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Invisible VFX: How to Add Composite Trees and Foliage in After Effects

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Adding elements into a scene is a very common task in Adobe After Effects. In this lesson, we are going to dive into some compositing tips that will help you when you are adding in trees or foliage into a video clip—these techniques work for still images, too.

Composite image of a truck in the woods with extra treesComposite image of a truck in the woods with extra treesComposite image of a truck in the woods with extra trees

Director David Fincher often utilizes compositing like this in his projects. Here is a great breakdown showcasing the Invisible VFX that were used in his Netflix series Mindhunter.

How to Pick the Right Video Clips

First, you'll need to make sure you start with some quality video clips. In our case, this means clips of trees with an alpha channel. (An alpha channel video clip has a transparent layer included with it.) Here is a great example of a Birch Tree on Videohive.

Recording a video clip of a tree, isolated like this one, would be quite difficult. So more often than not, these assets will be computer generated. This is perfectly fine, and in some cases it is even better, because the clips are loopable. We just need the asset to look some-what realistic, and ideally our compositing skills will help sell the final shot to our audience.

Tracking or Static Shot?

It is much easier to composite elements on a static shot, mainly because you won't have to worry about perfecting the track for each element you add. The focus of this tutorial is on the effects that help with the final composite, so I'll be working with a static shot.

However, if you do decide to use a shot with movement, such as handheld, I highly recommend using the Camera Tracker in After Effects. I always get smoother results with the Camera Tracker, opposed to the Track Motion feature, and you can place each tree element at different depths in 3D space for your shot.

Compositing Effects to Use

Here is a list of the compositing tricks and effects I often use, and a brief description for the benefits of each one.

  • Interpret Footage: Use this to ensure your tree element frame rate matches your composition frame rate.
  • Lighting and Shadows: Be aware of the lighting and shadow direction in your footage, then place your elements into your shot accordingly.
  • Hue / Saturation: Use this effect to de-saturate your elements to look more realistic. You can also shift the colors to more closely match other elements in your scene.
  • Gaussian Blur: Use this effect to add a subtle blur on to your elements so that they match the softness of the footage shot on location. It also helps reduce aliasing.
  • Noise: Use this to add a subtle bit of natural looking grain onto your element.
  • Tint: Use this effect to select a dark color and a light color from the original shot, then dial up the tint to add a gradual amount of color atmosphere back on your element.
  • Camera Lens Blur: Use this effect to emulate shallow depth of field for elements that are located closer to the camera.

Differentiate Your Elements

When you are dealing with multiple copies of the same element, it is important to differentiate them so they don't all look identical. Here is a list of a few common tricks you can do.

  • Offset your elements on the timeline. This helps insure they are not all moving identically in the same manner, if they have any movement.
  • Adjust the scale of each element.
  • Mirror or flip your elements using the Flop After Effects preset.

Hopefully these compositing tips will help you on your future projects!

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