In CS4 you have the option to break letters into shapes or masks and you can animate these, copying them onto separate layers if you want 3D control. Don't forget to center the orientation of the letter layers before you animate.
i only have CS3: i can convert to a shape, but can I break this shape apart?
Layer->Create Outlines will get you a shape layer with the individual character shapes all neatly grouped and labeled.
Of course, I would think 3D text animators would be the most flexible way to approach this, but to each his own.
If they must be on separate layers, and you don't mind them being paths/shapes, the easiest way is to use Illustrator.
Create your text, convert to paths with Text/Create Outlines, then select the new layer group and choose "Release To Layers (Sequence). This will place every character into a new layer.
Import to AE as a comp and you're done.
>only have CS3: i can convert to a shape, but can I break this shape
You could duplicate the layer as often as needed and delete the unwanted paths...
Fantastic idea Andrew!! Thanks for that.
That's a great tip! Thanks!
(Sorry, I know I am resurrecting and an oldie, but it's a goodie ...)
Hmmm ... I tried following your directions Andrew, but after importing into AE, the text is still all on one layer. I am importing it as a Comp (like you said), but the comp just has a single Illustrator .ai layer. I tried saving as an Illustrator PDF, then importing that as Comp ... no dice.
Any idea what I might be doing wrong?
EDIT: FIGURED OUT THE ISSUE: I didn't realize Ai was putting them in a sub (really a sub-sub) layer. I just had to grab all the letter layers and move them above the container layer(s). Then deleted those container layers, and saved as an .ai file. Now upon import I get the options (and of course, the layers.)