based On option to Words. At 8 seconds, add a keyframe for the Offset value, and at 11 seconds change it to +100%. Then be sure to Easy Ease In the second keyframe. It’s cool that the exact same settings can be used again, but it gives a different effect when set to Words and not Characters!

Twirl up Animator 1, deselect it, then add a second Animator choosing Position. Click on Add (next to Animator 2) and choose Property>Rotation, and then click on it again and choose Selector>Wiggly. Twirl down the Wiggly Selector, and set Wiggles/Second to 0 and Correlation to 30%. Most importantly, set the Min Amount value to 0%, which means when we animate these characters with random values, they’ll only move in one direction: forward.

Click on the Animate option next to Text, and choose Enable Per-Character 3D, which activates multiple axes for Position and Rotation in the Animator. At 13 seconds, add a keyframe for Position and the X, Y, and Z Rotation values of Animator 2. Then, at 18 seconds, adjust the values as desired. Be sure to adjust the third Position value (Z axis) to a negative number, pulling the characters toward you. When done, select the four keyframes at 13 seconds and set them to Easy Ease Out.

As a final nod towards the “smoky” feel, go ahead click on Add again and choose the Property>Blur option to add it into Animator 2. Keyframe it across the same 13–18 second timeframe (including Easy Ease Out), starting at 0 and ending however blurred you wish to see it (85 in this example). Now as you scrub the Timeline from 8 to 18 seconds, you can see the “simple” animator bringing the words in separately, and the “detailed” animator randomly moving and spinning the letters towards the viewer and “smoking” them out in the process. Beautiful!

As an additional flourish to this piece, you could add a 3D camera (Layer>New>Camera—we used the 50mm Preset) to the scene and animate its z axis so it moves toward the middle from 13–19 seconds to make the letters fly “behind” the camera and offscreen (we set our Z axis to –200 at 19 seconds). At the same time, you could add an effect such as Turbulent Displace (Effect>Distort>Turbulent Displace) and animate it’s Amount over the same time period from 0 to 150, making the letters simply “wisp” away. Some very powerful type animation options, achieved using a handful of simple Text Animators. Enjoy!


  • jm says:

    I can’t find the Backdrop.tga file anywhere on that download page.

  • versa says:

    Amazing Steve! Thank you!

  • bubunyo says:

    cool iwant more of that

  • Sean Zana says:

    Where can I find the Backdrop.tga file? It wasn’t in the zip file download.

  • John says:

    Just found this site… Sure would be nice if there was a link provided to view a video of the final render.

    Bandwidth limitations, I suppose.

    Anyway, I guess I’ll just need to work through the tutorial and see what it looks like for myself…

    Great tutorial. Thanks!

  • John says:


    Oops. Just saw the link at the top of the article… D’oh!

  • mia says:

    I can’t find the Backdrop.tga, too. =(

  • sutcliffe says:

    thanks Steve,I`m fans of myour tutorials from TOTAL TRAINING and ARTBEATS tutorials,I hope you can give us more tutorials,greetings from PERU.

  • Web Editor says:

    Apologies to all who could not find the download for the backdrop file they were looking for.

    A link to the file is now included in Step 1 of the tutorial.

    Aaron Westgate
    Web Editor – Layers

  • Federico Scienza says:


    “Enable 3D per Character” is not available for AE 7.0, isn’t it?
    Do I need an upgrade? 🙂


  • A Online says:

    This is not very helpful to people who are new to this and trying very hard to learn.. trying throwing in keyboard shortcuts after phrases like “add a keyframe here and then” since some people have no idea HOW to add a keyframe.

  • informix(wuweidong) says:

    nice tutorial.thanks Steve.

  • Steve Holmes says:

    Hey all,

    Thanks for the great comments, glad you’re all enjoying the tutorials! A few quick answers below:

    There should be a download link for every tutorial which shows the final Quicktime render of the piece. I supply this to the Layers team every issue, so hopefully they are posting these.

    Per-character 3D is indeed not available in 7.0, it is very much time for an upgrade if you are not on CS yet…! 🙂

    And for folks who are a little frustrated at things like not knowing how to add keyframes, please bear in mind there is limited space in writing the content for these tutorials and so not every single click and function can be included – yet they are included in previous lessons if you had a little extra time to perhaps go back and view those too. I try to keep things as clear as possible, and try to reference things across different tutorials, so in some you WILL see how to create keyframes, and in others it will assume you now know how to. Usually, I have referenced adding a keyframe with the text “click the stopwatch next to (value) to add a keyframe” and then later in the same article, I’ll say add a new keyframe only, because the knowledge is already there.

    So, my apologies if some of these are tough for brand new users – but I would also say these tutorials are not for the absolutely-brand-new to After Effects. There are a thousand tutorials out there (including some of my older Total Training content) which show you the absolute basics and inner workings of After Effects in great, great detail… These Layers tutorials are shorter, compact and very subject-specific, and I try to deliver as much content and knowledge as possible.

    Anyway, please do let me know if something is never clear or explained well, or a shortcut or technique doesn’t make sense. I am here to share and help, and will gladly do whatever I can so everyone gets the most out of these tutorials.

    Thanks all, ciao!


  • lostmart says:

    Great tutorial, man !! You’re the one, and your explanation up there shows the size of a great man
    Thanks !!!

  • Steve Holmes says:

    Hi Lostmart,

    Thanks for the kind words, and great that you like the tutorial! Plenty more to come!!

    All the very best and thanks again,


  • Jess Milder says:

    Dude that is truly amazing! Thanks for sharing!


  • Steve Holmes says:

    You are more than welcome, Jess. Very glad to hear you liked it!

    All the best,


  • d says:

    i cant find the blur on step 4 next to animator 1. it doesnt give me that option. is there any other way to give that effect?

  • Steve Holmes says:

    The blur feature in the Animators was added back in (I believe, but might be wrong) After Effects CS3. So if you’re still running a version of AE less than that, you won’t find the Blur feature. The same should then apply to the Per-Character-3D, as that was added at the same time. So if you find yourself going through the next few steps, and can’t find the Per-Character-3D either, then I’m pretty sure you have an older version of AE and need to upgrade.

    By all means drop me a line with your version number and I can say more certainly.

    All the best,


  • Steve Holmes says:

    Oh, and if you don’t use (or get) character Blur, then you can use Gaussian or Fast Blur effects (under Effect > Blur), but those affect the entire line and not on a character-by-character basis… There are slightly more technical adjustment layer/blurring/masking techniques which can help achieve a similar result, but certainly take a lot of time and preparation.

  • edward says:

    what about project file ?

  • Steve Holmes says:

    Hi Edward,

    There is no project file to download for this – the steps of the tutorial give you the specs for the composition we set out with, and then from there to completion of the work.

    There is a link at the top of the page which will allow you to download the backdrop image I created for this.

    Hope this helps? Let me know if you have any more questions,


  • hamza says:

    Amazing ! Thank you!

  • Steve Holmes says:

    Any time, Hamza – thanks for the positive feedback 🙂

    If you’re interested in more cool stuff, our After Effects Podcast is going really strong. Free subscription, and 7 episodes already available:

    Hope you enjoy! More to come on Layers soon,


  • Spyros says:

    great tut Steve,

    but could u please upload a video tut

    i would appreciate than

  • Steve Holmes says:

    Hi Spyros,

    I’m sure everyone would appreciate these in video format, but sorry to say that the Layers tutorials are only in this online format and printed in the Layers magazine itself.

    However, you can visit the link 2 posts above for the After Effects Podcast that we have done, which now has 7 episodes, all video format… Hope you enjoy those too.

    All the best,


  • Petter says:

    Listen my friend and I have attempted to follow this three times but every time we get to step 6 with the Ellipse we get suck because we cannot find the Ellipse’s mask to make the smoke into a shape. Can you please explain to us what we are doing wrong?

    Thanks so much.

  • Steve Holmes says:

    Hi Petter,

    The Ellipse mask tool is in the same place as the Rectangular mask tool, in the Toolbar. If you look on the Toolbar in AE CS4, the third section along shows a rectangle tool, a pen tool, and the type tool. Click and hold on the Rectangle tool, and it’ll drop down with the other options, one of which is the Ellipse tool.

    Let me know this works out for you?


  • s Faizan says:

    mind blowing tutorial sf

  • Petter says:

    We have another issue with step 6.

    “Go back to the Selection tool, and in the Timeline click on the Eye icon next to Animator 1 to disable it. Double-click on the edge of the smoke mask, then drag it over the start of the text line. At 1 second, press Shift-Option-M (PC: Shift-Alt-M) to add a mask keyframe, scrub to 4 seconds, and drag the mask to the end of the text line. Be sure to Easy Ease In that second keyframe.”

    But we do this, and when we finsihed step 7 we watch and the smoke doesn’t move. It just stays in a circle at the end of the words, or at the beginning.

  • Henry Mbata A.K.A. The Jedi says:

    Hi Steve, thank ou for such an Amazing tutorial, you truly opened my eyes to key features of text in After Effects that I have simply never thought existed. Keep up with the good works, and I look forward to more great stuffs from you.

    Henry Mbata A.K.A. The Jedi
    3D Modeler, Animator, Visual effects artist and trainer

  • Tanmoy says:

    i like to see more like this

  • Klas Andersson says:

    Brilliant as always Mr Holmes!!

  • Adrienne says:

    Amazing!! Im a AE beginner and was able to follow this with no problems.

  • simoez says:

    wow i love it, am trying to add the same effects in my next short film..
    Thank you Steve

  • Steve Holmes says:

    You are more than welcome, Simoez – glad you enjoy the technique! Don’t forget to check out our Podcasts on After Effects:



  • newshopstyle says:

    its very good information thanks.

  • twana says:

    vere god

  • ujjaval says:

    thank you for hint

  • hey hey hey everyone, i’m really bored on the internet so you all should email moi if you are too, strike up a convo :). or possibly myspace, my name on there is brittany magyar

  • The intro effect isn’t very good, but the effect where the main title turns into smoke is great. Added with some real smoke footage I think it’ll be perfect for what I’m looking for. Thanks.

  • I also added a turbulence effect to this and it looks even better 🙂

  • Sylvester says:

    I’ve looked everywhere for the Walbaum typeface – it doesn’t appear to be at Veer anymore. Any suggestions/ideas of where I can get this font?