Earlier this week, Video Copilot released their highly anticipated Element 3D plugin. I had a bit of time to play with the plugin since this week’s MoChat, and thought I would share my first impressions. This isn’t a full review or tutorial. I haven’t had enough time to invest into learning the plugin quite yet. Rather, I am just recording my initial thoughts while working through the interface. Where I can, I’ll link to Video Copilot’s videos for more in-depth information.
First of all, everyone should be aware of what this plugin is not: a 3D modeling environment within After Effects. It was originaly conceived as a 3D object particle plugin. Even then, it does not contain a physics or dynamics engine. Element does not contain an emitter, either. Rather, it has a replicator which determines where the particle live. I’m sure people will figure out creative ways to fake it (much as people have already pushed the Ray-trace engine in CS6).
What Element is very good at is bringing in static 3D objects to incorporate into your scene. These object can be separated into up to 5 groups, each with their own settings. If an object has multiple pieces, those pieces can be separated and dispersed using the group’s Multi-Object settings. This looks like it will be good for quick shatters or particle dispersion. One trick is to bring pieces of a model in as separate objects. This will give you a bit more flexibility with animation by assigning each piece to a different group. Andrew Kramer demonstrates this quite well with his gun & helicopter models.
Another great feature of Element is extruding a text layer or mask. This is where it directly competes with the ray-trace engine in CS6, and seemed to be one of the more frequent requests of After Effects previously. Element 3D is definitely quicker than the Ray-tracer, and you have some interesting animation options with the Multi-Object settings, but you lose the ability to cast shadows or interact more directly with your AE scene. One thing to watch out for, though, is that when type is separated, i & j dots are also separated, as seen here.
Bringing in your own objects is also fairly straight-forward. Bonus points for being able to bring in C4D projects & OBJ files. This means you’re not limited to the model packs from Video Copilot (though they are very reasonably priced). You can get models from your choice of sources, including Turbo Squid and The Pixel Lab. This doesn’t mean you’ll get animated objects, cameras, lighting, etc. You’ll just get a static object. And you’ll want to make sure you have a cleaned up project file. All your materials will come in, even if they’re not used.
But you’ll need to rebuild your materials within Element. Your C4D object & materials will come in as all white, at least in my tests. This does make sense since Element is not a Cinema 4D render engine, but custom. [Update: As David Biederbeck demonstrates, if you are using bitmapped textures, you can imply point Element to your texture files and it all works provided you have UVW coordinates. Procedural materials (colors/shaders/noise/gradients/etc…) will not come into Element from the C4D file.]
Once you start replicating objects, you can really start to have fun. I mentioned earlier that this isn’t a physics-based particle system, but you still have a lot of control over how particles are produced and transformed, all of which can be keyframed (and subsequently controlled by expressions). Where you really get to do fun things is with the Animation Engine. This is basically a transition between two groups. The immediate use case is almost like an effector with falloff in Cinema 4D. You have control over easing, transition percentage, and even a time delay for position, rotation, scale, and material transitions.
At this point, I want to bring up a major difference between Element and the Ray-trace engine (or most any other 3D software). Element is an OpenGL environment, not a ray-trace environment. That means objects & lighting are rendered, but light interaction is not. The biggest example of this is the lack of reflection between particles or objects, and lack of shadows entirely.
Lighting and environments, however, are nicely handled in Element. There are several environment maps (1024×512 PNG files) included, and you can use your own as well, including HDRIs. You are also not limited to setting up lights in your AE comp. Element has pre-built lighting setups to get decent results without too much work.
When it comes to compositing, Element can even output separate passes for z-depth, normals, AO, diffuse, specular, refraction, reflection, lighting, illumination and focus. This is one case where it would be nice to have node-based compositing in After Effects. As it stands now, to get each of these passes out of Element separately you’ll need a separate layer, each with it’s own instance of Element, each set to output the different channels. In a node-based system, each channel would be output from a single node without the need to duplicate layers. However, Element does have the ability to adjust the opacity of diffuse, specular, ambient lighting, reflection, refraction, and illumination channels to do a rough composite right in the plugin.
Render, Render, Render…
Lastly, performance of Element was very impressive. I tested it on both a 2010 8-Core Mac Pro w/ Radeon 5870 and a 2012 MacBook Pro w/ GeForce 650M. Both machines performed very well. I actually preferred the performance of the nVidia card over the AMD. Antialiasing especially seemed to be much more accurate. But this serves as a reminder that this plugin is entirely dependent on the GPU, and renders themselves will vary between machines. This is one of the reasons Video Copilot does not recommend using the plugin in a multi-machine render.
There are a few things, though, I wouldn’t mind seeing improved: shadow support (which is apparently in the works), more intuitive saving of presets (you must right-click the model or material), custom preset paths with support for OBJ & C4D files (instead of just the .epack files),support for animated models in OBJ sequences, and ability to expand the lighting setups to the composition.
That said, Element will still definitely have a place in my workflow, mostly for bringing in singular 3D assets (logo, type), or simple Cinema 4D cloner-like animations. Just having the ability to not go back and forth round-tripping Cinema 4D & AE scenes along is worth the cost of entry. If you go for the plugin, I would at least recommend going for the Pro bundle to get the shaders so you can learn how the materials system works in Element.
I have a feeling we’ll see a lot of Element renders in the coming months. Almost as a rule, a lot of the initial uses will be basic shiny spheres and particles, with a few really creative uses. Then, as time goes on, we’ll see some really interesting uses that push Element to its limits.