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3D Schematic Grid -- from Illustrator to After Effects

COW Library : Adobe After Effects Tutorials : Jayse Hansen : 3D Schematic Grid -- from Illustrator to After Effects
3D Schematic Grid -- from Illustrator to After Effects

3-D Grid Screens
by Jayse Hansen, Las Vegas, Nevada USA

©2001 Jaysen Hansen. All Rights Reserved. Used at by kind permission of the author.

Article Focus:
In this tutorial, Jayse will show you how to take Illustrator artwork and import it into After Effects 5. For the final touches, he will show you how to use DigiEffects Schematic Grid to enhance transparent 'scoreboard' screen.

Download movie Download Project File

You probably won't be able to see the subtle effect very clearly in such a compressed video file - so take a look at the better resolution still screenshots. Click on the graphic above to download the larger graphic.

Please note: As usual, all images used here are, of course Copyright by my client. All rights reserved.

Hello again, as always, I hope ya learn something new in this one. My condolences for everyone that lost loved ones in the recent tragedies.

The Tutorial

I always love seeing objects that are displaced come together into a final form. I also love 3D flat space - the idea of transparent screens floating in mid air. I wanted to get that effect in this simple section transition.

The Idea:

This project is for an instructional video tape. These segments introduce each self-defense technique as it is taught. The idea is that going through this tape is like a boot camp, and I call these screens the 'Scoreboard.' The piece also needed to accommodate about 10 different changes of text parts - one for each technique - so the main sequence was rendered only once - while the text overlays were rendered with alpha channels and composited realtime in the editing system. This allowed us to make changes to the text quickly without having to re-render the entire scene each time.

There's basically three steps to do in this piece.

  • Part One: Create your screens in Illustrator or Freehand
  • Part Two: Import into After Effects, offset parts, and use 3D to animate camera moves
  • Part Three: Add Delirium's Schematic Grid and animate a mask over it.

The rest, as usual, is optional and playtime. So let's get started!

Part One: Create your Vector Artwork

A: Design Brainstorm

It's always a good idea to know where you're headed. I created the above storyboard pages for brainstorming AWAY from the computer. This allows you to think in a less 'computer constrained' way. Draw your ultimate without thinking about how to do it - then figure out how to create your vision. Hopefully, your vision will change as you develop it in the computer, making it better and better.

B: Draw in Illustrator or Freehand

This is a pretty simple Illustrator drawing that I made using mostly the pen tool while holding down the shift key to constraint my angles to 45 degrees. I used Illustrator 9 because of it's transparency abilities. You can, however, set the transparency within AE - so don't worry if you don't have the latest programs. Just get the job done however you can.


Set up your work area to be your comp size, unless you're outputting to a non-square pixel format (such as D1 at 720x486 for instance. Then you should see Rick Gerard's excellent explanation of Non-Square Pixels In AE and set your work area to 720x540)

For this piece - proper sizing isn't exactly needed because this modular box and be scaled later in AE. I do however like knowing my working space, so the above instructions apply.

If in Illustrator - also go to VIEW>HIDE PAGE TILING to get rid of the annoying print boundary guides which you are not worried about when creating for video.

One important thing to keep in mind with sizing. I've found that turning on 'Continuous Rasterize' in AE is a bit annoying at times. You'd usually turn that on in order to keep your vector art sharp as it scales up. The problem is that you often have to pre-compose, work around effects etc. that all conflict with 'Continuous Rasterize' - as well as seriously extend your render times. (Especially if you're using 3D lights and such)

So most people will tell you to create your artwork at the largest size you'll see it in the movie - and then import it at that size and scale it down. Try it both ways and find out what works best for your situation.


When you draw in Illustrator or Freehand, try to get in the good habit of grouping things in WELL NAMED layers. Here's mine. (As you can see, I didn't name my experimental layers.)

I have title-safe guides at the top - and a background representative layer to check the transparency against.

Keep in mind that I have more than one object on each layer. The purpose of separating these into layers is that they will come into AE as layers which you can modify individually. (Adjusting everything from z-depth to transparency and motion.)

Put everything that you want to adjust individually on its own separate layer.

Here, in Illustrator, I've imported a back ground picture that represents what I plan to have in the video (although I later changed it from blue to red in AE). This allows me to check the transparency. You'll notice the text is also just for reference. I will replace that in AE as well.

Save it out as an Illustrator 9 file.

Part Two: Import into AE

  1. In AE - Double click on your project files window and import the Illustrator or Freehand file that you made. Mine was named BB segments03 You can import as Composition, or just layer by layer. I imported as Composition - and then dragged each layer to my main timeline because I wanted easy control of them from my main time line.

  2. Double click the new composition BB segments03 to see its layers. You should see the same layers you made in your vector program. Once inside AE you may be shocked that your beautiful drawing now looks like jagged crap! But don't worry. Simply:

  3. Switch your 'Layer Quality' switches to high quality and it will look nice again.

Now you are free to animate or change any of the properties of these layers as you would any other AE layer. In fact, my original reason for separating these layers was to have the parts of the scoreboard 'assembling' as the camera moved around them. But, alas - deadlines got the better of that idea. But there are a lot of possibilities. Try 'em out.

Create a new composition - with roughly the settings below.

In the project window, open the folder: BB segments03 and you'll see the individual layers. Drag these to your timeline and arrange like so, turning on high quality and 3D switches as shown:

(Notice I've turned off the text guide layer.)

Add Z-Depth - Pull 'em apart.

Select all your layers (except the reference text layer) and hit 'P' - the short-cut for Position. You'll see 3 sets of numbers. The last set is the Z-depth. Set those as follows:

Notice, if you now change your camera to 'Left' - your layers are not right on top of each other. This will give the illusion of 'screens in space' when you move around them with your camera. Each layer is represented by a line below - as though you were looking at them from the side.

Add your 3D Moves.

Since this was covered in a few other tutorials I won't go into much depth here. (No pun intended)

Basically I added a camera, turned the stop watch on for it's properties and then used the Orbit Camera button to get the moves I wanted. It's a great little tool. Take a look at the file to get a better idea of what's going on.

Play around - With this piece I wanted to come from behind - showing the transparency - showing the thin panels screens and around to the front for the text display. Then I integrated the camera 'jerk' to go with the music.

Part Three: Add Delirium's Schematic Grid

DigiEffects has a great package of plug-ins called Delirium - and I love using them in subtle ways to enhance my work.

On of my favorites is a a rather simple but powerful one: Schematic Grids.

I use grids in a lot of the work that I do, so I love the fact that these guys have made a plug-in for quick grid creation. I once had numerous Illustrator files that I took a long time to create on call for my grid needs, but Delirium's fixed all that. I even use it in my print work now.

One thing they've added as well is the ability to animate properties of the grid. For this piece, I didn't want anything that really called attention to itself - instead I wanted just another level of sophistication, so I used these animations sparingly but effectively.

If you don't have Delirium - get it!

But if you can't get it now, you can also try creating your own grid in illustrator and importing that. You won't have the animating properties obviously - but don't let that stop you - you should still be able to create a nice effect anyway...

If you do have Delirium however, follow along.

  1. Set up a new comp. I sized mine roughly the size I wanted the grid in my final piece. (400x200) Name it cleverly. Something like: "Grid"

  2. CTRL+Y to get a new solid. Make it the size of the comp and apply EFFECT>DigiEffects Delirium>DE Schematic Grids

  3. Animate these properties over time to your liking. This is definitely play time.

Here's my first frame settings:

Move forward several frames and animate further until your grid is doing what you'd like. I animated the Intersect Probability and the Main Broken properties. Once you like it - you have the first part of your animating screen.

Place the Grid comp into the Segment Board comp

  1. Go back to your 'Segment Board' comp and drag the 'Grid' comp into it. (Remember to switch your view to 'Front')

  2. Turn on it's 3D Switch and it's Quality setting to hi.

  3. Hit 'P' for position and change it's Z-depth to -8.8. This will allow it to be just slightly above the main pieces as we orbit around them.

4. Now it looks horribly out of place - sooooo - Add a layer mask. Simply select the Grid layer and position it over your screen. Then choose the Pen tool and click on each corner of your 'screen' shape. When completed - it will mask out the rest of the Grid layer so that it looks like it really is on your screen.

5. Hit 'T' to set the layer's opacity. I set mine at about 35%

Now it should start looking better. You can add just about anything you want this way - video - graphics - more grids. But it still looks a little cartoonish and harsh. So, we'll finish by adding the next step.

Make it Subtle

This last step is optional, but I felt it just added to it immensely. I wanted the screen to be wavering - not fully opaque all the time. I wanted waves of transparency floating through it. I decided to make a mask for it in Photoshop.

  1. In Photoshop, make a new file roughly 720x2160.
  2. Drag rectangle selections across your file and fill them with black. Then gaussian blur them all to taste.

    Here's mine:

  3. Import the file into AE as a single file and place on your timeline.

  4. Turn on its 3D Layer switch.

  5. Twirl down its transform properties and change it's z-rotation to roughly -30

  6. Place it directly above your grid layer.

  7. Select the grid layer and and change its matte pop up to Luma-Matte. This uses the layer above as a matte - as you'll see the black parts of our matte will make the grid transparent while the white parts keep it opaque.

  8. You should now see the subtle effect I wanted. When you animate the 'Wave_Displace' layer it will appear that your grid is coming in an out of the screen. Imagine this transparent section sweeping across the screen. Animate to your taste.

What about the Typing on TEXT?

Well - now that is another tutorial altogether. That was basically done with Image Lounge's Text Typewriter plug-in and added to with my special blend of EFFECT>STYLIZE>GLOW.

Interlace Flicker

A common problem with your fine line graphics from Illustrator is going to be something called interlace flicker. In general thin horizontal lines, such as we use here, are murder for TV screens. They simply want to buzz and crawl. But there is a work around.

You'll want to check your imagery on an NTSC monitor to see where you get interlacing flicker. Then add Directional blur to those parts in the vertical aspect only. For the text, instead of a directional blur I've added a glow - which fixes the problem as well.

Take a look at the project file. I've added a light vertical directional blur to some of my illustrator layers. This makes it look somewhat blurry on your computer screen, but cleans it right up for a TV screen, and makes it look much more professional.

The Final Effect

You now have an animating, wavering, digital flat screen display to move around in 3D space.

Click on the graphic above to download the higher res graphic.

And so ends another tutorial. Hope it helps!

~ jayse

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