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In after effects I have some PNGs which are arranged in 3d. When they are rotated 90 degrees they all but disappear because they have no thickness. Is there a way to give them thickness?

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Short answer: No

Long answer: You can if you really, really want to but it will either cost money for a plug-in or time in order to hack about and get it working. See my post on the adobe forums for more info: forums.adobe.com/message/2550842#2550842

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You can use displacement maps and the plugin FreeForm (included in CS5) to curve your layers..

Best example of this I've seen is: jelescu_tudor: 3D-from-2D-image_AE

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