My sister-in-law had created a video for each of her sons when they graduated from high school. These videos were basically the kind of slideshow that almost every off-the-shelf consumer-grade video production application can do out of the box, which isn’t to say that they were terrible, but rather to say that of course I wanted to do better than that for my daughter’s graduation video. This is the kind of project that I’m training to produce, right?

That is until I learned that she specifically requested “no video”. I learned this after I had put together this intro.

The idea here is that we’ll start from space, orbit halfway around the world and zoom in on a map showing the bird’s-eye view of the hospital where she was born. At that point…I have no idea. Maybe just segue into the slideshow or something. I kind of gave up planning after the “no video” mandate (I’m totally going to make the damn video anyway).

Relevant Websites

I didn’t really hit up too many sites for information, except for one Google search on “after effects clouds” in order to see if I could make my cloud transition any better than it is (I could, but not without…wait for it…Trapcode Particular).

Relevant Resources

That Earth? All custom, thanks to VideoCopilot’s “Orb” plugin and accompanying tutorial (and downloadable files). I followed the tutorial pretty much exactly, yet my planet didn’t come out anywhere near as cool as Andrew Kramer’s did (no surprise). I also downloaded Google Earth Pro because the web version wasn’t loading for me.

Technical Details

I started with the idea that I needed an Earth, and I needed it to be 3D because I wanted to circle around it from the dark side to the light side before zooming down through the clouds. I had downloaded the “Orb” plug-in a while back but hadn’t really found a use for it. Thankfully, VideoCopilot provided the relevant files needed to make an Earth, because the ones I found by POG (Plain Old Googling) were crap. I’m not going to recount the trials involved in setting up the planet, but will instead direct you to the official website for your Genesis Device needs.

Next, I had to add the fly-by. Cameras in AE and me don’t really play well together — yet. I had watched some videos earlier in the week which went into more depth about the camera system than any that I had seen before, so I was forewarned and forearmed for this. I used a 2-point camera because I needed the “point of interest” property that this style of camera provides. I started with a standard 50mm preset, but cranked that down to 24mm (I think) to get a wider angle and shorter focal length for a better zoom in at the end.

Once the camera was in place, I set a NULL object at about the place on the globe that I wanted the camera to focus on and set the point of interest value to that NULL position using the pick whip. The purpose here is this: as the camera moves, it needs to skim the surface of the planet. With a 1-point camera (no point of interest) I would need to adjust the position and rotation of the camera to maintain a good focus on the landscape as it went. With the point of interest mechanism, the camera will always be looking at a fixed point, and so long as the camera’s position, field of view, and focal length keep it outside the body of the planet, we just need to finesse the dolly of the camera as it moves to make the camera skim the surface the way we want.

Starting at the bottom of the planet, I keyframed the position of the camera so that it moved vertically, along the polar axis of the planet until it was roughly above the point where I wanted it to begin its downward descent. I then altered the position of the camera along its local axis so that it moved closer to the surface of the planet. Think of a bendy-straw standing upright, the head bent down at about a 45-degree angle and you’ll understand the visuals here.

With the camera layer selected, I switched to a 2-frame viewport (horizontal) and focusing on the side view, I used the Pen tool to add a few anchor points along the camera’s path. Using the Pointer tool, I bowed-out the vertical path into a curve that more or less matched the side-curve of the planet. When the camera got to the point where it started it’s downward descent, I had to finagle the path a bit so the camera didn’t “bounce”. The transition point is still a curve and might benefit mightily from a tweak to make that inflection point into to an angle, so the descent becomes straight down and less of a slight arc that you see in the video.

With this part handled, I switched over to Google Earth. Using StreamLabs OBS I recorded the application’s natural zoom from “space” down to the specific address that I needed. I imported this video into the AE composition, resized it and scooted it over so all of the Google Earth chrome was out of the frame. The good thing about this method is that Google Earth already handles the re-interpolation of the graphics on zoom, so dropping from orbit to street level looks pretty damn good out of the box, and I didn’t have to keyframe a single thing by just recording the operation of the app!

The problem, then, is transitioning between the drop from my manufactured Earth down to the street level view of the map. The “Orb” includes a cloud layer, but it’s not thick enough to interfere, nor is it volumetric enough to register. Instead, I threw down three Solid layers with the “Clouds” effect applied to each. I staggered the opacity reveal from nothing to something thick, and then back to nothing, so at the shared midpoint of these layers, the cloud density is the thickest until eventually each layer fades out one by one and we’re left with the street level view.

I’m mostly happy with the planet zoom (I can see the bump transition from arc to zoom), and of course with the Google Earth sorcery, but the clouds might be better. I thought that maybe I could add a brief white-out effect at the midpoint of the zoom through the clouds, but didn’t try it out. At the end of the day, my philosophy is this, though: the zoom through the clouds is meant to hide the transition between the globe and the map. It really serves no other purpose. I don’t need photo-realistic clouds like I would if I were making the camera fly along the planet surface; I just need something to “cover up the seam”, which I think this particular implementation does well. Although I know that the effects used are “clouds”, viewers are hopefully made to understand that they are passing through a cloud layer, so the purpose is fulfilled even if the technique is a little lazy.


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