Continuing yesterday’s excursion into the obscure world of After Effects‘ 3D and plug-ins latching on to it, a very common question cropping up all over forums on what the difference is/ will be between Cinema 4D Lite/ Cineware and Element 3D. The long and short version is, that one offers what the other doesn’t and vice versa, but since this doesn’t tell anyone that much, let’s look at some critical factors a bit more closely.

The modeling part we can handle pretty quickly: Yes, Cinema 4D Lite is a “full” 3D program and in theory offers more features than extruding text, but I think it’s not really relevant. My point here is, that people actually interested in producing detailed models will long have found themselves a tool for that, be it just the free Blender, not to speak of commercial programs like Maya. They certainly didn’t sit in front of their computers all these years and waited for the The Big Red A to give them such a tool… Therefore most users will be perfectly content to create their own text and shapes from text layers or using Cinema‘s parametric objects. For anything else they will find enough prefab models, either free or available for a few bucks. If they want to learn modeling, they still can do it if they have time, but it may take them a while to learn all the finer points.

Animation is a bit of a sensitive topic since in theory you could achieve endless complexity in Cinema 4D, but the version you will get will be stripped down a lot. The biggest hinderance here is that the plug-in does everything enclosed in the actual C4D scene and where you would use expressions like in the recent car rig demo in Element, you have no means of accessing scene items while at the same time not giving you advanced animation techniques in the 3D program itself. I’m not talking about particles – that you can still do with Particular or other After Effects tools or the often begrudged absence of most MoGraph tools, but everyday tools like the Constraint tag – despite not doing any character work, I’m using that all the time to rig robot arms, hydraulic/ pneumatic pistons or other stuff. You will find that unless you spend a lot of time pre-animating everything in Cinema 4D Lite, you won’t be able to pull of some things and making changes that affect both sides will require a lot of manual work in the 3D environment as well as the compositing program itself. Also, strange as this may seem, in all its time Cinema has never managed to deal with sequences of baked objects (other than using extra plug-ins), a feature which Element also offers.  Therefore for now it seems the Video CoPilot plug-in will be far better suited for anything that needs to bring both worlds together interactively like matching animation to backgrounds or set extensions.

As far as the level of complexity and detail is concerned, you shouldn’t expect miracles. In Element 3D you are bound to OpenGL, which means that anything that can’t be crammed into your graphics card will simply not be available or won’t work. Faking detail with normal maps and color textures can get you a long way e.g. using the Metropolitan pack, but you always have to be careful not to get too close to see the cheating when the textures get pixellated or soft. On the other hand Cineware will simply be limited by the achievable brute CPU performance of your machine that drives either the software mode scene viewport renderer or the output renderer. Now here’s the thing: In theory it might actually be possible to load a huge CAD scene even, but then you would have to wait several minutes for every single update and if you have watched any of the demos that use the final output renderer, you can already see how long it takes to render some simple text. In fact the demos tell you the exact opposite: If you just want to animate some extruded logos or let a simple car drive through your scene, you will probably get much more mileage out of Element 3D or even Mettle‘s Shapeshifter.

But not so fast, since there’s  more than a handful other things to consider. The available render and shader features and how the plug-ins are integrated is where they set themselves apart. Looking on each of them individually will make the differences clear.

  • Materials – Both tools use pretty much the same Phong material, since you don’t get the advanced shaders that would be in the “big” Cinema 4D versions. That’s okay for most basic tasks and once you have a feel for how to tweak all the knobs, you may actually be able to produce something decent. Still, both will result in a plastic-y look, if you are not careful.
  • Textures – Certain texture types are common to both tools, but naturally Element 3D will not offer as many options here. As I wrote in another post already, the make & break is the quality of the diffuse textures combined with normal maps where appropriate because anything that hasn’t been “baked in” there, will not show up most likely. Arguably, though, the same will be true for Cineware, since you do not have access to certain advanced features like sub-pixel displacement. The other limitation in Element 3D is of course the available number of textures overall due to being tied to your graphics hardware as well as being dependent on assigning certain textures via the After Effects effects controls since the plug-in only supports a handful of 8 bit formats natively.
  • Shaders – This round will have to go to Cinema 4D Lite. Unfortunately Element doesn’t have any build in procedural shaders or textures beyond its Fresnel falloffs in some shader parameters. Considering they have a city pack, some brick shader and at least a basic fractal noise would make so much sense.
  • ReflectionsElement only uses a global fake reflection map that equals the Environment texture channel in Cinema 4D. It doesn’t do any genuine geometry or texture reflections. I would not consider it the biggest problem on the planet since even in 3D programs you need these kinds of textures to produce glossy materials like chrome or have to add extra geometry that shows up in the raytraced reflections, but what slightly irks me is how reflections in Element very much override the Diffuse and Specular shading. If you are looking for a more subtle kind of reflection, you will have to fiddle a lot. Of course you get much more options in the 3D program, but as always, there’s a price – render times will go up.
  • Transparency – Again Cinema 4D seems to be a winner since Element 3D currently doesn’t support any transparency. However, it’s not that simple. When is it ever? If you only use stock models e.g. of cars, you many times will not even want transparency because that would require interior detail, which, and that takes us back to the complexity paragraph, may not exist in a model that is actually usable within the plug-in, not to speak of the difficulty of adding a 3D animated driver figure. These are typically tasks you would do using green screen and a bit of conventional compositing. It would be nice, however, to create things like textured plants or cutout people, so adding texture transparency would be high on my list. Cinema 4D on the other hand of course does transparency rendering and even refractions. Depending on how it’s arranged, the performance hit may be considerable, though, and in case of using Cineware might make it unusable.
  • Shadows – Once more one of those features that currently only exist in Cinema 4D Lite. However, there’s hope since real shadows have already been announced for Element 3D v2.
  • Ambient Occlusion – Since Cinema 4D Lite does not include any advanced render options or shaders, there is no ambient occlusion. You will have to mimic this like we did back in the old days using light domes or other techniques like abusing Fresnel shaders. Element 3D does have SSAO (screen space ambient occlusion), which as the name implies is a 2D effect based on the internal depth map and a few other parameters. The downside is that it only looks good with very “deep” scenes that have enough separation between objects, but those objects also have to visually overlap to actually produce the occlusion effect.
  • Fog – Both programs allow to produce a basic Z-buffer fog, that is objects fade away with distance against a color. In addition, Element 3D has introduced the World Position render output in v1.6 that can be used to produce height-based fog or similar effects based on a fixed position of the fog.
  • Depth of Field – Undoubtedly the one thing that benefits most from being able to adjust it in realtime is DOF. Anyone who has ever struggled with finding a focal range will appreciate the interactive feedback in Element 3D. It even offers different methods to calculate the blur. The only thing that is missing is Bokeh with proper iris shapes. Cineware can not render any of this live. You have to use the depth pass and apply a post effect.
  • Cameras – Both plug-ins respond to the composition camera. In addition, you can use the scene camera in Cineware that must not match that composition camera. Element 3D does not have a built-in alternate camera and requires a composition camera to allow proper viewing and moving in the scene.
  • Lights – Here the situation is reversed. Element 3D will respond to composition lights while Cineware will not. All lights must be defined in the 3D scene therefore. They can be extracted to the composition to sync them with other stuff, though. Due to the limitations in OpenGL, the number of lights you can use in Element 3D will be determined by your graphics hardware whereas of course they is unlimited in the other tool, it being a software-only solution.
  • Creation of Nulls – Additional Null layers can be created in both effects. This can be useful fo adding particle effects or using expressions that reference those Nulls. In Cinema 4D Lite the process is a bit more controllable since you work on real units and not just pixels.
  • Render Passes – Finally, when it comes to the options for output, both tools offer pretty much the same options and workflow. Either of them requires to use multiple duplicate layers of the same scene with different outputs set and they offer pretty much the same output channels. The Cineware workflow is a bit more streamlined, since all outputs will reference the same scene and will automatically reflect any changes. In Element 3D you would have to delete the duplicates, change your scene and then clone the layer again, setting the outputs. This could of course be automated with a script like Elementary and expressions to avoid some of the redundant work.

So which one wins? The definitive answer is – neither. The simple truth here is that if you have already Element 3D and are happy with it, you probably won’t get too much new out of Cineware beyond finally having a “free” program to create your own C4D files. If, like me, you are working on stuff that is way beyond the capabilities of either tool, you will mostly pass over both tools, with the exception of the occasional text treatment or decorative background animation perhaps. For all the rest Cinema 4D Lite and Cineware will be an okay-ish starting point in the world of 3D, but quickly leave you wishing for more and the funny thing is, that a lot of that will probably have to do with its non-realtimeness and stripped down feature set that Element 3D can match or even surpass in some areas despite being “just a OpenGL renderer”.

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