Element 3D – A Gateway Plugin

I’m a big fan of Adobe After Effects. Watching an expert create art within this software is pure joy (and I’m not meaning myself – I mean watching an actual expert!). Over the years I’ve picked up a bit of knowledge, simple practical stuff that I use every day as an editor (titles, motion graphics, object removal, and so on), and recently I’ve been training to pass my ‘expert’ exam in its use, so suddenly my knowledge has become a lot deeper and well rounded. I’m constantly finding new reasons to bounce a project from Premiere out to After Effects for a bit of polish, and I’m loving my clients’ reactions to the result.

One thing that After Effects has struggled with in the past is 3D. It used something called 2.5D, which basically means moving 2D planes about in 3D space. It’s OK, and it works, but sometimes you just want that third dimension, dammit!

Almost ten years ago a plug-in came along from Video Copilot called Element 3D. This allowed actual 3D extrusions and models to exist within After Effects, a genuine game changer at that point. I still use Element 3D almost every project, whether it’s adding some depth to a title, or even creating a full 3D cityscape flythrough for a dream sequence. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s reliable.

However, after almost ten years, it’s definitely showing its age. Between workarounds and idiosyncrasies, it’s fine for day to day use, but if you want to wander beyond its bounds then you’re stuffed. You can create interesting shapes and movement, but no actual modelling. Lighting your scene is a real pain, reflections are faked and just ‘good enough’, shadows are the same, and rendering liquids – forget about it. 

So I’ve been exploring three new pieces of software to allow me to scratch that itch. The first is a very popular modelling and animation program called Blender. It’s free (open source) and has a huge following. Learning how to use it is a matter of finding one of the many courses and teachers online that you like the style of and working through the lessons.

Through playing with Blender, I got the courage to give Unreal Engine a go. Unreal is also free, and in a lot of ways very similar to Blender. Its main purpose is to create video games, but it’s been hijacked recently into film production, specifically creating virtual sets behind actors in high budget productions such as The Mandalorian. The ability to use a real camera on set to control the virtual background behind the talent is so fascinating and exciting to me. I’m not anywhere near that stage, but understanding the possibilities of the program means should the need arise I know what is possible and the steps to take to get there. 

The third piece of software is actually built into After Effects, and brings me back to the point. Cinema 4D allows for the models and scenes from both Blender and Unreal to be brought back into After Effects and used in traditional effects work for video. Recent uses in my professional work of all these programs are things like 3D map animations with topography, some ‘invisible’ nature effects shots which allow for joining aerial shots with ground shots seamlessly, and some pretty snazzy motion graphics and titles.

I’m only at the beginning of this particular journey, but the more I use these programs the more possibilities I think of. There are so many ways to translate these into better visuals and videos for my clients and for my own projects – it’s going to be such a fun journey and who knows where it’ll take me.

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