The Beginner’s Guide to Working in 3D Space in Adobe After Effects

An Intro to 3D


After Effects is an extremely powerful program. I believe it’s much more powerful than most people think. The application has many features that often go overlooked, such as the Classic 3D renderer. This feature provides a number of tools and settings which allow you to change the AE workspace from 2D to 3D. You can create and customize virtual lights and cameras for some interesting and dynamic results. If you’ve been using the program for a while, this feature can help bring your motion graphics to the next level.

For more advanced features such as extruding text and shape layers, you can work in the Cinema 4D or Ray-traced 3D renderer. To access and change the renderer, go to Composition > Composition Settings and select the 3D Renderer tab. However, since this is a beginner’s guide I’m going to stick with the Classic 3D renderer workspace.

To get started with a 3D project, we first need to have a few 3D layers with which to work. It’s important to realize that when working in the Classic 3D renderer workspace we’ll simply be manipulating 2D layers in 3D space. There will be no 3D objects with any kind of extrusion. While we will call these layers “3D”, they’re still flat images. We’re essentially creating a third dimension (Z space) to our project and adding Z attributes to our 2D layers. Let’s have a closer look at how to achieve this.

Switching to 3D


To convert a layer from 2D to 3D, simply select the 3D layer switch in the Timeline or go to Layer > 3D Layer.

01 3D Switch

If you can’t see the 3D layer switch, press the Toggle Switches/Modes button located at the bottom of the Timeline panel. Again, the 3D switch essentially adds a third dimension (Z axis) to a layer. With this new axis comes a plethora of additional Transform properties, including Z information for Position, Anchor Point, and Scale. You’ll also notice Orientation and individual Rotation properties for X, Y and Z axes.

Working with 3D Layers Transform Properties

Also, when you switch a layer to 3D, two new sections appear underneath the Transform properties—Geometry and Material Options. Since you’re working in the Classic 3D renderer, Geometry Options remains greyed out. These options are only available when working in the Cinema 4D or Ray-traced 3D renderer, which we won’t be discussing in this tutorial.

The Material Options specify how a 3D layer reacts to light layers. Nine different options allow you to customize how your layer will accept light and shadows.

Working with 3D Layers Material Options

If you deselect the 3D switch, your layer will lose all of these additional properties and any associated keyframes. Any keyframes previously added to these attributes will remain lost, even if you reactivate the 3D switch.  So only click that button if you’re prepared to throw away that data.

Working with 3D Layers

A 3D layer has color-coded arrows that allow you to manipulate the layer on its various axes—red for X, green for Y, and blue for Z. As you hover your cursor over the layer’s arrows, a tooltip will show you which axis you’re over. This is especially helpful when working with multiple 3D elements in a complex workspace.

Often times when working in 3D space you can’t tell where an asset is located in Z space (the space that measures the axis that moves towards you and away from you). A layer might even disappear entirely behind another one. To get a better view of your work area, simply change the view layout.

The 3D View Popout menu is located at the bottom of the Composition panel and allows you to view your comp from a variety of angles. These angles include Active Camera, Front, Left, Top, Back, Right, or Bottom. It’s nearly impossible to work on a 3D project without occasionally changing the view of the composition.

3D Popup View 01

If you prefer to view several angles at the same time, go to the Select View Layout drop-down menu. Choose to view 1, 2, or 4 angles simultaneously. You can also take a bird’s eye view of your project with three different Custom Views.

3D Popup View 02



An additional way to view your project is with a virtual camera. While the preset views are more-or-less fixed, cameras allow you to fly around in 3D space and specify exactly from which angle you’re viewing the elements of your After Effects composition. A camera layer comes with all of the standard transform attributes, as well as a variety of features similar to a real-world camera. These include Zoom, Depth of Field, Focus Distance, Aperture, as well as a handful of other options. All of these camera attributes are key-framable to make smooth camera moves. Let’s have a look at how to work with cameras in After Effects.

Camera Layer

Working with Cameras

To create a camera, simply highlight the Timeline panel and select Layer > New > Camera.

When you create a new camera layer, a Camera Settings dialog box will appear. Here you can modify your camera attributes with a helpful visual reference. If you have a little technical knowledge of camera settings then you can customize to your heart’s content. Manually adjust the Film Size, Zoom, Angle of View and Focal Length. You can even Enable Depth of Field and customize the Focus Distance, Aperture, F-Stop and Blur Level. If you don’t want to modify all of the individual settings, simply choose a preset. Double click the camera layer at any time to reopen and make adjustments in this dialog box.

Camera Settings Dialog Box

Camera Settings

After Effects offers two different camera types—one or two-node. The only difference between a one and two-node camera is that a two-node includes and is oriented toward a “Point of Interest.” When you open up the Transform properties of a two-node camera layer, you’ll see a Point of Interest attribute with X, Y, and Z attributes. The Point of Interest essentially allows you to control what the camera is looking at very precisely, and it can come in very handy.

Camera Transform Properties

Just below the camera’s Transform properties, you’ll find thirteen different Camera Options. These thirteen properties include attributes inside the Camera Settings dialog box with a few additional tools to make detailed adjustments to the camera. These additional tools allow you to fine-tune how the camera’s iris is set up, and adjust how the camera deals with highlights. Again, to reopen and make adjustments in the Camera Settings dialog box, double-click the camera layer on the timeline.

Camera Layer Options

Amazingly, you can add keyframes to any and all of the thirteen camera options in the Timeline panel. Add keyframes for some interesting 3D camera effects, such as a snap zoom or a rack focus. The possibilities are truly limitless. Again, this is the time where knowing a little technical information about cameras will help you out greatly.

The Tools

There are various camera tools in After Effects that allow you to navigate and fly your camera around the 3D space of your composition. Pressing keyboard shortcut C will cycle between four different camera tools—Unified, Orbit, Track XY, and Track . Remember, in order to see what your camera sees, change the 3D View Popout at the bottom of the Composition panel to the specific camera, or select Active Camera. Now let’s take a closer look at each camera tool.

3D Camera Tools

Unified Camera Tool

The Unified Camera tool allows you to switch between the other three camera tools. Use a mouse to quickly jump between the Orbit, Track XY and Track Z camera tools.

Orbit Camera Tool

Using the Orbit tool will move, or “orbit”, your camera around the Point of Interest. The camera positions change, while the Point of Interest stays locked in place. Orbiting a one-node camera will only change the Orientation of the camera since there is no Point of Interest with one-node cameras.

Track XY Camera Tool

As the name implies, the Track XY camera tool will move the camera horizontally and vertically in 3D space. The Point of Interest also moves along with the camera.

Track Z Camera Tool

Again, as the name implies, the Track Z camera tool will move the camera forward and backward in 3D space.

Simulating Camera Moves


You can quickly create motion paths to simulate real-world camera moves by animating Position and Point of Interest attributes of a camera layer with a couple keyframes. Take a look at a few examples below.







Rack Focus




Just as you can create and customize a camera inside of After Effects, you can also create and customize lights that will interact with your 3D layers. You can also work with a variety of different light types and customize how each light interacts with layers, adjusting settings such as Intensity, Color, Falloff, and Shadow Darkness. Let’s have a closer look at lights.

Working with Lights

To create a light layer, simply highlight the Timeline panel and select Layer > New > Light. Once again, you can customize the light to your heart’s content in the Light Settings dialog box. Double click the light layer at any time to reopen this dialog box and adjust the settings.

Light Settings

When you create a new light layer, you have four different light types from which to choose: Parallel, Spot, Point, and Ambient. These light types differ slightly in their controls and how you use them in 3D space. Now let’s have a closer look at each light type.


A Parallel light gives off directional light from an infinitely distant source, mimicking sunlight. You can move a parallel light through 3D space by adjusting Position and Point of Interest Transform properties. Customize the light’s Intensity, Color, Falloff, Radius, Falloff Distance, Shadows, and Shadow Darkness in the Light Options section.

Light Parallel


The Spot light provides a source of light constrained by a cone, similar to a spotlight. This light has additional Transform properties, including Orientation and Rotation options. You can also adjust the angle and feather of the light’s “cone” in the light options section, as well as change Shadow Diffusion.

Light Spot


The Point light emits unconstrained omnidirectional light, much like light from a bare bulb. Since it is omnidirectional, this light doesn’t have a Point of Interest property. You only have Position attributes in the Transform section. The rest of the light options are the same as the parallel light.

Light Point


Ambient light contributes to the overall brightness of a scene. It has no source and casts no shadows. This simple light features only two options—Intensity and Color.  If you end up with shadows that are too harsh from your other lights, an ambient light can fill things out.

Light Ambient


Light Your Scene


There are two different ways to customize how a light interacts with a layer in 3D space.

Light Options

First, you can customize the Light Options of the actual light layer. As I mentioned above, each light type has a different combination of options and properties. Customize and precisely control your light with these options. For instance, change the intensity of a light via percentage, and the color via a color picker. Make adjustments to the cone angle and feather of a spot light. Select a light’s falloff type, radius, and distance. Specify if you want your layer to cast shadows, and then customize the darkness and diffusion of those shadows.

Light Layer Options

Material Options

In addition to changing the Light Options, you can adjust the Material Options of individual 3D layers. Material Options specify how a 3D layer reacts to light layers. Nine different options allow you to customize how your layer will accept light and shadows. These options include Cast Shadows, Light Transmission, Accepts Shadows, Accepts Lights, Ambient, Diffuse, Specular Intensity, Specular Shininess, and Metal.

3D Layer Material Options

It’s important to remember that only 3D layers will be affected by lights—standard 2D layers don’t have Material Options properties available.

Tips for Working in 3D Space


Working in 3D space is all about choices. Once you switch a 2D layer to 3D, you instantly have a number of additional properties to potentially customize. Add life to your composition with light and shadow. Navigate your 3D world with virtual cameras. Choose how lights and shadows effect layers, and how layers react to light and shadows. And as if that wasn’t enough, you can then keyframe nearly anything and everything.

The key to working successfully in a 3D project is preparation. Put some thought into what lights you want to use. Consider possible camera moves and graphic placement, etc. Storyboard your ideas so you can pre-visualize as much as possible. Think ahead.


Image © Art & Tech from Flickr. (CC BY-SA)

If this is your first time working with 3D in After Effects, all of this may seem daunting. However, once you begin to play around with the tools you’ll quickly find that creating motion graphics in 3D is quite simple. With a little curiosity and practice, you can achieve some very impressive results in no time.

And last but certainly not least, have fun.

  • Tom

    Excellent beginner’s summary!

    • Thanks Tom! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.