How to Add 3D Depth to a 2D Picture with After Effects

Updated on: September 22, 2022

When you are working with 2D images in After Effects, you can apply certain 3D effects to them in animation to give them dimension and volume within the space of your canvas. However, this is possible as long as you are working with a file that includes 2D layers, such as an Illustrator project. 

Ever wondered how to generate a camera movement that zooms in a 3D artwork? Well, if you want to know how to add 3D depth to a 2D picture with After Effects, try importing an Illustrator project with several layers to your Timeline, or download any layered file from the Internet. 

You will need this to know how to make your work easier when creating the feeling that every object on your layers has volume.

Using 3D Cameras to create motion

To generate the illusion of entering the screen while giving body to each of the objects in the composition originally designed in 2D, you must first use After Effects' 3D cameras on the separate layers of your project. To do this:

  1. Activate the 3D Layer box of each of your Timeline layers to turn them to 3D.
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  1. Create a Camera Layer by going to the main menu and clicking Layer > Select New > Camera.
  2. In the Type option above the video camera image, change the setting from One-Node-Camera to Two-Node-Camera and click OK.

How to create a Null Object

Once you have created your camera layer, you must create your Null Object to create spaces between your objects and give them a 3D effect. To do this:

  1. Select Layer in the Main Menu and then click on New.
  2. Click on Null Object and check that a new layer has been created at the top of the Timeline.
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  1. Rename the new layer so you can identify the objects it will affect, and check the 3D Layer box.
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  1. Link the Null Object layer to the Camera Layer by clicking in the Parent & Link column of the Null Object layer and selecting the Camera Layer.
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Linking 3D Camera to the Null Object to create depth in After Effects

To arrange your layers so After Effects' 3D camera "focuses" them independently, you need to activate the second display in your Composition panel. Enable it by pulling down the last tab at the bottom of your Composition panel and switching the view to the 2 views option. 

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Once the new display appears, zoom out until you can see the whole tool on the screen, and:

  1. Select the Null Object layer and then hit P to open its properties. Make sure all values are set to zero.
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  1. Unlink the Null Object layer from the Camera Layer by clicking on the Parent & Link tab and selecting None.
  2. Link the following layers, including the Camera Layer, to the Null Object layer by holding Shift on your keyboard while selecting all layers. Then, in the Parent & Link tab of any of them click on the Null Object layer.
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  1. Go to the Composition panel and hover your cursor over the screen where your project appears to detect the layer closest to you. When you find it, click on it to locate it on the Timeline.
  2. Unlink that layer in the Parent & Link tab by selecting None.
  3. Press S to modify the scale of the layer. Change the values of the last option highlighted in blue to your liking.
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Repeat the last three steps for each layer. They will serve to create the spaces between each of the objects and the camera. Check it by looking at the second screen to recognize the layers and their order in front of the After Effects 3D camera.

To start the Zoom movement, select your Null Object layer and hit P to modify the start and end position of the objects in the Timeline. Turn on the Position keyframe by clicking on the stopwatch and stop the movement by setting the Time Indicator to the second of your choice and changing the previous value of the Position keyframe

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This process of creating 3D dimensions and spaces may seem complex, but it is not. It just takes a little practice as you get used to linking and unlinking layers.

However, this is a handy trick to animate your illustrations, photos, and layered images in a professional way with After Effects.

Andrea Mercado is a tech-focused journalist and copywriter with over 5 years of experience covering innovation, edtech, AI, and internet trends across media outlets. She is passionate about how technology can democratize access to education and is an avid learner when it comes to emerging tech like AI. Her articles and webinars help readers stay informed on the latest tech developments.
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