3D camera tracking in After Effects

James Wignall shows you how to use the new 3D Camera Tracker in After Effects.

  • Software: After Effects CS6 or CC
  • Project time: 40 minutes
  • Skills: Track footage, create a camera from tracking, add elements

For years I thought of 3D camera tracking as some sort of dark art form; a kind of digital voodoo magic that required amazingly expensive pieces of software and the expertise to match. Oh, how times have changed. Sure, After Effects has had a 2D Tracker tool for years, but it was fairly limited in what could be achieved and tracker points needed to be adjusted manually if they went out of shot.

Are the late nights of fixing tracker points behind us? Who’s to say, but I do know that Adobe has made some major strides in correcting one of After Effects’ biggest weaknesses. In this After Effects tutorial I’ll show you how to quickly track a piece of footage and add a character into the scene. Adobe has made this once-complicated process into an almost one-click solution.

Find the support files and full-size screenshots for this tutorial here.

Step 01

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 1

For this tutorial you can use your own footage – however, for convenience, I have also supplied a clip that I shot, if you prefer. To import it, select File>Import>File, or hit Cmd/Ctrl+I. Select Desktopfootage.mov from the Footage folder and click Open.

Step 02

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 2

Once imported, we will make a little composition with it. To do this, Ctrl/ right-click Desktopfootage.mov in the Project window, and select ‘New Comp from Selection’ from the menu. Alternatively, you can drag your clip to the film-strip icon at the bottom of the project window.

Step 03

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 3

Now let’s apply the 3D Camera Tracker. Click your footage in the composition, go to Effect>Perspective>3D Camera Tracker – and that’s essentially it. Adobe has really made this process quite foolproof.

Step 04

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 4

However, there are a couple of settings it’s worth knowing about. The shot is analysed differently depending on the type of shot it is: you have the option for Fixed Angle of View (like my example footage), Variable Zoom or you can specify Angle of View.

Step 05

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 5

Under the Advanced tab you’ll see a Solve Method option. Leave this set at Auto Detect most of the time – in this case we’ve used Typical. The option of Mostly Flat Scene can be used if your shot doesn’t have much parallax, and Tripod Pan is when your camera is fixed to a position that it pans from.

Step 06

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 6

Back to our shot. You’ll notice that your shot is now covered in lots of little crosses: these are the tracking markers. When your mouse goes over them you’ll see a target appear. This shows us which plane we are on.

Step 07

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 7

To make sure we have the correct plane, you can select multiple tracker points – simply click-and-drag. To check it’s correct, drag the target symbol around the plane created to see if the perspective matches.

Step 08

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 8

When you’re happy with the plane you’ve selected, add in a camera and light. It sounds much trickier than it is: simply Ctrl/right-click and select ‘Create Shadow Catcher, Camera and Light’. That’s it – After Effects takes care of the rest (don’t tell your clients that part, though).

Step 09

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 9

Let’s see how well the track has worked by adding in a character. Import Barry.mov from the footage folder (Cmd/Ctrl+I). Drag the footage into your comp and make it a 3D layer.

Step 10

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 10

You’ll need to position Barry a little into the scene. First press Y and move his anchor point down to his feet. Next hit P to position him within the scene. You can do this manually, or alternatively you can Ctrl/right-click a tracking point, select Create Null and simply copy the positional data.

Step 11

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 11

Since After Effects has already added a light in the scene, go to Material Options in Barry.mov to enable them. The light is in the wrong position, so you’ll have to move it to match the scene. Adjust Shadow Darkness and Shadow Diffusion to get a more natural look.

Step 12

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 12

Barry looks a little flat. Let’s add a more rounded shadow by his feet. To do this, create a black solid (Layer>New> Solid) at around 500x500px with a feathered mask (150px) and place it in 3D under his feet – much better.

Step 13

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 13

With all that done, we should do a quick RAM preview to check it’s all okay and stays fixed to the footage. Press 0 on the keyboard to start the preview render. It shouldn’t take too long, but if it does, drop the resolution down to half or even a quarter.

Step 14

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 14

How did it look? Did the character stick to the footage with no waving around (no pun intended)? Good. To really embed the character, it’s nice to add a couple of Adjustment layers, a slight grade and maybe a subtle vignette.

Step 15

3D camera tracking in After Effects: step 15

All that’s left now is to render out and enjoy the fruits of your labour. Hit Cmd/Ctrl+M to add your composition to the render queue. I hope you’ve seen how easy and powerful the new 3D Camera Tracker is – have fun applying it to your own projects.

Liked this? Read these!