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Creating an Old-Paper texture using Fractal Noise

COW Library : Adobe After Effects Tutorials : Chris Zwar : Creating an Old-Paper texture using Fractal Noise
Creating an Old-Paper texture using Fractal Noise
A CreativeCOW Adobe After Effects Tutorial

Creating an Old-Paper texture using Fractal Noise by Chris Zwar

Chris Zwar Chris Zwar
Motion Graphics Designer
London, England

©2006 Chris Zwar and All rights reserved.

Article Focus:
Previously, Chris Zwar penned an article we refer to as ''Everything you wanted to know about Fractal Noise but were afraid to ask,'' but in this article, Chris takes it a step further and demonstrates a real project: Creating an Old Paper texture using the Fractal Noise Effect.

Download project files here


The After Effects "Fractal Noise" plug-in is great for creating all sorts of textures and backgrounds.  In a related article I examine the Fractal Noise plug-in with a detailed explanation of what it is and how it works.  If you haven't read the article then I suggest you do so now, as this tutorial will be assuming you are familiar with the plug-in and its different settings.

While the article gives an overview of Fractal Noise and what it is, this tutorial will give you an idea of how I use the plug-in in real-life situations- specifically how I created an old-paper texture using the Fractal Noise effect.  You can think of the first article as an explanation, and this tutorial as a demonstration.

As well as the Fractal Noise plug-in, this tutorial also demonstrates another very important principle – a good result often requires many layers.  As you'll see, there isn't a magic preset within Fractal Noise that allows us to come up with a perfect result first time.  Instead, we build up the effect using a range of different layers and a combination of different settings.  There's a lot of trial-and-error involved, which is an accurate reflection of the creative process.

Overview, Research & Planning

This tutorial is based on a real-life project that needed an old-paper background.  In that case, the final project had 24 individual compositions and although I could have downloaded or purchased an old-paper texture, I'm pretty sure the viewer would've noticed if I'd used the same image for each of the 24 pages.  I was confident I could create an old-paper texture using Fractal Noise in After Effects, and I knew that by altering the "random seed" I could create as many individual pages as I needed.

The first step was to look at some old-paper and work out what its characteristics were - Google searches were very useful, especially Leonardo Da Vinci's work. 

After analyzing a wide variety of old papers, I noted some common features and decided on the attributes to give my old-paper texture:

  • the basic paper would be a gently mottled yellow/ brown colour
  • there would be a few large, darker patches
  • there would be little bits, or flecks, of dark brown or even black
  • there would be thin thread-like lines which look like coffee rings
  • the paper would be darker and more saturated around the edges

As we progress through the tutorial, we'll refer back to this list.

So with a plan in mind, let's begin work in After Effects.

Generating the texture in After Effects

I'm working in PAL D1 resolution, but this technique is scalable to any sized composition.

Begin by creating a new composition- I called it Old Paper.  I also set the Duration of the Composition to 1 second- this is explained later on.


Looking at the list above, the first step is to create a gently mottled look.  This will be the base layer of the effect, so create a new solid – ensuring you click on the "make comp size" button – and call it "Base Layer". 

The colour of the solid isn't important because the Fractal Noise plug-in will replace the layer contents.


The next step is to add the Fractal Noise effect.  If you've read the original article then you'll be familiar with the default cloudy image that fills the screen.

The default settings generate an image which is too complex to look like paper, so play around with the Brightness and Contrast settings to make the result more subtle.  You can try different Sub Scaling and Sub Influence settings too, but the defaults are pretty close.  As all we're trying to do is create a gently mottled pattern, the Brightness and Contrast settings will have the greatest influence on getting the end result.  For this layer, the default settings for the other categories are close enough to what we want, so we don't need to worry about different "Fractal Types" or "Noise Types".

After playing around, I'm using a Contrast of 15 and a Brightness of 4.  I experimented with the Sub Settings but they're not critical, although I ended up using a Sub Influence and a Sub Scaling value of 50.  Feel free to play around with the settings and adjust them to your taste but as I said above, this base layer will just be some subtle colour variations and there's no need to spend ages worrying about fine detail.

The next step is to add some colour.  The CC Toner effect is useful because it allows us to colourise the midtones while keeping the highlights white and the shadows black.  In this case, there aren't any full blacks or whites in the fractal noise so we'll end up with some lighter and darker shades of our Midtone colour- exactly what we want to simulate paper. 

I experimented with different colours, starting with yellows before settling on a desaturated beige.  If you're trying to create an old scroll or a Pirate Map, then you may want to begin with a much more "yellow" yellow.  Either way, because our fractal noise has such low contrast (and therefore no pure blacks or whites) you only have to set the "Midtone" colour, and by leaving the "Highlights" white and the "Shadows" black you'll get a subtle range of shades of your main colour.



So with a base layer of mottled beige, the next step is to add some larger dark splotches.  So create a new solid and call it Splotches:

This time we want some bigger and uneven patches rather than the regular cloudiness of our base layer. 

Apply the Fractal Noise effect, but this time increase the Contrast up to 200, and then decrease the Brightness to –50.  To make the patches a bit bigger, scale up the Fractal Noise to 150% (don't scale the layer! Scale up the fractal noise by using the Transform settings in the effect controls).  Finally, experiment with the Sub Scale and Sub Influence settings, and increase the Complexity to 8, which restores some of the fine detail we lose by scaling up the Noise.

These settings don't have to be exact, you can experiment and refine them if you wish.  I settled on them after a period of trial & error but I wasn't too fussy – as long as the overall shape is patchy we get more opportunity to tweak later.

Exactly like we did with our base layer, apply the CC Toner effect to add some colour.  I copied and pasted the CC Toner effect from the Base layer, with the intention of changing the colour once I could see both layers together.  Your composition should look something like this:

The layer we've just created has no transparency, so we can't see our base layer underneath.  What we want to do is make the black areas transparent so that only the splotches are visible, then we want to colour the splotches darker than our base layer.

An easy way to do this is to use the "Shift Channels" effect, and use the luminance of the layer as the Alpha Channel.  This means the lighter parts of the layer are more opaque, and the black areas are completely transparent- showing our base layer.


Apply the "Shift Channels" effect, which won't do anything to the image with its default values.  Because we already applied the CC Toner effect to the layer before we applied "Shift Channels", it's at the end of the list of effects we're using.  Click on the "Shift Channels" heading and drag it above the CC Toner effect.  This means we're colourising the layer after the transparency has been added.  In our example this won't really make much difference, but because the colour of a layer effects its luminance, if the CC Toner effect is before the Shift Channels effect then changing the colours may also change the luminance of the layer, meaning a small tweak of colour may make a bigger difference than intended to the end result.

Once you can see the Splotches over the base layer, you can tweak the colours in the CC Toner effect until you get something you like the look of.

Because I copied and pasted the CC Toner effect from the Base layer, I started with the same colour and just made it a bit darker.  I also used browns for the Highlights and Shadows too, although their influence is quite subtle.

Depending on what colours you choose for your CC Toner values, you'll see something similar to this:


This is close but the splotches are way too strong.  In the pieces of old-paper I'm using as a reference, the patchiness is very subtle.  So press "t" to display the opacity of the layer and lower it until the result looks more natural.


With the opacity at 35% the end result looks much better:


I'm happy with this for the moment, so lets move onto the next item on our list - small flecks of black or brown.


Create a new solid – I called mine "Chunky Bits" – and apply the Fractal Noise effect.

It's hard to describe the particular look we're trying to get, but this time the default settings aren't going to be close.  The closest I can come to describing the look I'm after is something similar to a Taco shell, where there are sometimes little bumps of brown while the Taco is mostly yellow.  The same goes for foods like pappadams & naan bread.

So as the default settings don't look promising, it's time to try out different "Fractal Types".  I have a look at the one called "Small Bumps" because it sounds promising, but the key is to try them all and see what they look like.

After playing around, I decide that the Fractal Noise effect needs some help to get the right look, because none of the different Fractal Types seem like they're coming close.

So we'll use an interesting technique and apply the "Find Edges" effect as well.



The Find Edges effect takes the Fractal Noise pattern and outlines shapes depending on contrast.  This gives us a completely new look, and although it doesn't look like much at the moment it's closer to the result we need.


Now we can get back to playing around with different settings until we come up with something usable.

Eventually – and it's important to stress that I've tried many options - the "smeary" effect gives us the following image:



This is pretty close to what we want, but there was no magic way of finding this result immediately, it was a matter of going through all the different "Fractal Types" to find something close, and refining the settings from there.  You can see how the Contrast and Brightness settings are very important in achieving the final result.

As with our Splotches layer, this layer has no transparency and so we can't see the layers under it.  While we could use the same technique as before- copy the layer's luminance into the alpha channel- we'll try something different.  This time, we want the white areas transparent and the dark areas to remain opaque, and we don't need to add colour to the layer.  So instead of adding an alpha channel, we can try different transfer modes instead.

Select the "Chunky Bits" layer in the timeline, and press shift + to cycle through all the transfer modes.  You‘ll see that some of them make the white areas effectively transparent, which is what we want, and the "Classic Colour Burn" is a pretty good look.

The "Classic Colour Burn" has given the chunky bits some colour too, which is nice, but they're far too sharp and distinct.  So we'll add a small amount of blur, and then adjust the opacity.

2 pixels of fast blur seems about right.



And with an opacity of 20% we get this:


This is now looking more like the sample of old-paper I was using as a reference, but looking at the list we began with we've still got a few things to do.

The next step is to add some stringy lines- think lots and lots of small coffee rings. Add a new solid and call it "Thin Stringy Lines", and apply the Fractal Noise effect.

Once again, cycle through the "Fractal Types" until we find one that looks like long thin lines.  In this case, it's the "Strings" setting:

This gives us a good starting point:


The strings we have aren't exactly long and thin, so play around with the settings to stretch them out a bit.  By using the Transform settings, we can scale the X-axis to 90% and the Y axis to 200%- you'll have to uncheck the "Uniform Scaling" option to allow you to give the Width and Height different settings.

Next, we'll do the same thing we did to the Splotches layer- we'll apply the "Shift Channels" plug-in, and set the Alpha Channel to "Luminance".


Now we can see our Strings over the other layers:


Once again we'll apply the CC Toner effect and find some nice brown colours to fit in.  It's worth noting that the "Highlights" value is set to a darker brown than the "Shadows" colour- we're effectively inverting the luminance of the layer using the CC Toner effect.  This isn't exactly groundbreaking but as I pointed out in the Fractal Noise article, you don't have to think of the greyscale fractal noise as a picture needing to be coloured- the different shades of grey are just instructions for what colour will be applied to them. 


The brown colours help, but the layer is too strong.  So we'll do exactly what we did with the "Chunky Bits" layer, and we'll lower the opacity and try different transfer modes.  Once again it's simply trying out different things to see what works best.

Select the "Thin Stringy lines" layer and press shift + to cycle through the options.  The "Vivid Light" setting works well at about 20 %


However, even after adjusting the opacity and transfer mode, the result doesn't look exactly real.  The strings are too even, regular and they look artificial. 

What we'll do is add some distortion to the layer.  We could add a displacement map (see Aharon Rabinowitz's tutorials here) but we'll use a shortcut- the "Turbulent Displace" effect.

The Turbulent Displace effect is also based on the same principles as fractal noise, and it gives a similar effect to using fractal noise as a displacement map.  So we could create fractal noise in a precomposition and use the Displacement Map effect, but the Turbulent Displace effect does basically the same thing.  For more information on Displacement Maps, I suggest you view Aharon's excellent tutorials.


It's worth noting that some of the controls look similar to those in the "Fractal Noise" plug-in, because the Turbulent Displace effect is using the principles of fractal noise internally. 


By experimenting with the settings, the stringy bits start to look much more natural.  Set the Amount to 120, the Size to 30, and the Complexity to 3 - or play around and find values you like the look of.

The Turbulent Displace effect breaks up the thin stringy lines nicely, and the end result is much closer to the piece of old-paper I'm using as a reference.

Like the Chunky Bits layer, add some blur (1 pixel of fast blur) and then adjust the opacity to suit.




The image we have is now pretty good, but it still isn't quite right

Although our thin stringy lines look OK, there's just too many of them and even with the Turbulent Displace effect, they're still a bit too regular and even.

The solution is to use another layer of fractal noise as a matte shape.  By creating a splotchy piece of fractal noise- similar to our "Splotchy" layer – we can use it to make some of the thin stringy lines transparent.

Create a new solid and call it "Stringy lines matte"



Add the Fractal Noise effect - we'll begin with the default settings, but basically we just want some big patches of black and white.


By reducing the Complexity to 3, boosting the Contrast to 400, and lowering the Brightness to –65 we get close.  But the splotches aren't big enough, so we'll use the Transform options to scale the noise up 200%.  We're not worried about fine detail so there's no need to tweak the Sub Settings.  We just want some patches of black and white like this:


We're not going to actually see this layer, we'll set it as a "Luma Matte" for our strings layer.  By doing this, the Stringy Lines will only show through where the bright areas are in our Matte shape.  All of the dark areas will be transparent, and because our fractal noise is all big and patchy this should break up our Thin Stringy lines nicely.

If you look at the Timeline, there is a heading called "Track Matte", and all of the layers are set to "None".  Click on the heading for the "Thin Stringy lines" layer and select "Luma Matte".  After Effects will automatically turn off the visibility of the matte layer, and now the transparency of the "Thin Stringy lines" layer is determined by the luminance of the "Stringy Lines Matte" layer.


Now that our Thin Stringy Lines are no longer covering the whole image, the result looks much better:



Looking at our list, we began with a list of 5 characteristics we wanted to use to create old-paper, and so far we've added 4.

The final step is to make the paper look darker and more saturated around the edges.

The easiest way to do this is to duplicate our base layer, tweak the colours, and mask it so it only shows the edges.

Select the "base layer" in the timeline and duplicate it (which is in the Edit menu, or press apple-D).

The duplicate layer will appear above the original base layer.  Drag it to the top of the composition in the Timeline.  Then select the oval-mask tool from the tool palette and draw a big oval mask over the entire layer.  Initially, the mask will only show the middle of the layer and mask out the edges, but we want it the other way around.  So press "m" to reveal the mask settings in the timeline, and change the Mask Shape to "Subtract".


Because we've duplicated the Base layer, you won't see much yet because it all looks pretty much the same.


The next step is to adjust the colours of the top layer.  We'll use a combination of the "Levels" and the "Hue Saturation" effects to darken the layer.  We could go back and tweak all of the Fractal Noise settings, and try new colours in the CC Toner effect, but it's basically quicker and easier to start with what we've got and alter it with Levels and "Hue Saturation".

Beginning with the "Levels" effect, lower the "Gamma" to around .8  then bring the "Input Black" up to about 45. Bring the "Input white" down to 245 or whatever you think looks good- basically we want the outside to look darker and more contrasty.

Add the "Hue Saturation" effect and increase the "Saturation" to 15 to make the colours stronger. Adjust the "Hue" to make the edges a little more brown- with the beige colour I'm using that means about –10, but this will vary depending on the exactly hue you have chosen.



Now that our edges are suitably darker, we'll try to make the oval mask less severe.


We could simply feather the mask, to gradually blend the top layer in, but we'll apply the "Roughen  Edges" effect too as it's another plug-in which uses the same principles of fractal noise.


The default settings are pretty mild, but you can see how the smooth mask edges have been roughed up a bit.  Some of the "Edge Type" options in "Roughen Edges" allow us to specify a colour, which will add more detail and complexity to our image.  Try them all and see what you like, but I chose the "Rusty Colour" setting and changed the colour to a reddy-brown.

Once again, it's worth noting that several of the controls in the "Roughen Edges" effect are the same as in "Fractal Noise" – because the "Roughen Edges" effect is also using the principles of fractal noise internally.

To give the rough edges some fine detail, increase the "Complexity" to 3 and set the "Scale" to 50%.  To make the "Edge Colour" more visible, set the "Edge Sharpness" to .5  Finally, set the Border to 5.

The mask border in the main window is still a little strong, so press "f" to reveal the "Mask Feather" settings, and set it to about 90.

While this is getting close, we can (once again…) experiment with different transfer modes to see what they look like.  Rather than just have our rough, dark and saturated layer sitting on top of our other layers, we should be able to find a transfer mode which makes them look more integrated and natural.  It's simply a matter of trying them all and deciding what looks best.  Hopefully by now you've learnt the keyboard shortcut, which is Shift +. 

I went for the "Colour Burn" mode and set the opacity to 12%.

At this stage we've worked our way down the list we started with, and we've added all the features we wanted to.

But there's still room for tweaking and improvement.  Because I mentioned Tacos before I'll use another food analogy: we've prepared all of our ingredients and mixed them together.  Now, we taste the result and season with some salt and pepper.


Because all our different features are on different layers, we can easily adjust layer opacities and transfer modes, and instantly see the result.

With the settings I've used so far I think that the overall colour and contrast needs to be adjusted.

Because I want to adjust everything at once, and not just one single layer, I'll use an "Adjustment Layer".  Any effects applied to the Adjustment Layer will effect all layers under it, so we can use the one layer to adjust all of the layers in our composition simultaneously.


Apply the "Levels" and the "Hue Saturation" effect to the Adjustment Layer.

Tweak the Levels settings so the paper has a little more contrast (raise the "Input Black" and lower the Gamma).  The adjust the Saturation and Hue to taste.

Finally, just to add a bit more texture, apply the "Noise" plug-in and set it to 5%, then uncheck the "use colour noise" option, so the noise only effects the brightness of the paper.  This helps the paper look less "flat".


After all of that, I'm satisfied with the final result.  But there's one more thing.

This is a single image, and in my real-life project I needed 24 different "sheets" of paper.  So the final thing to do is to set the project up to supply us with as many sheets as we want.

Because we're using the "Fractal Noise" plug-in, we can simply alter the "Random Seed", which is the starting point that determines what the fractal noise will look like.  This is quite different from animating the "Evolution", which smoothly interpolates random noise values.

All we have to do is set a keyframe for the "Random Seed" at the start of the timeline, and then increase the value for each frame.  Because I'm working in PAL, there are 25 frames in a second.  At the beginning of the project I set the Composition length to 1 second, so I could render out 25 different pieces of paper.

Select the "Base Layer" at the bottom of the Timeline- the first layer we created.  Open up the effects palette and click on the stop-watch icon for the "Random Seed" value, which is currently 0.  This enables animation and sets a keyframe in the Timeline. 

Now press "End" to go to the last frame of the timeline- which is frame number 25.  Enter the value of 25 for the Random seed.  If you press "u", the timeline will display the keyframes you have just created.

Our base layer now has a new random seed for each frame, and so each frame in the timeline will look quite different.  All we have to do is copy and paste those keyframes to our other layers, so they all change together.

Press "Home" to return to the first frame of the composition, and then click on the "Random Seed" heading in the timeline.  This will automatically select both the keyframes.  Copy them by either choosing "Copy" from the Edit menu or by pressing Apple-C.  Then select each layer in the timeline and paste the keyframes, by choosing "Paste" from the Edit menu or by pressing Apple-V. 

You don't need to paste the keyframes into the Adjustment layer because it doesn't have the Fractal Noise effect applied to it.

If you press "u" again, you can see all of the keyframes you have created.

The Composition is now set up to render out 25 different versions of our Old Paper texture- all you have to do is select "Make Movie" and use an image sequence as the Output Module.

While this tutorial has primarily used the "Fractal Noise" plug-in, it has also demonstrated the importance of using several layers to introduce different features into the final image.  Hopefully, it has also demonstrated the use of trial-and-error, and encourages you to play around with different settings to suit your own personal tastes.

If you want to create more complex paper textures, simply add more layers with different features.  In my original project, I also used a greyscale paper texture and the "Texturise" plug-in on all layers, to help the final result look a little less flat.  But there's still plenty of different looks you can achieve just by tweaking the opacities of each layer, and the transfer mode, and they key is to experiment.


Chris Zwar

did you miss Chris Zwar's Fractal Noise article? Click here to find it. This article assumes that you know the principles explained in that article.

Feel free to discuss this technique in the After Effects forum at

If you found this page from a direct link, please visit our forums or read other articles at

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