The eye craves depth. When an animation is mostly 2D, any subtle extrusions, shadows, reflections and shading will automatically stand out to the viewer. They might not be aware of why an element stood out the way it did, but the slight complexity will really take a 2D motion graphics piece to the next level. After recently completing a 90 second animation for Coverforce, I thought it would be interesting to look at the methods involved in incorporating 3D into a traditional 2D motion graphics workflow.
If you haven't seen the animation yet, you can watch it below:
3D can seem quite daunting, knowing that rendering image sequences (and multiple passes) will become a nightmare to revise and even get into place to begin with. I'm the kind of animator that hates not having instant feedback and the flexibility to change and experiment on the spot. Traditional 3D requires the hard render of an image sequence, which can then be integrated into your After Effects project, but when you're working to a deadline, you can't always afford to wait for 3D renders.
The recent release of Element 3D for After Effects has really revolutionised what is achievable in a short time frame. E3D allows instant interaction between 3D elements and traditional 2d right inside of After Effects at lightning fast speeds.
Coverforce allowed a perfect opportunity to implement subtle 3D elements into a mainly 2D project. After receiving 2D illustrator assets and storyboards, I saw some perfect opportunities to tie in these 3D moments, disguised in the 2D world.
Let's look at one of the more obvious scenes that uses 3D, which would be the crane and the buildings.
After modelling the crane in the 3D software, I separated the materials and objects by how they would appear and animate. This way, After Effects could handle all the rotations and movements of the crane directly through Element. I created a rig by parenting different parts of the crane to null objects, chaining one part to the next, eventually all being controlled by the World Transform values.
Flat Shading helps to integrate 3D elements into a 2D scene.
Another technique I have been using throughout these kind of animations is flat shading. It's really important to keep materials simple and basic if they are to fit into place alongside illustrator graphics. To do this, I separate materials in the 3D software, even different faces of the same object are assigned a different material. Then, back in Element, I have control over the exact colour of each face if I wish. To do this, I use the Illumination option (Checking use diffuse colour). I turn the ambient colour off, and diffuse off as well. Sometimes, if I want a little bit of shading I will keep the illumination at about 85% and then turn the diffuse back up to 10-20%. Of course, you can still add back in specular and reflective parts if needed.
For the section with the buildings that emerge from the Australia map, I took the flat 2D illustrator graphic and simply UV mapped the texture onto the front face of the building.
To create the construction model, I took a reference of the flat 2D illustrator graphic, and modelled a very simple 3D mesh that replicated the original 2D. Using the flat shading technique, I now had a 3d asset in E3D that could essentially be used the same way as a 2D asset, but now could be rotated and manipulated in true 3D.
These techniques are really effective, and with new software developments like E3D and the upcoming Cineware, the fusion of 2D and 3D will become more and more prevalent in an efficient post-production workflow.
Danny Stern is Lead Editor / Animator at Invisible Artists.