There’s a lot to learn when dealing with 3D animation in After Effects. These tips and techniques will have your 3D graphics standing out in no time.

Moving from 2D animation to 3D animation in After Effects may seem daunting, but we’re here to help! Here are a few techniques you can use to make your 3D work really pop!


Camera Movement

One of the first 3D tools you’ll need to learn about is the Camera Layer. This serves as a virtual camera that you can manipulate to mimic or even surpass the limits of real-life cameras.

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - Camera Layer (0-00-00-00)

Be sure to always immediately pick whip your Camera Layer to a 3D Null Layer, as this is easier and faster to control.

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - Camera to Null

When keyframing your camera’s movement via your camera control null, be sure to smooth out the animation curves for natural, realistic motion. Also be sure to mind the spatial curves of the camera’s control null. Check out our post on smoothing keyframe curves.

By avoiding too many sharp angles in your spatial path, you can prevent the abrupt and distracting changes in camera movement that will ruin even the most professional-looking compositions.

Bad Spatial Curve

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - Spatial Bad

Smooth Spatial Curve

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - Spatial Good


Lighting

Lighting is a crucial element in selling your scene. If you want to highlight a particular area with a noticeable range, you could use a spotlight. A point light could provide you with a more evenly-distributed light source. Ambient lights are good for setting overall brightness levels, but they provide a very flat and stale look if not accented with other lighting.

No Light

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - No Light

Ambient Light

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - ambient light

Point Light

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - point light

Spot Light

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - parallel light

Each 3D layer has the option to react to lights or not. Simply navigate to the Material Options of your layer, and enable or disable the Accepts Lights option.

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - Accepts Lights


Shadows & Reflections

Shadows and reflections are to ways to accentuate your lighting aesthetic and emphasize the surfaces of your layers. Both will also add an extra degree of movement to your composition, great for moments when only the camera is in motion.

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - Text with Shadows

To enable shadows in your composition, first navigate to your Light Layer and open the Light Options. Switch Casts Shadows to On.

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - Casts Shadows

Then, under the Material Options of each of your 3D layers, ensure you have the correct settings for your desired effect. If you want a layer to cast shadows, enable that option. If you want a layer to receive shadows from other layers, enable that option.

You can create a simple ground reflection by duplicating your desired layer (CTRL-D or CMD-D), rotating it 180 degrees on its X-axis, and lowering it in vertical space. Then, simply change the blending mode or lower the opacity, and add a distortion or blur effect if desired.

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - Reflections

However, complex shadows and reflections can be more easily achieved with a script called Elementary. Elementary even allows plugins such as Video Copilot’s Element 3D to interact seamlessly with traditional After Effects layers.


Depth of Field

Enabling the built-in Depth of Field option of your camera layer can often add that cinematic touch you’re looking for.

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - Depth of Field

Aperture of 206 pixels in 1080P

Navigate to your camera layer’s Camera Options, then switch Depth of Field to On.

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - Enable Depth of Field

The Focus Distance will determine how far away your camera’s sharpest focus point is, and the Aperture will determine how shallow your depth of field is. A low aperture number would result in a deep, overall sharp focus, whereas a high number would result in a more shallow and blurry focus.

You can make your focus distance much easier to manage by pairing it to a 3D Null Layer. Then you can simply place the Null Layer at whatever point you want your focus to be sharp.


Light Rays

Light rays are very effective in adding atmosphere to your scene. They help to create the illusion of haze, and generally just look cool. Video Copilot has a great tutorial on creating 3D light rays without any plugins:

If you want to get this same look much more quickly, you may want to look into purchasing Trapcode Shine.


Layer Stacking

One popular way to extrude text in After Effects is by duplicating the desired text layer and offsetting each duplicate by one additional pixel.

Tips for 3D Animation in After Effects - Stacking Layers

Check out our previous post here to learn how to stack layers quickly and effectively. It even includes a few creative tricks for achieving unique looks. Keep in mind that this method can be taxing on computing power.


What are your go-to tools for 3D After Effects work? Let us know in the comments below.