We had an idea here on PVC that we would make lists of what has been most interesting this previous year, and what we anticipate in the new year ahead. Several of us planned to write these, but unfortunately few of us have so far. You know - we've been busy with work, the holidays, and such. After all, there's only so much a person can do.
Well, it's the same for many software tools as well, such as our main tool After Effects. AE CS3 was (in our opinion) one of the best updates ever for motion graphics artists, and AE CS4 has its charms (here is our roundup of the new features that caught our eye; here is Todd Kopriva's more comprehensive list). Still, there are many features that remain unimplemented or underimplemented - because either resources weren't available, a new feature caught a programmer's eye, or not enough people have jumped up and down screaming for the feature we personally want.
Following are some of the features we're still waiting for. As we have a personal policy of "you're not allowed to complain about something unless you are also willing to offer a solution," we'll also mention some ideas for cheats and workarounds inside AE, from third parties, and in alternate applications such as Apple's Motion. The first two pages will focus on issues in 3D space, and then we'll move onto issues such as mask shapes and text.
Extrusions (and other 3D issues with plug-ins)
Problem: After Effects' implementation of 3D space is often referred to as 2.5D, as the individual layers have no thickness. One result of this is that as view them from their sides, they disappear. But clients expect their "3D" logos and titles to be chunky (often too chunky) rather than paper-thin - the web-influenced "dimensional flat" look notwithstanding.
Solution: The cheater's method is to add a bevel and shadow, and hope no one notices. Instead of the normal After Effects plug-in effects, try the newer Photoshop-like Layer Styles to get more flexible and better-looking bevels and shadows. We also developed an expression which allows the "light source" of effects such as Bevel Alpha to follow the location of a 3D light in After Effects.
The text and logo in this image contain actual extrusions; the panels in are given fake depth using Bevel Alpha.
The better solution is to use a third party effect such as Zaxwerks Invigorator Pro. The Pro version can take Illustrator outlines or directly-entered text, give it depth, and sweep it with a wide variety of interesting extrusions. It can even import real 3D models. There are people who have built careers out of using Invigorator to create 3D text, logos, and other objects for projects ranging from industrial videos to network TV.
The problem with plug-ins which create 3D objects inside of After Effects is at the end of the day, they just create another flat 2D layer which gets composited with all of your other layers. Note we said "2D" - and 2D layers don't interact with 3D layers, meaning no shadows may fall between objects. We've come up with a simple set of expressions which allows you to place many of these 2D layers back into 3D space, allowing some limited interaction.
A simple set of expressions may be employed to have 3D effects interact with "real" 3D layers.
Problem: Another major clue that you're "really" in 3D is that objects reflect off of each other. However, the 3D rendering engine in After Effects is not capable of reflections or many other 3D surfacing tricks.
Solution: One of the slickest plug-ins to appear in the last couple of years is Zaxwerks Reflector (shown here at right). After you have set up a 3D scene, you apply Reflector to the layers you wish to reflect off of each other, and then order it to cook up a parallel ghost composition where it calculates the reflections. This means you do need to update the ghost comp when you make any changes to the main comp, but the results are more than worth it. The combination of Invigorator plus Reflector in the hands of a skilled user can be an effective stand-in for a real 3D program in many motion graphics environments.
That said, if all you need to do is make one layer appear to reflect on an artificial floor, there are several ways to fake it. The most common is to flip a copy of the layer to be reflected, distort it if necessary with a corner pin effect, make it fade out with a gradient (a shape layer filled with a linear gradient works great as a matte), and increasingly blur it the further away the reflections gets from the source (we use Lens Blur for that). We teach this trick in the final lesson of After Effects Apprentice (2nd edition); the result is shown here. Red Giant Software's Warp can also be used to create similar looks.