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How can I make a heat distortion effect, like you might see around the exhaust of a jet engine?

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    $\begingroup$ I think this was the 5000th question :D $\endgroup$ – gandalf3 Oct 29 '14 at 22:41
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Simulation

Unfortunately since it's not yet possible to vary the IOR inside an object, it can't be simulated completely.

However, you can at least use a smoke simulation to distort things based on simulated airflow.

  1. Create a fire simulation where the hot air should be. It doesn't have to be very high resolution:

    enter image description here

  2. Move the domain to an empty layer (e.g. layer 2), then setup a material for it with some random noise:

    enter image description here

    This will result in something like this, which we can use to distort the rest of the scene:

  3. Create a new renderlayer and set it to mask the layer the main scene. Also set the main scene renderlayer to exclude the smoke:

    enter image description here enter image description here

    Note that I set the number of samples taken for the smoke render layer to 1, and disabled the main passes (using only the emission pass).

  4. Then setup the composite nodes:

    enter image description here

Result:

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