A Vortex Particle Method for Smoke, Water and Explosions
Industrial Light + Magic Ronald Fedkiw‡
Industrial Light + Magic
Figure 1: Vortex particles seeded at the inﬂow (left) create turbulence in water ﬂowing from left to right. The top and bottom show lower and
higher amounts of particle induced vorticity. (320 ×128 ×320 effective resolution octree grid, approximately 600 vortex particles)
Vorticity conﬁnement reintroduces the small scale detail lost when
using efﬁcient semi-Lagrangian schemes for simulating smoke and
ﬁre. However, it only ampliﬁes the existing vorticity, and thus can
be insufﬁcient for highly turbulent effects such as explosions or
rough water. We introduce a new hybrid technique that makes syn-
ergistic use of Lagrangian vortex particle methods and Eulerian grid
based methods to overcome the weaknesses of both. Our approach
uses vorticity conﬁnement itself to couple these two methods to-
gether. We demonstrate that this approach can generate highly tur-
bulent effects unachievable by standard grid based methods, and
show applications to smoke, water and explosion simulations.
CR Categories: I.3.5 [Computer Graphics]: Computational
Geometry and Object Modeling—Physically based modeling;
Keywords: vortex methods, ﬂuids, smoke, water, explosions
While the numerical simulation of ﬂuids is now common in the
special effects industry, highly turbulent phenomena such as explo-
sions remain challenging. It is difﬁcult to resolve these effects even
on the highest resolution grids using state of the art techniques. Re-
gardless, directors frequently desire these exciting and compelling
effects, and ﬁlming them practically is not always possible espe-
cially when complex camera motions (such as ﬂying through an
explosion) are required.
The recent popularity of computer graphic smoke simulation using
the three dimensional Navier-Stokes equations approximately be-
gan with [Foster and Metaxas 1997]. The practicality of this was
enhanced through the introduction of semi-Lagrangian advection
techniques in [Stam 1999] and vorticity conﬁnement in [Fedkiw
et al. 2001] (see also [Steinhoff and Underhill 1994]). Despite the
usefulness of this approach, some major drawbacks remain. For
example, a three dimensional computational grid requires a lot of
memory, so it can be difﬁcult to simulate large scale phenomena.
Also, vorticity conﬁnement can only amplify existing grid vorticity,
so if the resolution of the grid is not ﬁne enough to capture object
interaction, combusting fuel pockets, upwelling, etc., vorticity con-
ﬁnement cannot recover them.
[Losasso et al. 2004] simulated smoke and water on an octree grid
addressing the memory requirements to some degree, however it
can be difﬁcult to choose reﬁnement criteria that ensure adequate
grid resolution everywhere interesting ﬂow might develop. And
Figure 2: Time evolution of a smoke explosion enhanced with vortex particles seeded as the smoke undergoes expansion at the source.
(180 ×260 ×180 uniform grid, approximately 6000 vortex particles)
if the reﬁnement criteria are poor, small scale detail will never be
formed and vorticity conﬁnement cannot amplify it. [Rasmussen
et al. 2003] introduced a method for simulating large scale explo-
sions that avoids the high memory requirements of three dimen-
sional grids by simulating a series of two dimensional slices that
are placed in three dimensional space and used to deﬁne a wind
ﬁeld to advect particles. The technique produced impressive nu-
clear explosions, but is not as applicable to problems that have less
inherent symmetry. Moreover, interesting phenomena such as fuel
pocket combustion, etc. cannot be modeled in the free space be-
tween slices where interpolation is relied on to generate the velocity
Particle methods such as SPH (e.g. [Desbrun and Cani 1996; Hadap
and Magnenat-Thalmann 2001; Premoze et al. 2003; Muller et al.
2003]) avoid the memory requirements of a three dimensional grid,
but exhibit other difﬁculties such as the cost of ﬁnding the nearest
neighbors, complications involved with enforcing incompressibil-
ity, particle redistribution, etc. Another class of particle methods
are the vortex methods which are based on the curl of the Navier-
Stokes equations, i.e. the vorticity. This form of the equations
was solved with a fully grid based method in [Yaeger and Upson
1986], and a more typical particle based approach was considered
in [Gamito et al. 1995]. Neither of these approaches treated obsta-
cles and both were limited to two spatial dimensions. Particle based
vortex methods suffer from some of the same issues as SPH meth-
ods, see e.g. [Lindsay and Krasny 2001; Ploumhans et al. 2002],
and authors such as [Walther and Koumoutsakos 2001; Cottet and
Poncet 2003] have worked to alleviate a number of these with the
use of a background grid. Typically, the vorticity is mapped from
the particles to a background grid where a vector valued Poisson
equation is solved (this is only a scalar equation in two spatial di-
mensions as in [Gamito et al. 1995]), and the results are used to
calculate the velocity and incorporate the effects of vortex stretch-
ing before transferring the velocity ﬁeld back to the particles for
The advantage of vortex methods is that the particles carry the vor-
ticity, and its values can be preserved to compute inviscid, high
Reynolds number turbulent ﬂows, i.e. one avoids the grid based
damping artifacts that vorticity conﬁnement works to reduce. In ad-
dition, particle methods are optimal from a memory storage stand-
point for adaptively resolving a ﬂow ﬁeld. The major disadvan-
tages are in ﬁnding boundary conditions for the vector valued Pois-
son equation especially for moving and deforming solid objects,
dealing with particle redistribution techniques to adequately repre-
sent and resolve the ﬂow, and difﬁculties associated with the vortex
stretching term (that happens to be identically zero in two spatial
dimensions as in [Gamito et al. 1995]). Solving the standard veloc-
ity and pressure form of the Navier-Stokes equations alleviates all
of these difﬁculties at the cost of increased numerical dissipation.
[Drela and Murman 1987] and [Felici and Drela 1990] proposed
coupling these techniques together in two and three dimensions, re-
spectively, with what they referred to as “ad hoc” techniques. Some
of the problems with their coupling procedures were discussed in
[Felici and Drela 1993a; Felici and Drela 1993b].
We also propose solving both sets of equations, but in a more
fully hybridized manner. The grid based velocity obtained from
the Navier-Stokes equations is used to both advect the particles and
to spin them as dictated by the vortex stretching term, while vor-
ticity conﬁnement is used to convey vorticity information from the
particles to the grid. In particular, vorticity conﬁnement acts in a
manner that conserves the vorticity of the ﬂow, thus providing visu-
ally appealing results. We demonstrate the ability to generate very
turbulent effects that cannot be achieved with vorticity conﬁnement
2 Previous Work
Besides those works mentioned above, a number of authors simu-
lated the equations of ﬂuid dynamics (and variants) before [Foster
and Metaxas 1997], see e.g. [Kajiya and von Herzen 1984; Kass and
Miller 1990; Chen and Lobo 1994]. There have also been many
works since then, including the proposed hybridization of parti-
cle and grid based methods to simulate water [Foster and Fedkiw
2001; Enright et al. 2002], and augmentations of the equations to
model ﬁre [Lamorlette and Foster 2002; Nguyen et al. 2002], clouds
[Miyazaki et al. 2002], particle explosions [Feldman et al. 2003],
chemically reacting gases [Ihm et al. 2004], and viscoelastic ﬂu-
ids [Goktekin et al. 2004]. Other interesting work includes control
methodologies [Treuille et al. 2003; McNamara et al. 2004; Fattal
and Lischinski 2004], ﬂow on surfaces [Stam 2003], the use of ad-
vected radial basis functions for editing simulation results [Pighin
et al. 2004], and the use of the compressible version of the equa-
tions to simulate explosions [Neff and Fiume 1999; Yngve et al.
3 Grid Based Method
The incompressible Navier-Stokes equations can be written as
ut+ (u· ∇)u+∇p/ρ =µ∇2u+f(1)
∇ · u= 0 (2)
with velocity u= (u, v, w), pressure p, density ρ, and frepresent-
ing buoyancy, vorticity conﬁnement, etc. In particular, the vorticity
conﬁnement force is computed by taking the curl of the velocity
ﬁeld to obtain the vorticity ω=∇ × u, computing normalized
vorticity location vectors N=∇|ω|/|∇|ω||, and then applying a
force f=h(N×ω)scaled by the size of the grid hand a strength
parameter . We solve the inviscid (µ= 0) form of these equations
on either a uniform or octree grid as in [Fedkiw et al. 2001; Losasso
et al. 2004].
4 Vortex Particle Method
The Navier-Stokes equations can be put into vorticity form by tak-
ing the curl of equation 1 to obtain
ωt+ (u· ∇)ω−(ω· ∇)u=µ∇2ω+∇ × f(3)
where the velocity advection term has been split into a vorticity
advection term (u· ∇)ωand a vortex stretching term (ω· ∇)u.
Note that the pressure term vanishes for constant density ﬂuids.
Although these equations can be solved on a grid, particle based
methods have the distinct advantage of avoiding grid based numer-
ical dissipation that smears out the ﬂow making it appear more vis-
cous. In our implementation, each vortex particle stores a vorticity
value ωwhich includes both a magnitude and direction. A kernel
(we use a clamped Gaussian with compact support or a tent func-
tion) is used to deﬁne the vorticity in a region of space nearby the
particle. Given a collection of particles, the vorticity at a point is de-
ﬁned by summing the contributions from all nearby particles. The
ﬂow evolves as the particles move around and their vorticity values
change. For example, viscous ﬂow strongly dissipates large veloc-
ity gradients according to the µ∇2ωterm. This is typically imple-
mented with some sort of particle exchange method or with the aid
of a background grid. However, our goal in using particle based
methods is to eliminate dissipation, so we ignore this term solving
the inviscid form of the the equations similar to our approach to
solving equation 1.
The solution of equation 3 requires a velocity ﬁeld, which can be
determined from the vorticity values stored on the individual par-
ticles. This is typically a rather complex process. Even with the
aid of a background grid, one has to solve a vector valued Poisson
equation and deal with complicated boundary conditions. One of
the major beneﬁts of our approach is that this step can be avoided
entirely, as we instead use the velocity ﬁeld determined by solv-
ing equations 1 and 2 which only requires the solution of a sim-
ple scalar Poisson equation with straightforward boundary condi-
tions. Moreover, a standard vortex method needs to carefully place
particles to resolve the ﬂow. However, our technique does not re-
quire perfect distribution (and redistribution) of particles, because
the grid based method adequately resolves the ﬂow at least as well
as in [Fedkiw et.al. 2001]. Our vortex particles just provide in-
creased details where they happen to exist. Thus we did not need
to redistribute or reseed particles for any of our examples. This is a
major contribution of using the grid based solver to determine the
Given the velocity ﬁeld, u, determined via the grid based method,
trilinear interpolation is used to deﬁne a velocity for advecting each
particle. This accounts for the (u· ∇)ωterm in equation 3. We typ-
ically inject particles with random initial vorticity at a uniform rate
at a source, and let them passively advect through the ﬂow. How-
ever, particles could also be created on the ﬂy either nearobjects or
near concentrations of high vorticity, and given the initial vorticity
of the surrounding ﬂow. Another nice feature of our approach is that
Figure 3: Vortex particles interact with complex geometry creating
a turbulent water stream. (272 ×112 ×272 effective resolution
octree grid, approximately 800 vortex particles)
the grid based solver creates a velocity ﬁeld with proper boundary
conditions. And since the particles are advected with that velocity
ﬁeld, they tend to avoid interpenetration with obstacles. However,
if particles do enter solid geometry, we could delete them or project
them back out of the object using an object level set. Since we
use a high density of particles (typically thousands), either option
Besides advecting the particles, we need to consider the effects of
the vortex stretching term in equation 3. This is done by com-
puting the derivatives of the velocity ﬁeld on the grid with cen-
tral differences, trilinearly interpolating them to the particle loca-
tion, and then augmenting the vorticity on the particle with ω+=
∆t(ω· ∇)u. In isolation, this term can be thought of as an ordi-
nary differential equation (ODE) that changes both the magnitude
and direction of the particle’s vorticity. Unfortunately, the vorticity
magnitude can exponentially increase when the ODE has a positive
eigenvalue based on the ﬂuid velocity gradient. To ensure stabil-
ity one could clamp the magnitude, only allow it to decrease, etc.
However, since the goal of our particle based method is to preserve
vorticity concentration, we rescale the ﬁnal vorticity to preserve its
magnitude in all of our simulations. In that case, the effect of this
term is to spin the particle’s vorticity vector without affecting its
magnitude. This limits the numerical accuracy of the vortex parti-
cle method, but is consistent with our reliance on the the grid based
method to provide most of the bulk ﬂow features with the vortex
particles providing an extra level of detail via vorticity concentra-
tion preservation. Along the same lines, we completely ignore the
∇ × fterm noting that forces (such as buoyancy) still have inﬂu-
ence as they affect the velocity ﬁeld via equation 1.
5 Vorticity Forcing
Equation 3 can be rewritten in conservation form
t+∇ · (uωT−ωuT−µ(∇ω)T−f∗) = 0 (4)
where we have written the equations in row instead of column form,
and f∗is the skew symmetric cross product matrix based on f.
This equation demonstrates that vorticity should be conserved (nei-
ther created nor destroyed), highlighting one of the major problems
with the work of [Felici and Drela 1990]. They used an “ad hoc”
method to transmit the vorticity from the particles to the grid based
velocity ﬁeld that does not conserve the total vorticity of that ve-
locity ﬁeld, i.e. they change the values of the grid based velocity
without regard for vorticity conservation. We believe that vortic-
ity conservation is what leads to better quality, especially visual
quality. Without this, ﬂuid swirling, etc., seems to appear magi-
cally. Our key innovation is to use the force fin equation 1 to
drive the grid based velocity ﬁeld towards the desired vorticity. Al-
though equation 4 dictates that all body forces conserve vorticity,
the vorticity conﬁnement force is the only one we know of that can
introduce vorticity in the fashion required.
The simplest approach is to use the particles’ vorticity magnitude
only (ignoring direction) to deﬁne a spatially varying conﬁnement
strength , transferring the particles values of this parameter to the
grid with the distribution kernel mentioned above. This allows vor-
ticity conﬁnement to be activated independent of the existing grid
based vorticity, but ignores the directional component of the par-
ticle’s vorticity. Even this simple approach readily creates visually
rich phenomena difﬁcult to obtain with vorticity conﬁnement alone,
and we used it early on in a production pipeline to create many ex-
plosion effects for a feature ﬁlm, see Figure 4.
A promising technique is to form an analytic conﬁnement force in-
dependently for each particle. The distribution kernel, ξp(x−xp),
for a particle together with the particle vorticity, ωp, deﬁnes an an-
alytic vorticity ˜
ωp(x) = ξp(x−xp)ωp. Choosing a kernel that
is rotationally symmetric and strictly decreasing with distance from
the particle center implies that Np(x) = (xp−x)/kxp−xk,
and the conﬁnement force is then Fp(x) = p(Np×˜
ωp). We can
sum the contributions from all the particles to obtain a grid based
force ﬁeld for use in equation 1. This technique was used to gen-
erate Figures 1, 2 and 3. In addition, one can interpolate the grid
based vorticity to the particle location and reduce the strength of
the particle based force as the grid based vorticity approaches the
particle’s vorticity. Of course, in practice the grid is typically too
coarse for the grid vorticity to match the vorticity of all the parti-
cles. Alternatively, one could transfer the magnitude and direction
of the particle’s vorticity to the grid, and compare this to the exist-
ing grid based vorticity. The difference between these can be used
to calculate a vorticity conﬁnement force (replacing vorticity with
this difference in the formulas). However, we have not found these
last two options to be necessary.
Finally, we note that vorticity conﬁnement is rather robust for rea-
sonably well chosen parameter values, but can destroy a simula-
tion or cause instabilities if is set too high as shown in Figure
5. Since we use a vorticity conﬁnement style force to drive the
grid based vorticity towards the particle based vorticity, similar is-
sues arise in our method. However, as in standard vorticity con-
ﬁnement, a large range of parameter values seem to perform quite
nicely. Although one could limit our vorticity conﬁnement forces
as the grid based vorticity approaches the particle based vorticity
(as mentioned above), we have not found this necessary.
We implemented our method on both uniform and octree grids and
generated a variety of examples demonstrating its versatility. The
extra computational cost incurred by using vortex particles was
negligible (less than 5%). Most of our examples used a clamped
ξp(x−xp) = e−kx−xpk2/2r2
when kx−xpk ≤ r, and 0otherwise. In Figure 2, we seeded about
6000 particles during an initial divergence driven expansion lasting
Figure 4: Our method has been used in a production environment
to create large rolling explosions. (100 ×100 ×100 uniform grid,
approximately 400 vortex particles). Images c
Lucasﬁlm Ltd. &
TM. All rights reserved.
.5 seconds. Particles are seeded with random position while direc-
tions are placed tangent to the cylinder centered at the source re-
gion’s midpoint oriented upward. We use a radius extending about
4 grid cells (for octrees we compute the radius using the smallest
cells) and a particle vorticity of 2×10−3. Figure 1 demonstrates
that our technique also works well for liquids. Particles are seeded
randomly at the inﬂow with vorticity pointing up or down to cre-
ate toroidal eddies characteristic of rivers. To create larger vortices
the kernel radius is increased to cover 40 grid cells and the particle
vorticity magntiude is 1×10−2for the top ﬁgure and 5×10−2
for the bottom ﬁgure. Figure 3 depicts a stream illustrating that we
can handle complex geometries. The parameters are similar, except
that particles that enter geometry are deleted. Also, we used a 4
grid cell particle radius in order to model a larger scale scene. The
two images in Figure 4 show explosions generated for a recent fea-
ture ﬁlm. These examples used only particle vorticity magnitude
to affect in standard vorticity conﬁnement. About 200 particles
were used with a radius of about 3 grid cells in a 100 ×100 ×100
simulation, and we used a tent kernel.
In summary, our method could be viewed as a traditional grid based
Navier-Stokes solver with special forces added to obtain interesting
ﬂuid ﬂows. These forces are obtained via a particle based approach
to the vorticity formulation of the Navier-Stokes equations. Specif-
ically, the requirements of our method are to (1) use vorticity car-
rying particles to preserve vorticity concentrations, and (2) target
the grid based vorticity towards the particle based vorticity using a
vorticity conserving body force, based on the successful vorticity
Research supported in part by an ONR YIP award and a PECASE
award (ONR N00014-01-1-0620), a Packard Foundation Fellow-
ship, a Sloan Research Fellowship, ONR N00014-03-1-0071, ONR
= 0 =.25 =.5= 2
Figure 5: Simulations with varying vorticity conﬁnement illustrate
that too much conﬁnement causes artifacts and instabilities. In fact,
a large value of actually prevents the smoke from properly rising.
N00014-02-1-0720, NSF ITR-0121288, NSF DMS-0106694, NSF
ACI-0323866 and NSF IIS-0326388. Computing resources were
provided in part by Mike Houston, Christos Kozyrakis, Mark
Horowitz, Bill Dally and Vijay Pande. We would also like to thank
Cliff Plumer, Steve Sullivan, Willi Geiger and Industrial Light +
Magic for their support and enthusiasm.
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