For a recent project, I was tasked with a designing a screensaver that had an ethereal pulsing background (like a less busy version of this video). It had to be 1 minute, loopable without any hiccups when it restarted, and also change color over the duration of the project. In researching how to accomplish this, nearly every resource I found pointed towards one tool: Particular.
Particular is an Adobe After Effects plugin made by Red Giant that gives the user tremendous power in designing and controlling particle systems. It can be used to create anything from the screensaver-type effects described above, to magic wand-esque flourishes (this video has a lot of great examples, though I doubt they used this tool), to a variety of other cool effects. One of my favorites was the ability to dissolve a text object into millions of floating particles similar to this version of the IMAX logo. As is usually the case in graphic design and video production, once I started looking for particle systems in every day media, I started seeing it everywhere.
I found the interface surprisingly intuitive with an incredible amount of depth. Particular includes a “Designer” window which allows you to build the effects from scratch or customize a pre-set template. Here, you can adjust the Emitter (where the particles originate from), the Particles themselves, and even an Auxiliary system where the particles generate their own particle systems. All of the effects can stack and interact with each other in very complex ways. Just be sure your computer’s processor is ready to deal with rendering thousands of uniquely animated objects!
Working with this tool, I frequently found myself thinking “wow, I didn’t know how easy it was to make something this sophisticated and cool.” While the plug-in usually sells for $399, an academic license is available for $199.