Motion graphics artists used to animating in 2D in After Effects will find that working in 3D space takes a lot more patience. You need to consider how to set up the 3D views, move layers in 3D, and animate cameras and lights. Rob Birnholz’ training series tackles the camera portion of the equation (watch a free sample and the Table of Contents here). (If you’ve already purchased this training series, don’t go just yet; I promise to share some personal tips and advice as I go…)
Rob Birnholz is the owner of Absolute Motion Graphics, Inc., located near Orlando, Florida, and he has decades of production and post experience for broadcast, corporate and special venue projects. For this tutorial he’s built three projects for demo purposes, and shares the two more advanced projects – of an art gallery and a set of musicians on a stage – for you to download and play with.
In the interests of full disclosure, we’ve been friends with Rob for many years and recently we’ve encouraged him to share his knowledge via training products. So when Rob asked me to review his training series, I couldn’t say no! But then I hesitated: When it comes to After Effects tutorials, it’s admittedly rare that I learn anything new (we do write a monster book on AE after all…). So I worried that I may not be a good judge of what people will find useful. On the other hand, I have taught many intermediate students in hands-on classes and know how they struggle with working in the 3D environment in After Effects. So I tried to put myself in their shoes as I went through these lessons.
Content & Comments
The training includes 16 lessons with a total running time of 37 minutes, so all of them are short and to the point. Rob covers the following techniques:
Rob says upfront that he expects you to have a basic knowledge of After Effects, and indeed he starts by showing a pre-built composition where a bunch of layers are already set at various distances in 3D space. Rob then covers the View menu where you can see your layers in the orthogonal views, such as Top, Right, and so on. (Since Rob has pre-built all of three scenes ahead of time, it appears he’s assuming that even if you’re not yet comfortable with the camera, you are already comfortable moving layers around in X, Y and Z space, as well as creating walls, floors, and so on.)
Rob goes on to give a tour of the Camera dialog and then picks the 50mm preset. The advantage of starting with the 50mm camera is that it matches the built-in non-animating camera, so layers don’t appear to shift when the camera is created, which can be disconcerting to a beginner. On the other hand, this is arguably a missed opportunity to explain why this behavior occurs. (The quickie answer: After Effects has assigned a Zoom value to each preset so that layers that have a Z Position value of 0 appear the same size in 2D or in 3D. If you first add a camera, and then move layers, you will not notice any odd behavior. But layers that are already placed in Z using the built-in, invisible 50mm camera will appear to change position if you use a preset other than 50mm when you add a new camera. Personally, I gravitate to the 28mm camera; the heightened perspective works well for motion graphics insofar as a slight camera move gives you lots of bang for the buck.)
Next Rob offers some criteria for whether or not you might want a one-point camera (where you turn off the point of interest and control the camera with Rotation), or the default two-point camera (with the Point of Interest which you can use to point the camera at a focal point). There’s a nice live-action explanation of how a real camera behaves versus the AE camera. However, a new user might be left with the impression that it’s always best to turn off the Point of Interest, when it does have its uses for some styles of animation. Rob also failed to mention anywhere that if you press the Command key on Mac (Control key on Windows) as you drag, only the back of the camera moves and the Point of Interest doesn’t.
Orienting a camera along its motion path allows Rob to have fun moving a camera through an art gallery filled with famous paintings. Here he explains the important trick that most complex camera animations in After Effects are accomplished by creating a null and using it as a parent for the camera. You can build a simple camera rig (for orbiting around the Point of Interest) or build a more complex rig where you can control the camera’s orbit, plus its X, Y and Z moves separately.
Along the way, Rob gives a nice explanation of how the Depth of Field controls work by placing objects at varying distances from the camera. To help illustrate this, he populates his scenes with characters courtesy of Crowd Control from All Bets Are Off.
In the final project, you can tell that Rob had fun building a stage and creating a rock band out of more cut-out Crowd Control figures (see figure above)! One camera does a 360-degree orbit while another camera swoops down and focuses on the singer. (Note that when setting up the orbit camera, Rob moves the null’s Position before he parents the camera to the null; in most cases, the camera’s Point of Interest and the null object should be aligned before parenting – they aren’t in Rob’s example. Since the voiceover says that the camera is “rotating around the singer where the null is”, when it’s actually rotating around the center of the stage, this might be an oversight.)
Because After Effects doesn’t have real 3D layers with depth (think of them as “postcards in space”), an essential ingredient in fooling the eye is to set layers to auto-orient so that they always face the camera. This is covered in the sample clip at the Toolfarm store. Mind you, when you orbit 360 degrees around the singer, it makes him rotate around on his rug without moving his feet – maybe he’s Michael Jackson reincarnated?!
For the finale project, I would have liked to have seen Rob dive into the Graph Editor at some point. In a real job, the camera moves usually need some subtle speed changes. Showing how to add a very slight hand-held simulation using the wiggle expression would have been a fun addition also, particularly for a rock band video.
The production value overall is very high, with some very nice animated sequences showing various concepts in action (like dollying the camera along a track). There are only a couple of awkward “julia-child” edits and some vocal changes, but nothing too distracting.
next up: more tips, and the thrilling conclusion…
Missing in the action
For a series that is all about the camera, I felt that there were a few opportunities missed to show some useful shortcuts or preferences. For instance, I always set the Composition panel’s View Options so that the camera wireframes always remain visible, even when the camera is not selected. Also, in the art gallery scene, the motion path gets oddly cropped off, which would have been the perfect time to mention that this is easily fixed by setting a preference to always show the entire motion path, no matter the duration (Preferences > Display > Motion Path > All Keyframes).
When setting up your 3D space, Rob omits what is probably the first trick I show students when they are setting up their 3D space: The Camera X, Y and Z tools can be used in ortho views to bring all the layers into view over the background color. At least, that’s the slow way: One of my favorite features (introduced in CS3) is View > Look at All Layers. This shortcut makes all layers instantly snap to fit in the 3D view while maintaining the largest magnification value possible. You can then zoom in further with the camera tools if necessary. This may not seem significant at first, but check out the figures below. If you’ve ever struggled to select an itsy-bitsy camera or light icon at 25% magnification (like Rob does on occasion), you need this feature. (There’s also a sister shortcut, View > Look at Selected Layers.)
The default layout for the art gallery scene. Notice how small the icon is for the camera. Magnification is set to Fit up to 100% but can only manage 50%.
After using the camera tools to adjust the display, the camera icon is larger because the magnification is now at 76%. This is a tricky thing to explain, so just try it! In top view, select View > Look at All Layers then use the Camera Z tool to zoom in some more.
It would also have been nice to slip in another shortcut new to CS4: To center a layer in the Active Camera’s view, select Layer > Transform > Center in View.
I was surprised not to see a discussion about the difference between Orientation and Rotation, as these properties are used when animating the camera – especially when using the one-point camera model.
And there was no discussion of using Roving Keyframes for a camera move. Roving keyframes can be very useful when you have a large number of keyframes along a motion path but yet you want a simple speed graph controls, and might have been put to good use in the art gallery animation.
If you are completely new to using the camera in After Effects, you’ll find some tried and tested techniques here that will give you a good grounding in controlling AE’s camera. The first four modules start slow, giving more of a guided tour than tips and tricks, but it picks up pace at section five and gets progressively more interesting.
While animating in 3D in AE is not very intuitive at first, it’s also not a very deep implementation and there are a limited number of actual techniques. So if you’ve already had some experience with parenting the camera to a null, and the different auto-orient options, you may not find much new here. This is not meant as a slight; it’s just that there are simply a limited number of known techniques you need to learn to move the camera. So if you were hoping that Rob has invented a magical new method of controlling the camera that will save you gobs of time, sorry. The AE camera is still fiddly to use, and the prescription you need may be just more practice.
Also be aware that this series is solely focused on controlling the 3D camera, which is just one ingredient in creating a complex 3D scene – beyond just controlling the camera, you also eventually need to learn about lights and shadows, mixing 2D and 3D layers, the 3D render order, using 3D effects, and importing cameras from 3D applications.
But if it’s help with animating the camera you’re looking for, the After Effects Camera Training tutorials wrap up all the most useful tricks in one training package with some nice eye candy to boot. I feel that the price (at $50 for 37 minutes) is a tad high compared to other commercially available training modules or subscriptions (for example, both Total Training and Lynda.com offer comprehensive After Effects courses as but a small part of what you can access for their $25/month subscription fee), but everyone will have a different opinion on that one depending on their budget.
UPDATE: Shortly after this review went to press, the list price of the Camera Training series was reduced to $42. It’s on sale for $29 thru November 20, 2009. Please check the Toolfarm Store for the latest info.
Other Sources for AE Camera Training
If your budget is tight, there are numerous free camera tutorials available online. Here’s a few we found to be particularly useful:
- We have a video here on PVC which demonstrates the basics of using the camera tools, including using those tools to manipulate the alternate 3D views (the “first trick” discussed above). If you’re completely new to manipulating 3D layers, watch this video first.
- This tutorial specifically covers how to use a null object to animate a 3D camera. Written for After Effect 7 but still accurate for CS4.
- To read more on building a camera rig, we also wrote a couple of articles (originally published in 2006 in DV Magazine but now online here at PVC): Camera Control – Part 1 and Camera Control – Part 2.
- Andrew Kramer of Video Co-Pilot also covers parenting a null object, as well as the Separate XYZ animation preset. He also uses the wiggle expression on the camera in his Advanced Camera Tips.
- Meanwhile, John Dickinson uses a null to animate a light in his latest video tutorial using ProAnimator with After Effects.
None of these in isolation are anywhere near as complete as Rob’s camera training and don’t replace it; we consider them to be good starters for or extensions to his training.
FTC Disclosure: As we all wrestle with the new FTC guidelines regarding bloggers and disclosure, you’re going to see a lot of awkward sidebars like this in reviews on PVC. In this case, we know Rob, and received a copy of his video training for free to review. We personally make money from video training through Lynda.com, and previously sold videos through Toolfarm (Rob’s distributor). Plus we sell books that do contain training on AE’s 3D camera. However, we do not view Rob as competition; indeed, we encouraged him to also join the training-for-sale market, as we respect him as a user.
The content contained in our books, videos, blogs, and articles for other sites are all copyright Crish Design, except where otherwise attributed.