The 5 best 3D tracking tools for CG artists

Integrate CG and VFX into live action sequences using these top 3D tracking tools.

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Integrating CG and VFX into live action is one of the best ways to make your CG feel photoreal as well as allow the use of added content such as motion graphics to aid explanation.

While a straightforward task if your working on a still, when working on animation tracking live footage to get enough data to allow you to correctly position the CG needs dedicated Tracking software.

3D tracking tools – not to be confused with production tracking tools – can be used for a range of tasks, such as footage stabilisation and to help with footage cleanup. In the past couple of years a range of tracking tools have come to the market either as standalone or integrated into your compositing package. Here are five of my favourites.

01. Syntheyes

Syntheyes comes with Synthia which allows you to issue verbal commands to help you intuitively track your shots

Syntheyes Pro by Andersson Technologies LLC has garnered a reputation as a miracle worker. Due to its affordability compared to its competitors where it matched or exceeded their feature set, Russ Andersson the developer of the application has made sure that it is one of the most reliable 3D and Planar trackers on the market. With an updated LIDAR scan reader, Stereo Support, a better notes system to keep your team up to date with your work.

With enhancements to existing toolsets such as the brilliant texture extraction system which can create textured geometry to place into your 3D scenes.

The latest release also introduces 'Synthia' which is a voice activated system for instructing Syntheyes to work on the shots you want. Synthia can process an infinite number of English-language statements, and you can instruct it, adding your own additional rules based on what you want to do, which has the potential to customise Syntheyes to exactly how you want to work.

There is an Intro version which is $100 less than the full version, but I would stretch to Syntheyes Pro if you can afford it.

02. PFMatchit

PFMatchit's nodal based workflow allows a quick and iterative workflow

PFMatchit by The Pixel Farm may not quite have the full feature set of Syntheyes Pro (PFMatchit is the cheaper of the two), but for many artists PFMatchit offers a potentially better solution due to its workflow.

This is nodal based, and can make it much quicker to process your tracks, and iterate out problem areas.

Taking many features from its more full featured, and more expensive big brother, PFTrack, PFMatchit comes complete with a full lens management toolset, Stereo capability. Couple this with a system for managing tracking markers which personally I find more intuitive than Syntheyes. With the addition of Planar camera tracking, if your thinking of buying Sytheyes try PFMatchit as well.

03. Mocha Pro

mocha Pro has the ability to get rid of problem marks and tatoos quickly and easily with its advanced tracking toolset

Mocha Pro, and it's little brother Mocha AE CC, which comes free with After Effects CC, are at their core Planar trackers which is a system which tracks shapes in a 2.5D environment rather than trying to solve a full 3D scene (although mocha Pro can create 3D scene data if required).

Planar tracking is great for creating masks and mattes for screen replacements, which I use mocha AE CC for all the time.
mocha Pro takes this toolset and expands on it, with a wide range of tools which can clean up your footage quickly such as the amazing Remove module, which as the title suggests can remove elements in your footage such as support wires, unwanted signs, tatoo's, automatically, which used to be a hugely tedious task.

Planar tracking is a much more artist friendly way of working than traditional 3D tracking and mocha Pro is full of features which will speed up your workflow for a huge range of VFX features.

04. Nuke

The 3D tracker in Nuke X is easy to visualise is excellently integrated with the rest of the application

Nuke, the full compositing package from The Foundry comes with an excellent 2D tracker, but it's bigger brother Nuke X has all the best tracking toys with its excellent 3D tracker which generates a very useful point cloud which makes visualising camera data so much easier.

Nuke X also comes with a Planar tracker. As all these tracking tools are natively part of Nuke, that means that round-tripping to dedicated tracking applications is not needed, and when integrated with Nuke's 3D workspace and tools like the Model builder, which can quickly enable you to build a 3D scene with textures without needing to go into a dedicated 3D application like Cinema 4D or modo.

Nuke's tracking tools help excel at making getting through your work quicker. Its worth noting that The Foundry also do a plugin called Camera Tracker for After Effects which takes some of the features of the Nuke 3D tracker and integrates them into After Effects CC.

05. After Effects

After Effects suite of tracking tools are some of the easiest to use and can provide excellent results with the press of a button

Speaking of After Effects, it too comes with a good range of tracking and stabilisation tools.

From the simple 2D tracker to the quite frankly amazing warp stabilisation toolset, for many people After Effects will cover most of the small tracking jobs that they need to do, and with the bundled mocha AE CC, there is a gateway into Planar tracking as well.
Aside from mocha AE and the 2D tracker, the one criticism I have about the After Effects full 3D tracking toolset is that its 'One Button' approach is all or nothing.

While it works great 90% of the time, it can take a long time to solve and when a shot needs refining it is harder to work on specific elements as quickly as you can in other tracking software. As most of us have After Effects anyway as part of Adobe CC 14, it should be your first stop for quick one off tracking solutions.


While it would be great if we could keep everything in one programme like After Effects or Nuke. Dedicated tracking applications do offer focused workflows and optimisations in speed which can save hours if not days of time, especially if you are working on a lot of live action integration.

One thing that has also recently happened is the 3D software is starting to integrate tracking into their workflow. Blender offers Motion Tracking and the just shipped Cinema 4D R16 comes with a 3D tracking solution.

While having all these solutions now is great, one of the worst things that you can do think of tracking as a one button press and cross the fingers issue, as this approach makes trouble shooting so much harder, for this reason, I recommend Tim Dobbert's excellent Matchmoving: The Invisible Art of Camera Tracking, which really helped me understand what the computer was looking at and therefore how I could may tracks rock solid.

Words: Mike Griggs

Mike Griggs is a freelance 3D, VFX, mograph artist and technical writer. He can be found on Twitter, Facebook and his work can be seen at

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