A coworker was showing me a cool tutorial where she needed to create a space nebula using an After Effects plugin called Particular. Now, I've admired Particular for some time now, but I can't manage to spend the $400 personally. So last night I got thinking about how to animate a nebula without the expensive plugin and this is what I came up with. Here is what you need to pull this off: A nebula photo from hubblesite.org; And I opted to use a not-free-but-relatively inexpensive optical flair plugin from Video Copilot.
The key to the animation has almost nothing to do with the 2D photo of the nebula. I am using AEs "Particle World" with no gravity to create "space dust" which gives a sense of dimensional movement. Then I created a basic camera and animated it forward and then to the side just slightly. This gets you 90% of the way there. Next up I added the displacement map plugin to the nebula art. If you set the horizontal and vertical displacement to luminance then when you keyframe the "max" values, it warps the photo and subtly makes it look like 3D (just a tiny bit). At the end it looks like you are flying INTO the nebula a little bit. Finally, I added a couple lens flairs. First a classic flair which allowed me to imply rotation by animating the angle of the flair. And then a second flair that creates a light streak in the first flair to imply an intense reposition and reveal of a light source. I did add music just so you were not looking at a simple animation, and I do think it adds to the scene a tiny bit. It's just license free music purchased from Amazon.