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A Guide to After Effects Menus: Layer

By Matt Nelson
After Effects
How often do you use the top menu tabs in After Effects? Chances are, you probably have a handful of tools you use, but what about those random features you haven’t tried yet? We're taking a look at the hidden gems in the top menus, and we're just about halfway through!
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The Layer tab in After Effects is pretty robust. Anytime you click into it, you can see a variety of settings and features in here. But how often do you actually dig in?
If you’re anything like me, you probably go to the Help bar to find something fast. But knowing more about the Layer menu can dramatically improve your toolkit as a motion designer. In this tutorial, we’re going to focus on three key areas that can drastically make your life easier:
  • Reveal in Finder
  • Create Shapes from Text Layer
  • Create Shapes from Vector Layers

Layer > Reveal in Finder

Have you ever been mid-way through a project and needed to change an asset? It could be a piece of footage, an Illustrator file, or anything else living in your comp. You need to open the file and make some adjustments, but there’s one problem: you can’t locate the file. 
Don’t sweat it, this happens all the time. And the good news is that the layer panel can help us locate any file in our After Effects project.
To begin, select the item you want to locate in your timeline, or in the project panel on the left (either is fine). Next, go to Layer > Reveal in Finder
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If it’s easier, you can also right-click any asset in After Effects and bring up this option as well.
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This will pull up the file instantly. You can either make the necessary changes, or adjust your workflow so you know where everything is located (it’s good to keep things organized in their place.) 

Create Shapes from Text

Sometimes, projects require custom text animation like those snazzy smear text animations. Other times, you may want to make some custom adjustments to the typography in a scene. If you need the ability to animate custom paths on text, the Layer menu has a simple solution for this. 
First, make sure that you’re happy with the text in your scene: once you convert text to a shape, you won’t be able to actively edit the layer how you would with the type tool. If the text looks good to you, go ahead and select the text layer that you want to change to a shape. 
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Next, go up to Layer > Create > Create Shapes from Text
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Once this step is complete After Effects will spit out an editable shape layer from the piece of text you selected, and turn off the original text layer. That way, if you do need to go back and make changes, you have the original text layer handy. 
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Create Shapes from Vector Layers

Using vector layers in After Effects is common. A lot of motion designers rely heavily on Illustrator and other software for creating assets and designs. But what if you want to have more control over these assets? Things like animate stroke or scale width require native shapes in After Effects. The Layer menu has the exact tool to do this. 
To begin, select any vector layers in your scene (you can do multiple at a time). Then go to Layer > Create > Create Shapes from Vector Layer
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If you want, you can also right-click on assets directly in your timeline and do this as well. 
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Once this is complete, After Effects will stack the new shape layers above the original vectors. If you do this with multiple items, it can start to get messy fast. 
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If you’re overwhelmed with the number of layers in your timeline, do this: 
Go into the search bar above the layer panel and search for “outline”. This will pull up all of the shape layers you need.
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Select all of these outline layers and move them to the top of your layer stack by hitting 
Shift + Command + ] (Mac OS)
Shift + Control + ] (Windows) 
When you clear the search bar, you can now see which layers to keep and which to delete.
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Check you out with all this new knowledge!

As you can see, there is more to the Layer menu than just the render queue. You can use the Layer menu to find your files, convert text to shape layers, and turn vector files into shape layers. Integrating these options into your workflow is going to save you a ton of time and make you a stronger animator. Be sure to experiment and test these tools out on future projects—I know that I use all of these features all the time!

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