The basic objects that you manipulate in After Effects are flat, two-dimensional (2D) layers. When you make a layer a 3D layer, the layer itself remains flat, but it gains additional properties: Position (z), Anchor Point (z), Scale (z), Orientation, X Rotation, Y Rotation, Z Rotation, and Material Options properties. Material Options properties specify how the layer interacts with light and shadows. Only 3D layers interact with shadows, lights, and cameras.
3D layers overview and resources
2D layers (left) and layers with 3D properties (right)
Any layer can be a 3D layer, except an audio-only layer. Individual characters within text layers can optionally be 3D sublayers, each with their own 3D properties. A text layer with Enable Per-character 3D selected behaves just like a precomposition that consists of a 3D layer for each character. All camera and light layers have 3D properties.
By default, layers are at a depth (z-axis position) of 0. In After Effects, the origin of the coordinate system is at the upper-left corner; x (width) increases from left to right, y (height) increases from top to bottom, and z (depth) increases from near to far. Some video and 3D applications use a coordinate system that is rotated 180 degrees around the x axis; in these systems, y increases from bottom to top, and z increases from far to near.
You can transform a 3D layer relative to the coordinate space of the composition, the coordinate space of the layer, or a custom space by selecting an axis mode.
You can add effects and masks to 3D layers, composite 3D layers with 2D layers, and create and animate camera and light layers to view or illuminate 3D layers from any angle. When rendering for final output, 3D layers are rendered from the perspective of the active camera. (See Create a camera layer and change camera settings.)
All effects are 2D, including effects that simulate 3D distortions. For example, viewing a layer with the Bulge effect from the side does not show a protrusion.
As with all masks, mask coordinates on a 3D layer are in the 2D coordinate space of the layer.
After Effects 7.0 and earlier included a Standard 3D rendering plug-in; this plug-in is not included with After Effects CS3 or later. In After Effects 6.0 and later, the default plug-in for rendering 3D layers has been the Advanced 3D rendering plug-in. When you open a project that was created with the Standard 3D rendering plug-in, the project is converted to use the Advanced 3D rendering plug-in. As third-party plug-ins become available, you can choose them from the Advanced section of the Composition Settings dialog box.
Alan Shisko provides a detailed video tutorial on his website, demonstrating how to create a complex 3D environment from 3D layers, beginning with simple 2D assets.
Chris and Trish Meyer provide an overview of the various kinds of 3D layers and 3D objects that you can work with in After Effects in a PDF excerpt from their book Creating Motion Graphics with After Effects (5th edition) on their website.
Trish and Chris Meyer provide a tutorial for using 3D layers, lights, and cameras in a PDF excerpt from their book After Effects Apprentice on the Focal Press website.
Chris and Trish Meyer provide a tutorial on the Artbeats website that demonstrates how to create 3D reflections.
Chris and Trish Meyer provide a demonstration of importing and using extruded 3D objects from Photoshop, including those created using the Repoussé feature in Photoshop. See “Repoussé in After Effects CS5” on the Lynda.com website. (See 3D object layers from Photoshop.)
Paul Tuersley provides a pair of scripts on the AE Enhancers forum for converting a composition based on a layered Photoshop file into a set of 3D layers.
Andrew Kramer provides a video tutorial on his Video Copilot website in which he demonstrates the creation of 3D reflections.
Andrew Kramer provides a video tutorial on his Video Copilot website in which he demonstrates the creation of a 3D room and the use of an animated camera and lights.
You can download an example project from the AE Enhancers forum that shows how to arrange several 3D layers in the shape of a sphere, control the layers with a null layer, and light them.
Several plug-ins add the ability to manipulate, warp, and extrude 3D shapes in After Effects. Rich Young provides information about Zaxwerks 3D Warps and Zaxwerks Invigorator PRO, two such products on his AE Portal blog.
Rob Schofield provides a custom effect (a multi-part, packaged animation preset) on the AETUTS+ website that distributes and animates 3D layers. This custom effect works especially well for animations that involve a large number of 3D layers dispersing or converging. In the video tutorial accompanying the custom effect, Rob explains the installation of custom effects.
By default when creating a new layer, After Effects places it at the top of the stack. It is possible to create new layers immediately above a selected layer, and have them trimmed to match the duration of the selected layer. See this link for the TurboLayers script by Animatika software, which does just that.
Convert 3D layers
When you convert a layer to 3D, a depth (z) value is added to its Position, Anchor Point, and Scale properties, and the layer gains Orientation, Y Rotation, X Rotation, and Material Options properties. The single Rotation property is renamed Z Rotation.
When you convert a 3D layer back to 2D, the Y Rotation, X Rotation, Orientation, and Material Options properties are removed, including all values, keyframes, and expressions. (These values cannot be restored by converting the layer back to a 3D layer.) The Anchor Point, Position, and Scale properties remain, along with their keyframes and expressions, but their z values are hidden and ignored.
Show or hide 3D axes and layer controls
- To show or hide 3D axes, camera and light wireframe icons, layer handles, and the point of interest, choose View > Show Layer Controls.
If the axis that you want to manipulate is difficult to see, try a different setting in the Select View Layout menu at the bottom of the Composition panel.
- To show or hide a set of persistent 3D reference axes, click the Grid And Guides Options button at the bottom of the Composition panel, and choose 3D Reference Axes.
Chris and Trish Meyer provide a video tutorial on the ProVideo Coalition website that demonstrates the use of the 3D axis layer controls.
Move a 3D layer
Chris and Trish Meyer provide a video tutorial on the ProVideo Coalition website that demonstrates the use of the 3D axis layer controls.
Rotate or orient a 3D layer
You can turn a 3D layer by changing its Orientation or Rotation values. In both cases, the layer turns around its anchor point. The Orientation and Rotation properties differ in how the layer moves when you animate them.
When you animate the Orientation property of a 3D layer, the layer turns as directly as possible to reach the specified orientation. When you animate any of the X, Y, or Z Rotation properties, the layer rotates along each individual axis according to the individual property values. In other words, Orientation values specify an angular destination, whereas Rotation values specify an angular route. Animate Rotation properties to make a layer turn multiple times.
Animating the Orientation property is often better for natural, smooth motion, whereas animating the Rotation properties provides more precise control.
- Drag the arrowhead of the 3D axis layer control corresponding to the axis around which you want to turn the layer.
- Drag a layer handle. Dragging a corner handle turns the layer around the z axis; dragging a left or right center handle turns the layer around the y axis; dragging a top or bottom handle turns the layer around the x axis.
Shift-drag to constrain your manipulations to 45-degree increments.
Axis modes specify on which set of axes a 3D layer is transformed. Choose a mode in the Tools panel.
World Axis mode
Aligns the axes to the absolute coordinates of the composition. Regardless of the rotations you perform on a layer, the axes always represent 3D space relative to the 3D world.
View Axis mode
Aligns the axes to the view you have selected. For example, suppose that a layer has been rotated and the view changed to a custom view; any subsequent transformation made to that layer while in View Axis mode happens along the axes corresponding to the direction from which you are looking at the layer.
The Camera tools always adjust along the local axes of the view, so the action of the Camera tools is not affected by the axis modes.
Angie Taylor explains 3D axis modes in this tutorial.
3D layer interactions, render order, and collapsed transformations
The positions of certain kinds of layers in the layer stacking order in the Timeline panel prevent groups of 3D layers from being processed together to determine intersections and shadows.
A shadow cast by a 3D layer does not affect a 2D layer or any layer that is on the other side of the 2D layer in the layer stacking order. Similarly, a 3D layer does not intersect with a 2D layer or any layer that is on the other side of the 2D layer in the layer stacking order. No such restriction exists for lights.
3D layers intersecting (left), and 3D layers prevented from intersecting by intervening 2D layer (right)
Just like 2D layers, other types of layers also prevent 3D layers on either side from intersecting or casting shadows on one another:
An adjustment layer
A 3D layer with a layer style applied
A 3D precomposition layer to which an effect, closed mask (with mask mode other than None), or track matte has been applied
A 3D precomposition layer without collapsed transformations
A precomposition with collapsed transformations (Collapse Transformations switch selected) does not interfere with the interaction of 3D layers on either side—as long as all of the layers in the precomposition are themselves 3D layers. Collapsing transformations exposes the 3D properties of the layers that compose the precomposition. Essentially, collapsing transformations in this case allows each 3D layer to be composited into the main composition individually, rather than creating a single 2D composite for the precomposition layer and compositing that into the main composition. The tradeoff is that this setting removes your ability to specify certain layer settings for the precomposition as a whole—such as blending mode, quality, and motion blur.
Shadows cast by continuously rasterized 3D layers (including text layers) are not affected by effects applied to that layer. If you want the shadow to show the results of the effect, then precompose the layer with the effect.
To ensure that the shadow remains where expected on a 3D layer with a track matte, precompose the 3D layer and the track matte layer together (but don’t collapse transformations), and then apply the shadow to the precomposition.
Effects on continuously rasterized vector layers with 3D properties are rendered in 2D and then projected onto the 3D layer. OpenGL rendering does not support this kind of projection, so results may differ when rendering using OpenGL. This projection does not occur for compositions with collapsed transformations.
3D object layers from Photoshop (CS5.5, and earlier)
Live Photoshop 3D support has been removed in After Effects CS6. The Convert to Live Photoshop 3D command in the Layer menu and layer context menu has also been removed. Existing projects that were converted appears with a missing effect.
For a video tutorial about using 3D object layers from Photoshop in After Effects, go to the Adobe website.
Chris and Trish Meyer provide a demonstration of importing and using extruded 3D objects from Photoshop, including those created using the Repoussé feature in Photoshop. See “Repoussé in After Effects CS5” on the Lynda.com website.
Adobe Photoshop Extended can import and manipulate 3D models (3D objects) in several popular formats, including the following:
.3ds (3ds Max)
.dae (Digital Asset Exchange, COLLADA)
.kmz (compressed Keyhole Markup Language format, Google Earth)
.obj (common 3D object format)
.u3d (Universal 3D)
Photoshop can also create 3D objects in basic, primitive shapes.
Photoshop places each 3D object on a separate layer. Within Photoshop, you can use the 3D tools to transform (move and scale) a 3D model, change the lighting, change camera angles and positions, and change render modes—for example, from solid to wireframe mode. You can also use Photoshop to modify, paint on, and replace textures for a 3D object.
You can bring these 3D object layers in PSD files from Photoshop into After Effects for compositing and animation.
When you import a PSD file into After Effects as a composition and that PSD file contains a 3D object layer, you can choose to make the layer a live Photoshop 3D layer. If you don’t choose the Live Photoshop 3D option when you import the file, you can convert the layer to a live Photoshop 3D layer in After Effects by choosing Layer > Convert To Live Photoshop 3D. When a layer is a live Photoshop 3D layer, it contains an instance of the Live Photoshop 3D effect. The Live Photoshop 3D effect on a layer renders the 3D object according to the active camera in the After Effects composition. The Live Photoshop 3D effect works like other effects with a Comp Camera attribute. (See Effects with a Comp Camera attribute.)
When a live Photoshop 3D layer is imported, After Effects creates a camera that matches the camera used in Photoshop. The camera created in After Effects is not animated, even if the camera for the 3D object in Photoshop is animated.
A 3D object and its camera may be animated within Photoshop. To make After Effects use the animation of the 3D object or camera from the PSD file, choose Use Photoshop Transform or Use Photoshop Camera in the effect properties in the Effect Controls panel for the Live Photoshop 3D effect for the layer. In general, you can create animations and camera moves with more flexibility and convenience within After Effects.
The live Photoshop 3D layer in After Effects contains several expressions, which are used to attach it to a null layer. Use the null layer to manipulate the live Photoshop 3D layer, rather than directly manipulating the live Photoshop 3D layer’s Transform properties.
To move selected layers so that their anchor points are at the center in the current view, choose Layer > Transform > Center In View or press Ctrl+Home (Windows) or Command+Home (Mac OS). This command is especially useful for bringing a 3D object layer into the appropriate part of a scene.
To reduce the amount of time that the 3D object requires to render for previews, change the layer’s image quality setting to Draft. With this setting, the Photoshop rendering engine built into After Effects creates a more simple rendered image from the 3D model. (See Layer switches and columns in the Timeline panel.)
To paint on the textures of the 3D object, modify its material options, change its lighting, or otherwise edit the 3D object itself, you must return to Photoshop. The most convenient way to edit the original PSD file is by opening it in Photoshop with the Edit Original command in After Effects. (See Edit footage in its original application.)
To edit the 3D model itself, you must use a 3D authoring program, not Photoshop or After Effects.
Lutz Albrecht provides tips on his blog for working with 3D object layers in Photoshop.