Adding 3D objects into a scene can be a pain, especially when you just need something simple like an extruded 3D title. Thankfully, software released over the past few years has simplified this process by implementing it into Adobe After Effects, a more familiar platform for many users.
With their overwhelming complexity, 3D programs can be rather discouraging at first. Learning to work with a completely new program can seem like overkill when you just need something relatively trivial like 3D titles.
With After Effects plugins like Cineware and Video Copilot‘s Element 3D, you can important 3D objects into a normal composition and render it all at once, rather than testing your patience with the trial and error of rendering and properly compositing separate sequences.
Cineware and Element 3D are both very effective ways to render 3D objects within After Effects, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Let’s compare the two!
Led by Andrew Kramer, Video Copilot released Element 3D in July of 2012, and the standalone plugin quickly reached widespread success due to its lightning-fast render times, simple interface, and overall convenience.
This was the first plugin to allow full control of 3D objects within After Effects, including everything past the stage of 3D modeling. Simple objects could actually be created on the fly with a just few clicks, without ever opening a 3D modeling program at all. Element was quickly thrust into the spotlight of tight deadline management, as it could save hours of work and render time with its mind-blowing Open GL custom render engine.
Traditional 3D rendering platforms generally take minutes or in some cases, hours, to produce a single frame, making required workflow painstakingly tedious, whereas Element immediately displays a preview of the final result within seconds. While the final results Element yields did not (and still do not) quite match the fidelity of rendering from a true 3D physical renderer, the time it saves make it very appealing to motion designers and video editors alike.
Quick and effortless results are without a doubt the selling point of Element 3D. In comparison, Cinema 4D’s plugin, Cineware, does not actually offer the ability to create even rudimentary shapes. Any 3D modeling, even of the most basic kind, must be done in Cinema 4D.
We’ll touch more on Cineware later, but for now just note the fact that Element can auto-extrude text with a simple “Extrude” button, and the release of Element V2 late last year introduced the ability to quickly generate simple 3D objects with basic modifiers and proportions. With simple tasks like generating 3D text or a sphere, it’s easy to see why Element has become so popular.
It features a respectable texture-mapping system to boot, with the interesting option to use an animated After Effects composition as a custom texture. Another extremely impressive feature of Element is its staggering particle simulation. It can render complex particle systems of up to five different 3D objects in close to real time (depending on your hardware), allowing hundreds of varying duplicate objects to be modified and rendered in minutes, rather than hours.
For even speedier results, the plugin even includes a series of preset bevels and objects for you to quickly apply to your scene. Here’s a brief tutorial from Andrew Kramer demonstrating the possibilities of Element’s replicator system.
Element’s object grouping system makes it a breeze to add some life to an otherwise static model. It may not have a physics engine, but Andrew Kramer shows that you don’t always need one to achieve some lifelike motion with something like a vehicle.
Element 3D begins to struggle when dealing with more complex, multi-group 3D objects, as well as animated .obj’s. Unfortunately, complicated files with slight flaws, or even none at all, tend to import poorly into Element. Subgroups may not appear, and many modifiers used in 3D modeling, such as cloners and the bend deformer, are generally not recognized.
While Element was mostly designed to handle fairly straightforward 3D content, it’s still disappointing that it doesn’t work quite as flawlessly with intricate objects as portrayed in Andrew Kramer’s promotional demonstrations. With that being said, Element has changed the industry, and it can still provide professional results faster and easier than any 3D program on the market. Element supports both .obj files (including animated sequences) and .c4d files.
Almost exactly a year after Element 3D was released, Maxon challenged the plugin with their own Cineware, which was included in After Effects for free starting with the release of CC. Its lack of a price tag and standard integration with After Effects immediately made it a bit more appealing to users hesitant to invest 200 USD in Element 3D. However, at first glance, Cineware’s interface makes it quickly apparent that it relies heavily on its parent program, Cinema 4D (Cineware includes the basic version, Cinema 4D Lite).
This might be dissuasive to users unfamiliar with Cinema 4D, but for those with a basic understanding of the program, or at least a willingness to learn, Cineware offers a lot more flexibility in achieving something more convoluted than what Element is capable of. It bridges Cinema 4D with After Effects in a way that allows adjustments to be made back and forth between the programs without ever having to re-import or re-render anything.
For instance, Cineware can import camera settings to After Effects from Cinema 4D, and vice versa, permitting you to animate and tweak your camera at any time, and in the program of your choosing.
Additionally, texture settings can be imported as well, which is great considering Cinema 4D has more extensive texture options than Element 3D — though with recent improvements such as subsurface scattering, Element 3D’s texture options are nothing to scoff at. While you can’t use compositions as textures in Cineware, you can more precisely adjust specific texture properties, such as specular, to closer meet your ideal look.
Because Cineware works with Cinema 4D so closely, it does not struggle to cope with modifiers and groups like Element does, making it possible (or at least easier) to deal with objects that include a lot of smaller parts.
Unfortunately, because Cineware only includes a very stripped version of Cinema 4D, known as Cinema 4D Lite, creating these complex objects on your own will require the purchase of the full version of Cinema 4D. In fact, Cinema 4D Lite does not offer much more in terms of 3D modeling than Element 3D does.
Both Element and Cineware support multi-pass rendering, but Cineware arguably does it better, by automatically separating each pass into its own layer within the After Effects composition. This is extremely useful for final touch-ups, in that you can arrange these layers and modify them amongst other adjustments the same way you would with any After Effects layer.
There is even the option to sync all of the passes in the timeline so that no matter how much you offset each layer, the timing of the pass itself will not be offset from the others — only the layer’s attributes will.
Cineware is also awesome for collaborative work, with support for the After Effects Collect Files function, which saves all files (including any imported 3D objects) into a single folder that can be sent to and accessed from another computer without the annoyance of relocating missing files. Now, Cinema 4D wizards and After Effects experts alike can work together more seamlessly than ever.
While Cineware does excel in many ways, it does lack some useful features found in Element. It does not have a built-in object replicator or particle simulation, nor does it include any of the preset objects and bevels that make Element so easy to work with. The fact that its workflow requires both Cinema 4D and After Effects to run at the same time makes it slightly more taxing on processing power as well.
It also only supports .c4d files, meaning you cannot directly import files from another 3D program without first converting them through Cinema 4D.
Despite these flaws, Cineware is a stellar 3D platform when it comes to camera movement, complicated 3D objects, and more advanced texture work — especially if you already own or are considering purchasing the full version of Cinema 4D.
Which One Is Right For Me?
In conclusion, both of these pieces of software are wonderful ways to create 3D content within After Effects, though which one is right for you will depend on what qualities you value most. Personally, I think that Element 3D meets the needs of its target audience better, as it better justifies the use of After Effects. Cineware, while extremely versatile, relies so heavily on its parent program, that it doesn’t always give enough reason to work in After Effects instead of just rendering from Cinema 4D.
If new to both plugins, I would recommend starting with Cineware and Cinema 4D Lite, since they come free with After Effects. Once you have experimented with it, you can better gauge if it is adequate for your needs, and from there decide whether to move to Element 3D or fully commit to the full version of Cinema 4D.
Both of these are a great deal of fun to mess with, so get out there and start creating!