360 video is one of the hottest trends in media, and it’s become easier than you might think to create your own virtual content. Let’s take a look at how it’s done with Mettle’s Skybox Studio plugin for After Effects.

360 video is exploding into widespread popularity, with everyone from Virtual Reality enthusiasts to the average smart phone user enjoying the new possibilities of the new technology. The idea of producing 360 video content may seem daunting, but thanks to many dedicated enthusiasts, it has become easier than you might think to create and upload your own 360 video.

You might have already seen a few variations of 360-degree cameras on the market, but how is footage from the camera formatted to work correctly on capable sites such as YouTube? Well, one of the simpler ways to export 360 videos is using the After Effects Plugin launched this past May, Skybox Studio by Mettle. 

Creating 360 Video in After Effects: Skybox Studio

Skybox Studio uses scripts and plugins within After Effects to allow you to import, modify, and export 360 video. It generates a user-friendly, efficient composition structure that is easy to understand for even novice After Effects users. So, without further ado, let’s delve into the process behind creating 360 video within After Effects.

Before going into the software itself, it helps to know some background information about how 360 video actually functions. Prior to being uploaded to a host site, a 360 video can be viewed from a number of different perspectives. Skybox Studio allows you to display your video from many of these points of view, each with their own purpose. Here are the three formats 360 video is commonly displayed in, with some visual examples for reference.

Three Common Perspective Options

1. Equirectangular Map

As the name suggests, this perspective is a bit more complex than others. Most often seen in environment maps for 3D objects, equirectangular perspective is 360 video footage unwrapped to fit a flat, standard aspect ratio. This is actually what 360 videos look like before being implemented in a compatible player. This perspective serves as an accurate 2D interpretation of 3D data, but isn’t very practical for editing. When you export a 360 video, the result should look like this in a non-360-compatible video player.

Creating 360 Video in After Effects: Skybox Studio: Equirectangular
Image courtesy of Rudolf Getel, flickr.com

2. Cube Map

A cube map divides 360 video into 6 square planes that are used as the individual faces of a cube. Most commonly viewed flat with the six faces unfolded (as seen below), cube maps are one of the best ways to accurately depict the way 360 video works in 3D space.

Creating 360 Video in After Effects: Skybox Studio: Cube Map
Image courtesy of polycount.com

3. Sphere Map

Sphere maps work similarly to cube maps, but instead of the video being wrapped around the six faces of a cube, it’s wrapped around a sphere instead. This is technically the way a player like YouTube interprets the footage, with the camera (a.k.a. the view from a smart phone or VR headset) positioned inside the sphere at the center.

Creating 360 Video in After Effects: Skybox Studio: Sphere Map
Image courtesy of kiwijs.org

This might seem overwhelming at first, but it isn’t essential that you fully understand these before working with 360 video. However, the more knowledge you have of how virtual reality functions on a technical level, the more you can stretch your creativity within its limits.


How to Apply Skybox Studio

To apply Skybox to existing 360-degree footage, simply select said footage in the Project Panel, and run the script “Skybox Extractor.” Once this script window appears, click the “Extract Skybox” button to enable the 360 video feature. Skybox Studio will then automatically organize the imported video into four compositions, each with their own purpose. If you plan to use 3D plugins, be sure to check the “I am using 3D plugins” checkbox.

Composition Structure

Skybox Footage

This composition is where you would place your raw 360 video file, straight from the camera. Named according to the origin video file name, this composition is the foundation for your video.

Skybox Edit

The “Skybox Edit” composition is fairly self-explanatory: it’s the primary composition for modifying a 360 scene, and it is also the ideal comp in which to add elements into the video. This comp displays a 360 video in the form of a cube, a perspective that can be enabled by adjusting the camera view to “Custom View 1.” Viewing the composition in this way can give you a better idea of where your elements are located within the scene.

Skybox Preview

The purpose of this “Skybox” is to allow you to preview and navigate your 360 video in the same way it you would be able to on say, YouTube. This live simulation of your final product is extremely handy for testing the functionality of your newly modified video, and speeds up the workflow of making changes significantly.

Skybox Output

This is the final composition of the development process, and serves as the export comp for a fully-functional, ready-to-go 360 video. You likely won’t need to modify anything within this composition, and will only need to access it when you’re ready to render.


Adding Elements to a Scene

2D Layers

In Skybox Studio, adding an object to your virtual environment is only slightly more complicated than adding one to a traditional 2D After Effects composition. Simply drag the object layer into the Footage Composition of your video. You may find that your layer becomes distorted or seemingly spherical, as seen here:

Creating 360 Video in After Effects: Skybox Studio: distortion
2D Layer with distortion
Creating 360 Video in After Effects: Skybox Studio: no distortion
2D Layer without distortion

This can be alleviated by applying the “Skybox Converter” script to this layer. Then, set your Input to “2D,” and Output to “Equirectangular.” Once this is done, navigate back to the “Skybox Preview” composition and you should find your layer seamlessly added to your scene. You can adjust the layer’s position in the scene using the “Re-Orient Camera View” controls.

3D Objects (Element 3D)

If you own Video Copilot’s Element 3D plugin, you’ll be pleased to know that the developers of Skybox included native support for Element 3D, as well as most other 3D plugins. To add a 3D object, create a layer with Element 3D applied in the “Skybox Edit” composition. From there, Element 3D controls function normally.

To add an extra level of realism, you can apply a reflection texture map to the object using the “Custom Texture” feature in Element. Luckily, reflection maps use an Equirectangular format, so you can simply use that composition as your custom texture. Make sure to adjust the reflection map to accurately mirror your environment by adjusting its rotation with the “Render Settings > Physical Environment > Rotate Environment” controls.

Exporting

When you’re ready to export your 360 video, navigate to the “Skybox Output” composition and export the video just as you would a normal After Effects video file, whether it be through the Render Queue or Adobe Media Encoder.

Once this is finished, you’ll need Google’s 360 Video Metadata Tool (PC Version). To add the necessary metadata for YouTube compatibility, open your exported video file with the Metadata tool, and then select “Inject.” Your video should now be good to go for playback within Google Chrome or the YouTube app!


To learn more about what’s possible with Skybox Studio, check out this awesome in-depth tutorial from “After Effects Tutorials With Mikey,” a great resource for After Effects tutorials.


Like 360 video itself, the applications of this plugin are vast, and we have only skimmed the surface of its potential. You can edit live action 360 footage or even create your own 3D environments straight out of After Effects. Skybox Studio’s flexibility makes it easy to apply your existing After Effects skills to 360 video, and it’s a very impressive tool that’s definitely worth looking in to.

What’s your favorite 360 video you’ve seen thus far? Let us know in the comments below.