Preparing Your Scene

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Lightning Fast Animation in Element 3D

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Master the intricacies of Element 3D, the fast-rendering Adobe After Effects plugin with this book and ebook

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by Ty Audronis | March 2014 | Open Source

This article by Ty Audronis, the author of the book Lightning Fast Animation in Element 3D, deals with the use of Element 3D to set up complex 3D scenes for animation in After Effects. Here, you will learn how to set up your scene, light it, and get a camera ready.

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)

Element scenes in After Effects

Element 3D scenes, unfortunately, are currently limited to five object groups. An object group is a collection of geometrical objects that is animated together. Under some circumstances, you may have multiple objects in a group, but not in this example. As a result, much of this article is devoted to tricks to overcome the limitations in Element 3D.

We're going to cover the following topics:

  • Saving your objects to your library so that they may be used in other instances of the Element plugin

  • Setting up your objects in the After Effects interface and generating null objects to animate them easily

  • Setting up your camera and lights in the scene and creating a new null object to create a focal point for the depth of field

Let's get started!

Saving your objects

First things first:

  1. Let's create a folder in your Model Browser window.

  2. Navigate to your default objects directory for Element 3D (Documents/VideoCopilot/Models).

  3. Create a folder called BookModels inside that directory.

  4. Now, open your AEX project and go into the Scene Setup window in Element 3D.

    Your folder won't show up in the Model Browser (because there are no objects in that folder just yet). Let's save the lampshade glass to the presets now. The following screenshot shows the interface for saving your objects:

  5. Right-click on the lampshade glass object and select Save Model Preset. Now, you will see the directory we created. Unfortunately, there is no way to create a new folder from within this window yet. (Hence the need to navigate to the directory using your Windows Explorer (or Finder on Mac) to create the directory first.) Save all of your objects to this directory. Save them as shown in the following list:

    • lampshade(glass)

    • Lamp(base)

    • Table

    • WineBottle

    • PepperShaker

    • SaltShaker

Note that we created a pepper shaker (in addition to our salt shaker). This was done by saving the salt shaker, then changing the texture do something darker, and saving it again as a pepper shaker. This can be great help when creating slight variants in your objects. The following screenshot shows how your Model Browser window should look:

Preparing our scene

Now that we have all our objects saved as presets, we can start populating our scene. Start off by deleting all your objects from the scene (click on the small X on the right side of the object bar in the Scene window). Don't worry. This is why we set them up as presets. Now we can bring them back in the right order.

Setting up the lamp

Let's start with the lamp. We'll be putting the lamp back in its lampshade and adding bulbs to the sockets. To do this, let's execute the following steps:

  1. In your Model Browser window, click on your lamp, then your lampshade, navigate to your starter pack, and click on bulb_on.

  2. Then in your Scene window, put the lamp in group 1, the shade in group 2, and the bulbs in group 3, as shown in the following screenshot:

But wait. There's more! We have one bulb for four light sockets (it's a pretty huge bulb). That's okay! Element 3D wasn't really designed as a full 3D animation package. This is probably why it still has some of the limitations it does. Instead, it was designed as a way to use 3D objects as particles and replicate them in interesting ways. We'll get more into these features in the advanced sections, but it's time to get your feet wet by replicating the bulbs.

Replicating the bulbs

The shade and lamp should appear perfectly together (as if they were modeled together). The bulb is a stock asset of Element 3D, so it must be adjusted using the following steps:

  1. First, let's create a camera (so that we can accurately look around). Create a camera layer called Camera 1 using the stock's 50 mm preset. Remember, you can move your camera around using the camera tool (press C on your keyboard, then the mouse buttons will let you move your view around).

  2. Position your camera over the lamp so that we can see through the lampshades.

  3. Now, open the effect controls again for the ElementWineAndLamp layer. We don't need to touch anything in group 1 or 2 (that is, our lampshade and lamp).

  4. Since we created a symmetrical lamp, all we need to do is position one bulb and replicate it (like an array).

Positioning and replicating an object

Open Group 3 and then the Particle Replicator option.

If we set the replicator shape to a plane, we will be able to replicate them all symmetrically on a plane. Pretty self explanatory, right? Let's set that first, as setting it later will change the coordinate system for our object, and as a result, it will look like it rests.

Down the list, a little away from the Replicator Shape parameter are our Position XY, Position Z, and Scale Shape parameters. Mess with these to get your bulb directly in one of the bulb sockets. Then, you can turn the Particle Count parameter up to 4, and you'll end up with four bulbs positioned directly in the sockets.

If they're not lined up, you're not out of luck! Directly under the Scale Shape parameter is Scale XYZ. It's important to note that Scale XYZ does not scale the object. Instead, it scales the replicator shape. There is no way in Element 3D to scale objects on their individual axis as of yet. Just remember, Scale Shape scales the geometry and Scale XYZ scales the replicator. You can also use the Particle Size parameter inside Particle Look to adjust object sizes.

If you used your own lamp for this exercise, play around; you'll get it. If you downloaded the sample lamp, this screenshot shows the correct settings to get the bulbs into place. Don't worry if they're not exact. They aren't the hero objects in this animation. They're just there in case we see them either through the lampshades, or catch a glimpse. The result and setting should look similar to what is shown in the following screenshot:

Lighting the lamp

Luckily, lighting our scene is relatively easy, there's a lamp! Let's create an ambient light first. If our scene is going to be believable, we're going to need a blue light for ambient lighting. Create a new light with the type as Ambient, a light blue color, and an intensity of 10 %. Why so low? We want dramatic lighting in this scene. We'll keep the details without losing contrast with a very low ambient light. Call this light Ambient Light. The settings should look similar to what is shown in the following screenshot:

So, why did we make it blue? Well, for a lamp to be on, it's probably night. If you look at any film footage, night is really denoted by shades of blue. Therefore, the light of night is blue. The same reason our lamp bulbs will have a bit of orangey-yellow to them. They're incandescent bulbs, which have a very warm look (also called color temperature). If you're going to be an animation god, you have to pay attention to everything around you: timings, lighting, and colors (actual colors and not just perceived colors). With all this in mind, let's create our first (of four) bulb lights by performing the following steps:

  1. Create a point light that is slightly orangey-yellow (be subtle) with an intensity of 100 percent. Don't worry just yet about any shadows or falloffs. These will actually be controlled within Element 3D. Name this light Light 1. The settings should look similar to what is shown in the following screenshot:

  2. Now, position this light directly on your first light bulb. Make sure you rotate your camera to ensure that it's placed properly.

  3. Once that's done, you can simply duplicate the light (Ctrl + D) and position the next on another bulb, either on the x or the z axis, and eventually have four lights (one on each bulb) in addition to your ambient light.

    The result should look like the following screenshot. Remember, lighting is the key to stunning looks. Always take the time to light your scenes well. The following screenshot shows the location of the lights directly on the bulbs:

We'll finalize our lighting's falloff and the illusion of shadows in a bit. For now, let's move on.

Adding the table and wine bottle

Obviously, we're not going to be able to add the wine bottle, salt and pepper shakers, and the table to one layer of Element in AEX. Hence, we have the naming convention calling out the lamp and the bottle. We're going to break up our other objects across other layers within AEX. We'll get to that, but don't worry, there's a trick to do this. First, let's set up this layer.

Place the table and move it (and scale it) using the techniques you already learned for positioning the first lamp. Position this table under the lamp. Do not move the lamp. Then, do the same with the wine bottle, placing it on top of the table. Use group 4 for the table and group 5 for the bottle. So far, your scene should look similar to what is shown in the following screenshot:

Finishing the initial setup

Now we have all of the five groups used up, but before we can add more objects (in other layers), we want to finalize our render settings (so we don't have to remember them and keep adjusting more Element layers). This will make all our layers look the same for rendering and give the illusion they were all on the same layer.

Faking shadows

Again, there is no ray tracing in Element 3D, and because the lights are native to AEX and they only project shadows on objects, AEX can see for itself that using AEX's shadow engine isn't an option. So we have to fake them. This can be done with something called ambient occlusion (AO).

When the light goes into a corner, it has a hard time bouncing out again. This means that by nature, corners are darker than non-corners. This principal is called ambient occlusion. Element 3D does have this feature. So, by turning the AO way up, we can fake shadows. Some surfaces receive shadows better than others, so we'll have to play around a bit.

  1. Start by going into your E3D effect controls.

  2. Under Render Settings, you'll see Ambient Occlusion. Tick the Enable AO checkbox.

  3. Also, turn the intensity up to 10 and crank up the samples to 50. The sample amount is simple: the larger the number, the smoother the AO. However, the smoother the AO, the longer the render time.

  4. Crank up the AO Radius option to 3.2 and the AO Gamma option to 3.2. Watch what happens on your Preview window while you do this. Your settings should look similar to what is shown in the following screenshot:

Metals don't receive shadows very well, so let's go turn it down on the gold. Go back into your scene settings, and on the gold shader (down in the advanced section), turn down your AO Amount option to 0.42. The final result should look similar to what is shown in the following screenshot:

Light falloff

When a candle is very bright at its flame but against a far wall, the wall is lit dimly. This effect is true with light bulbs as well. This principle is called Light Falloff. To add some realism and dramatic lighting to our scene, let's adjust this setting.

Inside Render Settings in the Element effect controls, you'll see Lighting. Turn the Light Falloff setting up to 2.49. The larger this number, the more severe the falloff. The result should look similar to what is shown in the following screenshot:

Lightning Fast Animation in Element 3D Master the intricacies of Element 3D, the fast-rendering Adobe After Effects plugin with this book and ebook
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The shakers

Now that we have all of our Environment settings, let's get the shakers in there and prepare the camera by executing the following steps:

  1. First, duplicate your Element layer (Ctrl + D) and rename the new layer ElementShakers.

  2. Now, go into your Scene setup and remove everything except for the table (leave the table in group 4).

  3. Load your salt shaker to group 1 and your pepper shaker to group 2. Your Scene setup should look similar to the following screenshot:

  4. Go back to your effect controls. I know now that the wine bottle and lamp look like they're under the table. Don't worry, we'll fix that in a bit. First, all of the settings are still set for the lamp and shades in group 1 and 2. We need to reset these.

  5. At the bottom of group 1 and 2 are the Group Utilities settings. Open Copy/Paste Group. This setting doesn't copy objects. It copies the group settings or resets them. Reset the settings for group 1. Then, using what you learned earlier, position and scale the salt shaker on the table.

  6. Now, copy the group settings from group 1, and in the settings for group 2, paste the copied settings. You can just move the pepper shaker a little and have it in the right spot. The result so far should look similar to what is shown in the following screenshot:

Mask it off

Draw a mask around the area that needs to be visible of the ElementShakers layer, leaving the area of the lamp and bottle out of the mask. It should look similar to what is shown in the following screenshot:

Final touches

We just need an easy way to control our camera, some depth of field, and an easy way to control our objects. Welcome to the wonderful world of null objects!

Adding a camera and controls

First, create a null object and call it focus. This will be our camera's point of interest and the control for our depth of field. Open the Transform and Camera Settings sections of your camera layer. Add an expression to Point of Interest and Focus Distance properties, and pin the point of interest to the position of the focus null.

Now, enter the following code into the expression for Depth of Field:


This code calculates the distance from the camera to the focus null and places that value in the focus distance of the camera. Turn on the Depth of Field parameter and you should see your scene change. Set your aperture to 100 pixels, and this will give you a nice dramatic depth of field effect.

The following screenshot is what you can expect to see with these settings:

Controlling objects with null objects

Inside the effect controls for Element 3D, go to the Group Utilities setting for the lamp, lampshades, bulbs, wine bottle, and both the shakers, and click on Create under Create Group Null. As you create each null object, rename it in your layer window so that you can keep track of the objects (as shown in the following screenshot). Then, parent the null objects of your Lampshades and LightBulbs to the LampControl null object. Your computer screen should look similar to the following screenshot:

Now, all you have to do is move the LampControl null object around in your scene and your entire lamp (shades, bulbs, and so on) will move around the scene. Null objects are a very handy way of moving objects around. You may note the World Transform section in Element and wonder why we don't use this because this changes the orientation and position of all of our groups simultaneously. It would not only move the lamp but every other object in the scene.


In this article, we learned how to set up a scene with Element 3D. We learned how to position, replicate, and scale objects. We also learned to set up our render settings for lights, faking shadows as well as assign AEX null objects to control our objects during the animation process. Finally, we learned how to overcome a major shortcoming of Element 3D (limitation of groups) to allow more objects to be in our scene.

Resources for Article:

Further resources on this subject:

Lightning Fast Animation in Element 3D Master the intricacies of Element 3D, the fast-rendering Adobe After Effects plugin with this book and ebook
Published: March 2014
eBook Price: $13.99
Book Price: $22.99
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About the Author :

Ty Audronis

Ty Audronis has a rather unique background in the media world. He's often asked how he got into the field. Well, it's a bit of a story, but he'll be as brief as possible narrating it in his own words. I had the great benefit of having a father in the semiconductor industry and an overachieving (to say the least) family. So, my family was the first of all my friends to have a computer in 1980 (well, maybe 1981, I'm not sure). When other kids were fooling around, I was out hooking up neighbors' computers and showing them how to use them. I was only seven (or eight).

In the mid 80s, my father hired me to do some quality assurance (QA), and illustrations for his software. This was my first paid graphics gig (laughable by today's standards). I used "Dr. Halo" on a monochrome computer, but still, that was a huge advantage over other kids.

At the same time, I was learning music and programming, and doing anything where I could mix art and technology. Remember that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where that kid got hold of a cool laser thing that meant he could sculpt anything he liked? That was me, tech and art all the way.

After some difficulties in the music world after high school, I joined the Navy. I forgot all about art for the time but stayed with technology. I was stationed in Japan and served aboard the USS Independence (CV-62) from 1992-1994 in a helicopter squadron. No, I wasn't a pilot or anything glamorous (just a lowly E-3). I got hurt in a typhoon off the coast of Guam and was retired.

The Navy began to pay for my college fees, and I decided to be a lawyer. I won many debates, and got a national bronze medal for informative speaking. However, my mentor for the debates told me not to be a lawyer. She said that I debate effectively but I couldn't stand people lying. She said I'd have a heart attack before 35, so I went into marketing.

Why is all of this relevant? Because inadvertently, I found art again. I figured, "I may as well learn about animation and production, because I'll need to tell them what I want in their language." So, I took a computer animation class. This is really where my career took shape.

The class was taught by a man that was to become my mentor, Rick Vertolli. He and his assistant (Randy Wall) shaped my animation skills, and resparked my desire to create. After that class in Wavefront (yes, way back then, our workstations were Silicon Graphics "Indy" machines), I found myself interning for Rick over the summer and rewriting the text book to be used in Lightwave and later, Maya. This was the first taste I had of writing how-tos. Over the years, I became Rick's assistant, lectured several times, and was the full-time lab assistant. I changed my major to a special major in Computer Generated Special Effects. I also won my first award in animation during this time (a "Rosebud").

After working with Rick, Randy, and Chris Ficken as an intern and lab assistant for four years, I was recruited by frog Design as a design technologist. My knowledge of programming and graphics was unique and was in high demand during the .coms. Those were the days. We had our desks in a circle with a model train and slot car track with every video game system on the market, coffee time at 4 PM, soccer in South Park (in San Francisco) at 5 PM, and unreal tournaments across the intranet (against other frog offices world-wide) at 5:30 PM nearly every day. Yes, we worked hard but we played hard too.

Sorry, I digress. At frog, I got to work with some of the world's best companies, had access to design, animation, web development, and just about every toy a geek artist could desire. But then, .com turned into .bomb and layoffs came. I still remember lunches on Bryant St. in San Francisco and going up and down the street to auctions in Web MD and (to name a few). Cars were clogging San Jose International airport (techs on H-1 visas just abandoning their Mercedes and BMWs and flying back home to England, France, India, and so on). An auction car would be a steal back then; times were scary. My first child was born; I was terrified.

So, I returned to entertainment. I went to a local TV station in Chico, CA and worked on producing ads for a few months. I moved on to an ad agency for a few years (worst job ever). Then, I met up with another mentor of mine, Robert (Bob) Condos.

Bob gave me my first real production gig. I came on a show called "So, You Want to Be a Star" as the producer, with Bob as the EP. Everything up to this point in my career was a concept. I used every bit of my art, tech, and personal knowledge, and we pulled off the impossible. It was a 14-week show on a shoestring budget. In the end, I was the producer, director, and editor. We had a lot of help from some great people but I learned a lot during that show. It's still my favorite experience in entertainment; not the most prestigious, not the most recognizable, but the best. This is when my second child was born.

At the same time, I was in a partnership that started an Internet radio station that catered to MMO gamers in Matrix Online. Machine radio was fun, amazing, and a great experience. I learned a lot about online community building, appealing to markets, and what appeals to people in general. I couldn't devote enough time to machine radio (due to the TV show I was producing), so I let one of the partners take over—a decision I'll regret until the day I depart this sweet earth. The station then died.

After a few nondescript tech jobs, I was recruited to California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to help with the web redesign during their rebuild in 2007. Near the end of the web relaunch, the Planetarium Director heard that I had some TV experience. So, I had lunch with him and gave him a few nuggets of advice on setting up the Science Visualization studio (basically, a full production and effects department for the purpose of making visual representations of scientific principles, among which are planetarium shows). We built the (at that time) world's largest all-digital dome, a 3D theater, and a full animation and editing department. It was amazing. We won many international awards and played with some of the entertainment industry's hottest technology.
The next four years were spent as the senior/supervising editor of Science Visualization there. It depends on who you ask and what year it was as to whether I was senior or supervising. It was the same job and I'm not too hung up on titles so… meh. I got to work with some great people, make some good friends, and work on some mind-blowing projects (from going to NASA rocket launches to talks with Neil Tyson to programming interactive exhibits to making friends with Pierre the Penguin). This was truly a great time in my career. However, nothing lasts forever and eventually, my position was removed from the department and I was laid off.

I spent some time teaching, spent some time contracting (again, with frog, some movies, and so on), and eventually landed at a TV production company. A year of "murder-porn" (as South Park calls shows like I [Almost] Got Away With It) for Investigation Discovery, some travel channel, and History shows. I hate what cable television has become, but it's a living and it pays fairly well.
Now, I've moved away from civilization, and my wife and I live in a small town off Interstate-5 in Northern California. It's private, quiet, and I still get to have my fun. Currently, I am strictly a contractor. I work on anything from court cases (graphic simulations, recreations, audio/video cleanup, and so on) to feature movies. I also write for Videomaker magazine occasionally. Yes, I still do a lot of graphics. However, what I'm enjoying the most right now is shooting with drones. It's a mix of my media and Navy careers, and it's truly fun.

So, that's my career. Well, at least the brief summary of it. How did I get into this business? Luck. A series of coincidences and opportunities (that turned out just right) have led to my success. Don't get me wrong; I've worked very hard. However, I've truly been blessed. Not just with opportunity, but with the people who have given me these opportunities. I'd like to thank all of the people mentioned above

(Rick Vertolli, Randy Wall, Chris Ficken, Bob Condos, the entire staff at "So, You Want to Be a Star", and the amazing folks I've worked with over the years).

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