3D layers overview and resources

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.

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.

Note: 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.

Online resources for 3D layers

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.

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.

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.