Creating truly three-dimensional shapes in After Effects was always a task with no perfect, fast and convenient solution. With CS6 we now have the option to extrude vector shapes. But there’s a better way to create awesome 3D. About time!
There are many different ways of creating 3D shapes in After Effects. The first think that comes to mind is simply duplicating layers. That is still a good technique on a fast enough machine, however (as with all semi solutions) it has it’s limitations, out of which no true depth is the most annoying one. Then there’s the old-school trick with the Shatter effect, and my very own CE Shape Extruder, not to mention many different plugins. You can learn about the mentioned techniques in the CE Shape Extruder tutorial. All of them are still valid and good solutions for different situations.
With the release of Creative Suite 6 we have now gained a new Ray-Traced rendering engine in After Effects, that allows us to truly extrude Shape and Text layers, which is awesome, however in order for it to be efficient enough not to slow down our workflow it requires a decent graphics card. It can of course run on the CPU, but that is just too slow no matter how fast your machine is. From “under the hood” point of view, the ray-traced rendering engine (codename: Optix) is basically Mental Ray ported to the GPU.
Many 3rd party plugins have been released over the years (like Zaxwerks ProAnimator) to address the need of creating 3D objects in After Effects, one of which is now gaining a lot of popularity, since it also is GPU Accelerated and it allows for importing 3D objects from other applications. I’m talking of course about Element 3D by Video Copilot. Even though all these plugins are fantastic, they too have their limitations.
The plugin I’d like to introduce you to in this tutorial is ShapeShifter by Mettle, and… you’ve guest it… it has it’s limitations as well, however it suits my needs 90% of the time. First of all it also is GPU accelerated, and I found that it runs way better even on lower-end cards than any other solution mentioned in this article. Not only that, but you can model your 3D shapes and even morph between them without any 3D modeling skills. You can just simply use your already existing 2D skills to create beautiful 3D graphics right inside of After Effects. As you know from my tutorials that is a BIG thing for me – being able to stay in one application as long as possible. That way if I need to make a change I don’t have to re-open, re-edit, re-save, re-import and replace my already existing files and layers. Even though it does not allow for importing 3D objects it has one very powerful feature that none of the mentioned solutions can give you – displacement maps, which are the core idea behind ShapeShifter. You may be familiar with this concept from plugins like Trapcode Form, Particular or Mir. Basically they allow you to displace pixels in Z-Space using pixel values from another layer or composition. This means you can use any footage, or easily create your shapes inside After Effects and even animate them to create cool looking 3D graphics with smooth surfaces.
If I would have to make just one pick, just one solution that would allow me to quickly create 3D text and logo design, would be editable inside After Effects, had GPU acceleration for fast rendering and worked with After Effects lights and cameras – ShapeShifter would be it, because that’s what I mostly do. If it would only allow for importing 3D objects I would probably never need anything else. Who knows… Maybe in the next release.