User Guide Cancel

Overview of shape layers, paths, and vector graphics

  1. After Effects User Guide
  2. Beta releases
    1. Beta Program Overview
    2. After Effects Beta Home
  3. Getting started
    1. Get started with After Effects
    2. What's new in After Effects 
    3. Release Notes | After Effects
    4. After Effects system requirements
    5. Keyboard shortcuts in After Effects
    6. Supported File formats | After Effects
    7. Hardware recommendations
    8. After Effects for Apple silicon
    9. Planning and setup
  4. Workspaces
    1. General user interface items
    2. Get to know After Effects interface
    3. Workflows
    4. Workspaces, panels, and viewers
  5. Projects and compositions
    1. Projects
    2. Composition basics
    3. Precomposing, nesting, and pre-rendering
    4. View detailed performance information with the Composition Profiler
    5. CINEMA 4D Composition Renderer
  6. Importing footage
    1. Preparing and importing still images
    2. Importing from After Effects and Adobe Premiere Pro
    3. Importing and interpreting video and audio
    4. Preparing and importing 3D image files
    5. Importing and interpreting footage items
    6. Working with footage items
    7. Detect edit points using Scene Edit Detection
    8. XMP metadata
  7. Text and Graphics
    1. Text
      1. Formatting characters and the Character panel
      2. Text effects
      3. Creating and editing text layers
      4. Formatting paragraphs and the Paragraph panel
      5. Extruding text and shape layers
      6. Animating text
      7. Examples and resources for text animation
      8. Live Text Templates
    2. Motion Graphics
      1. Work with Motion Graphics templates in After Effects
      2. Use expressions to create drop-down lists in Motion Graphics templates
      3. Work with Essential Properties to create Motion Graphics templates
      4. Replace images and videos in Motion Graphics templates and Essential Properties
      5. Animate faster and easier using the Properties panel
  8. Drawing, Painting, and Paths
    1. Overview of shape layers, paths, and vector graphics
    2. Paint tools: Brush, Clone Stamp, and Eraser
    3. Taper shape strokes
    4. Shape attributes, paint operations, and path operations for shape layers
    5. Use Offset Paths shape effect to alter shapes
    6. Creating shapes
    7. Create masks
    8. Remove objects from your videos with the Content-Aware Fill panel
    9. Roto Brush and Refine Matte
  9. Layers, Markers, and Camera
    1. Selecting and arranging layers
    2. Blending modes and layer styles
    3. 3D layers
    4. Layer properties
    5. Creating layers
    6. Managing layers
    7. Layer markers and composition markers
    8. Cameras, lights, and points of interest
  10. Animation, Keyframes, Motion Tracking, and Keying
    1. Animation
      1. Animation basics
      2. Animating with Puppet tools
      3. Managing and animating shape paths and masks
      4. Animating Sketch and Capture shapes using After Effects
      5. Assorted animation tools
      6. Work with Data-driven animation
    2. Keyframe
      1. Keyframe interpolation
      2. Setting, selecting, and deleting keyframes
      3. Editing, moving, and copying keyframes
    3. Motion tracking
      1. Tracking and stabilizing motion
      2. Face Tracking
      3. Mask Tracking
      4. Mask Reference
      5. Speed
      6. Time-stretching and time-remapping
      7. Timecode and time display units
    4. Keying
      1. Keying
      2. Keying effects
  11. Transparency and Compositing
    1. Compositing and transparency overview and resources
    2. Alpha channels and masks
    3. Track Mattes and Traveling Mattes
  12. Adjusting color
    1. Color basics
    2. Color management
    3. Color Correction effects
    4. OpenColorIO and ACES color management
  13. Effects and Animation Presets
    1. Effects and animation presets overview
    2. Effect list
    3. Effect Manager
    4. Simulation effects
    5. Stylize effects
    6. Audio effects
    7. Distort effects
    8. Perspective effects
    9. Channel effects
    10. Generate effects
    11. Transition effects
    12. The Rolling Shutter Repair effect
    13. Blur and Sharpen effects
    14. 3D Channel effects
    15. Utility effects
    16. Matte effects
    17. Noise and Grain effects
    18. Detail-preserving Upscale effect
    19. Obsolete effects
  14. Expressions and Automation
    1. Expressions
      1. Expression basics
      2. Understanding the expression language
      3. Using expression controls
      4. Syntax differences between the JavaScript and Legacy ExtendScript expression engines
      5. Editing expressions
      6. Expression errors
      7. Using the Expressions editor
      8. Use expressions to edit and access text properties
      9. Expression language reference
      10. Expression examples
    2. Automation
      1. Automation
      2. Scripts
  15. Immersive video, VR, and 3D
    1. Construct VR environments in After Effects
    2. Apply immersive video effects
    3. Compositing tools for VR/360 videos
    4. Advanced 3D Renderer
    5. Import and add 3D models to your composition
    6. Import 3D models from Creative Cloud Libraries
    7. Image-Based Lighting
    8. Extract and animate lights and cameras from 3D models
    9. Tracking 3D camera movement
    10. Cast and accept shadows
    11. Embedded 3D model animations
    12. Shadow Catcher
    13. 3D depth data extraction
    14. Modify materials properties of a 3D layer
    15. Work in 3D Design Space
    16. 3D Transform Gizmos
    17. Do more with 3D animation
    18. Preview changes to 3D designs real time with the Mercury 3D engine
    19. Add responsive design to your graphics 
  16. Views and Previews
    1. Previewing
    2. Video preview with Mercury Transmit
    3. Modifying and using views
  17. Rendering and Exporting
    1. Basics of rendering and exporting
    2. H.264 Encoding in After Effects
    3. Export an After Effects project as an Adobe Premiere Pro project
    4. Converting movies
    5. Multi-frame rendering
    6. Automated rendering and network rendering
    7. Rendering and exporting still images and still-image sequences
    8. Using the GoPro CineForm codec in After Effects
  18. Working with other applications
    1. Dynamic Link and After Effects
    2. Working with After Effects and other applications
    3. Sync Settings in After Effects
    4. Creative Cloud Libraries in After Effects
    5. Plug-ins
    6. Cinema 4D and Cineware
  19. Collaboration:, and Team Projects
    1. Collaboration in Premiere Pro and After Effects
      1. Install and activate
      2. Use with Premiere Pro and After Effects
      3. Frequently asked questions
    3. Team Projects
      1. Get Started with Team Projects
      2. Create a Team Project
      3. Collaborate with Team Projects
  20. Memory, storage, performance
    1. Memory and storage
    2. How After Effects handles low memory issues while previewing    
    3. Improve performance
    4. Preferences
    5. GPU and GPU driver requirements for After Effects
  21. Knowledge Base
    1. Known issues
    2. Fixed issues
    3. Frequently asked questions
    4. After Effects and macOS Ventura
    5. How After Effects handles low memory issues while previewing

About vector graphics and raster images

Vector graphics are made up of lines and curves defined by mathematical objects called vectors, which describe an image according to its geometric characteristics. Examples of vector graphics elements within After Effects include mask paths, shapes on shape layers, and text on text layers.

Raster images (sometimes called bitmap images) use a rectangular grid of picture elements (pixels) to represent images. Each pixel is assigned a specific location and color value. Video footage, image sequences transferred from film, and many other types of images imported into After Effects are raster images.

Vector graphics maintain crisp edges and lose no detail when resized, because they are resolution-independent. This resolution-independence makes vector graphics a good choice for visual elements, such as logos, that will be used at various sizes.

Example of a vector graphic at different levels of magnification
Example of a vector graphic at different levels of magnification

Raster images each consist of a fixed number of pixels, and are therefore resolution-dependent. Raster images can lose detail and appear jagged (pixelated) if they are scaled up.

Example of a raster image at different levels of magnification
Example of a raster image at different levels of magnification

Some images are created as vector graphics in another application but are converted to pixels (rasterized) when they are imported into After Effects. If a layer is continuously rasterized, After Effects reconverts the vector graphics to pixels when the layer is resized, preserving sharp edges. Vector graphics from SWF, PDF, EPS, and Illustrator files can be continuously rasterized.

About paths

Several features of After Effects—including masks, shapes, paint strokes, and motion paths—rely on the concept of a path. Tools and techniques for creating and editing these various kinds of paths overlap, but each kind of path has its own unique aspects.

A path consists of segments and vertices. Segments are the lines or curves that connect vertices. Vertices define where each segment of a path starts and ends. Some Adobe applications use the terms anchor point and path point to refer to a vertex.

You change the shape of a path by dragging its vertices, the direction handles at the end of the direction lines (or tangents) of each vertex, or the path segment itself.

As a path exits a vertex, the angle and length of the outgoing direction line for that vertex determine the path. As the path approaches the next vertex, the path is less influenced by the outgoing direction line of the previous vertex and more influenced by the incoming direction line of the next vertex.

Components of a path
Components of a path

A. Selected vertex B. Selected vertex C. Unselected vertex D. Curved path segment E. Direction line (tangent) F. Direction handle 

Paths can have two kinds of vertices: corner points and smooth points. At a smooth point, path segments are connected as a smooth curve; the incoming and outgoing direction lines are on the same line. At a corner point, a path abruptly changes direction; the incoming and outgoing direction lines are on different lines. You can draw a path using any combination of corner and smooth points. If you draw the wrong kind of point, you can change it later.

Points on a path
Points on a path

A. Four corner points B. Four smooth points C. Combination of corner and smooth points 

When you move a direction line for a smooth point, the curves on both sides of the point adjust simultaneously. By contrast, when you move a direction line on a corner point, only the curve on the same side of the point as the direction line is adjusted.

Adjusting the direction lines on a smooth point (left) and a corner point (right)
Adjusting the direction lines on a smooth point (left) and a corner point (right)

A path can either be open or closed. An open path has a beginning point that is not the same as its end point; for example, a straight line is an open path. A closed path is continuous and has no beginning or end; for example, a circle is a closed path.

You can draw paths in common geometric shapes—including polygons, ellipses, and stars—with the shape tools, or you can use the Pen tool to draw an arbitrary path. Paths drawn with the Pen tool are either manual Bezier paths or RotoBezier paths. The main difference between RotoBezier and manual Bezier paths is that direction lines are calculated automatically for RotoBezier paths, making them easier and faster to draw.

When you use the shape tools (Rectangle, Rounded Rectangle, Ellipse, Polygon, or Star) to draw a shape path on a shape layer, you can create one of two kinds of paths: a parametric shape path or a Bezier shape path. (See About shapes and shape layers.)

You can link mask paths, paint stroke paths, and Bezier shape paths using expressions. You can also copy and paste between mask paths, paint stroke paths, Bezier shape paths, motion paths, and paths from Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and Adobe Fireworks. (See Creating shapes and masks.)

For shape paths, you can use the Merge Paths path operation (similar to the Pathfinder effects in Adobe Illustrator) to combine multiple paths into one path. (See Merge Paths options.)

When you want text or an effect to follow a path, the path must be a mask path.

A path itself has no visual appearance in rendered output; it is essentially a collection of information about how to place or modify other visual elements. To make a path visible, you apply a stroke to it. In the case of a mask path, you can apply the Stroke effect. In the case of a path for a shape layer object, the default is for a path to be created with a stroke property group (attribute) after the path property group in the Timeline panel.

A color or gradient applied to the area inside the area bounded by a path is a fill.


To specify the size of Bezier direction handles and vertices for masks and shapes, choose Edit > Preferences > General (Windows) or After Effects > Preferences > General (Mac OS), and edit the Path Point Size value.

About shapes and shape layers

Shape layers contain vector graphics objects called shapes. By default, a shape consists of a path, a stroke, and a fill. (See About paths and Strokes and fills for shapes.)

You create shape layers by drawing in the Composition panel with the shape tools or the Pen tool. (See Creating shapes and masks.)

Shape paths have two varieties: parametric shape paths and Bezier shape paths. Parametric shape paths are defined numerically, by properties that you can modify and animate after drawing, in the Timeline panel. Bezier shape paths are defined by a collection of vertices (path points) and segments that you can modify in the Composition panel. You work with Bezier shape paths in the same way that you work with mask paths. All mask paths are Bezier paths.

You can modify a shape path by applying path operations, such as Wiggle Paths and Pucker & Bloat. You apply a stroke to a path or fill the area defined by a path with color by applying paint operations. (See Shape attributes, paint operations, and path operations for shape layers.)

Shape paths, paint operations, and path operations for shapes are collectively called shape attributes. You add shape attributes using the Add menu in the Tools panel or in the Timeline panel. Each shape attribute is represented as a property group in the Timeline panel, with properties that you can animate, just as you do with any other layer property. (See About animation, keyframes, and expressions.)

The color bit depth of a shape layer is the same as the project as a whole: 8, 16, or 32 bpc. (See Color depth and high dynamic range color.)

Shape layers are not based on footage items. Layers that are not based on footage items are sometimes called synthetic layers. Text layers are also synthetic layers and are also composed of vector graphics objects, so many of the rules and guidelines that apply to text layers also apply to shape layers. For example, you can’t open a shape layer in a Layer panel, just as you can’t open a text layer in a Layer panel.


You can save your favorite shapes as animation presets. (See Save an animation preset.)

Online resources for shape layers

For a video tutorial creating shape layers from vector layers, visit the learn tutorials page.

Trish and Chris Meyer provide an introduction to shape layers in a PDF excerpt from the “Shape Layers” chapter of their book Creating Motion Graphics with After Effects (5th Edition)

Chris Zwar provides an animation preset on his website that creates a target cross-hair using a single shape layer, with a wide variety of custom properties that make controlling and modifying the cross-hair animation easy and obvious.

Groups and render order for shapes and shape attributes

Though the default is for a shape to consist of a single path, a single stroke, and a single fill—arranged from top to bottom in the Timeline panel—much of the power and flexibility of shape layers arises from your ability to add and reorder shape attributes and create more complex compound shapes.

You can group shapes or shape attributes that are at the same grouping level within a single shape layer.

A group is a collection of shape attributes: paths, fills, strokes, path operations, and other groups. Each group has its own blending mode and its own set of transform properties. By assembling shapes into groups, you can work with multiple shapes simultaneously—such as scaling all shapes in the group by the same amount or applying the same stroke to each shape. You can even place individual shapes or individual shape attributes within their own groups to isolate transformations. For example, you can scale a path without scaling its stroke by grouping the path by itself.

When you add a shape attribute using the Add menu in the Tools panel or Timeline panel, the attribute is added within the group that is selected. You can drag groups and attributes to reorder them in the Timeline panel. By reordering and grouping shapes and shape attributes, you can affect their rendering order with respect to other shapes and shape attributes.

Groups and render order for shapes and shape attributes

A. Two shapes in a group B. Two paths in a compound shape C. Circle path with Wiggle Paths applied D. One stroke applied to all paths above it E. Star path in a group by itself F. One fill applied to all paths above it G. One path with two strokes 

Render order for shapes within a shape layer

The rules for rendering a shape layer are similar to the rules for rendering a composition that contains nested compositions:

  • Within a group, the shape at the bottom of the Timeline panel stacking order is rendered first.

  • All path operations within a group are performed before paint operations. This means, for example, that the stroke follows the distortions in the path made by the Wiggle Paths path operation. Path operations within a group are performed from top to bottom. (See Alter shapes with path operations.)

  • Paint operations within a group are performed from the bottom to the top in the Timeline panel stacking order. This means, for example, that a stroke is rendered on top of (in front of) a stroke that appears after it in the Timeline panel. To override this default behavior for a specific fill or stroke, choose Above Previous In Same Group for the Composite property of the fill or stroke in the Timeline panel. (See Strokes and fills for shapes.)

Path operations and paint operations apply to all paths above them in the same group.

Transform properties for shape groups and shape paths

Each group has its own Transform property group. This Transform property group is represented in the Timeline panel with a property group named Transform: [group name] and in the Composition panel as a dashed box with handles. You can group a path by itself and transform only the path using its new Transform property group.

Introducing an additional Transform property group for a single path is useful, for example, for creating complex motion—such as spinning about one anchor point while also revolving along an orbit. The transformations of a group affect all shapes within the group; this behavior is the same as the behavior of layer parenting. (See Parent and child layers.)

Each shape path also has intrinsic properties that affect the position and shape of the path. For parametric shape paths, these properties (such as Position and Size) are parameters visible in the Timeline panel. For Bezier shape paths, these properties are defined for each vertex but are contained within the Path property. When you modify a Bezier path using the free-transform bounding box, you modify these intrinsic properties for the vertices that constitute that path. (See About shapes and shape layers.)

Group shapes or shape attributes

  1. Select one or more shapes or shape attributes, and do one of the following:
    • Choose Layer > Mask and Shape Path > Group Shapes.
    • Press Ctrl+G (Windows) or Command+G (Mac OS).

When you group shapes, the anchor point for the group is placed in the center of the bounding box for the group.

Ungroup shapes or shape attributes

  1. Select a single group, and do one of the following:
    • Choose Layer > Mask and Shape Path > Ungroup Shapes.
    • Press Ctrl+Shift+G (Windows) or Command+Shift+G (Mac OS).

Create an empty shape group

  1. Choose Group (Empty) from the Add menu in the Tools panel or in the Timeline panel.


Get help faster and easier

New user?

Adobe MAX 2024

Adobe MAX
The Creativity Conference

Oct 14–16 Miami Beach and online

Adobe MAX

The Creativity Conference

Oct 14–16 Miami Beach and online

Adobe MAX 2024

Adobe MAX
The Creativity Conference

Oct 14–16 Miami Beach and online

Adobe MAX

The Creativity Conference

Oct 14–16 Miami Beach and online