The 3-Ring 3D Title Circus!

And in the center ring: the amazing, the gigantic, the most impressive typography known to mankind…
Ladies and Gentlemen! Feast your eyes on 3D titles!

In my dream, famous 19th century carnival operator P. T. Barnum stands before a tattered tent and barks at the crowd passing by…

"Step right up, Ladies and Gentlemen, and witness the most amazing phenomenon of the modern era. You'll see dull, lifeless letters virtually leap off the screen and burn themselves into your audiences' brain. You'll see the miracle of modern computer power harnessed to extrude, bevel and burnish your once-boring type and transform it into Three Dimensional typography! Why folks, never before in the history of lettering…" Okay, enough hype.


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We don't need P. T. Barnum called forth from the grave to sell us on the usefulness of 3D typography. We just need to watch a little TV to notice that most modern video typography takes advantage of the basic elements of 3D in order to better do it's job.

Actually, the term "3D" is a bit of a stretch when it comes to putting type on a screen. Your TV or computer screen is, after all, flat. So in order to convince your audience its seeing type with the 3rd dimension — depth —
trickery must be called forth.

The Basics

The first and most basic attribute in the 3D type stylist's toolkit is shadow. (This is because in the real world, we take many of our visual cues on dimensionality from cast shadows.)

In Figure 1, the word "Circus" looks like a simple 2D object. In Figure 2 we've added a drop shadow and suddenly the 2D word gets the appearance of depth in its space. In Figure 3 we take the example a step farther using the extrude command to create a sense of depth to the word itself. And finally, in Figure 4 we add some beveling to the word in order to make the shape of the letters stand out more clearly to the viewer.

This is very basic 3D modeling–
almost every editing package includes this type of "3D primitives."

Why the Basics Work

So the title in figure 4 is certainly more aesthetically pleasing than in figure 1, but is that all that this kind of 3D modeling accomplishes? Prettier pictures? Not at all. Remember that merely putting type on the screen isn't our ultimate goal when we design titles and graphics for our video programs. Helping the audience read and understand the words we display is the ultimate goal.

And that requires close examination, not only of the letters themselves, but also to their environment. In order to pick a letter out of a video scene, we need to provide some form of contrast between the letter and its background.

That contrast can come in a variety of flavors. It can be contrast of light against dark or dark against light, it can be contrast of color, or size, or texture, or even motion. But in order to draw the viewer's eye to the text in order to read it, it must somehow stand out. And what stands out is difference. In other words, if your titling is similar to the other objects sharing the screen with it, particularly the background or other adjacent objects, it will be hard to read.

In Figure 1 there are two areas of contrast in the image. The surface color of the letters and the background color surrounding it. If you use the background as a "key" color and drop it out against the video behind it, you have only that one contrast color. This works fine as long as the word's background has good contrast. But what if it doesn't? What if you specify a light blue fill for your letters, thinking you're designing it to stand out against the green grass of an outdoor shot, only to have the camera tilt up to the sky — rendering your blue type invisible against the blue of the sky?

Here's the hidden magic of easy 3D titles. Properly designed, a 3D title will have more contrast with more kinds of video backgrounds and therefore will be more useful in more types of scenes.

The Law of the Letter

We've already noted that in figure 2 adding a drop shadow has the primary function of adding an illusion of depth to the letter. But it also adds contrast between the letter and its background. Composite a letter with a drop shadow over a video scene and the light letter combines with the darker drop shadow to provide contrast for both dark and light backgrounds.

Adding the Extrude function adds even more contrast, because typically the extruded surface will be in a contrasting color or shade. So a type element that is both shadowed and extruded can provide three contrast elements in a single piece of type – the face color – the shadow color – and the extruded surface color.

And finally, there's the bevel. Beveling the edge of letters provides yet another area of contrast and a very important one, since the bevel typically outlines the basic shape of the letter, which makes the letter easier for the eye to recognize and read the letter. Applying each treatment adds contrast, so this kind of 3D extruded letter has a significantly better chance of standing out from it's background.

Size Matters

But before you think that simply adding these four — or any other specific effects to a letter in order to make it stand out, realize that there are other factors in play in good titling.

Size, for instance. The kinds of techniques that are excellent for making large type stand out frequently do little or nothing for text set at smaller point sizes.

In fact, when applied to smaller font sizes, these same techniques will almost always obscure the legibility of a block of text rather than enhancing it. Essentially, there's just not enough surface room on small type for this sort of effect to work that well.

The Last Word

The reason P. T. Barnum drove so many gullible carnival goers into his tents is that he created a clearly defined contrast between the ordinary–the audience's real, boring, tedious and somewhat mundane lifestyle and experiences–and his promise of what was waiting just inside his tents–the extraordinary!

So take a lesson from the master. And the next time you put a written message on the screen make sure it stands out – with dimension, contrast and punch!

When you master the techniques of 3D typesetting we’ve covered here, you'll find that they're "just the ticket" in helping your audience get your message.

Contributing Editor Bill Davis writes, shoots, edits, and does voiceover work for a variety of corporate and industrial clients.

Side Bar:

Monitoring Type

Remember there's a fundamental difference between a computer monitor (most of which are high resolution progressive scan displays) and a television screen (most of which are low resolution interlaced displays).

Titling is one area where the difference between these display technologies can be extremely important. I've seen many title designs that looked great on the computer, loose much of their sharpness and color that the graphics designer struggled so hard to achieve when viewed on a typical television set.

The solution? Always do your design work with a dependable NTSC monitor (or at least a decent TV) in the loop for real time monitoring. Without it, you're likely to be surprised (and not pleasantly) when your graphics finally make it to the TV tube.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.