Post-Production
August 14, 2021

The Beginner's Guide to Using Shape Layers in After Effects

By Chris Suffield 11 min read

Highlights

  • Shape Layers are one of the basic After Effects tools with which you can animate different shapes
  • Check out tutorials that will teach you to create, add and edit shapes using After Effects Shape Layers
  • Learn the different ways to animate your shapes and the essential shortcuts that will save you time when working with Shape Layers

Shapes are the building blocks of After Effects Animations, and you can create them in just a few clicks.

Learning to use Shape Layers in After Effects is a core skill for any animator; in fact, many creatives work solely with shapes to create their compositions. Shape Layers have a massive variety of uses, from special effects to iconographic videos; it is unlikely you will be able to avoid using them in your projects.

Part 1: What is a Shape Layer?

As you would probably expect, a Shape Layer is a layer containing a Shape. When we talk specifically about an After Effects Shape Layer, we refer to the shape created within After Effects.

You can add graphics and image elements in PNG form or import Photoshop and Illustrator files directly into After Effects, but these won’t be Shape Layers. What sets a Shape Layer apart is the ability to manipulate it within After Effects, using a range of Transform settings, including animating the Shape Path.

Part 2: How to create and edit a Shape Layer in After Effects

Creating a Shape Layer in After Effects can be both super easy and incredibly complex, depending on the shape you wish to make.

Creating a standard shape

Creating a standardized shape is the easiest way to get started, as After Effects has a simple option for Circles, Squares, Rectangles and Polygon Shapes. 

  1. Go to Layer > New > Shape Layer.
  2. In the Timeline, select the Layer and go to the ToolBar menu at the top of the screen.
  3. Select the Shape Icon with a single click or click and hold to see other shape options.
  4. Click on the Screen and drag to draw your Shape.

Adding a second shape

A massive advantage of AE Shapes is adding more than one to a single Shape Layer. Just make sure you're paying close attention to the Layer Selected in the Timeline when drawing your shapes.

  1. To add a new shape to a new Shape Layer, repeat the process above.
  2. To add a Shape to an existing Shape Layer, select the Layer in the Timeline and draw your shape on the screen.
  3. Drop down the Shape Layer in the Layer Panel and look for Contents; here, each Shape attached to the layer will have its own settings.

Editing your shape

Once you have drawn your shape, you can access all the same design elements as Photoshop and Illustrator to create the right look. All standard controls such as Command/Control C & V (Copy and Paste) are used within After Effects.

  1. In your Timeline, select the Shape Layer and Drop Down the Layer Menu.
  2. Open the Contents dropdown and select the Shape you wish to Edit.
  3. Adjust the Color, Stroke, and Stroke Color in the Top Menu Bar.
  4. Edit the order of the Shapes (from back to front) by changing the Shape Stack in the Layer Panel.
  5. To adjust the Size, Position, and Rotation of each shape, look for the Transform options within each Shape Layer dropdown; you can use the Layer Transform options, but this will apply changes to the whole layer, not each shape.
  6. If you are using a Star or Polygon shape, you can add points and corners under the Polystar Path settings in the Layer Panel.

Part 3: Top 3 Ways you can Animate your Shapes

The fantastic thing about shape layers in After Effects is that there are many ways to animate them. Here are our top three methods for animating shapes, which, when combined, can allow you to create some complex compositions.

Use Transform Settings

Using the Transform Settings involves adding Keyframes to your Shapes; check out our guide to use Keyframes.

  1. In the Layer Panel, drop down the Contents of your shape and then the Transform; Shape settings.
  2. Position your Playhead on the Timeline where you want the movement to begin.
  3. Click the StopWatch alongside the settings you have chosen to adjust.
  4. Move the Playhead to where you need the animation to end and adjust the settings; a new Keyframe is made automatically.

Use the Layer Panel Add Menu

The Add menu is hidden in the Layer Panel but offers some cool and easy to add effects. The Add menu is only available for native AE Shapes, so you can’t add these effects to your text or video and image imports.

  1. In the Layer Panel, drop down the Shape Layer menu.
  2. Click on the small play icon alongside the Add title.
  3. Choose the effect you want to use from the menu; there are many effects available, so it's worth playing about with as many as possible to see what works for you.
  4. Once added, you can edit the effect settings in the Layer Panel.

Use Transitions

Transitions can help your Shape appear and disappear from the screen and are a great way of animating together complex compositions from multiple shapes. When you add a transition from the Effects Panel, it will apply it to the whole Layer and every shape contained within it.

  1. With your Playhead at the start of your Shape Layer.
  2. Go to the Effects & Presets panel and look for Animation Presets > Transitions.
  3. To apply your chosen Transition, drag and drop it on the clip; the transition will start at the point your Playhead sits on the Timeline.
  4. Select the Layer and press U on your Keyboard.
  5. Drag the Keyframes further apart to make the transition longer or closer together for a short animation.

Part 4: Top shortcuts for working with Shapes

There are a huge number of shortcuts that can be used in After Effects; here are a few of our favorites for working with shapes. Check out our article about the essential After Effects Shortcuts, along with how to create your own.

Selecting a shape

To access the Shape tool, you can press Q on your Keyboard. The default shape will be the last Shape you used. To cycle through the shapes, keep pressing Q until you get to the Shape you need.

Command/Control D

As we've shown you in this tutorial, Command/Control D will allow you to duplicate your shapes, but this handy command will actually let you duplicate anything in After Effects. The key to using the Duplicate shortcut is to ensure you have selected the correct elements

  1. Select Effects in the Effects Control Panel to duplicate them to the same Layer.
  2. Select a layer in the Timeline to duplicate the entire Layer with all of its contents and effects.
  3. Select the Shape in the Layer Panel to copy the Shape to the same Layer.

Alt/Option [ or ]

If you want to trim your layers in the Timeline, you can drag the ends of the Layer to the duration and position required, but you can also use this handy shortcut. Line your Playhead up with where you want to Layer to start or end, select it in the Timeline and use Option/Alt [ to set the in point and Option/Alt to set the out point.

Opening up Properties

You can also use a range of Keyboard Shortcuts to access the Properties of your Layers. Start by selecting the Layer(s) you want to open the properties of.

  • Press P to open the Position settings.
  • Press S to open the Scale settings.
  • Press R to open the Rotation settings.
  • Press A to open the Anchor Point settings.
  • Press U to reveal all Keyframes on a Layer.

Creating a Compound Clip

If you want to group Shape Layers together, you can use a shortcut to create a Compound Clip; Select the Layers you want to group in the Timeline and press Command/Control + Shift + C. A Compound Clip dialogue box will open up so you can name your New Comp.

Shape Layers are the building blocks of any After Effects animation and a vital skill for any beginner. When combined with Keyframing, After Effects Shape Layers allow you to build and animate complex compositions from scratch; now, you know how to create shapes, let your imagination have fun and see what you can make.

 

About Chris

Chris Suffield is a London based writer, editor, and voice over artist at Jellyfielder Studios; he also writes entertainment news for Box Office Buz and enjoys making things from stock footage. 
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