Category: News

Element 3D: First Impressions

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.


Element UI.

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.

Element 3D render (left) vs C4D render (right)

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.]

Options for the Animation Engine

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.

Who’s Ray?

CS6 Ray Trace (top) vs Element 3D (bottom)

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.

Compositing within Element

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.

Deep Thoughts

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.

Review of Design Essentials for the Motion Media Artist by Angie Taylor

Design Essentials for the Motion Media Artist cover image

Angie Taylor is an artist, animator and author who has worked in the motion graphics industry for over 15 years. She also does a lot of work for Adobe and Apple evangelizing their products, if you’ve been to NAB or BVE then you’ve probably seen her presenting at the Adobe/FCP booth.

In a step away from standard textbook fare, Design Essentials for the Motion Media Artist is not a software manual, style guide or compendium of protips. Instead it’s a roadmap of the sort of things you need to know if you want to be a motion graphic designer. The principals of drawing, animation, composition, type and editing are all covered, as well as some shorter sections on planning, communication and technical stuff.

Some of the topics covered are lightly skimmed through and some get given the authors full attention but this is to be expected given the author’s background in fine art. For example I liked the attention to detail in the drawing section, but I was surprised that typographic grids were almost ignored in favour of Golden Section and rule-of-thirds. I’m sure everyone will find something to nitpick with this book, that’s the downside of writing about such a sprawling, labyrinthine subject – but I also think that many will agree about how important it is given the current glut of software tutorials which seduce vast swathes of users new to motion design.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach but it can leave designers light on deeper understanding and context. In opposition to this, Angie’s approach is designed to inspire further research and experimentation, as evidenced by the recommended-reading list on the companion site.

In fact it’s an odd compliment to this book that it focuses very much on substance over style. While Angie’s illustrations are something of an aquired taste, there’s no mistaking her authority when discussing the ins and outs of storyboarding or squash and stretch. Make no mistake, Design Essentials veers toward fine art, particularly the animation sections – there’s a mixed media feel to many examples which may sit uncomfortably with those used to the standard Vimeo fare. However, ringing endorsements from designers Mark Coleran and Rob Chiu (AKA TheRonin) should assure readers that Angie knows her stuff when it comes to commercial art too.

I would struggle to recommend this book to anyone above mid-weight mographers – you should know most of this already! However anyone looking to broaden their skillset – and those beginners unsure where to start – would be advised to take this book as their first port of call. Angie’s confident, inspiring and friendly tone will appeal to those put off by more didactic prose.

For more details about the book, check out Angie’s site.

Octane Render review

Octane render preview material

Octane Render preview material

Octane Render is a standalone, unbiased render engine which works with most modern 3D packages. It also uses your CUDA-enabled GPU for rendering.

That sounded like a lot of jargon, so let me make this simple – Octane is fast. Very, very fast. Some people will remember a CGTalk thread where the idea of rendering purely from the GPU was dismissed as fantasy. Well I’m happy to report that my opinion has changed completely – it’s fast, accurate and I never want to go back!

Like Maxwell Render, Luxrender and the new physical render in Cinema4D R13, Octane will render as long as it can until you tell it to stop. If you’ve never used an unbiased renderer this can take some getting used to, but it’s certainly an enjoyable way to work. What’s unique about Octane (at least to people who haven’t used the hardware acceleration in apps like 3DSMax) is that it renders every change you make directly to the viewport. What you see is literally what you get. All material changes, quality settings etc. are rendered progressively in real time, so there’s no need to sit around waiting for your GI to calculate before you can get feedback on a material.

Did I mention that Octane is fast? Let me give you an example. At work, I use a fairly old quad-core workstation with bags of RAM. A 1080p frame with AO, some reasonably complex geometry and soft shadows will take me around 3 and a half minutes to render in Cinema4D’s native renderer. In Octane I can get much higher quality (including, I might add, working AO) in about 1 and a half minutes. Better yet, this is all done on the GPU. All of it.

Another little gem hidden away here was the option to undertake a little instant post-work on the fly- as far as I can tell there is no render overhead for things like exposure changes or tonemapping.

I should mention at this point that my graphics card is very modest – a nVidia GTX470. It’s certainly not a high end workstation card, but it does a good job with both Octane and general viewport navigation. And this little sub-£180 card is better at rendering a complex 3D scene than my quad-core CPU.

So. Octane is fast, it’s interactive, it’s required hardware is relatively cheap. What’s the downside?

Well – for one thing it’s In Beta. Yes, a commercial engine in working beta, so sometimes you are left with decisions that feel like least-worse options. You can find examples of these all over the fairly obscure interface, and even to experiences like making a purchase and receiving a license.

Secondly, there is no official plug-in for Cinema4D (which I’m going to assume you use if you’re reading this post), “just” an exporter script. Its basic, but enough to get an .obj with material separations into Octane, ready to render. It’ll also send an animation over, too. A recent email from the developers assures me that they expect a C4D official plugin to be released as late as a years time – and it will cost extra.

Finally on the Cons side; there’s the realisation that your prior efforts at shading weren’t that great. With the current system, you might as well not bother shading in C4D at all, such is the difference between a material translated to Octane and its counterpart in C4D. I’ve also not managed to find a way to export a full scene including disparate objects from C4D; instead each component must be exported and imported as a discrete node.

Summing up: Incredible power, simply mindblowing for those with mid-range or slightly old machines and the right graphics cards. However there’s a big trade-off here in terms of living with quirks and a greatly changed workflow.

If you have any questions regarding Octane, I’ll try my best to answer them in the comments or via Twitter. Alternatively, you could head over to Refractive Software and give the demo a try for yourself.

Global & Local Variables in AE Expressions

I spend a fair amount of time working with expressions, mostly for linking properties to other layers and driving animation from fewer keyframes. (It can save time when I ultimately have to retime animations or reuse them in different ways.) One thing that’s always bothered my about expressions is not being able to share variables between properties. Sure there are workarounds like using expression controls, but in all honesty, I like clean code. It’s easier to set up circleRadius = this.effect("Width").slider; once and use circleRadius in all the expressions in that layer (or comp) instead of always retyping this.effect("Width").slider or pickwhipping each time I want to use it.

By using a local or global variable, it would reduce complexity in the expressions. It would also have the added benefit of being able to change one line of code and affecting everywhere that variable was used. Say, for example, I was referencing transform.position.key(3) in 20 places in my layer. If I wanted to now use key(1), or if I added a keyframe and what was key(3) is now key(4), I’d have to change all 20 of those expressions. With local/global variables, I could change one line and it would be done.

The tricky part is how this could be accomplished. Here’s an example of some recent expression sets I’ve written to drive two Beam effects based on the position of a shape layer.

This is a fairly uncomplicated example, but shows using the same values many times.

As I mentioned earlier, what if I added new keyframes to the beginning of the shaper layer. It would change all the key values and I’d have to dig in and change all the expressions. A workaround would be to create a new null, parent, and animate that1. But who likes workarounds?

What if instead there were an extra layer property called “Expression Variables”? This way, you could set up variables that can be used by any property in the layer using local, or the entire comp with global declarations.

Click for larger image.

In the end, it’s possible to work around all of this, but for anyone working extensively with expressions, it could save a lot of time and frustration.

  1. Or, since I’m really animating the shape transform, I could animate the position of the actual shape layer. []


Joe Donaldson recently posted some of his work in the Unite forums. It’s definitely worth checking out. One piece in particular caught my attention: Cycle.

[iframe_vimeo video=”34339192″]

In his own words, Joe wanted to “attempt to bridge the gap between purely visual eye-candy type work and storytelling.” It’s a simple idea, executed very well. The colors are well chosen and textures well placed. There is some nice nuance to the animation that portrays emotion very well, which is difficult to accomplish with simple shapes.

I’m currently in the process of producing a piece of personal creative work every week this year. I could stand to learn something from Joe’s well thought out experiment that has so much more emotion and draw to it than other process experiments I’ve seen in the past.

Please let Joe know what you think of his work on the forums, as he is seeking feedback.

Reel Showcase: The Rocket Panda

Designer Riccardo Albertini recently updated his portfolio site and reel (seen below). His 2012 reel features a great combination of 2D, 3D, character animation, and compositing. It’s not often you find a designer so versatile. A full project credit list can be found on his site.
[iframe_vimeo video=”33112817″]

Motion Graphics Geek Holiday Gift Guide

‘Tis the season!  This year at the Motion League we asked you what motion graphics related things where on your wish list for Christmas, and here are the most popular items on your lists:

A Semester of FXPHD– (US$359)

  • FXPHD is subscription-based online training for postproduction, visual effects, and motion graphics. You can join one or more of 4 new Terms per year starting in January, April, July, and October.

GSG City Kit (US$149), Light Kit (US$69), and Texture Kit (US$69)

  • The motionographers essential additions to your Cinema 4D workflow.
  • It’s like MoDynamics for After Effects.  Newton interprets each 2D layer as a rigid body in a real environment.  Once simulation is completed, animation is recreated in After Effects with standard keyframes.
  • Turbulence Fluid Dynamics (TFD) makes physical simulations of fire, smoke, dust and other gaseous phenomena available directly in CINEMA 4D and LightWave 3D.
  • Huge database of Cinema 4D training for beginners and some good ones for advanced users, for the price, it’s definitely worth it!

NitroBlast for Cinema4D  (~US$52)

  • A new fracturing plugin from the creator of Thrausi and Catastrophe. Allowing completely automatic, collision driven fracturing, Nitroblast is written from the ground up to be faster, bigger, more powerful and better from all angles than the previous fracturing plugins.
    Even though it’s numerous, powerful features, it was designed with simple, easy to use interface in mind. Features include:
    Autobreak: Completely automatic impact based fracturing: You don’t have to do anything, just run a dynamics simulation or even a custom animation with 2 objects colliding, and the auto-break will do the rest. It will break the objects based on their impact point. It supports:
    – Multibreak for multiple colliders on an object,
    – Deepbreak (as described below)
    – Cracks: Generate parametric Cracks for the part of the object that stays behind
Syntheyes (US$399-599)
  • SynthEyes is a 3-D camera-tracking software application, also known as match-moving, which is widely used in film, television, commercial, and music video post-production. SynthEyes can look at the image sequence from your live-action shoot and determine how the real camera moved during the shoot, and where various features are in 3-D, so that you can create computer-generated imagery that exactly fits into the shot.
  • The must have set of plug-ins for any After Effects user.  Trapcode Suite is the industry standard package for high quality broadcast design and 3D motion graphics. Its full-featured tools create beautiful realistic effects — with an emphasis on flexible 3D content — for text titles, animated backgrounds, logo treatments and VFX design. Trapcode Suite gives you 3D styled elements like a powerful particle system, volumetric lights and organic forms, all built for the After Effects 3D environment. Get nine addictive plug-ins at an affordable price for a comprehensive addition to your studio workflow.
  • Very useful when working with composites out of Cinema 4D.  Instead of waiting for the sometimes painful native motion blur in Cinema 4D/3DSMAX, do it in post inside After Effects with this plug in.  Render out your Motion Vectors out of C4D/3DSMAX and have full control over the plug using this plug in.  Renders way faster than Cinema 4D’s native blur too.

Frischluft Lenscare (US$199)

  • Like ReelSmart Motion Blur, this gives you the ability to add Depth of Field blur inside of After Effects, again cutting down on render times out of Cinema 4D/3DSMAX.

Video CoPilot Optical Flares (US$124.95)

  • Optical Flares is a plug-in for designing and animating realistic lens flares in After Effects.  For those of you that are used to using Knoll Light Factory, Optical Flares is the roid’ed up brother.  This is a robust lens flare plug-in with limitless customization to make your own kinds of lens effects that can change dynamically as it animates across the screen.  This is a must have for most motionographers out there.  Additionally, you can buy Andrew Kramers “Pro Presets” which run an additional US$25 that have a nice set of presets if you don’t feel like digging into the interface and making all your own custom presets.

Vray for C4D (~US$1,035)

  • Sure, it’s a pretty hefty price tag, but using the VRay renderer is what you’ll be wanting if you want to get ultra-realistic renders and fast GI & AO renders out of Cinema 4D.
  • Sick of using Beam effect and an expression to get objects you’re animating to be connected by a line?  Get this plug-in which does it simply and easily, plus it works in 3D space.

Cintiq 24HD (US$2599)

  • Saved up enough of that freelance money to splurge?  The Cintiq 24HD combines the best in high-definition LCD performance with the ability to work with Wacom’s most advanced pen technology directly on the surface of the screen.
Intuos 4 (US$229-$789)
  • And for those of you who have a bit more modest budgets but still want to use a pen with you computer, there’s the industry standard Intuos pen tablet.  For working professionals and serious creatives alike, Intuos4 represents the finest pen tablet experience ever created by Wacom.

ZBrush 4 R2 (US$699)

  • For the hardcore modellers, there is this amazing plug-in for Cinema 4D.  ZBrush 4R2 revolutionizes digital modeling and unleashes your creative power by delivering a topological-free sculpting process with new tools like DynaMesh. When sculpting with traditional techniques, polygons become stretched and difficult to work with. Now with a quick gesture, ZBrush will instantly generate a new sculpting-friendly model with uniform polygon distribution. This makes it possible for you to focus only on the visual aspects of your model, without worrying about its underlying geometry.
  • Stuck on ideas for your next project?  Want to find a good font & color combination for your logo design?  These little books are nice for flipping through and sparking your creative genius!

Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams (~US$24)

  • The definitive book on animation, from the Academy Award-winning animator behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  In this book, based on his sold-out master classes in the United States and across Europe, Williams provides the underlying principles of animation that every animator–from beginner to expert, classic animator to computer animation whiz –needs. Urging his readers to “invent but be believable,” he illustrates his points with hundreds of drawings, distilling the secrets of the masters into a working system in order to create a book that will become the standard work on all forms of animation for professionals, students, and fans.
  • This is the first book to be published on one of the greatest American designers of the 20th Century, who was as famous for his work in film as for his corporate identity and graphic work. With more than 1,400 illustrations, many of them never published before and written by the leading design historian Pat Kirkham, this is the definitive study that design and film enthusiasts have been eagerly anticipating. Saul Bass (1920-1996) created some of the most compelling images of American post-war visual culture. Having extended the remit of graphic design to include film titles, he went on to transform the genre. His best known works include a series of unforgettable posters and title sequences for films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Otto Preminger’s The Man With The Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder. He also created some of the most famous logos and corporate identity campaigns of the century, including those for major companies such as AT&T, Quaker Oats, United Airlines and Minolta. His wife and collaborator, Elaine, joined the Bass office in the late 1950s. Together they created an impressive series of award-winning short films, including the Oscar-winning Why Man Creates, as well as an equally impressive series of film titles, ranging from Stanley Kubrick s Spartacus in the early 1960s to Martin Scorsese s Cape Fear and Casino in the 1990s. Designed by Jennifer Bass, Saul Bass’s daughter and written by distinguished design historian Pat Kirkham who knew Saul Bass personally, this book is full of images from the Bass archive, providing an in depth account of one of the leading graphic artists of the 20th century.
Drobo S (Starting at US$799)
  • Hard drive fails with all your work on it…aw crap, now what?  Stop that situation from ever happening and get yourself a nice external RAID backup.  Drobo S is a five-drive storage array that features a triple interface (Firewire 800, USB 3.0 and eSATA connections) and single- or dual-drive redundancy, making it ideal for creative professionals and small businesses with “set it and forget it” storage needs.  Works for both Mac & PC!

SpacePilot PRO 3D Mouse (US$399)

  • For the serious 3D modelers, this is like the Rolls-Royce of computer mice.
Vimeo PLUS Membership (US$60/year)
  • Like showing off your work but hate the long convert lines and no HD embedding?  Vimeo Plus is for you!  A plus account includes unlimited HD embedding, advanced user statistics, 1080P playback & AVCHD support, and mobile conversion of your videos!
Tell us your wish list in the comments section!  Have a Happy Holiday from all of us at MotionLeague!

[Image from Andrew Kelsall]


Free #C4D Models: Holiday Pack

Tis the season!  Here are 4 free Cinema 4D models for use in you holiday animations this season!  You’ll get the 4 models along with the .OBJ format versions for people using other 3D programs and earlier versions of Cinema 4D.  Included in the files are the HDRI textures I used for some of the nice reflections.  Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

Download Holiday Pack

Country Music Styleframe by Paul Crandall

Conceptualisation and the creative process


Peter Crandall - abc styleframes

abc styleframes by Peter Crandall

I’ve started to work on slightly larger projects recently, and as with a lot of things in this business I’ve suddenly realised why people need things like storyboards and styleframes. They’re essential on larger and/or more complicated jobs. If you need to see examples of great styleframes, have a look at Nate Howe’s work, Peter Crandall’s site  or the artists featured on – Read More –

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