The Ever Thinning Line Between 3D and Visual Effects

I know, I know... Some may look at the title and think, "But Phil, wise and handsome man that you are, aren't 3D assets in film a part of visual effects?"

First off, I applaude you for your excellent taste in judging attractiveness. You obviously have that going for you. Second, yes, I suppose they are an integral part, be it in understanding parallax in 3D compositing, particle emitters and more, but what I want to examine is the use of 3D in visual effects programs, specifically After Effects and Hitfilm.

Element 3D by Video Copilot

When Adobe Creative Suite CS6 was released, one of the major feature updates to After Effects was a large push in 3D camera tracking, true 3D extruding of shape layers (and the importing of illustrator files to ve extruded), and 3D compositing. Soon afterwards (or before, I can't really remember), Andrew Kramer's Video Copilot released the long teased ELEMENT 3D plugin, which adds some phenomenal 3D integration* to After Effects's mostly 2D workflow.
*I say phenomenal, but that's only based on what I've seen. I haven't used Element 3D yet.

Hitfilm 2 Ultimate

Next, we have the soon-to-be-released Hitfilm Ultimate 2. Created by the Norwich UK based FxHome, HitFilm 2 Ultimate is bringing something very cool to the market: a much less expensive alternative to After Effects and completely 3D software solutions. By building Hitfilm from the ground up, FxHome is able to natively add the ability to import 3d textured models for use in 2D composits. From what I've seen, it looks pretty cool.. Plus,  FXHome's Visionlab was my first step into visual effects, so those lads have a special place in my heart. 

But here's the question: What does the inclusion of 3D capabilities for compositors mean for 3D artists? I started out in serious digital art with Lightwave 3D, and still use it (albiet, not as much as I would like) to this day. Where do pro 3D modeling/texturing and pro camera mapping fit in this new production pipeline? I imagine that the more visual effects artists use Element and HitFilm, there will be more of a need for stock and custom 3D models, but does that invalidate the compositing tools that those 3D programs have? 

As it stands, for me to get 3D content into After Effects (sorry FxHome, until I get a copy of windows to run on bootcamp, I have to go AE!) I have to do the following:

  • Build the 3D content
  • Film the 2D background plate
  • Camera track the plate in PFHoe
  • Move that data back into lightwave's Layout to animate the 3D model
  • Export a frame sequence of that to import it into After Effects (which also needs the camera data from PFHoe if i'm doing any additional compositing of 2D elements
  • Render that or dynamically link it back to Premiere for final editing and color correction.

Using Hitfilm or Element will be a great time saver (depending on how well they play with the rest of my pipeline, of course), and I can see the need for it. I'm a little worried that artists will rely on it too much, at the expense of the work overall. At the end of the day, it's one more tool, and while  having more tools usually helps artists, some need to spend more time on the basics before they play with the bigger guns. I just hope that 3D artists jump on the bandwagon and get their stuff working with these new programs as soon as possible.