How To Use After Effects Shape Layers Without Tearing Out Your Hair


One of the most versatile tools in After Effects is Shapes, which can supplement or entirely form the totality of your project. They can be endlessly malleable, but are also kind of a pain to work with. But with the proper tools (some free and some paid), you can quickly improve your shape wrangling tools and save your hair in the process.

1. Set Anchor Point to Center

You’ve no doubt experienced this: all you want is to draw a circle or a box, so you select the shape tool and draw it. But after the shape is complete you notice that while the shape itself has the anchor point in the center, the shape layer defaults the anchor point to the center of the comp. This, of course, is because the shape layer takes its settings from the comp, and since it can have multiple shapes within it, it sees the center of the comp as the center of the layer.

This can be both frustrating and useful. It’s frustrating if you only want one shape per layer, because you may have to move the anchor point for it to be useful (or dig down into the shape transform- but more on this later). However, it can be useful if you want to arrange shapes more easily; for example, if you draw a circle on one side of the comp and want to duplicate it and flip it to the same relative position on the other side via Transform > Flip Horizontal.

Well, with Ae CC 2015 you can finally have your cake and eat it too, as the shape tool now allows for a quick re-centering of the anchor point on a shape layer. There are a coupe ways to do this, but I’ve found the easiest is to simply select the shape layer, and then go up to the Pan Behind Tool, hold Cmd and then double-click.


2. Create Bezier Shapes from Parametric Shapes

One of the potential problems with the shape tool is that by default it creates parametric shapes rather than bezier shapes. What this means is that you cannot go in and modify the path itself, which can be problematic if you need to change it and have a bunch of parametric paths already.

There are a couple ways around this without having to nail drawing perfect shapes with the Pen Tool.

Before you even start drawing/dragging the shape, hold Alt and then start dragging. This will create a bezier shape instead.

But wait, you implore. What if I already have a parametric shape drawn? Must I despair? In this case you have to dig down into the shape properties until you come to the “Shape” Path 1 layer. Then right click/ctrl click on this property and select Convert to Bezier Path.

And just like that all is well!

3. Libraries and Adobe Color

It is nearly inconceivable that After Effects has been around as long as it has without some sort of built in color palette or color swatches panel. In the past I have often resorted to building out PNG’s of color swatches in Photoshop, importing them into After Effects, and then rebuilding the color swathes with boxes in After Effects so I could have a more robust way to manage colors.

But all that has changed (for the better!) in After Effects CC 2015, and while it still doesn’t have any sort of color palette or color swatch panel, it has something that works just as well, and perhaps even better.

Libraries were first introduced in Photoshop and Illustrator, and essentially allow you to easily share assets, styles and colors between applications. And now that it is in After Effects, you can quickly and easily build color palettes to use within After Effects.

It’s really easy to use, and gives you really quick access to color. But it becomes even more powerful when used in conjunction with Adobe Color. This online tool lets you create color palettes from scratch, modify existing palettes, or even create them based on a source image. And if you use the app on your smartphone, you can take a pic, have Adobe Color create swatches from the pic, and then sync it to your Libraries, all within about 30 seconds. It’s truly a powerful way to have more control over color in After Effects, which means using color with shapes has never been more effortless or intuitive.

4. Creating Color Expressions

Sometimes changing the colors on your shapes can be a pain, especially if you have a bunch of them. Later I will suggest a tool to make this process more effortless, but it’s fairly easy to set up your shape layers for easer color management with expressions.

Begin by creating a Null, and name it something like Color Control. The go to Effect > Expression Controls > Color Control. You may want to rename your Null layer as well.

Then twirl down the Null until the Color Control color well is visible in the timeline. Next, twirl down the shape layer until you can also see the color well for the desired fill or stroke. (If you use the “UU” shortcut it will reveal this.)

Finally, Alt-click on the Color stopwatch. Then pickwhip the Color well of the Color Control layer. Now, if you change the color in the color control, there shape layer color that you have linked up with automatically change.

This can be especially useful because you can add multiple Color Controls to this one Control layer, and all of the colors will be available in spot, without having to open up the color properties of a bunch of different layers.

Advanced Note: Sometimes it can useful to have the Color Control in its own comp so that it can be used to modify the colors in multiple comps. To do this you need only place it in another comp and then modify the expression so that it references the other comp. For example, if my Color Control comp was called “Color Control,” in the expression I would change thisComp.layer to comp(“Color Control”).layer.


Of course, if you want to make working with colors even easier, Ray Dynamic Color is the way to go, in that it automates this process and makes changing colors over multiple selected comps hassle-free.

It works using color palettes, which you can either create on your own or import from .ASE swatches. All you really have to do is select your layer and then click on the color you want from the color palette. It is then linked up via expressions. The beautiful thing is that if you want to modify that color, you only have to go into the palette comp and change the color and those changes will naturally be automatically made.

But perhaps one of the best parts is that you can easily apply entirely new palettes that update across the board but also keep your old color palettes (if you want them). This means you can make color variations across comps with essentially two clicks. Assuming you have another palette imported/added, all you have to do is select the palette from the drop-down menu, click Replace, and all the colors will be updated with that new palette.

As a bonus, it will even scan your comp and create palettes out of the the colors found within, which is useful if you want to reuse those colors in other comps.

6. Explode Shape Layers  3

The great thing about creating your artwork in Adobe Illustrator is that it plays nicely with After Effects. For some time After Effects has had the “Create Shapes From Vector Layer” option, which does exactly what it says, and it is great. It allows you to modify your vector artwork within After Effects, without any degradation of resolution.

However, After Effects’ functionality ends right there, and unfortunately it can make the resulting shape layer a bit unruly. Case in point: it does not separate out the Illustrator layers, but rather groups them all under one shape layer, which makes managing those shapes difficult.

But Explode Shape Layers makes that quite a bit easier. It has the same functionality as After Effects in creating the vector layer (no doubt by employing this functionality), but has the added features of being able to “explode” the resulting shapes out of that layer. For example, if I have a vector with 10 layers and create a shape layer out of it, with ESL3 I can explode those layers so that instead of one shape layer with 10 shapes in it, I can have 10 individual shape layers, which are often easier to control.

It also allows you to select which layers to explode specifically, which is also quite nice if you only need to isolate a few.

Another great feature is the ability to merge multiple shape layers into one, which sometimes makes more sense than leaving them as individual shapes.

There are a bunch of other features that you can explore on your own, but I would consider this a must have for working with vectors and shapes.


As powerful as shapes and shape layers are, they are an absolute pain to navigate. One often has to twirl down through seemingly endless layers to access certain properties. This of course only gets magnified the more shapes a shape layer contains.

But Shape Layer Navigator takes a lot of the pain of navigating shapes and shape layers away. From its control panel, it allows you to isolate specified properties for either all the shapes in a shape layer or selected ones. And it does this in as uncluttered a way as possible.

For example, if you want to access the Position Transform of the shape itself for (say) 6 shapes, without Shape Layer Navigator you either have to twirl down each shape to get to that property, or UU on the shape layer itself, which will twirl down all the shapes and (most of) their properties. It gets the job done, to be sure, but you have now lost most of your screen real estate to properties you don’t want to access.

However, with Shape Layer Navigator, you would only select the layer, then Cmd-Click on the “trans” button in the SLN panel. It will give you a dialog to select only the Position (or whatever you want). You then SS on the keyboard, and only the Position transform for the shapes are displayed, which dramatically cuts down on loss of screen real estate.

There are a ton of more options available here, but if you work with shape layers a lot this will be an invaluable tool, and is the sort of functionality that After Effects really should have built in.

8. Overlap

This tool isn’t shape layer specific (AFAIK), but it’s a great tool for when you need to offset the animation of a bunch of shape layers. It definitely beats manually offsetting shape layers or trying to remember which are keyframes, where the keyframes are, and then moving it somewhere in the middle where it creates a new keyframe and completely ruins your animation, causing you to have to start over.

Not as if that has ever happened to me.

9. Butt Capper

After Effects inexplicably seems to hate end caps of strokes, because for some reason a quick UU does not allow you to access the end cap of a stroke. Instead, you have to manually dig down through the layers to get to it. What’s worse is that you have to do this for each shape within a shape layer if you want to adjust them all at the same time. Change your mind? Guess what, you get to elect and change them all again!

Butt Capper is a quick (and free!) little tool that is only for stroke end caps and stroke joints, but if you work with shapes and strokes a lot you will wonder why After Effects left this functionality out of the program. It works exactly like you’d expect and want it to, and will make your shape layer workflow so much more efficient, and end up giving you more creative options since end caps and joints are now a breeze to change.

Get this now.

10. Rubber Hose

This is a brand new script, but much like DUIK it’s one of those scripts that will completely change the way you do things, and I think may be one of the standout scripts of 2015.

This is primarily meant for character creation (although there are a ton of things you can do with it), but it takes a different approach. Other scripts like DUIK use an IK system, which works well with the Puppet tool. There are, however, limitations (reversing bend direction being a challenge) that can easily rip you out of the workflow (although scripts like DUIK have made the IK rigging process much easier).

Rubber Hose doesn’t use an IK system but rather uses a series of hoses with control points on the ends. These hoses can be lengthened and bent any which way, and the beauty of them is that they are all shape layer based, so there is absolutely no loss of resolution no matter how far they are bent or stretched, which means not only are there different creative possibilities, but it also obviates the need to create super high-res artwork (since the Puppet Tool rasterizes artwork).

By building your character entirely within the tube system, you essentially have competent control over all aspects of the artwork from start to finish in After Effects, which means decisions about color, shape, etc., can be more easily made at all points of the animation process.

(As a side note: Shape Layer Navigator works great in tandem with Rubber Hose, and since Rubber Hose will end up using lots of strokes, you’ll also want to use it in tandem with Butt Capper.)

This script is not only really useful, it’s also a whole lot of fun. It takes a little getting used to (especially figuring out how to use the hoses effectively to make the artwork you want), but it’s certainly a different way to animate characters, and one that promises to make it easier and faster than ever.

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By deviantmonk

Jason Watson

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