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Virtual Cinematography in After Effects 7.0

Mark Christiansen's far-reaching article discusses multiple aspects of replicating a physical camera in After Effects, with the ultimate goal of matching, influencing, or changing the camera's perspective.
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As visual effects artists, we strive not only to re-create the natural world realistically, but also the camera's view of the world. These goals are by no means the same. The camera sees only a limited piece of the world, and from a specific perspective.

Capturing a scene from this perspective requires a host of decisions that constitute a full-blown storytelling art known as cinematography. After Effects offers compositors the opportunity to re-create and even change some of these decisions, long after the crew has struck the set and called it a wrap. The title of this article may seem grandiose, given how many fundamental cinematographic choices are out of reach to compositors, but thinking like a director of photography and understanding the workings of the camera are the goals if you're going to fool the viewer into believing your effects shot.

For example, in After Effects you can do all of the following:

  • Take control of the After Effects 3D Camera to replicate the settings of a physical real-world camera
  • Interpret, manage, and re-create other effects of using a film or video camera, including grain and lens distortion
  • Make a 2D source appear three-dimensional
  • Re-create the look of camera blur and the effects of depth of field in the camera
  • Explore the looks of different cameras, including the fundamental distinctions between film and video

These seemingly disparate points all involve understanding how the camera sees the world and how film and video record what the camera sees. All of them transcend mere aesthetics, influencing how the viewer perceives the story itself.

2.5D: Pick Up the Camera

What if you could pick up a camera and move it around a world of objects that were flat and two-dimensional, yet were related to one another and to a virtual camera in 3D space? That's pretty much the dimensional model that After Effects offers. You might call it a "2.5D" world, composed of objects that can exist anywhere but have no depth of their own.

There are a lot of fun, stylized ways to play around with 3D in After Effects, but there are also ways in which you can get the After Effects 3D camera to match the behavior of a real camera, if you understand how they're similar and how they differ. Therefore it's worth taking a closer look at how 3D works in After Effects, and how its various features—the camera, lights, and shading options—correspond to their real-world counterparts.

Understanding the After Effects Camera

You can begin using 3D in After Effects without setting a camera—just toggle a layer to 3D, and voilà, its properties contain three axes instead of two—but it's a little bit like driving a racetrack using a car with an automatic transmission: You can't maneuver properly, and before long you'll probably run into something hard.

Furthermore, when you set a camera, you encounter an area of the After Effects user interface that includes a physical diagram: the Camera Settings dialog box (see Figure 1). If you understand it, the diagram and its settings tell you virtually everything you need to know about how the After Effects camera views the 3D world.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Visual artists love visual user interfaces, and the Camera Settings dialog box is one of the few to include a diagram. That's a good thing because it also contains a lot of settings that most users find a bit abstract. Here are the default settings for a 50 mm preset, which happens to be the setting that introduces no change of lens angle from a flat 2D view.

Lens Settings

The default After Effects camera employs the 50 mm preset. (It's listed in the Preset pull-down menu in the Camera Settings dialog box; you see this when you create a new camera, or when you choose Layer > Camera Settings.) Switching all of your layers to 3D and then adding this camera doesn't change the appearance of the scene whatsoever, whereas all other lengths do.

Unfortunately, "50 mm" is a virtually meaningless term because virtual space doesn't contain millimeters—any more than it contains kilograms, parsecs, or bunny rabbits. Virtual space typically is measured in pixels.

Any physical camera has a corresponding lens length that would be considered neither long nor wide; its size varies with the size of the image-gathering medium or device. Such a lens will capture a scene without shifts in perspective and distortion—features (not all of them displeasing) associated with lenses that are wider or longer, tending respectively more toward the fisheye or telephoto perspective (see Figures 2, 3, and 4).

Figure 2

Figure 2 The extreme wide or fisheye lens pointed inside an evenly proportioned 3D box. Note that the "long" look of the box is created by this "wide" lens, which tends to create very strange proportions at this extreme. A physical lens with anything like this angle would include extremely distorted lens curvature.

Figure 3

Figure 3 A telephoto lens (using the 200 mm setting) pushes items together in depth space, dramatically shortening the distance between the front and back of the box.

Figure 4

Figure 4 The default lens (50 mm setting). If the Z Position value is the exact inverse of the Zoom value, and all other settings are at the default, this is the view you get, and it matches the appearance of setting no After Effects camera whatsoever.

Fifty millimeters is the median lens length of a 35 mm SLR still camera, as has been used for professional photography for decades. SLR cameras are familiar to a wider audience (including After Effects developers, evidently) than professional film or video cameras.

On a feature film, your source would much more likely have been shot with a 35 mm motion picture camera shooting Academy ratio, a completely different beast that just so happens to employ a 35 mm default lens length. Had your footage been shot with a MiniDV camera, however, the tiny CCD would employ an equally tiny default lens length of around 4 millimeters. The appearance of different lens lengths is directly related to the size of the back plate or video pickup—the area where the image is projected inside the camera. The smaller the film size (or CCD size), the shorter the default lens.

My point is that millimeters don't mean a whole lot unless they're measuring the actual physical lens of an actual physical camera. The only setting in the Camera Settings that truly, universally applies, whether images were shot in IMAX or HDV or created in a 3D animation package, is the Angle of View.

Real-World Camera Settings

The most important question is this: How do the After Effects camera's settings correspond to those of a camera in the physical world? In other words, suppose you know a camera's settings. How do you put them to use in your shot?

Look again at the diagram in Camera Settings (refer to Figure 1). Four numerical fields—Film Size, Focal Length, Zoom, and Angle of View—are oriented around two triangles sharing a common point. Using a physical camera with a prime lens, these values are all fixed. With a zoom lens, the Film Size is of course fixed, but Zoom and Focal Length can be adjusted, resulting in a change in the Angle of View. These four settings are interrelated and interdependent, as the diagram implies.

The After Effects camera simulates this setup: Change the Angle of View, Zoom, or Focal Length, and the other two values change proportionately, while Film Size remains fixed. Film Size is useful only to emulate a specific camera (more about that in a moment).

Lengthen the lens, and Focal Length increases as Angle of View decreases. A physical telephoto lens really is longer from lens to back plate, and adjusting its zoom does make the lens longer or shorter. The only feature that would make this diagram any clearer would be for it to articulate, visually displaying the changing Angle of View settings as clearly as can be seen (particularly in the top views) in Figures 2 through 4.

Make Your Adjustments

The only two settings that must hold your focus (pun only slightly intended) are Zoom (for animation) and Angle of View (to match sources where that measurement is available). The others, Film Size and Focal Length, make sense only relative to those two.

Angle of View is the actual radius, in degrees, that the camera sees. The setting corresponds directly to real-world cameras, and Angle of View is a setting you'll see in other computer graphics programs, so it can be matched precisely in 3D animation software.

The Zoom value is the distance of the camera lens, in pixels, from the plane of focus (generally, the subject being photographed). By default, a new camera employs a Z Position value equivalent to the negative of its Zoom value. This retains framing of all layers at the default Z position of 0.0. (The appearance doesn't change when switching from 2D to 3D.) The plane of focus icon represents an area the size of the composition (see Figure 5) so it can be used to frame a shot.

Figure 5

Figure 5 It's easy to overlook the highlighted settings. Comp Size (at the right) is the horizontal size, in pixels; it changes according to how Units and Measure Film Size settings are set (left). Comp Size appears to display a vertical measurement. (The diagram doesn't change according to the Measure Film Size setting.)

There are several cases in which it's ideal that the Zoom value is in pixels. It makes for easy reference when measuring the effects of depth of field, and makes it possible to link the position of the camera and the zoom together via expressions for depth of field and related effects (discussed later).

Emulate a Real Camera

And how do you put all of this knowledge to work? You probably have one of two goals: Either you're matching the camera settings of source footage so that your elements appear to have been taken with that camera, or you're creating a shot from scratch but want it to appear as if shot with a particular camera and lens. Here are some of the things you have to consider:

  • Depth of field. Is everything in the shot in focus, or does the shot require a narrow depth of field with elements in the foreground and background drifting out of focus?
  • Zoom or push. If you're moving in or out on the shot, which type of camera move is it (discussed later in the section "Move the Camera")?
  • Motion blur and shutter angle. These settings are not controlled via the 3D camera; they're composition settings.
  • Lens angle and distortion. The perspective and parallax of layers in 3D space change according to the angle of the lens used to view them. Real lenses introduce lens distortion, curvature that can be especially apparent with wide-angle lenses (hence the term "fisheye lens"). The After Effects camera doesn't employ a lens and therefore doesn't generate lens distortion, but it can be re-created (see the later coverage of optics compensation).
  • Exposure. New to After Effects 7.0 is the Exposure control, which appears in the Composition viewers of a 32 bpc project. Exposure in After Effects is similar to, yet completely different from that of a real camera. Suffice it to say that exposure is not related to the 3D camera.

The movement of the camera itself can generate motion blur (see Figure 6a and 6b). The key is that any layers to be blurred by the motion of the camera have Motion Blur toggled on.

Figure 6a

Figure 6a Motion blur is activated for a stationary object, but only the camera moves.

Figure 6b

Figure 6b Zooming the camera instead generates no motion blur.

One specific piece of information that can help you to match existing footage is a camera report—a record of the settings used when the footage was taken. If the crew included a camera assistant (or equivalent), this information was probably logged at the shoot.

Make Use of a Camera Report

If you know the type of camera and the focal length used for your shots, you have enough information to match the lens of that camera with your After Effects camera.

Table 1 (courtesy of Stu Maschwitz/The Orphanage) details the sizes of some typical film formats. If your camera is on the list, and you know the focal length, use these steps to match the camera via Camera Settings:

  1. Set Measure Film Size to Horizontally.
  2. Set Units to Inches.
  3. Enter the number from the Horizontal column of the chart that corresponds to the source film format.
  4. Set Units to Millimeters.
  5. Enter the desired Focal Length.

Table 1 Typical Film Format Sizes




Full Aperture Camera Aperture



Scope Camera Aperture



Scope Scan



2:1 Scope Projector Aperture



Academy Camera Aperture



Academy Projector Aperture



1.66 Projector Aperture



1.85 Projector Aperture



VistaVision Aperture



VistaVision Scan



16 mm Camera Aperture



Super-16 Camera Aperture



HD Full 1.78


0.212 (Full Aperture in HD 1.78)

HD 90% 1.78


0.191 (90% Safe Area used in HD 1.78)

HD Full 1.85


0.204 (Full Aperture in HD 1.85)

HD 90% 1.85


0.184 (90% Safe Area used in HD 1.85)

HD Full 2.39


0.158 (Full Aperture in HD 2.39)

HD 90% 2.39


0.142 (90% Safe Area used in HD 2.39)

Once the Angle of View matches the footage, any objects that you track in will maintain position in the scene as the shot progresses. It's vital to get this right if your camera is going to move during the shot, and especially if a wide or long lens was used.

FocalLength = 35 //change to your value, in mm
hFilmPlane = 24.892 //change to your film size, in mm
this_comp.width*(Focal Length/hFilmPlane)

Lens Distortion

If a virtual camera is set with a wide lens angle, the software simply samples a wider (and taller) area of the scene, as shown earlier in Figure 2. This dramatically changes the perspective of 3D space, but it doesn't actually distort objects the way a real camera lens does, because a digital camera uses no lens. A virtual camera can widen the view area and scan it in a linear fashion.

A lens curves light to project it properly on the camera back plate. A real camera cannot simply widen its view area, which is essentially fixed. It can only "see" what's perpendicular to the surface of the lens glass, so it combines a convex lens and a short lens length to pull a more disparate (wider) range of view.

At the extremes, this causes lens distortion that's easily visible; items in the scene known to contain straight lines don't appear straight at all, but bent in a curve (see Figure 7). In a fisheye lens shot, it's as if the screen has been inflated like a balloon. It's rare, but not unprecedented, for a shot in a movie to look like this—for example, the droid's point of view in a certain well-known science fiction film.

Figure 7

Figure 7 The almost psychedelic look of lens distortion at its most extreme. Even the flare caused by the front lens element is extremely aberrated. An equivalently wide lens using the After Effects 3D camera wouldn't cause straight lines—the ground plane, the building outline—to appear curved.

As you gain experience in evaluating shots, you may notice that many shots that aren't as extreme as a fisheye perspective contain a degree of lens distortion. You might notice that motion tracks from one side of the frame don't seem to apply equally well at the other side of the frame, proportions go out of whack, and things don't quite line up as they should (see Figures 8a and 8b).

Figure 8a

Figure 8a In a close-up area of a shot, an attempt to corner-pin a yellow solid to the side of the building fails; it's impossible to make all four corners and edges line up properly. (Photo courtesy of Stu Maschwitz.)

Figure 8b

Figure 8b Grid lines over footage of the bus clearly show that it's distorted—note the bowed appearance of straight lines on the pavement and the background building. (Bus footage courtesy of Pixel Corps.)

There's no way to introduce lens distortion directly to a 3D camera, but the Optics Compensation effect (Professional version only) is designed to add or remove it in 2D. Increasing the Field of View makes the affected layer more fisheyed in appearance; to correct a shot coming in with lens distortion, check Reverse Lens Distortion and raise the Field of View (FOV) value. This process is not exactly scientific, however, because the Field of View settings don't correspond to measurable phenomena, such as the Lens Angle. You must locate what should be a straight line in the scene and adjust the setting until you're happy with the match. The specific workflow is as follows:

  1. Having determined that there's lens distortion on a background plate to which you must add foreground elements (as in Figure 8a), drop the background into a new composition that's at least 20% larger than the plate, in order to accommodate stretching the corners.
  2. Add an adjustment layer above the plate layer, and apply Optics Compensation to that layer. Check Reverse Lens Distortion and raise the Field of View (FOV) setting until lines that should appear straight in your image look straight.
  3. Add a Beam effect below the Optics Compensation effect (so that it's unaffected by Optics Compensation). Make its Inside Color and Outside Color settings match (using any color you'll be able to see easily), and align the Starting Point and Ending Point along an apparently straight line near the edge of frame. Fine-tune the Field of View setting a little more until the line is plumb (see Figures 9a and 9b).
Figure 9a

Figure 9a Distortion removal takes place in a composition larger than the source; the padding allows space for the corners of the image. In the building image, the Beam effect serves as a virtual plumb line.

Figure 9b

Figure 9b With the bus, it's clear from the grid that distortion has been corrected.

  1. Pre-compose all of these layers and set this new composition as a guide layer. In Figure 10, you can see that the corner pin is now successful. You must now match the distortion of the source shot.
  2. Create a new master composition containing the background plate and the laid-out foreground elements. Copy Optics Compensation from the adjustment layer where you undistorted the background and paste it to the foreground element, but turn off Reverse Lens Distortion. The exact distortion of your background is applied to your foreground elements, which now match up (see Figure 11).

You have tricked After Effects into compositing in distort-o-vision. Here's an original Stu Maschwitz haiku to sum up the process:

undistort, derive
reunite distorted things
with an untouched plate
Figure 10

Figure 10 Over the undistorted background plate, you can freely position, animate, and composite elements as if everything were normal. Note that the perspective is still that of a very wide angle lens, but without the curvature.

Figure 11

Figure 11 The Optics Compensation effect with Reverse Lens Distortion unchecked restores the original look of the frame; the foreground distorts to match the background, and features now line up properly.

Mixing 2D and 3D

Use of a 3D camera in an effects situation typically entails mixing 3D elements and a 2D plate background. This is no big deal, as After Effects doesn't demand an exclusively 2D or 3D world; elements of both can be layered together. This is a huge advantage as long as you're clear about how it works:

  • A 2D background remains in place no matter how you move the camera.
  • 2D adjustment layers set to comp size and default position affect the whole composition, including 3D layers.
  • Foreground layers from 3D programs imported with 3D camera tracking data can be manipulated in 3D while remaining rendered 2D elements. Everybody wins.

Where are the "gotchas" of this approach? They're all special cases:

  • A 2D layer can use a 3D track matte, and vice versa. Beware of combining a 3D track matte and a 3D layer—it's rarely (if ever) what you want, and maintaining the positional relationship relative to the camera is usually tricky. At least one layer typically should be unaffected by camera motion.
  • Certain effects emulate 3D perspective by making use of the After Effects camera. Typically (and paradoxically), these operate on 2D layers only. Examples include Trapcode's Particular and 3D Stroke (see Figure 12).
Figure 12

Figure 12 Incredibly, particles generated by Trapcode Particular occupy true 3D space, as is evident in a perspective view. Paradoxically, the effect is applied to a 2D layer. It calculates 3D data internally using the After Effects camera as a reference, an elegant workaround for the fact that 3D layers in After Effects are always flat planes.

  • Pre-composing a set of 3D layers effectively causes them to behave collectively like a single 2D layer. They no longer interact in 3D space unless you enable Collapse Transformations for the pre-comp layer. Doing so bypasses the camera in the embedded composition, and uses the 3D position of the pre-composed layers.

So go ahead, freely mix 2D and 3D layers—just remember these tips if things start to seem funky.

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