Until the After Effects CC 2017 update back in November (see what's new), we only had two options for 3D renderers in After Effects: Classic and Ray-traced.

Since then, however, there is now the CINEMA 4D renderer as a third choice for 3D renderings.

Let’s take a look at what the capabilities and limitations are for all three renderers. This will help you know what’s available now, and which one is best for your next After Effects 3D composition.

See also: 5 tips for creating amazing logo animation in After Effects

Classic 3D

This one has been around forever, and it’s the fastest of the three renderers. It also has some limited capability. It only supports 2.5D 3D which is that diorama style of 3D.

Here's an example of 2.5D style 3D rendered with After Effect’s Classic 3D renderer.

The Classic 3D system only needs but a few 2D layers with the inherent X and Y position dimensions any layer would have. Then with a flick of the 3D switch, the Z dimension position is added, and your flat layer has been turned into what is essentially a card. This became a style that many people use for all kinds of videos.

However, if you want to have text or shapes that have true 3D depth, you’ll need to use one of the other 3D renderers. So let’s investigate the pros and cons of our next renderer: the older Ray-traced 3D renderer.

Ray-traced 3D

First of all, you need to know how to change from the Classic 3D renderer to the Ray-traced 3D renderer. In the upper right-hand corner is a little button that will indicate which renderer After Effects is using at the time. Click that, and it will open your Composition Settings, as seen below.

When you click the button from here, the Composition Settings will automatically open up to the correct tab: the 3D Renderer tab. You’ll see a “Renderer” drop-down field, and it should currently say Classic 3D.

Select Ray-traced 3D and click OK.

Now your images might not spring to full-3D life right away if you’re building this yourself. We still need to create an extrusion. For this example, I’m using a text layer, but shape layers also work with Ray-traced 3D for extrusion. You’ll notice now that the text/shape layers you had set to 3D before now have another property when you toggle them down. We now see “Geometry Options,” and when that is further opened up, you see Bevel Style, Bevel Depth, Hole Bevel Depth, and Extrusion Depth. The Extrusion Depth property is what we use to push out our text.

I set my Extrusion Depth to 140.

The Bevel Style is a drop-down box that will allow you to choose if you want the angle of the face and sides of the 3D object to meet in a hard angular fashion or a smooth fall off. Nothing in the real world is a true right angle in terms of corners on objects. Giving a slight bevel to a 3D object is an excellent way to make it appear realistic. The Bevel Depth option is control over how smooth you want that curve to be.

I set my Bevel Style to Convex and my Bevel Depth to 4.0.

To start punching this up I’ll add a light just below my text, so I can cast some shadows and start to get more contrast within the letters. If I want my letters to have shadows and the full effect of the light, I’ll need to go into the Material Options and set:

  • Casts Shadows - On
  • Accepts Shadows - On
  • Accepts Lights - On
  • Appears in Reflections - On

There’s another option in there that I think is a great addition to your setup. That is the Light Transmission property. This will cause your shadows to take on the colour of the text or shape. This is very necessary if you’re trying to portray something even a little bit transparent but giving just a touch of it to an opaque shape helps sell the integration of everything together.

I turn my Light Transmission to 42%.

Now one thing you may have noticed is that all your shadows look noisy.

This is because the quality default is set to a 3 which is too low for a final production quality, but makes it very fast to move around the viewport and to do playback previews. 3 isn’t even as low is it can go, if you want to be able to zoom around, try choosing 1.

To increase the quality, you’ll click the same button we clicked in the upper right corner as we did at the beginning (only now it will say Ray-traced 3D) and then click Options in the 3D Renderer of the Composition Settings dialog that opens.

I turn up the quality from a 3 to an 8 which is still slightly noisy but looks much better. You can incrementally increase the quality until you find one that is right for you. Why do it slowly instead of just cranking it up to 64 (max)? Because the more samples you take, the longer it takes to render and to move around. I find that around 14 samples my render looks great, and anything more would have been overkill.

If you don’t like having to deal with noise in your preview and you don’t mind giving up just a little speed in some cases, then there is a 3rd rendering option for you: the CINEMA 4D renderer.

CINEMA 4D  

While this renderer is simply called CINEMA 4D, it isn’t going to require you to ever open C4D to use this powerful rendering engine. It’s totally fine if you’ve never used C4D, but you still want to try out its capabilities as a renderer. It’s a GPU renderer so if you’ve got a great graphics card you’re going to notice a significant uptick in the speed of your preview playback and render time in comparison to a machine built for CPU rendering.

There is a lot of information out there saying this renderer is faster, and it is when you’re rendering at a higher quality. When you’re working, however, the draft rendering speed of the Ray-traced renderer cannot be beat. So ultimately it depends on what you need more, faster working speed or faster final render time. You may even find that switching back and forth between the renderers is the best of both worlds. There are however some limitations of the CINEMA 4D renderer that we haven’t discussed yet.

Everything I mentioned before about the settings within the Geometry Options and the Material Options is the same between the two renderers, with one exception. The CINEMA 4D renderer does not support light transmission. This makes it a poor choice if you want to try to get a realistic look for a semi-transparent layer but overall and in most cases, this renderer is likely the faster and less noisy choice.

There are a few other limitations of the CINEMA 4D renderer that I didn’t really need for my particular experiment with the extruded text, but I’ll go ahead and mention them. These are features available with the Ray-traced 3D renderer but not the CINEMA 4D one:

  • Adjustment Lights
  • Transparency and index of refraction
  • Accept Shadows set to ONLY
  • Motion Blur
  • Camera depth-of-field

For some people that list might be a deal-breaker. Some people like adding their motion blur and camera DOF all at the same time especially if they are already working in After Effects. However, if I was doing the same animation in CINEMA 4D itself, I never render in motion blur or camera DOF. It just takes too long to render, and it gets tough to composite anything with it later.

Two plugins I highly recommend for adding motion blur and depth of field in post are ReelSmart Motion Blur (Pro) and Frischluft Lenscare respectively. RSMB Pro does a much better job than any motion blur effect you can add out of the box in After Effects like Force Motion Blur or Pixel Motion Blur. There isn’t anything like Lenscare that comes with After Effects, so it’s definitely a must; however, you do need depth maps to plug-in so that it can work.

There really isn’t one of these renderers that stands out above the rest. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve in your project and the amount of time you have to do it within.

About the Author

Laura is a passionate visual effects and motion graphics author at Pluralsight.. Her favourite projects are her two in-depth After Effects introductory courses on Pluralsight, which were each built around training motion artists and VFX artists, respectively. Laura has taught thousands of artists everything from shot-tracking and rotoscoping to motion design, and she has a passion for mid-century modern design (and her rambunctious dog Otis). If you ever need to reach out for questions, comments, or to discuss nerdy motion designer things, feel free to reach out on Twitter.

About Pluralsight

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