Produced by KelbyOne

3D Motion and Position of Text Characters with After Effects

[If you’d like to download a finished movie for this tutorial, visit and navigate to the Magazine section. All files are for personal use only.]

Typography is one of the qualities upon which we base most of our design work, and the type animation engine in After Effects offers a gamut of ways to express typographic flair. One of my favorites is the ability to control the 3D motion and position of text characters. When combined with simple camera moves, depth of field, and some real-world studio tricks we use every day, the results can be—literally—powerful. Let’s get started.

Create a New Composition, named “Power of Words,” at HDTV 1280×720 resolution with a 6-second duration, and then double-click the Project panel to import an image to use as a background. For this example, I purchased a vector illustration of blurry lights (#4292586 from Drag the image into the Timeline at 0 seconds and use any effects to adjust color or contrast, as well as an Effect>Blur & Sharpen>Fast Blur to soften focus. Go to Layer>New>Text, and enter the main text. We’ve styled ours using Helvetica Neue (85 Heavy and 35 Thin), 30-px size, Optical kerning, Tracking 10, black, and centered.

After Effects

Now, go to Layer>New>Camera, choose 15mm from the Preset drop-down menu in the dialog, and click OK (if you get a 2D warning dialog, just ignore it for now). Press P on your keyboard to reveal the camera’s Position properties, and adjust the Z position value to –600 for the time being. Now go to Layer>Transform>Auto-Orient, choose Off, and click OK.

After Effects

Click the 3D Layer switch next to both the text and background image layers in the Timeline, then select the background image layer, hit P, and set the Z position to 3000 in the far distance. Now, press Shift-S to show the Scale property also, and scale the background image until it touches the edges of the full composition.

After Effects

Twirl up the background image layer’s properties, select the text layer, and press Command-D (PC: Ctrl-D) to duplicate it. Click the Solo box on the left of the Timeline for that layer and in the Character panel, change its color to white. (Note: Go to Composition>Background Color and change the color to black so you can see your white text.) Now, change the Font family to be the same throughout—in this case Helvetica Neue 45 Light, the Size to 24 px, and the Tracking to 100.

After Effects

Now, double-click the T icon next to the layer’s name, then type in a series of words or sentences of your choice. The longer the line, the better the finished 3D strings of text will be, so feel free to type and copy-and-paste to extend the lines. You’ll notice that the layer’s name becomes rather awkward to work with, so when finished, click on the name of the layer, press Return (PC: Enter), and rename it to “Long line of type” or something short to that effect.

After Effects

Now for the animators! Twirl down the Long line of type layer, twirl down Text, then click the arrow to the right of the word “Animate” and choose Anchor Point to add your first Animator. Click on the name of the Animator, press Return (PC: Enter), and rename it “Animator 1 – Anchor Point” for easy recognition. Go back to Animate and choose Enable Per-Character 3D from the menu, then adjust the Anchor Point Animator’s Y value to sit in the vertical middle of the type—in our example, around –9. This enables rotators we add later to spin from the center of the letters, not their baseline.

After Effects

Twirl up and deselect Animator 1, then go back to the Animate menu and choose Position, which adds a second animator. Rename it “Animator 2 – Position Wiggle,” then next to the new name, click Add and choose Selector>Wiggly. This is where the fun and creativity really begin!

After Effects

In the Position value within the animator, adjust the XYZ values to 400, 600, 400, respectively. As you can see, this blows the characters far apart easily. And if you scrub the Timeline, it looks crazy too—but this is easy to control. Twirl down Wiggly Selector 1, set the Wiggles/Second to 0.05 (it will show 0.1 when you press Return [PC: Enter]), and most importantly, set the Correlation to 96%. This causes the letters to remain more in line with each other, forming a gently rippling line of type.

After Effects

Deselect all, go back to the Animate menu, select Rotation, and next to the new animator, click Add and choose Selector>Wiggly. Rename this animator “Animator 3 – Rotation Wiggle,” then adjust the X, Y, and Z Rotation selectors to 1x, 2x, 1x, respectively. Now twirl down Wiggly Selector 1 and adjust the Wiggles/Second to 0.35 and the Correlation to 0%, and scrub the Timeline. This correlation value allows the random rotation to apply to the characters individually, which looks very cool.

After Effects

Deselect all, go back to the Animate menu, choose Character Offset, and then add a Wiggly Selector into that new animator. Rename this animator “Animator 4 – Character Offset,” then go to the newly added Character Offset value and set it to 10, and the Character Alignment to Center. Now adjust its Wiggles/Second to 2 and its Correlation to 0%, then view the results. Looking pretty cool!

After Effects

Now to adjust the entire layer’s rotation in anticipation of the next step, twirl up the entire text layer, then hit R to reveal its Rotation property. Hold down Option (PC: Alt), click on the Stopwatch for X Rotation to add an expression field, and type in wiggle(0,180), then hit Enter to confirm. This will randomly rotate the layer up to 180° on the x-axis, but with no motion. Now repeat this process to add expressions to both the y- and z-axes, using wiggle(0,360) and wiggle(0,180), respectively.

After Effects

Everything we’ve created so far is referencing Wiggle values, which are created randomly in After Effects on a layer-by-layer basis, so if we duplicate this layer, we’ll get wildly different results. Twirl up the text layer, select it, then press Command-D (PC: Ctrl-D) to duplicate it. Not only do you see a new spread of text characters in completely different positions, but the layer name has added “2” to the end, which is why we renamed it. Now, duplicate as many times as you like to suit your design.

After Effects

Turn off the Solo icon for all of the type layers, then select the Camera 1 layer and change its Z Position value to –900. At 00:00 seconds, click the Position Stopwatch to add a keyframe, then scrub to 04:00 seconds and change the Z position value to –300. Select that second keyframe and go to Animation>Keyframe Assistant>Easy Ease In (PC: Shift-F9), or adjust the velocity to suit your own design.

After Effects

Finally, press AA to reveal the Camera Options, then turn Depth of Field to On. Change the Focus Distance to 300 and the Aperture to 80 pixels—this gives us perfect focus on the final wording line at 04:00. Feel free to turn on the Motion Blur switch for all of the text layers, then render your final movie.

A really powerful, and even slightly disturbing, motion piece created easily and quickly thanks to some careful planning, animators, wigglers, and expressions, and of course some good “Energi.” Enjoy!

After Effects



  • jim hines says:

    Holmes yours are some of the best tuts on this site as well as around the web in general. Thanks.

  • Steve Holmes says:

    Hines 😉 thanks for the good words! Very much appreciated! If you haven’t had a chance, you can also view the Podcasts we did (the first 15 are there) on iTunes:

    Thanks again Jim,

  • rishabh says:

    wow……thanx appreciate it

  • shane says:

    That is really cool, I just finished mine. Turned out cool. Thank You!

  • Steve Holmes says:

    Glad you like it! I enjoyed this one, a really nice process we use a lot for our work and can be used in so many ways.

    Enjoy, and thanks for the kind responses!


  • James Kamotho says:

    Can it work with CS3?

  • Robbie says:

    Fantastic Tutorial! I am a newbie to AE and I found this walk through solid! Awesome work.

  • Steve Holmes says:

    Glad you liked it Robbie! Thanks for the good words!

    James – absolutely. All the features used in this animation are in CS3 too, so you should be able to follow no problem. There is always a danger than the item name or menu location of something can change between versions (although I don’t believe anything here has suffered that fate) but the features themselves have been in After Effects for a few versions now and you should be fine.

    Any problems just drop me a line here and I’ll help out.

    Thanks all,


  • joe Humus says:

    The only problem is twirling. I was good to go until you started talking about twirling up and down. I have no idea what this means or how to do it, you also didn’t include a snapshot of you “twirling”, which would have been awesome. Other than that and my project being a waste of about 1 hour (not working), the rest of the tut was great and I appreciate it!

  • SRI says:

    good very interesting

  • Steve Holmes says:

    Hi there Joe,

    Twirling is a standard term in most software programs, especially in After Effects, for the process of opening/revealing the animatable properties of a layer in the timeline.

    For example, look at step 6 where it says twirl down the type layer, then twirl down Text. You’ll see next to every single layer in the timeline is a small triangle, and if you click that, it “twirls” open all the options in that layer (position, scale, rotation, etc). For a text layer, when you “twirl” the layer open, the next option visible is “Text” so you then “twirl” that open, and you see the animatable text properties. And so on.

    Like if you add an effect, such as Gaussian Blur to a layer. If you want to the timeline, you would “twirl” open the layer to see the Properties and Effects, you would then “twirl” open the Effects, and you’d see Gaussian Blur, and then you’d “twirl” that open to see the options you can keyframe, etc.

    I hope this makes sense and helps?

    As for a screen shot of twirling, the shot in step 6 at least shows the “results” of twirling, as the steps mention in the text. The type layer is twirled open, the Text option is then twirled open, revealing the Animator 1 which has also been twirled open to reveal the little stopwatches to keyframe from.

    Hope this helps, and that you can complete the tutorial now and enjoy the results. Let me know if you have any more questions.

    All the best,


  • Alex says:

    Hello Mr. Holmes.

    I found you. I missed you at Artbeats. I am an avid follower of the Artbeats’ video tutorials by Steve Holmes. I enjoyed all yours useful and practical tutorials. I learned so much from you. For me, no AE book could give me so much useful information in 30 minutes. Mr. Holmes, the last Artbeats video tutorial from you was dated March 2009. Do you still consider posting tutorials at Artbeats in the near future or I can skip Artbeats and come here?? Thank Steve for all your tutorial and thank you, thank you.


  • Tyson says:


    Great tutorial!!! Please post more.

  • Bav says:

    amazing. these tutorials are making me one step closer to understanding after effects to its full potential. hopefully ill be able to develop my own techniques with greater professionalism.. great work.. thanks

  • Jake says:

    thanks… the result was awesome..

    i was amazed that i actually created a movie..

    great tutorial.. keep them coming..

  • patricia says:

    hey i was wondering, is there a reason why the animation would be good too fast? thanks so much

  • Faizurr says:

    Thank You.

  • Brenda says:

    Awesome Tutorial! Thanks, Steve! 🙂

  • Mike says:

    Wow! great tutorial and easy to follow with really good results. thanks for posting

  • Daniel says:

    Dude, this is the best tutorial ever!! Thanks heaps for sharing this with everyone 🙂

  • April says:

    Steve, I love your tutorials! Easy to follow. I’m learning a lot. THANKS!

  • Michael says:

    First tutorial for Adobe After Effects I used because it looked cool. It came out well too! Thanks!

  • akhmad eko says:

    Thank you for the lesson, it works!!

  • Andrei says:

    Too many gaps in the tutorial, starting with the twirl…

  • Mark says:

    thank you very much for this tutorial, it really helped me a lot!

  • Meabh says:

    Thanks so much! Very helpful!

  • Marcos says:

    Amazing tutorial! Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  • Jackie says:

    Can I have multiple sayings in place of that “I want my words my words to be heard” area? Like a series of words one after another, starting slow to fast in appearence? Then end with that last saying? Basically what I’m saying is I’d like to have more than that one title tool within the sequence. Is that possible? Sorry if thats hard to understand, its hard to describe.

  • Luke says:

    fantastic tutorial. very happy with the results. much appreciated!