After Effects & Maxon Cinema 4D tutorial: Create stunning 3D graphics

Jean Pichot demonstrates how to add dynamic geometric shapes and slick typography to 3D scenes

Intro


After Effects’ 3D engine provides a great toolkit for seamlessly adding elements to renders from 3D suites such as Cinema 4D. Here Swedish artist Jean Pichot details how to push a render created in this tutorial further by adding dynamic geometric shapes. If you want get started straight away, you can find both the Cinema 4D scene file and the After Effects Composition file in the project files. 

At the end of that tutorial, Jean demonstrated how to create a simple setup that allows you to easily go back and forth between both programs. Here he shows how this lets you build on the initial shapes, adding variations and alternate versions as you go. Each new render from Cinema 4D is meant to share layers in After Effects, and you can quickly explore ideas and directions.

“This was originally meant to be just one image,” says Jean, “created in-between projects to reset things creatively, and turned into a dozen within a few hours. I’ll walk you through the first one, then show you how to begin modifying things to get more out of it.”

As well as After Effects and Cinema 4D, you’ll need the £132 Plexus 2 3D plugin and the ‘name your own price’ Orient World script. While Jean’s project outputs a static image, his process works just as well as for animations.

Time to complete 

3 hours

Tools

After Effects, Cinema 4D R12 or later, Plexus 2 3D plugin, Orient World script

Project files

Files for this tutorial are downloadable from here

Step 1

STEP 1

Open After Effects and press Cmd/Ctrl +I to import the .aec file (After Effects Composition) containing the elements you rendered at the end of this tutorial – also available in the project files. This will import two folders: Sphere Dark and Special Passes. 

Toggle them both open and double-click the composition file within Sphere Dark. Next, drag the Tiff file from Special Passes and place it underneath all the other layers in the composition timeline. With the Tiff file still selected in the Project pane, choose Interpret Footage (Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + G and adjust how it’s used in the composition – set it to ignore Alpha for now. Now you should see the image.

Go to File > Project Settings (at the bottom), and set the project’s Working Space to 16 bits.


Step 2

STEP 2

In the Timeline, toggle off the reflection and ambient occlusion layers by click-dragging over their Eye icons – we’ll adjust these later. Add a new Adjustment layer with Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + Y (or Layer > New > Adjustment Layer) and call it ‘Curves’, then with it selected, go to Effects > Color Correction > Curves. Adjust the Curves settings to add some contrast and toning.

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Step 3

STEP 3

Add a new Solid (Cmd/Ctrl + Y), name it ‘Plexus’, and select Make Comp Size. Drag the layer under ‘Curves’ in the timeline, so it’s affected by colour adjustments. With that layer still selected, go to Effects > Rowbyte > Plexus. You won’t see anything yet. 

In the Effect Controls panel, click on the Add Geometry pull-down and select Primitives, then on the Add Renderer pull-down and select Lines. Repeat and select Triangulation.


Step 4

STEP 4

We’re still not seeing the results of the Plexus plugin, as its centre is away from the camera. Toggle off the camera and you’ll see it – it’s a big white square (see Step 3’s main screenshot). 

Plexus uses AE’s 3D space, so our world needs to be rotated properly so all the 3D elements behave as expected – at the moment it’s off because of how we lined up the camera in Cinema 4D, where we moved the small sphere along the Z-axis, instead of the X-axis. This is easy to fix. Toggle the Camera back on. Select the null object layers, including the sphere object nulls (toggle them back on if they were off). Notice how their Z-axis lines up on what should be our X-axis.


Step 5

STEP 5

With the null object layers still selected, press R to open and select the Rotation parameters. Set the Y Rotation of one of the layers to -90, which should set all of them to -90. They should now be correctly facing us. 

Next, we’ll set our world co-ordinates to this. To do so you’ll need the Orient World script. Open it by going to Window > Orient World and – with the Center null layer selected in the timeline – set Orient World to Layer mode. Change the Use Layer As drop-down to ‘wall (x,y)’, then press Apply. Now you should see a whole lot of white. That’s our Plexus objects getting in the way. 

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Step 6

STEP 6

Select the Plexus layer and mess around with the parameters in the Plexus Primitive Object section – Cube Width, Height, Center XY, Center Z and Rotations, as well as Maximum Distance in the Lines and Triangulation section – to get a feel for how things work. Then add Noise from the Add Effector pull-down.


Step 7

STEP 7

Push the Amplitude up on the Noise Effector to see how it affects the Plexus shape. Vary the Triangulation Renderer’s Maximum Distance settings, as well as the Lines Renderer’s. Adjust the Cube’s settings, including XYZ Points, Rotations as well as Positions. 

You’ll start to get something that works within the scene as you move things around. Hold Cmd/Ctrl and click-drag the numbers for finer adjustments. Change the Cube’s colour too, to fit more in with the scene. The settings I used are in these screenshots.


Step 8

STEP 8

Next, add some text. Select the Type tool (T) from the toolbar, and click in the viewport. Set it to right-justified in the Paragraph settings (Cmd/Ctrl + 7, or Window > Paragraph), and make it Bold. Type something (I went for ‘IMPACT,’ in capital letters), press Enter, and turn on 3D for this layer by toggling the 3D cube icon in the timeline. With that layer still selected, press P for position, and click-drag on the XY settings to move it around. Place it next to the Small Sphere. 

Press Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + H to toggle the axis handles off and on if they get in the way. Press Shift + S to show scale as well, size it to something that looks good.

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Step 9

STEP 9

With the text layer selected, press Cmd/Ctrl + D to create a duplicate. Move the copy below the original, press Shift + P and Shift + S, move and scale it down so it’s smaller than the first word and sits below it. Set this one to a Medium or Regular weight. Edit the text by pressing T and double-clicking on the type in the viewport. 

Repeat this a couple more times until you have something you like. For each new layer, go to the Parenting drop-down on the Timeline and select the first text layer from the list. This allows you to move all your text as a block by just moving the first (parent) layer. When you’re finished, select all of your layers and place them under the Curves adjustment layer.


Step 10

STEP 10

Since we have an alpha channel in our render, it’s easy to change the background. Right-click on the Sphere_Dark.tif layer in the timeline and select Reveal Layer Source In Project. With it selected in the Project pane, reopen the Interpret Footage window (Cmd/Ctrl + Opt + G) and set it to Straight-Unmatted. Press Cmd/Ctrl+Y to add a new layer, drag it under Sphere Dark tif. Go to menu, Effects > Generate > Fill and adjust the colour (I’ve gone for a heady red). 

Duplicate this layer (Cmd/Ctrl + D) and adjust its fill to something dark. Use the Pen tool (G) and click around that layer to create a vignette. Click-dragging will create handles and smoother curves. Close the mask by clicking back on the original node. With the layer selected, press M and set the mask to Subtract, then press F and set a reasonable amount of feathering.


Step 11

STEP 11

Now it’s time to start playing around to generate variations on your artwork that will lead to unexpected loveliness. You’ve created enough elements, so you can push it in a lot of different directions. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

Drag in the Object 1 or 2 multipass layers we rendered (which are in the Special Passes folder); mask portions out, turn on Reflection or Ambient Occlusion. Or you could turn off the main image layer and just use the special passes.

Since your scene is set up in After Effects, you can now go back to Cinema 4D and try out other things such as materials with displacement maps instead of Explosion FX (If you didn’t read last month’s tutorial, you can find the C4D scene in this month’s project files). Then, import the new renders into After Effects, duplicate this comp, and swap the image and multipass layers with the newly created ones. To do this, select a layer in the timeline to replace, then Alt-drag a new layer over it – or choose both and hit Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + /).

Alternatively, if you move the camera in Cinema 4D, you can import and open the new comp in After Effects, and copy-paste adjustment, type, and background colour layers from one comp to the other – since your 3D scene would have new camera co-ordinates. Copy-pasting a Plexus layer works as well, just adjust settings to fit the new composition.

With this, I created a dozen frames in an evening just by trying out different material and deformer settings in Cinema 4D. For some settings, such as material displacements you’ll need to make the spheres editable (by pressing C).

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Step 12

STEP 12

Let’s see just how far we can push our scene. Go back into Cinema 4D and open your Spheres scene. Disable the Explosion by clicking on the checkmark (it will turn into an X). Select both spheres and press C to make them editable. 

Create a new material and make it black. Toggle on Reflection and set it low (7%). Add Fresnel from the Texture pull-down, and set that to about half. Apply that to the Main Sphere.

Duplicate that material, make it white, and apply that to the Small Sphere (dropping over the existing material for both).


Step 13

STEP 13

Duplicate the camera (Cmd/Ctrl + drag) and set the view to the new one. With the Main Sphere selected in the viewport, Alt-drag to reposition the new camera view so it’s facing the Small Sphere. Use the 1 and 2 keys while dragging to pan and zoom.

Double-click the new black material to edit its settings. Activate Displacement. You’ll need to add something from the Texture pull-down first – anything will work, but in our case let’s add Noise. Activate Sub-Polygon Displacement, with a Subdivision Level of 6, and enable Round Geometry. 

You might want to lower the Subdivision Level settings during render previews unless you need a tea break. Also, turn off Ambient Occlusion in your render settings as rendering with Displacement significantly increases calculation times. 

Click on the Noise icon to open up its Properties, and you can pick from several noise types using the Noise pull-down. Clicking the small arrow to the right of the pull-down lets you preview the noise shape. Use the Up arrow in the top part of the window to go back a level, and try out Strength and Height settings.

See the screenshots (above right) for the settings I used.


Step 14

STEP 14

Experiment with the position of the Spheres, add an Area Light (Create > Light > Area Light), add more illumination objects for reflections, and so on. Save new scenes incrementally (in the File menu) as you go, and eventually you’ll end up with some interesting variations. 

The good part is that object buffers and render settings have already been set, so all you need to do is name your passes and render before bringing them all into After Effects and merging with previous layers.

Here’s what those two spheres look like now, with modified Plexus settings, a light background, and some blur. Anyway, you get the idea – keep exploring and see what comes up.

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