VideoCopilot Element 3d review

I was searching for a way to combine the AfterEffects 3d Camera Tracker with Blender. While Blender can do just about everything the 3d Camera Tracker can do (some things better), the workflow is a lot more difficult in Blender. In Blender you have to set up track points, add a floor, camera, etc. With the 3d Camera Tracker you press a button. The rest is automated. Combine that with the fact that very few post production and VFX teams use Blender and you kind of have to turn to different software.

Enter Element 3d…

Element 3d is a VideoCopilot plugin for AfterEffects ($149.00) that lets you create 3d objects in Blender (or any 3d software that exports OBJ files) and insert them into a AfterEffects layer. Once in the layer you have the ability to replicate, rotate, scale, move, and place into an aftereffects scene. Combined with the 3d Camera Tracker you can easily add 3d objects to video. Element 3d accepts diffuse, specular and normal maps. If you have multiple meshes it also allows you to manipulate the meshes. I must add though, you cannot manipulate individual meshes individually, you have to do it as a group. For example, if you fracture a sphere, you can manipulate all the pieces together (scale, position and rotation), but can not take an individual piece and move that single piece.

That being said, you can separate a mesh based on materials and manipulate each individual piece that way. For example if you have a car and make the body one material, the tires another, and the doors another, you can animate each separately.

You also have the ability to add 2d nulls (empties) to your imported 3d object and they attach themselves to the 3d model. An example of this might be importing a cube, attaching a 2d null to a corner of the cube, then parenting a sphere to the 2d null. The sphere would stay locked to the null position no matter how position, rotate or scale the cube (even when animated). While you have control over the position, rotation, and scale of your 3d object, you can also attach a 3d null to it which makes animating position, rotation, and scale a lot easier.

The 3d objects you add react to aftereffects lighting, so you can match the 3d object to your video lighting. You also have several rendering options such as fog, AO, and DOF. Additionally there is a world mask that works great with lens flares so they are masked when the object is in front of the lens flare. Typical workflow to add a 3d object to video is this:

  1. import video
  2. press the 3d trackers button
  3. add a “solid” layer and drop element 3d on to it
  4. open element 3d setup
  5. import an object
  6. import the maps
  7. exit setup
  8. move the 3d object into place
  9. set up the lighting.

That’s it. You can add a static 3d object that reacts to camera movement in less than 5 minutes.

Each element 3d layer has up to 5 different “groups” that you can control. Each group can have multiple 3d objects, but all the objects in the group have a single way to control them. For example, if you are building a city from 3d buildings, each group can have multiple buildings. That group can be manipulated to randomly spread the buildings out on a plane. You can rotate all the buildings on their own anchor point, but all buildings will be rotates the same amount. (say you want to spin the buildings on the Y axis (Z axis in blender)). There is an option to randomly rotate objects.

Each group is basically a particle system and each 3d object is a particle. You decide how many 3d objects in the group will be replicated by changing the number of particles. And much like Blender you can animate virtually every setting.

There is a learning curve for element 3d, but there are enough tutorials out there that if you play around with it for a weekend you will be able to do some pretty amazing things. If you create motion graphics, then this is a dream come true. It can also be used for VFX. Personally I plan on using it for both. The render times are very impressive. Live preview is very responsive even at full resolution.

On the down side, each 3d plugin for aftereffects has it’s own 3d world coordinates. This include plugins like Trapcode particular and element 3d. So while they all use the same 3d camera and lights, moving the layer they are on in 3d space does not do what you think it will. Each plugin has it’s own 3d world coordinate fields you can manipulate. It takes a little time to get use to moving things in 3d space. This is more an issue when creating motion graphics than when you are adding a 3d object to video.

All and all, if you use aftereffects and have an extra $149.00 lying around this is a very good investment.

Here is a 6 second “city fly through” I created. I used models from a videocopilot expansion pack for the models. The entire thing took 15 minutes to create.