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August 14, 2013
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After EffectsVideo Editing

Video Tutorial: Creating a 3D Timeline in After Effects

Display dates visually with a 3D timeline! In this After Effects tutorial you’ll learn how to create a dynamic timeline animation – great for documentary or corporate video projects.

Adobe After Effects

If you’re looking for a powerful way to showcase a chronology of events in your video projects – this After Effects tutorial has got you covered. In this AE video tutorial we’ll create a 3D timeline, complete with dates and images (although the images can easily be swapped out for video).

This After Effects animation project can be completed with the tools in the app – no 3rd party filters or plugins required. You’ll learn how to create the visual timeline ticks and date markers using After Effects shape layers. Then, you’ll animate the timeline through 3D space using a combination of After Effects expressions, keyframes and the AE camera.

This is an intermediate After Effects tutorial, so previous experience and familiarity working in AE is encouraged.

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This is Evan Abrams for Premium Beat.com and today we are going to be creating a 3D timeline in After Effects for playing photos and dates. We are going to be a bunch of tiny things, build them into a timeline and then show you how to quickly replace the content in those things with the pieces you really want.

The first thing to do in After Effects is going to be create a new composition, and we are going to call this composition, Timeline Segment. The first thing you want to do is create the smallest parts possible, and then assemble those into larger parts, and then assemble those parts into your final piece. So we’re calling this timeline Segments, because we’re going to make segments we can use to build a timeline. We’re going to use the HDTV 1024 per second preset, and we’re going to use a duration of one minute, because the longest this comp is going to be is going to be a minute so we want all of the parts to be around for all of that time. We’re going to put a rectangle in there so just take your rectangle and double click and we’ll make a shape layer with a rectangle in it, and within that rectangle, we are going to change the size. It’ll be 4×50, that is 50 on the vertical and 4 on the horizontal, and we’re going to use a fill color that is 25% bright, and that’ll do for now. So the first thing we need to do is, since we are creating a timeline of days and months, is we have to create the units by which that scale will be measured. Visually I’m just going to cheat a little bit and I am going to go add Repeater and I’m going to set the Repeater to create 30 copies to represent the roughly 30 days that go into a month, and we need to have the transform repeater only move these 10 at a time.

We now have what represents a month of tiny ticks here so we want 30 and then we need to times that by 12 for the 12 months which will compute all the months that we need. Now we need to have a marker for all of those months so I’m just going to duplicate this layer, hit UU to bring up everything I changed about it, and now I’m going to change the size to be 5 times 75, so it is both thicker and taller, and copy is going to need to be 12, but we need to change the spacing in between them all to be quite a bit larger. We know the spacing between each of the days is 10 and there are 30 of them in each segment. We are just going to take 10 and times that by 3 to give us 300 and now we have populated text that will stand in for the months.

Now we also need a final set of ticks that are going to stand in for the years so we’re just going to duplicate this, and hit UU to bring up all of its properties, delete the repeater because it doesn’t need to be repeated, and it is now going to be 7 wide by 100 tall and that will stand as our marker for years. So we have years, days, and months being displayed, so I am going to change these to say year ticks, and then the next shape will be month ticks, and then the final shape will be day ticks. And you want to make sure you have them labeled so you know what they are.

And now this is the final step, I am going to set them all to be three dimensional so that when I start using collapse formations, which are these and other comps, we will render them all correctly. So this is the timeline segment. We are now going to take that timeline segment, drag it on to a comp and create a whole new timeline.

We are just going to rename this timeline Complete because it is going to be the completed timeline and this timeline segment, we are going to create collapse transformations on and make it 3D as well. Now we can duplicate and manipulate this in 3D space. So, we are going to duplicate it, and we know that we want it to start at the end of the other comp. so what we can do is we can call up the position of these and we can use an expression to make sure that this comp is at the end of this comp. So we are going to write an expression, then Alt, click on the Stopwatch, and we’re going to type in, “value plus” and then in the square brackets, “x,0,0″, and then we just need to go one line up and then define what “x” is equaled to, and just expand this so we can see what we’re doing. It’s going to give me an error because I existed prematurely, so we are going to say “x=” and it’s going to equal the index value-1 so if we have an index of 2, which is this number here, we would like it to be 1 so index minus 1 would generate a number, put that in round brackets and then multiply that number by 3600. And it’s 3600 because we have 12 months and each of those is spaced out by 300 so the total length of this thing is actually 3600 units so you can see by accepting that it pushes it to the end of the other one. So, now we just duplicate as many of those as you need. We’re going to have a total of five segments. And you can see when we go to a custom view 1that we have a timeline extended out into space.

So now what we need to do is call up the positions of all of these, and we want to go from it having to be expression oriented to be key frame oriented, so we are going to go, animation, key firm assistant, convert expressions to key frames”, and what this will do is basically it will “bake” their positions so they cannot be changed when the index values change. So hit the stopwatch and remove all of those and now you’ve had the computer stick all of these in a line for you. If you need more than five, go ahead and make more than five, but do the entire process for all of those. So this is the timeline completed, but now we need to put elements on the timeline, so we’re going to create a marker that indicates where the years are and we will need to create a frame in which we can put content. So I am going to create a new comp, and I’m going to call this marker. Hit OK, and in the marker comp, I’m just going to make a simple rectangle. So make that rectangle by double clicking again.

Open up its properties here, and change it to be something like 500 by 250 or maybe even 500 by 100, so it will create a small marker. And then inside that, we are also going to create a polygon and this polygon we’re going to change into being a triangle, and now we’re just going to go ahead and change its rotation to 90 degrees, and bring the outer radius down, and we’ll just align it to be correctly situated here as a point coming off of the rectangle, so you might want to go in there and just get really close to it, and do some fine adjustment of these things, so you have this path here. Go ahead and zoom in and use your arrow keys to nudge it into place so that there are no erroneous pixels and that looks good.

So the next thing you want to do is just use its anchor point to align it in the center and we’ll do that by calling up the title in action safe, adjust the anchor point here until it comes to rest on the point of this object so everything will be in reference to the center of this comp. Now we go back to the timeline here, and we’ll just install the marker out there somewhere so you have the marker out there. We’re going to change the color to fuchsia and we’re going to make it 3D and now we will go in and position it somewhere that we want it. We’re going to take this and we’re going to parent it say to the second timeline segment so the next one along, and then will we parent it, we’ll call up the position and the rotation. First the rotation, we need to rotate it a good 90 degrees so the orientation is now 0-90-0, and then we just need to push this back until it arrives at the start of that line, and it’s going to be at 960 along.

Now if we use the camera tools by cycling rules by cycling through hitting “c”, we can move this comp along to see exactly where this is positioned, and we just need to move this up a little bit so it is above the line of this timeline so that will put it at 960, 500 which is quite agreeable, and you can move this up even higher if you would like, so maybe even at 450, just so that it will floats above the line. And if you would rather have this tilted in or tilted out or tilted wherever, it’s totally up to you. In the original example, it was tilted in at 000 so I guess we’ll leave it there for this.

The next component we want to make is the frame, so I’ll make a new comp. We’ll call this Frame, and within this we’re going to create again a rounded rectangle so that means we go into the rectangle here, and we set it’s roundness to be about 25 on its size. We are going to unlink those, and then we’re going to subtract 100 from each of these values so that sets it right there, and then we’re going to duplicate this layer and called his first one Frame Back, and we’re going to call this one Frame Cover and we’re going to duplicate that again and just call this one Frame. And so on Frame Cover, hit “UU”. I’m going to subtract 100 from these values again just to bring it in, and we’re going to give it a stroke of 10 and we’re going to leave it with a fifth so that’s okay. And the frame of above it, we’re going to give it a stroke of 10 and we’ll change its size down minus 100 on each of these so it’s the same size as the thing below it.

The cover will basically define the alpha of a picture so just go ahead and grab a picture and I’m going to use one random pulled from Wikipedia, and make it large enough to fit in here and then we’re going to take the frame cover and make sure it’s the alpha mat of that picture. and then the frame on the top here just take its fill away. So that looks pretty good. The next thing to do here is on the Frame Back we want to go to its fill and make sure that it has an opacity change on its fill to be 50 percent or less, and give it a stroke to about 10 as well. So everything has strokes on here and you’ve created a frame of this thing so the frame is a picture and we’re ready to integrate this into our timeline. So we go to timeline complete. We would like to bring out the frame so let’s just place it above everything and we’re going to make it 3D, and now we need to position it basically where the marker is so we’re going to take it and parent it to the same layer here and then we’re going to call of its position in rotation and we’re going to put 960 and the orientation we’ll put 90 so it’s oriented correctly there. And now we’re going to use the anchor point to shift this all the way out so we’re just going to set this at 0 and then we’ll have to adjust this as we go. So we basically have our first piece is done on the timeline and so let’s change the color so that we’ll know where they are. So the timeline elements you see here are all the sandstone and then we have an orange and a fuchsia.

We’re now going to take this timeline complete, drag it onto a new comp, make these 3D and collapse its transformations and then set it to be the active camera, and we’re going to create a new null object and a new camera and we’re going to make it a 50mm preset, and we’re going to go with two on the F stops and give it a blur level of 200 percent, and we’re going to take the camera and parent it to the null object. The null object we’re going to continue to move back and then we’re going to move up and down or to the side to get everything we want in frames, so we can see that as we animate that along, everything moves and rotates and comes into view so that is so far so good. So now we’re going to have a camera hang out there for another 50 frames, set a key frame for the position and we going to move ahead a bunch of other frames and set a new key frame by adding to the 3600 here so we just take this value and we go “+ 3600″ because we know that is the distance to the next stop or however you’ve mathematically calculated that out to be, and now we need to add content here that we’re going to be looking at as well. If you go into the timeline, and since you already know that everything is well framed up outside, we’re just going to duplicate the frame and marker, shift them to be under the other frame and marker, and we’re going to set them to be parented to the next layer down basically. And now we’re going to go into their position, and then change these to be 960 again, which will fit them correctly right where they need to be here.

Now in order to go through and complete the rest of the timeline, you’re just going to be duplicating the same steps you already did. So once you have all of these placeholders in, you’re going to want to take this framed comp you did over in the timeline, and you’re going to duplicate it, which will make Frame 2 and duplicated begin to make Frame 3, and the same with the marker. You’re going to duplicate, duplicate so that you have new instances that you can use to edit. For example, then you could go into Frame 2. You can go in here and make changes. You can swap this out for a new thing. You can just edit this one, for example, so that you can tell the difference, we’re going to fill this in with red real quick, and then we go back into the timeline. Then we go into frame, and we want to change this to be Frame 2, while hold down Alt, and after you’ve selected both of these things, click and drag, and then you’ve changed the one in to the new one. Then when we go back and we look at the final year, we’ve made that change can and now that is the new thing. And you need to just continue this process all the way down the line so that’s how you fill out the timeline. Now you can smooth out your new timeline by taking all of these key frames, hitting F9 to easy ease them, and then what I do is I go in here to the position and I take the last key frame, and I drag its handle so that you smooth into the motion a lot more so it accelerate hard at the get go and then moves slowly into it.

These are basic methods and techniques by which you will create a 3D timeline. The rest of it is all going to be style and totally up to you but the idea is you want to create smaller units, use those tiny units to make big things. Then duplicate instances and replace them with unique instances so that you’re able to make create the entire timeline.

So this has been Evan Abrams for Premiumbeat.com, showing you the basics on how to create a 3D time line or really any kind of complex 3D object, but in this case it’s been a timeline. Hopefully you have found this helpful and come to premiummeat.com and check our blog for all sort of tricks and After Effects and other programs, and of course come to Premiumbeat for all of your royalty free music and audio FX, because really no timeline is ever complete without excellent music and a whooshing sound when you go between eras. So again, I’m Evan Abrams, thank you so much for watching, and I’ll see you next time if you subscribe which you should because there’s new stuff coming to Premiumbeat all the time. Thanks a lot and have a nice day.

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  • Arjan

    At 3:46 (youtube), you click on the “Make 3D”-button. At that moment, the timeline bar gets the focus instead of the composition. In my case, the composition keeps it’s focus. Also, I have no “Position”-option under my Timeline segment. Only “Transform” and, after clicking on “Make 3D”, the Material Options. Am I missing a click? I am using AE5.5 on Win7

    • Evan Abrams

      Position is inside transform. You need to go deeper and twirl down more and investigate further.

  • Adam

    Is there any way to do this *without* deciding in advance how many ‘events’ we want on the timeline? I’ve noticed you’ve determined you would need 5 ‘events’ in the timeline in advance (so you created 5 layers), and then you converted the formulas to keyframes.
    What happens if I want 30 events, and then do all the work – and when I’m in event #27 I notice I forgot and I need 6 extra events… do I have to restart all the work from scratch?

    • Evan Abrams

      I don’t think so. Can’t you just add the new things you need on the end? If you need to add them in the middle certainly it’ll be a pain but you’ll just move them there or swap comps out along the way as needed.

      • Adam

        Wow ! Thanks so much for the super-quick reply. I’m quite amazed at the level of engagement you have.
        Thanks for offering help.
        One more question – will it work if I want to present video clips inside the timeline (rather than still images) ?
        PS – I started working with AE 5 days ago… so it feels like walking up Mt. Everest … (thanks again for the help and tutorial)

        • Evan Abrams

          It will work if you use video. But the best thing to do in the case of those kinds of binary questions is to give it a try. Experimentation leads to faster learning.

  • Adam

    One more question, Evan!
    How hard is it (if even possible) to have 2 separate timelines (one above the other) and the camera moves between them?
    I guess what I want to do is have one timeline for myself,
    and another one for my wife,
    with the camera ‘running’ on my wife’s timeline, then ‘drops’ down to my timeline
    (which was ‘moving’ too during that time), then after seeing some events on my timeline,
    it goes back up to her timeline …
    I hope you figure out kinda what I’m trying to get done..

    • Evan Abrams

      How hard it is? As hard as making 2 timelines and moving the position of the camera between them. You just do twice as much work (or duplicate and replace to do less work) and them animate the camera accordingly and ensure your elements are lined up with the time you expect them to be on camera.

  • Rachel

    Hi Evan,
    Thank you for sharing the video. One quick question- My time ticks do not extend beyond the grid even though I set the copy numbers correctly. I think this affects to link five segments together. Any idea what is wrong?

    • Rachel

      Please see the image

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