How to Create Animated Steam in After Effects CC

After Effects November 25, 2018 5 min read

Turn your cold coffee into steaming hot coffee all inside of After Effects CC. No microwave required. You’ll also learn how to create the noisy texture you can see in the shadows of this animation. This tutorial will take you through a few basic principles in After Effects, including using null layers to control multiple layers at the same time. So let’s dive in!

How to Animate Cartoon Steam in After Effects

Part 1: Preparing the Design

Let’s take a look at the design before we get to any animations. You can use the following technique to apply a stylish, noisy texture to your Illustrator designs to add shadow to your object. 

Step 1: Prepare your Composition

  1. Import your design into After Effects from Illustrator. 
  2. Create a New Composition at 1920×1080 29.97. Give it a name, such as “Hot Coffee.”
  3. Bring the design layers into the new composition by copy and pasting. 
  4. Select Continually Rasterize for all the Illustrator layers.

Step 2: Add a Shadow Layer

Use the steps below to turn a black solid into a cool textured shadow.

  1. Create a new solid by going to Layer > New > Solid. Make it comp size, black, and give it a name like, “Shadow.”
  2. Duplicate the layer you want to have shadow, and place the black solid in between them.
  3. Change the shadow’s track matte to Alpha Matte.
  4. Select the Shadow Layer and draw a Mask where you want the shadow to be. Increase the Feather amount, but don’t worry about it being exact just yet.
  5. Switch the Blending Mode of the shadow to Dissolve
  6. Apply a Tint effect by going to Effect > Color Correction > Tint, and change the black value to whatever color you want it to be. This will contain the shadow’s visibility to the layer above it. You can tweak your shadow’s mask and feather further if you need to. 
  7. Repeat this process on different parts of the design until you’re happy with the results. 

Part 2: Animate the Steam

Once you’re happy with the composition of your scene, you can start animating the steam.

Step 1: Create the Steam Design

Create one object first, and then later on, you’ll learn how to duplicate it to replicate the effect.

  1. Create a new Shape layer by going to Layer > New > Shape Layer.
  2. Use the Add button to add a Rectangle and a Fill
  3. Change the Fill to a warm white
  4. Change the name of the Shape Layer to “Steam 1.” 
  5. In the Rectangle Path options change the roundness to 50

Step 2: Use Scale Keyframes to Animate the Object

This is a technique commonly used in plenty of After Effects projects. Play around with it until you get the results you’re happy with.

  1. Set a keyframe for the rectangle path’s size and position at frame 0. It’s important that you are keyframing the rectangle path’s size and position and not the layer’s scale and position. 
  2. Move the playhead to frame 45 (1:15) and scale up the rectangle path’s size to 350 only in X
  3. Move the playhead to frame 90 (3:00) and change the rectangle path’s size to 0, 50
  4. Then change the rectangle path’s X position so that the steam is drifting (whichever direction you like). 

Step 3: Duplicate the Steam Design

So you’ve got one steam cloud growing and drifting. Now you need to duplicate that so it looks like there is continuous rising steam.

  1. Duplicate the “Steam 1” Layer and pull up the duplicate’s keyframes by pressing U on the keyboard.
  2. Change the keyframe for the size at frame 45 and the X position keyframe at frame 90 to make this steam cloud unique. The key here is that you want them to separate from each other as they shrink to nothing. 

Step 4: Make the Animation Continuous

Use null layers to control several layers at once, and combine it with an expression to keep the steam flowing continuously.

  1. Create a new null by going to Layer > New > Null Object, and name it “Steam Control.” 
  2. Drag this to the stop of your Layer stack.
  3. Parent both steam layers to the “Steam Control” null. 
  4. Set a keyframe in position for the “Steam Control” layer at frame 0
  5. Move the playhead to frame 15 and change the Y position value to 90 pixels less, setting another kyframe.

Next, you’ll need to add an expression so the steam continues moving at the same pace. 

  1. Option (or ALT) click on the Position stopwatch to pull up the expression text bar. 
  2. Type in “loopOut(“continue”)” and click out of the expression text bar. This will keep the null moving at this pace for as long as it exists in the timeline. 
  3. Duplicate one of the steam layers and pull up the position of the new layer. Make sure you’re looking at the LAYER’s position and not the rectangle path’s. 
  4. Change the Y value of the duplicated steam layer (it should be “Steam 3”) to 90.
  5. Make this one a bit smaller and change the position slightly to differentiate it from the other two balls of steam. So now you should have two rows that both animate off.
  6. To offset this, move the playhead to frame 15 and drag Steam 3 to that point.
  7. Duplicate the first two rows of steam, pull the layers down to the bottom of the stack and amend the Positions and sizes.
  8. Offset these by an additional 15 frames, so they start at frame 30.
  9. Duplicate all the previous layers and move them down the stack, offsetting each row by an additional 15 frames in time and 90 pixels in Y Position.
  10. Drag all the handles back to frame 0.
  11. Precompose all the Steam Layers and the Steam Control null by going to Layer > Pre-compose. 
  12. Name the precomp “Steam” and hit OK

Now you can apply any effects and movements to all of those layers at once without having to go through each one in turn. Which is exactly what you can do next!

Step 3: Refining the Steam Animation

So now you should have nice looking steam clouds coming from your coffee mug, or whatever design you wanted to add this effect to. There are a few more things you can do to bring it to life even more.

  1. Apply a Gaussian Blur by going to Effect > Blur & Sharpen > Gaussian Blur. Add it to the Steam precomp and set the Blurriness to 20
  2. Then apply Levels by going to Effect > Color Correction > Levels. 
  3. Inside Levels, change the channel to Alpha and then bring in the left arrow and right arrows so they are close in the middle. 
  4. In your comp, you should see the blur going away as you do this. This is what gives you the “sticky” look. 
  5. If the speed of the steam is too fast or too slow for you, you can apply a Timewarp by going to Effect > Time > Timewarp. By default, it makes the footage half speed or a speed value set to 50, but you can adjust to taste. Just be sure to drag the Timewarp effect above the Blur and Levels

There you have it. Render that out and enjoy the gentle, stylishly animated steam in After Effects CC! One thing to note here is that this effect isn’t just relegated to steam. It can be used for smoke, clouds, or even splitting cells. So be creative and see what you can come up with!