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How to Use Shape Layers to Animate in After Effects

Final product imageFinal product imageFinal product image
What You'll Be Creating

Shape layers are super powerful tools for creating graphics and much more inside of After Effects. In this lesson, you will see exactly how they work.

To follow along in this lesson, open up the shapes.aep file and hop on over to the shape start composition.

shapes projectshapes projectshapes project

You'll see there's nothing in here but we're gonna add some shape layers. There's a couple of different ways to do that. You can right click in the blank space in your timeline and you can go to New > Shape Layer. Or you can jump up to the top menu and go to New > Shape Layer as well.

new shape layernew shape layernew shape layer

When you create a shape layer using each one of those methods, nothing will be created except for the shape layer. If you open this up you'll see there's nothing under contents. This is because there are currently no shapes actually in the shape layer.


After creating the shape layer, After Effects would have also switched from the Selection Tool to the Rectangle Tool automatically.

So now if I create a shape with the Rectangle Tool, it will be added to this shape layer.

added shape to layeradded shape to layeradded shape to layer

Now you don't have to create a shape layer like that. It is also common practice to grab the Rectangle Tool and before you create the shape, you will make some adjustments to the fill color and the stroke.

Once you've made those adjustments you can then just click and drag with the mouse to create a shape. This means that you don't have to create a shape layer first and then add things to it.

add a shapeadd a shapeadd a shape

Once you have created a shape layer and a shape, if you look at the layer panel you'll see that it's created a group, which is named Rectangle 1.

Inside that group is the actual shape path, and then a stroke and a fill are being applied to that path.

shape optionsshape optionsshape options

You can also create any of the other shapes here as well. For example we can choose the Ellipse Tool to create an ellipse shape.

Also if you hold the Shift key on the keyboard, it will constrain the proportions to make that a perfect circle.

create a ellipsecreate a ellipsecreate a ellipse

Now when you use the Polygon Tool, you may notice that it doesn't behave in the same way as the other shape tools when you create it. For example, when you are using the rectangle tool, you are defining the top left corner when you start to click and drag all the way to the bottom right corner. This behaviour is similar to the Ellipse Tool as well. 

click and dragclick and dragclick and drag

However, when you create a polygon or a star, clicking and dragging actually creates from the center out. So it can be a little bit confusing to position when you're first creating them.


Now, when you hold the Shift key on the keyboard, you will lock either the star or the polygon to a perpendicular orientation to your composition. Without that you can rotate it however you want.

hold shifthold shifthold shift

Also, as you're creating this, if you scroll your mouse wheel up or down you can add more sides, or subtract sides. 

add more sidesadd more sidesadd more sides

This works when you are creating a star as well. You can add more and more points to your star this way.

add more star pointsadd more star pointsadd more star points

You can modify your shape even further by going into the Polystar Path. By experimenting with these options you can come up with some really wild and fantastic shapes using these basic parametric shapes.

polystar pathpolystar pathpolystar path

Parametric shapes are shapes that are generated from a set of coordinates or it's using some math to define the geometry of the shape.

For example, If you go back to a rectangle and you look underneath the rectangle path, we can define its width and the height. This is oftentimes very helpful if you want something that is very precisely sized.

rectangle pathrectangle pathrectangle path

The reason why we need to differentiate these as parametric shapes is because that's not the only type of shape layer that you can create. You can create a shape layer using these shapes that is not a parametric shape by holding the Alt key as you click and drag.

And when you do that, it looks very similar to what we had created before. But if you open it up and you look at the actual path that's being generated, it's just labelled 'Path' and that's because this is not a parametric shape and you can see we don't have controls over the height and width like you did previously.

no path optionsno path optionsno path options

And so if you were to modify this by switching back to the selection tool, you can grab one of these points and you can make changes to this that will make it different from it's original starting shape. This is not possible with parametric shapes.

change shapechange shapechange shape

You can also create a shape with the Pen Tool as long as you have nothing selected. This allows you to create very elaborate shapes.

pen toolpen toolpen tool

And with these, you can animate your paths. So you can animate your shape here to form another shape entirely.

animate the shapeanimate the shapeanimate the shape

You can also adjust the fill and stroke properties from within the layer as well as animate them. So take a look at the options here to see if there is a stop watch to create a keyframe with. If it has a stopwatch it means it can be animated.

stopwatch iconstopwatch iconstopwatch icon

Other options that are quite often used include things like the Line Cap options which is useful for open paths. Choosing a Round Cap for example will give your path a more rounded look.

round capround capround cap

You can also change the Line Join, which effects what happens to the corners of your shapes. By default it's set to Minor Join, but you can set this to Round Join which makes this nice rounded corner.

round joinround joinround join

Or you can set it to bevel join.

bevel joinbevel joinbevel join

Under the Fill options you have a whole bunch of options here as well such as the ability to change the color.

change fillchange fillchange fill

At the top you can also choose a Gradient Fill.

gradient fillgradient fillgradient fill

This can be further modified into a radial gradient or a linear gradient.

radial gradientradial gradientradial gradient



Let's Keep Going

Congratulations! And that's how you can use shapes in Adobe After Effects. Let's learn a little bit more about what shape layers can do.

shapes projectshapes projectshapes project

Let's create a basic shape with the Pen Tool. We'll use a line for example. Whilst you create it make sure to hold the Shift Key on the keyboard as you continue to create the next vertex. This will make the second point here and it will be created at 90° or at 45°.

use the pen tooluse the pen tooluse the pen tool

In the Layers Panel open up your shapes layer and click on the Add button. This will open up a new menu. 

add buttonadd buttonadd button

One of the most often used options here is an effector called Trim Paths. With Trim Paths you can do things like animate the stroke of the line on the path that you have created. This is done by adjusting the Start or/and the End value.

start and end valuesstart and end valuesstart and end values

You can also animate the Offset value, which will make something that oscillated around your shape.


Remember you can also adjust the type of cap you want, by choosing either a Round Cap or a Butt Cap.

round capround capround cap

You can also round the corners, by selecting Round Join.

round joinround joinround join

A simple example animation using these techniques would be to create a "draw on" animation by setting the end value to 0%, moving down a little bit in the timeline, and then setting the end value to 100%.

line animationline animationline animation

Now let's look at another one of these modifiers, such as the Wiggle Paths. 

wiggle pathswiggle pathswiggle paths

If you just apply the Wiggle paths, and then preview, you will see that it creates a wiggle animation to your object. This uses a bit of randomness on the actual path to change the path's shape.

preview wiggle pathspreview wiggle pathspreview wiggle paths

You can see this in more detail if you crank up the size. This is the type of modifier that animates over time.

increase the wigglesincrease the wigglesincrease the wiggles

You don't even need any keyframes to do this and it moves all on it's own. This is because there is a Wiggles per second parameter here which you can adjust up or down, to increase or decrease the speed of the wiggles.

wiggles per secondwiggles per secondwiggles per second

You can even set it to something like zero if you don't want it to be wiggled over time at all and you just want to use the wiggle to change the shape in somewhat of a controllable way.

Or you can animate something like the temporal phase and get something slightly different and have more control over what's going on with your line here.

temporal phasetemporal phasetemporal phase

There's also something called zigzag which you can add.

zig zagzig zagzig zag

This is similar to the wiggle, except that it doesn't wiggle over time and it's much more symmetrical.

add zig zag to shapeadd zig zag to shapeadd zig zag to shape

With the Pen Tool selected, if I select only two points, you can see that these vertexes are selected because they are filled in solid blue.


The other vertexes are not selected because they are empty.

not selectednot selectednot selected

With two points selected, I can right-click on them, choose Mask and Path Shape and then uncheck Closed.

uncheck closeduncheck closeduncheck closed

This will make an open path, where you can then select the other points individually to adjust, move or delete them.

open pathopen pathopen path

If you hold down the Control key on the keyboard, you can select several points at the same time. We can use this to delete points more quickly.

select several points at the same timeselect several points at the same timeselect several points at the same time

With a line shape, if you want to keep it as it is (keeping it as a line instead of a shape) you just have to be careful not to close it.

line shapeline shapeline shape

If you hover the Pen Tool over the other end or the other vertex that is not selected, it changes the tool, and if I click on it again, it will close this path. Which is something you don't want if you want to keep the zig zag pattern.

closed pathclosed pathclosed path

You can also change the points to Smooth and create a really nice looking sine wave looking shape here.

smooth wavesmooth wavesmooth wave

Let's add another modifier using the Add button, which is called Repeater.


This modifier will take your shape and it repeat it. Some of the options we can use here include Copies which will increase the duplicates.

create copiescreate copiescreate copies

Offset which allows you to control where the repeats are starting from or in other words, you can create repeats on the other side of your object.


And then you have Transform Repeater which controls the transformation of those repetitions. This includes transforming Position values.

position valuesposition valuesposition values

And also transforming the Rotation values.

rotation valuesrotation valuesrotation values

You can create some really cool patterns using this technique. For example if you set the position to 0,0 which is the centre of the composition, and then you modify the offset to 0. Set the copies to 36. Set the rotation to 10, which will evenly divide those 36 repetitions over a 360 degree circle, you can create some really nice looking shapes.

cool shapecool shapecool shape

Let's create another shape here. Immediately after you create a shape, if you switch back to the Selection Tool, you can actually position your shape without affecting the layer's position.

new shapenew shapenew shape

Another way you can do that is with your layer selected, if you hold Control and click, you can select that individual shape. Then you can re-position this or you can modify the scale without actually affecting the layers transform controls.

So if I select this shape here, I can move it around and the layers transform controls are not affected. This is because I am affecting the rectangle's transform controls instead.

transform controlstransform controlstransform controls

Other things that you can explore are Rounded Corners. This allows you to modify a shape whilst keeping the shape as curvy as possible.

You can adjust the curviness of the shape by adjusting the Radius.

rounded cornersrounded cornersrounded corners

You can create a more complex shape by right clicking on a path and choose Convert to Bezier Path.

convert to bezier pathconvert to bezier pathconvert to bezier path

Now this rectangle is a path, so I can modify it with the Pen Tool. And you can see, even though I'm creating vertexes with no curve on them, the end result is a nice curvy shape because I still have a round corners modifier on.

modify shape with pen toolmodify shape with pen toolmodify shape with pen tool

There's another one here and you might find useful called offset paths. 

offset pathsoffset pathsoffset paths

You can use to sort of increase or decrease the path size in a smooth way.

offset pathsoffset pathsoffset paths

You also may want to experiment with the stacking order of any one of these effectors or modifiers here because it will change the end result. For example when I put rounded corners above the offset paths you will get a different looking shape.

new shapenew shapenew shape

So you can come up with a lot of different looks and a lot of uses for the shape layers by using these modifiers, by animating different properties, and by changing the stacking order of these modifiers or effectors here to get different results.

shapes part 2shapes part 2shapes part 2

And that's how you can use shapes in Adobe After Effects.

I hope you've found this tutorial useful and I'll see you next time on Envato Tuts+!

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