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I wrote a blog post about this a few months ago: "UV maps, channels, mattes: integrating 3D applications with After Effects". This post points to a few really good articles.
There's some information in the "Preparing and importing 3D image files" section of After Effects Help on the Web. (Yes, that's a link to the CS4 Help document, but most of the information is the same as for CS3---except the part about 3D object layers from Photoshop.)
Jolly good & interesting reading. Please Sir, may I have some more.
I don't mean to sound condescending here but you are talking about a topic that is not limited to a ten minute tutorial you can just download and do.
If you are serious and not just talking about 3D text flying around you should buy "The Art and Science of Digital Compositing" by Ron Brinkmann. Because marrying 3D graphics with 2D material is compositing, an art unto itself and separate from editing. Yes that book costs money, but when you are talking about nitty gritty details on how the job is done there is no substitute.
Now you are asking for recommendations on the preferred software. This tells me that 3D is totally new to you. Most 3D tutorials you will find for free are free because they're not that good, although there are some. My recommendation to you is to download Blender, a free 3D content creation program, and mess around and see if 3D is for you at all before you drop any money into it. 3D is an industry unto itself, and takes a lot of time to do well.
There's also the personal learning edition of Maya (The leading 3D tool for film and TV) which you can download for free from autodesk's website (Note anything you create in the personal learning edition is effectively locked because it only exists to facilitate learning and not creating content). Adobe is trumpeting how well it works with Cinema 4D, but until Adobe buys Maxon I'm not biting.
Be as honest or condescending as you'd like, thank you, at least I'm getting some reply. When it comes to further information or books I'll read your rec for "The Art and Science of Digital Compositing" by Ron Brinkmann. Being that money is no object, I'll head to the library for it next week!. I've had a fiddle with Blender but I noticed it was prone to sudden and unexpected shutdowns. Has anyone else had this problem? I figured when you get it for free though you can't *****. I had a play around also with google's Sketchup, which I think is great but definitely not up to what I need on my project, a great free 3d tool though & really easy to get the hang of. As you've mentioned both Maya and Cinema 4D, which do you think would be the best suited to work with the CS3 Production Suite. Which would you personally prefer to use and why? Thank you again for sharing some knowledge on the subject.
There are pros and cons to both really. That's a topic people will die defending. Quite simply I like Maya, because Maya is the tool I learned and it's the tool the vfx company I work for uses. Of course C4D is cheaper. (But not by much if you opt for the full C4D package)
Here's a thought. One of the reasons, if not a big one, you are using After Effects is because of the user community. (After all, you're in the forums.) Being the most widely used 3D tool, Maya has the bigger and better user community.
As for the best one to use with CS3, the methods I use (the methods outlined in Brinkmann's book) are not tied to any one piece of compositing software. So even though Adobe is pitching some kind of partnership with C4D I don't know much about that. I'm sure others have some thoughts regarding C4D to AE interoperability.
Myself, I hadn't really found Adobe leaning toward any particular 3D application in my G & knowledge based searches hence - to the forum for advise. As money is no object I'm thinking I'll stick to playing with Blender onto a second deck I can access before deciding if shutdowns aint just due to one shaky platform's performance. I'm probably inclined at this time to go Maya, cause I know a screenprinter who bought a licence, hasn't even used it, and said I could have it seeing that he's just gotten into sister's pants & they're both in that funky rabbit stage. Anybody else want to offer their opinion on their experience, choice and why?
Well, as Mike already said, such discussions have the potential of degenerating into a furball rather quickly and easily because everyone has his own preferences. If, for the time, you are happy with Blender, then I would not be bent on trying other programs too quickly. When I started out doing 3D, Blender would have been highend, so until the point you really cannot do something for very rational reasons in it, the time you'd waste evaluating other tools can be better spent learning generic techniques. Ultimately that's the whole point: The interfaces are different and some functions are, but the underlying principles haven't really changed that much. Good geometry requires clean modeling and a proper polygon "flow" in any program and animation can look iffy in even the most sophisticated program, if you have no sense for timing. For specific program advise, a few short lines:
Cinema 4D - Some good tools/ modules like MoGraph, but the price ain't right for the whole package. The renderer is weak and some modules are hopelessly outdated. Would be okay if the Studio bundle cost half, but not for 3000 Euros...
Maya - Still being used widely in VFX facilities, but looks a bit old these days. It's not particularly elegant and takes quite a while to get a handle on.
Lightwave - Interesting again, as the heavy bug-fixing in the 9.x cycle has brought a top-notch renderer. Modeling and animation are okay, but still mostly for rigid models. and the price is hard to beat.
modo - Might be interesting for you in future versions, but not at this point. It has barely any animation features and is mostly for stills. Has some nice modeling, sculpting, painting and rendering, though.