My problem solving process…or how I built a 3D stool Rig in After Effects

The Brief:

The specificity of lot of After Effects tutorials on the internet makes them hard to apply to any other situations. With this post, I am sharing a more broad overview of a problem I encountered in After Effects and a breakdown of my approach to solving that problem. Here goes nothing!
For a soon-to-be released project, I needed to do some fairly extensive animation with a 3-legged stool. I needed my stool to be able to spin full 360 degrees in 3D as well as animate it falling over when a leg was chopped down. This is a brief look into my process of solving all the problems I created and encountered and rising triumphant with a working stool rig in After Effects.

The Process.

Model and simulate in Cinema 4D.

  • The first thing I did (after coming up with the concept and vaguely figuring out what I needed my stool to do) was dive straight into the deep end. Of course, my first thought was “I’ll just do the whole thing in Cinema 4D! Physics simulations, 3D animation, there’s no way anything can go wrong!”
  • I built a spindly 3-legged stool and started some simulations. A couple hours later, I had an idea of what an accurate physics simulation of a falling stool was like, a deep hatred for 3-legged stools, and the realization that hand animation is going to be the way to go.

Cinema 4D Stool simulation

Design assets in Illustrator

  • Next, I did what I probably should have done first, and designed the look of my stool in illustrator. I was going to have 2 different styles of this stool but the one we will focus on is the blueprint style.

Iillustrator - 2D stool design

Head back into Cinema 4D.

  • I took my designed stool and headed back into 3D to model it to match. I created a pretty accurate 3D model and then started to texture it using C4D’s Sketch and Toon tools (check out EJ’s tutorials for more info on Sketch and Toon)

Realize it is not going to work.

  • Despite my best attempts, I was not able to get my 3D model to match perfectly. “Oh well”, I thought, “I’ll just not have the 3D compared side by side to my 2D version and no one will be the wiser.”

Illustrator vs Cinema 4d

Realize full 3D is gonna be a pain in the butt no matter what.

  • I took my .c4d project file straight into after effects to begin to figure out what was next. Due to super slow render times and the fact that my 3D model still didn’t quite match up with my 2D design, I accepted the fact that I failed, stared out the window in solemn retrospection, and went back to my computer to figure out the next solution, which was…

Attempt After Effects faux 3D!

  • Fuax 3D in After Effects (using 2D layers and animation to create the illusion of 3D) has really fascinated me lately and what better time to try than now! I studied my 3D render of the stool spinning and noticed that when the camera is perfectly straight on and there is no perspective distortion, the stool legs kinda looked like they were just moving back and forth. Interesting…

Build and spin the stool. 

  • First, I rebuilt my stool using shape layers and strokes to match my original design perfectly.
  • Then, using my 3D render as reference (see, it wasn’t pointless after all!) I hand keyframed one leg to move back and forth at the perfect speed. I then duplicated that leg twice and offset the motion to match the other two legs’ positions.
  • I needed the layers to appear to be going in front and then behind each other, which because of AE’s layer stacking model, isn’t as simple as I hoped. I figured out a pretty primitive method where I had “front” and “back” layer for each leg that turned on and off depending on their position. A simple expression linked their opacities so that when one would blink on, the other would blink off.
    After Effects - blinky legs

Turn this into a looping composition.

  • Now that my 2D stool had a convincing 3D spin to it, I adjusted the timing how I wanted and shortened my composition size to loop the spin.

Control the spin.

  • I wanted my stool to spin in 3D, slow down to a stop, and then blend seamlessly with my 2D stool for other animation. My first solution was to take my looping composition, duplicate it, animate the “Time Remapping” so it slowed down, and then take this “ending” comp and add it to the end of the looping composition. This technically worked…but what if I needed to slow down the timing of the spin or make it end faster? I needed more flexibility so naturally I…

Decide to get all fancy and rig it.

  • After doing some internet searching, I discovered a method to use an expression to control the loop of a composition through “Time Remapping.” This expression could then be driven by the position or in this case, the rotation of a control layer.
  • Due to time constrains, and the head-explodery that this rig was causing my mind, things got a little wonky with backward rotations and multiplying things by (-1). But it worked!

After Effects - 3D stool rig breakdown

Lessons learned.


Failure is a necessary part of the process. If I hadn’t attempted and failed with my C4D 3D shenanigans, I wouldn’t have had such good reference for my animations and for creating the 3D motion in 2D. This is something that I will intentionally add to the process in future faux 3D projects.
Expressions aren’t all that scary. I’ve been learning a lot about expressions lately and this rig would not have worked without them. I would definitely consider myself still a little baby when it comes to expressions but this project only increased my desire to learn. If you are interested in learning expressions, check out, Dan Ebberts Expressioneer’s Design Guide, and The School of Motion’s Intro to Expressions
It’s hard work. The more complex my work gets, the more I realize that there is never just a plugin for that. Look at any of the amazing work by the leaders in the motion design industry and you will find one thing: hard work. It makes me really appreciate all the talented guys and gals out there who do this stuff on a regular basis!


Your turn.

I hope that this look into my problem solving process in the setting of this real world project has helped you to some degree. If not, at least you can find some entertainment in laughing at my goof-ups.
Until next time, go out and learn something new and apply it in your next project!

My social medias:

Twitter | Dribbble | Instagram | Tumblr


One Comment
July 13, 2016 2:46 am

This is great man. I like seeing people’s process and not just following a tutorial. Nice work!