By Brady Betzel
For this review of one of most powerful plug-ins available for After Effects, I am testing Video Copilot’s Element 3D V.1.6.2, along with the Pro Shaders material library. If you are a current Element 3D user and haven’t upgraded from Element 3D 1.5 or earlier yet, do it now!
There are many significant additions, such as being able to generate a 3D position null object, replace model option, and even a scene relink option. You will also need After Effects CS3 or higher, including Creative Cloud, on either Mac or Windows. Be sure that you have a compatible system including the graphics card. You can check compatibility at https://www.videocopilot.net/assets/public/misc/GPUs.pdf
If you have been around the After Effects community for more than a few years, you have definitely run into reviews and tutorials on the heavy hitters of the After Effects plug-in world, such as Red Giant’s Trapcode Suite, GenArts Sapphire, and maybe even Copilot’s Optical Flares . All of which are amazing in their own right.
Element 3D is one of those After Effects plug-ins that is worth way more than just the $149.95 it costs. You can create beautiful 3D text in seconds, and have the ability to dolly and zoom around creating great depth-of-field effects — think of the opening titles from Fringe or even Star Trek: Into Darkness. Both of which where created by Andrew Kramer, the creator of Element 3D by the way. I’m not talking about 3D text that looks like you made it with Microsoft Word presets and somehow got it into After Effects either.
For a bunch of real-world examples and tutorials with Element 3D check out www.videocopilot.net/tutorials, you will be instantly hooked to Andrew Kramer’s tutorial style. He’s a little sarcastic, really fun, and always bursting with useful information for any level of After Effects user. He updates his blog on www.videocopilot.net regularly with mostly motion graphics related content, but sometimes some practical stuff too. Check out his latest and greatest tutorial on the “Grid”.
In addition to After Effects, I dabble in Cinema 4D from time to time and understand how difficult it is to create amazing looking titles quickly, export the multi-pass renders, import the multi-pass renders, adjust, and composite in After Effects. Even with Cineware, it still takes quite a bit of processing power and patience to properly light and render out a 3D title, let alone an entire scene. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Cinema 4D and Cineware’s options when you have more than 30 minutes to build something. But if you don’t, you need Element 3D.
Element 3D was originally created as a particle replicator plug-in for After Effects that just so happens to have an incredibly powerful animation, compositing, and material building interface. Element 3D is not a replacement for any 3D application like Cinema 4D, Maya, Blender, etc. It relies on an OpenGL renderer instead of the traditional per-pixel raytracing that is used in 3D applications. In layman’s terms, it sacrifices a little bit of realistic lighting for speed, and let me tell you the speed inside of Element 3D is amazing!
What it does
Let’s move on to what Element 3D can really do. As I’ve mentioned in many other reviews, I’m an editor who has become somewhat competent in After Effects. I can create titles, transitions, some motion graphics, and even a little compositing. With Element 3D I can make awesome looking elements, like extruded text with beautiful textures in under five minutes.
Here is how it works: open up After Effects, create a new composition, add a solid, add the Element 3D effect to the solid, create your new text and then tell Element 3D where to find that text. To tell it where to find the text go into the Element 3D effect that you added to your solid (which hopefully you renamed so that it’s easy to spot), go down to “Custom Layers > Custom Text and Masks > Path Layer,” select your text that you want to extrude and proceed to make it awesome in Element 3D by clicking “Scene Setup.”
Once inside Element 3D’s scene set-up you will see a fluid and responsive interface. You can resize and even move windows around fast. As long as you set the “Custom Text and Mask” to the text layer you can hit the Extrude button at the top and you should see your text with a stock greyish color in 3D space and lit with the default lights. From here you can use your mouse or tablet to zoom in (scroll wheel or map it on your Wacom tablet), adjust the lights (left click + drag), or even orbit around the text (click and drag).
You might be saying, well how do I make a title as good looking as the Fringe title? This is where the Pro Shaders library I mentioned earlier comes into play. When you buy Element 3D, a few 3D models come with it (Kramer sends out extra free models every so often as well, mainly themed ones like Valentine’s Day complete with balloons and hearts), and a set of 25 Bevel presets, which are great and can be infinitely customizable, especially with your own textures and bump maps (check out the help file if you are interested in custom textures; you can very easily add them to your Element 3D object). However, if you want to take your Element 3D objects or text to the next level you should invest in the Pro Shaders library. The Pro Shaders are a set of 200 highly detailed and seamless textures like glass, metal, plastic, and many more. My favorite is the gold scratches texture with a second bevel layer of the gummy texture. I usually change the diffuse color to customize my look a little, even bump up the illumination or reflection to add that finishing touch.
Once you set your textures you can then adjust the roundness of your bevel, the bevel depth, extrusion amount, bevel offsets from one another, and many more options. Finally, you hit ok and you are back in After Effects. You can either use the lighting from Element 3D or add your own lighting set-up and cameras. In no time, you will be flying around your text with just a few keyframes. If you want to add that extra touch of excellence, you can turn on the camera’s depth of field (which will add to your render time) or animate individual character’s offsets and make a breathtakingly opening title within minutes. Just watch Andrew Kramer’s tutorials and you will be sold.
In the end I have only touched the surface of the power behind Element 3D. It’s not just a text building plug-in, it can texture 3D objects, animate prefractured geometry from a 3D app, and even cook you breakfast. You can animate between two objects with only a couple of keyframes, turn on motion blur, and still have a relatively short render time (I’m talking under 10 minutes with Ambient Occlusion turned on! Sorry I get excited when talking Element 3D.).
If you have a basic understanding of After Effects and a little 3D knowledge, Element 3D really is as easy as I am saying it is. After watching Andrew Kramer’s great tutorials and reading the help file a few times I began to really see that this is one of the best plug-ins I’ve ever seen. What makes it so great is that it can be as easy or as detailed as you want. If you have some extra time, turn on the camera’s Depth-of-Field, Ambient Occlusion, Fog, or Glow, composite with other scene elements using the newly added World Position Pass, even create a flying jet using the newly released Jet Strike series of models. If you haven’t heard of the Jetstrike pack yet, Google “Video Copilot Jetstrike” right now, it’s mind boggling what Kramer has been able to accomplish inside of After Effects.
So what are the take-aways? Extremely powerful particle based After Effects plug-in; quickly create and texture amazing arrays of 3D objects and 3D text; and import and edit .OBJ and native Cinema 4D files outside of Cineware.
Brady Betzel is an editor at Bunim Murray Productions, a reality television production company. He is one of the editors on Bad Girls Club. His typical tools at work are Avid Symphony, Adobe After Effects CC, and Adobe Photoshop CC. You can email Brady at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter, @allbetzroff.