Getting Familiar with d3

My goal every year is to learn something new in terms of computer software, for two reasons:

  1. A popular application you use today may not be what everyone is using 5, 10, or 20 years later. If you don’t examine what other programs are capable of and be aware of complementary or replacement software, you might get left behind someday.
  2. Learning something new gives you more utility and makes you more versatile as a designer.

A couple years ago I learned X-Particles, last year I focused more on TurbulenceFD. This year I learned d3.

What is d3?
Great question!

According to the d3 Technologies website, d3 is:

The world’s first integrated video production suite, d3 is more than just a media server. Based around a real-time 3D stage simulator, it is the single solution needed to design, present, communicate, sequence and playback logoyour show. d3 lets you work with props, venues, LED screens, projection, lighting and moving stage elements, while being completely integrated into a single intuitive software solution that runs on your own laptop or dedicated d3 hardware.

To summarize their summary, basically d3 handles almost the entire process for designing and executing a live performance.

My experience with live performances mostly comes from doing the animation content for musical performances at award shows and some sales presentations. Prior to d3, I would create animations in Cinema 4D or After Effects and render it within a template that tells you what part of the image is sent to the different screens on a stage based on the X and Y position coordinates of pixels. Multiple screens get combined on to one template composition, which has gotten exceedingly high in resolution. Nothing slows you down more in After Effects than trying to do a RAM preview on a 14,000 x 4000 composition. The d3 blows that process out of the water and makes you never want to work that way again.

The advantages of d3:

1. It plays back in real time.

I pray to the animation gods that one day After Effects will be able to play a Quicktime movie without needing a RAM preview. Maybe it will happen before I die. Until then, d3 will pick up the slack. I can get 10 different Quicktime movies (HAP codec works well) looping back in real time without making a preview. It just… does it for you. It’s a huge timesaver to not have to wait for the computer to cook up a preview for you. It’s like the difference between developing film at a 1 hour photo versus looking at one instantly on a digital camera. Your hardware makes a difference, a good video card and a SSD drive are essential for reliable real time playback.

2. It maps your graphics to a stage where they belong.

The whole process can work like this: you can design stage layout in maybe a program like Vectorworks, bring it into a 3D application and build a model, and then export the screens in d3 and have their position and scale be accurate to the venue where you’ll be working in. Pixels aren’t a physical measurement. The same amount of pixels in your TV screen can be used to to fill a screen that’s 30 feet tall. Instead of seeing your images on a flat, one-size-fits all composition, you can see how they compliment each other inside an accurate model of the venue, telling you how well your graphics are fit the physical space of the screens.


3. No rendering!

Perhaps my favorite feature. Since it handles everything so well in real time, d3 is able to just play your timeline as it’s laid out without having to render a “final movie” like you would in After Effects. This prevents you from having to set your project up to maybe spend half a day rendering while you can’t work on your computer. It allows you to customize and adjust the individual clips on the fly, without ever committing to a final render. It is ultimately faster and more flexible, and that’s always a welcome combination.

4. Music becomes your timecode.

d3 uses an audio file for timing instead of more traditional, timecode based timelines. It times things out by bars, which can be color-coded and sectioned off to organize your edit. It was confusing to me at first; it helps to be more inclined and familiar with music because you can quantize audio to fit the timeline to the rhythm of the song. So every chorus, verse, bridge, intro, outro, etc. can be properly spaced out on your timeline, and the total length of your animations will sync up with the markers on your timeline. It makes total sense when you see it work within a song, where every 4 bars the music and lyrics change right on time. d3 makes changing and timing your graphics on to the beat approximately 100,000 times easier than in a program like After Effects.

5. The interface is RAW.

I love the raw, old school interface of d3 with absolutely zero bells and whistles. Keep it like that forever. I don’t care if it looks a GUI from the 1980s, it works very well and that’s what really matters. I choose functionality over gradients, bevels, customizable fonts and crap like that. The program itself is very light and doesn’t feel bloated from years of extra features trying to convince you to upgrade to the latest version. I hope it stays like that forever.


Here’s my most current example for Premios Juventud 2015 in July. I created this sort of Avatar Style/ Fern Gully forest in Cinema 4D and After Effects. Those programs (or their substitutes) will still be where you do the bulk of your designing. d3 has some capabilities for making adjustments, but it;s not a graphic design program.

I worked with regular sized HD comps in my design applications, and placed them on various screens of all different sizes in the arena via d3. Here’s a sample:

Here is a still render of the scene and the preview in Cinema 4D. I sculpted that stump and then worked it into a modified Landscape Primitive. I added Hair for the grass, gave it a little motion and ping-ponged it for looping purposes. The dandelions were also made in Cinema 4D, made with the Feather object. I took one little petal of it and used it as a particle for a Trapcode Particular emitter back inside After Effects.

For rendering I used the Physical Renderer in Cinema 4D. I wanted a shallow depth of field to make it feel like the forest was really large and the performance was just a tiny part inside the scene. It made render times skyrocket but it was worth it because I needed that lens effect. For compositing I really just layered some foreground grass and a main hero dandelion to emit my particles, some little dust, some light leaks, and gave it a sort of fantasy-style color treatment to make it not feel like a forest designed without so much realism.


I still want to learn the ins and outs of the whole process of d3. I am just one part of the assembly line, I design the content and fit it to the song and the stage. But it contains more power that simply just designing, it actually runs the show behind the scenes involving other people who are smarter than me.

It’s a very young program, so young that I tried searching for help for a tech issue on it and all the results were from a video game forum. The name “d3” is too widely used, getting more information on it from a Google search can be tricky. Hell I was presenting at a conference called D3 that had nothing to do with it, they just called the organization D3 as well.

d3 was used during Katy Perry’s halftime show for the Super Bowl this year and I expected the program to blow up. But d3 is quietly going about their business behind the scenes, hovering with just 850ish Twitter followers as of today (Maxon has about 38K, Adobe has like 415K) and I’m totally good with that. I look forward to learning more about this great program, I hope I can become a near expert before everyone else figures out how awesome it is. I want to be a d3 hipster one day.