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Getting Started with Wave and Taper in After Effects

By Sara Wade
After Effects

Let's make the most of the new Waves and Tapered Strokes features in After Effects!

Animating in After Effects is easier once you understand the tools that the software provides. If you're fighting to make organic waves or stylized environments, it's probably because you don't know all of the abilities available to you. Once you learn to work within the program, you'll be amazed at what you can create.
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Today, we're going to be looking at the new Taper and Wave stroke options available for Shape Layers within After Effects. You won't need any plugins or extras to follow along, which means you can get started right away. In this tutorial, we'll show you:
  • How to create wavy hair for your characters
  • How to animate waves and curves in After Effects
  • How to use the Tapered Stroke tool

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Getting Started with Wave and Taper in After Effects

How to use Wave and Taper in After Effects

To test out some of these new tools, we'll be drawing basic shapes and creating simple animations. Once you have those down, you can easily apply the same techniques to more complex creations.
For this example, pretend a client has asked you to create a character with hair waving in the breeze. Sure, we could draw a ponytail with a path and animate the path and...ugh, I'm tired just thinking about it. Or...we could just use the new Stroke tool.

Make a Ponytail

To get started, we need a single shape layer with a person's head.
With the Contents Group selected, I'll grab my Pen tool and draw a simple ponytail. Click+Drag to grab those Bezier handles until you have the shape you want. Make sure Stroke Width is set to 100%. I know it looks funny now, but just you wait.
Twirl down in the group and delete the Fill so you only see the Stroke. In the Stroke group, twirl down and select Taper. Below that, you'll see Wave, which we will get to in just a minute.
Change Line Cap to Round Cap to remove the harsh edges of the ponytail. Now go back to Taper and set Start Length to 60% and the End Length to 40%. You'll notice that if you overlap these numbers, your shape shrinks rather quickly. You can adjust these to your liking, but let's stick with my numbers for now.
You can also adjust your Start Width and End Width to your liking as well. Now this ponytail still looks a little sharp, which is where our Ease comes into play. With Start at 10% and End at 30%, my ponytail is looking a lot better.

Add a wave to a ponytail

Now it's time to twirl open our Wave settings. The Amount is how much wave we'll be adding to our Stroke. As I increase the number, you can see the waves appear.
Wavelength is going to be how long the waves are. Drag those numbers up and down and find the number that works for you.
Finally, we get to Phase, which is what we'll be animating to get that ever-present wavy look. In the negative, the waves move away from the head. In the positive, they'll wave toward the head. So let's set a key at the start of our timeline, move the Phase in whichever direction we want, and add a key at the end. Now we preview the look!
Now that you have the animation set, you can mess around with some time() expressions, adjust your Stroke width or positioning, and add in environmental details to really sell the look.
How easy was that?

How to create a growing fern leaf

Now we're going to use all the techniques we just practiced to create a fern that grows new leaves as we watch. Growing animations are very popular, and clients love to see these types of animations. While you may not be asked to create this exact project, these skills translate to a number of real-world briefs we've seen.

Create a growing stem for your fern

First, very simply, grab your Pen and create a stem.
Delete your fill, just like last time, and set the color to a nice green. Adjust your width to about 25% and we'll move to Taper.
I'm going to set End Length to 100% and End Width to around 60%, since I don't want the tip to just disappear at the top.
Now add a Trim Path. Set the Start to 0% and the End to 100%. Add a keyframe, move forward twenty frames or so, and add another keyframe. And voila.
Now it's time to add some leaves!

Add leaves to your fern

We'll start in much the same way we have this entire tutorial. Grab that Pen, draw your leaf's spine, and delete the fill. I'm also going to adjust the color so it is a little brighter than the stem, just so things look a bit more interesting.
Next, we'll pull the Stroke group out of the Leaf Group.
This way, when we duplicate the leaves on the left and right side, those Stroke settings apply to everything.
Adjust your taper and easing until the leaf looks right, and adjust the anchor point so it actually lands near the stem.
Before we start animating, let's duplicate with CTRL+D (CMD+D on Mac). In Transform, change the scale to -100%, which will create a perfect copy in the opposite direction.
Now because we took the Stroke group outside of these leaves, we can now control them both. Just as we've done before, add a Trim Path, and let's make these leaves grow along with their stem.
Set the Start to 0% and the End to 100%. Add a keyframe, move forward twenty frames or so, and add another keyframe. I think we'll also need to animate that Stroke Width, since the leaves don't seem to be growing organically. With a few quick adjustments...
We're almost done. Now it's time to use a nifty little tool in After Effects.

Create Nulls From Paths in After Effects

You'll find this tool in the Window Menu.
Go to your Stem Group and Select Path. You'll now have three options. Points Follow Nulls will create points at the start, end, and where there are Bezier handles. Nulls Follow Points reverses the information for creating a path. Finally, and what we'll be using, will be Trace Path. Select that, and a new layer will be created.
Delete the keyframes that are automatically created, but you can see under Progress how the new layer moves along with the growth of the Stem. Let's start at a spot early on, say 13%. Now we hold Shift and drag Parent from the Leaves to the Trace layer.
We'll have to rotate the leaves to have them face correctly, but we'll get there in a moment. First, let's duplicate this trace layer 4 more times (we need a lot of leaves). Then duplicate your Leaves layer 4 times as well. Hold Shift and pick whip each new leaves layer to their corresponding Trace Path.
Now select the new Trace Paths and, in the search bar, type Progress. This will make it easier to quickly adjust the start points for each leaf pair. I'm going to space these evenly along the growth path of the stem. Since the path is connected to the Stem, these leaves will appear to grow from there instead of from thin air.
Uh oh, these leaves are growing wrong! We still need to fix the rotation. Too easy.
Select all of the leaves layers, hit R, input 90 degrees, and voila.
Now the leaves all start growing at the same time, which doesn't work. Another easy fix. All we need to do is drag the animation on the the timeline to match the frame where the stem and leaves intersect.
Now all we need to do is a few fine touches. We'll adjust spacing, fix the size of the leaves so they have some variation, and we've just quickly made a growing fern!
Now that you have these new tools in your belt, what else can you create?

Want to learn more?

If you enjoyed this journey into some simple shapes, discover the hidden techniques behind organic motion design animation in our essential course, Animation Bootcamp!
Animation Bootcamp teaches you the art of beautiful movement. In this course, you'll learn the principles behind great animation, and how to apply them in After Effects.