Most of the 3D and compositing packages offer some sort of a particle systems toolset. They usually come with a nice set of examples and demos showing all the stunning things you can do within the product. However, the way to really judge its capabilities is often not by the things the software can do, but rather by the things it can not. And since the practice shows it might be not so easy to think of all the things one might be missing in a real production at a time, I have put together this checklist.
Flexible enough software allows for quite complex effects
like this spiral galaxy, created with particles alone.
Even if some possibilities are not obvious out of the box, you can usually make particles do pretty much everything with the aid of scripting or utilizing some application-specific techniques. It often requires adjusting the way of thinking to a particular tool's paradigms, and I personally find acquaintance with different existing products of a big help here. Thus in case you have already made up your mind on a choice of specific program, you might still find the following list useful as a set of exercises – figuring out how to achieve the described functionality within your app.
The first question would be if it is a two- or three-dimensional system or does it allow for both modes? A 2D-only solution is going to be limited by definition, however it can possess some unique speed optimizations and convenient features like per-particle blurring control, extended support for blending modes and utilizing data directly from images to control the particles. The ability to dial in the existing 3D camera motion is quite important in the real production environment.
In general, it is all about control. The more control over every thinkable aspect of a particle's life you have – the better. And it is never enough, since the tasks at hand are typically custom by their very nature. One distinctive aspect of this control is the data flow. How much data can be transferred into the particle system from the outside, passed along inside and output back in the very end? Which particles' properties can it affect? We want it all.
The quest for control also means that if the system doesn't have some kind of a modular arrangement (like nodes for instance), it is likely to be limited in functionality.
Examples of particle nodes in Houdini (above) and Fusion (below)
Following the good old-fashioned tradition of starting at the beginning, let's start with the particle emission.
What are the predefined emitter types and shapes and, most importantly, does it allow for user-defined emitter shapes? You can only get that far without the custom sources – input geometry or image data increase the system's flexibility enormously. Emitting from custom volumes allows for great possibilities as well. What about emission from animated objects? Can emitter's velocity and deformations data be transferred to the particles being born? For the geometry input, particle birth should be possible from both the surface and the enclosed volume of the input mesh, and then we'd often want some way of restricting it to the certain areas only. Therefore to achieve the real control, texture information needs to be taken into account as well.
Geometry normally allows for cruder control compared to image data, so we want all kinds of particles' properties (amount, size, initial velocity, age, mass, etc.) to be controllable through texture data, using as much of the texture image's channels as possible. For instance, you might want to set the initial particles' direction with vectors stored in RGB channels of an image, and use Alpha or any other custom channel to control its size, as well as use emitter's texture to assign groups to particles for further manipulation. The same applies to driving particles' properties with different volumetric channels (density, velocity, heat) or dialing an image directly into the 2D particle system as a source.
Does your system allow to create custom particles' attributes and assign their values from a source's texture?
The look options
Now consider the options available for the look of each individual particle. Both instancing custom geometry and sprites are a must for a full-featured 3D particle system*. And there is no need to say that animation should be supported for both. Are there any additional special types of particles available which allow for speed benefits or additional techniques? One example of such a technique would be the single-pixel particles which can be highly optimized and thus available in huge amounts (like in Eyeon Fusion for instance), allowing for the whole set of quite unique looks.
*Rendering a static particle system as strands for representing hair or grass is yet another possible technique which some software might offer.
An effect created with millions of single-pixel particles
Another good example are metaballs – while each one merely being a blob on its own, when instanced over a particle system (especially if the particles can control their individual sizes and weights) metaballs can become a powerful effects and modeling tool.
A particle system driving the metaballs
Whether using sprites or geometry, getting the real power requires versatile control over the timing and randomization of these elements. Can element's animation be offset for every individual particle to start when it gets born? Can a random frame of the input sequence be picked for each particle? Can this frame be chosen based on the particle's attributes? Can input sprite's or geometry animation be stretched to the particle's lifetime? (So that if you have a clip with a balloon growing out of nowhere and eventually blowing up, you could match it to every particle in a way, that no matter how long does a particle live, the balloon's appearing would coincide with its birth, and the blowing up would exactly match its death.)
With a good level of randomization and timing management, animated sprites/meshes are quite powerful in creating many effects like fire and crowds.
Rotation and spin
And the last set of controls which we're going to touch upon in this first part are rotation and spin options. Although “always face camera” mode is very useful and important, it is also important to have an option to exchange it for a full set of 3D rotations, even for the flat image instances like sprites (think small tree leaves, snowflakes or playing cards). A frequently required task is to have the elements oriented along their motion paths (in shooting arrows for example). And of course having an easy way to add randomness and spin, or to drive those through textures/other particles' attributes is of high value.
Next time we'll look further at the toolset required to efficiently drive particles later in their lives.
Now we're taking a look into the further life of a particle. The key concept and requirement stays the same: maximum control over all thinkable parameters and undisrupted data flow through a particle's life and between the different components of the system.
The first question I would ask after the emission is how many particles' properties can be controlled along and with their age. Color and size are a must, but it is also important for the age to be able to influence on any other arbitrary parameter, and in a non-linear fashion (like plotting an age-to-parameter dependency graph with a custom curve). For example, when doing a dust-cloud with sprites you might want to be increasing their size while decreasing opacity towards the very end of a lifetime.
Can custom events be triggered at the certain points of a particle's lifetime? Can the age data be transferred further to those events?
Spawning (emitting new particles from the existing ones) is the key functionality for a particle system. Its numerous applications include changing the look of a particle based on events like collisions or parameters like age, creating different kinds of bursts and explosions and creating all sorts of trails. Classical fireworks effect is a good example where spawning functionality is used in at least two ways: it creates the trails by generating new elements behind the leading ones, plus produces the explosion by generating new leads from the old ones at a desired moment.
In a fireworks effect spawning is used to create both the trails and the explosion
Just like with the initial emission discussed the last time, it is paramount to be able to transfer as much data as possible from the old particles to the new ones. Velocity, shape, color, age and all the custom properties should be both easily inheritable if required; or possible to set from scratch as an option.
The last but not least spawning option to name is the recursion. A good software solution provides user with the ability to choose whether to use newly spawned elements as a base for spawning in each next time-step (to spawn recursively) or not. Although a powerful technique, recursive spawning can quickly get out of hand as the number of elements keep growing exponentially.
Forces are a standard way of driving the motion in a particle system. The default set of directional, point, rotational, turbulent and drag forces aside*, it is important to have an easily controllable custom force functionality with a visual control over its shape. Ability to use arbitrary 3D-objects or images as forces comes very handy here.
*An often overlooked drag (sometimes called friction) force plays a very important role as it counteracts the other forces, not letting them get out of control through overgrowing.
Forces raise the next question – how much can the system be driven by physical simulations? Does it support collisions? What are the supported types of collision objects then, the options for post-collision behavior and how much data can a particle exchange in a collision with the rest of the scene?
Can further physical phenomena like smoke/combustion or fluid behavior be simulated within the particle system? Can this kind of simulation data be dialed into the system from the outside? One efficient technique, for instance, is to drive the particles with the results of a low-resolution volumetric simulation, using them to increase its detalization.
The particle effect above uses the low-resolution
smoke simulation shown below as the custom force
The next things commonly required for directing particles are the follow path and find target functionality. Support for the animated paths/targets is of value here, just as the ability to compel reaching the goal within the certain timeframe.
Many interesting effects can be achieved if the particles have some awareness of each other (like knowing who is the nearest neighbor). Forces like flocking can be used to simulate the collective behavior then.
Limiting the effect
For any force or event (including spawning) which may be added to the flow, let's now consider the limiting options. What are the ways to restrict the effect of each particular operator? Can it be restricted to a certain area only? A certain lifespan? Can it be limited with a custom criteria like mathematical expressions, arbitrary particle properties or a certain probability factor? How much is the user control over the active area for each operator – custom shapes, textures, geometry, volumes? Is there a grouping workflow?
Groups provide a powerful technique of particles' control. The concept implies that at the creation point or further down the life of a particle it can be assigned to some group, and then each single effect can be simply limited to operate on the chosen groups only. For efficient work all the limiting options just discussed should be available as criteria for groups assignment. Plus the groups themselves should be a subject to logic operations (like subtraction or intersection), should not be limited in number or (limited) to contain some particle exclusively. For example, you might want to group some particles based on speed, others based on age and then create yet another group: an intersection of the first two.
The last set of questions I would suggest might have less connection with the direct capabilities of a given system, and still they can make a huge difference in a real deadline-driven production.
What are the maximum amounts of particles which the system can manage interactively and render? Are there optimizations for the certain types of elements? What kind of data can be output from the particle system for further manipulation? Can the results be used for meshing into geometry later or in another software package for example? Can a particle system deform or affect in any other way the rest of the scene? Can it be used to drive another particle system?
Can the results of a particle simulation be cached to disk or memory? Can it be played backwards (is scrubbing back-and-forth across the timeline allowed)? Are there options for a prerun before the first frame of the scene?
Does the system provide good visual aids for working interactively in the viewport? Can individual particles be manually selected and manipulated? This last question might often be a game-changer, when after days of building the setup and simulating everything works except for few stray particles, which no one would really miss.
Aside from the presence of variation/randomization options which should be available for the maximum number of parameters in the system, how stable and controllable is the randomization? If you reseed one parameter – will the rest of the simulation stay unaffected and preserve its look? How predictable and stable is the particle solver in general? Can the particle flow be split into, or merged together from several?
And as the closing point in this list for evaluating the particular software solution, it is worth considering the quality and accessibility of documentation together with the amount of available presets/samples and the size of a user-base. Trying to dig through a really complex system like Houdini or Thinking Particles would be quite daunting without those.