By Neil Bennett | on May 18, 2009
Pros: Excellent, high quality 3D mesh warp tool, displacement map support for advanced mesh creation and animation.
Cons: Pricey for a single function plug-in.
Digieffects latest plug-in, Freeform AE, aims to bolster After Effect’s 3D toolset, allowing you to warp layers in 3D in a way that’s just not possible using the core application. It combines a 3D version of After Effects’ own Mesh Warp tool with the ability to distort layers in 3D using an image as a displacement map, creating a cohesive whole that many motion graphics artists will love.
The simplest way to use Freeform AE is like the Mesh Warp Tool. The filter divides your layer into horizontal and vertical zones in the Comp window – up to 20 in each direction. As with the Mesh Warp tool, you can drag each vertex point to warp the surrounding zones – but with Freeform AE, you can drag the points in Z as well as X and Y. This has uses from adding a 3D spin to traditional sports-style motion graphics – literally if you wish, as the warp can be keyframed – to fine tuning lighting VFX by pulling and pushing how it flows over your comp. To make it simpler to use, you can limit the warp to one dimension.
As well as using the same on-screen controls as AE, Freeform AE is also integrated with AE’s 3D system, so you can use the standard set of cameras and lights. This makes including ‘Freeform’-ed layers in complex compositions of 3D layers very easy indeed.
To fine-tune your mesh, you can adjust the smoothness of your 3D mesh by setting the number of subdivisions in each zones (see below). The more subdivisions you have, the nearer to a curve your warp will appear. You can also the level of anti-aliasing and image filtering. Depending on the power of your workstation and the resolution and complexity of your project, you’ll probably want to set these low when working and ramp them up for the final render.
You’ve also got controls over the positioning of the mesh in 3D space, and over what appears on the rear of the layer if it comes into shot – which could be a mirrored version of the front, or even a separate layer.
Modifying a mesh by hand can be time-consuming, so Freeform AE can warp a layer based on a displacement map in a similar way to the Displace function in Re:Vision FX’s RE:Map plug-in. Freeform AE’s power is that you can then use the grid to fine tune this – so for example you could use a radial gradient to bulge a layer in the middle and then distort this manually. For more complex results, you could keyframe the gradient to create a ripple effect.
Digieffects says that Freeform AE ships with ‘dozens’ of presets to make using it even faster, but these weren’t included in our review version.
Our only criticism of Freeform AE is that – at £199 – it’s pricey for a single function plug-in. However, considering its power and the time it can save you on 3D compositions, it’s more than worth it.