AE fundamentals

Working with Adobe Illustrator Files

The ability to animate artwork from Adobe Illustrator is key to creating beautifully designed animations. This lesson of the After Effects Fundamentals series, covers the ins and outs of preparing your Illustrator artwork, and then importing, making changes, and animating it in After Effects.

Prepare Illustrator Artwork

In order to be able to animate your artwork once you bring it into After Effects, there are a few things that are important to do first. If you need help creating artwork in Adobe Illustrator, this class walks you through the entire process.

Only One Artboard

Only one artboard will be recognized by After Effects, so layers that aren't on that artboard won't show up. To avoid issues, make sure that your Illustrator file only has one artboard. An artboard translates to a composition in After Effects.

To delete additional artboards, use the Artboard Tool in the left toolbar to select and delete artboards. Or, find the Artboard panel. If it's not already on your screen, go to Window > Artboards.

Artboards in Adobe Illustrator

Everything must be on the artboard!

Layers that are completely outside of the artboard will be blank inside After Effects. If a layer is partly on the artboard, only the part that's on the artboard will be visible in After Effects.

Separate Layers

Any piece of your artwork that you want to animate will need to be separated onto it's own layer. If you're not sure what parts of your artwork need to be separated out into layers, the video for this lesson provides some examples. When in doubt, it's better to separate into layers because you can easily connect layers in After Effects, but it's trickier to separate a layer once it's imported.

If you don't see the Layers panel, find it under Window > Layers.

If you didn't already separate your artwork into layers as you were creating it, below is a quick(ish) way to do it. This trick only works if your layers look like the image in step 1 (a bunch of shapes, text, groups, paths, etc. are nested inside one layer).

Step 1: Select the top-level layer containing a bunch of artwork

How to separate artwork into layers in Adobe Illustrator

Step 2: Click the hamburger menu in the top right corner of the layers panel and choose Release to Layers (Sequence)

How to separate artwork into layers in Adobe Illustrator - part 2

Step 3: Now you should have a bunch of layers named "Layer 2, Layer 3... and so on". But they'll still be nested under Layer 1. Select the first layer, hold shift, and select the last layer, then drag all these nested layers out of Layer 1, so they're no longer nested.

How to separate artwork into layers in Adobe Illustrator - part 3

Step 4: Label each layer something descriptive that will help you know what it is in After Effects. Double click the layer name to edit it. As you're doing this look for layers that need to be further separated out or layers that could be condensed.

Another Way to Add Layers

Click the + icon in the bottom of the Layer panel to add a layer. You can drag a elements (like shapes, text, paths, etc.) from one layer to another.

If you need to ungroup artwork, the keyboard shortcut is ⌘/Ctrl + Shift + G.

To quickly combine layers, select the artwork (across different layers) that you want to be all in one layer, and group them. The keyboard shortcut to group artwork is ⌘/Ctrl + G.

To Delete Layers

Select the layer, then hit the trash can icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. Illustrator will warn you if you're deleting a layer that contains artwork.


You can't add layers to your Illustrator artwork once you've imported it into After Effects. So, you may want to add empty layers in Illustrator before you import into After Effects. This way if you need to add something later, you can put it in one of the blank layers and it will be show up in After Effects (look for it in the bottom left corner of your composition).

Save Illustrator File

It might sound obvious, but I've seen it cause confusion... Make sure you save your Illustrator file (.ai) somewhere where you know where it is so that you import the correct file into After Effects.

I like to have a folder for the project with subfolders for different types of files:

Save a .ai file

Importing a file into After Effects creates a link to that file. So, if you move the .ai file once it's imported into After Effects, you'll get a "missing footage" error so try to be organized from the start. For more tips on staying organized, check out this lesson.

Import Illustrator File into After Effects

There are a few ways to import a file:

  • Go to File > Import > Import File
  • Use the keyboard shortcut: ⌘/Ctrl + I
  • Double click in the empty space in the Project panel.
Import files

Navigate to where you saved the Illustrator (.ai) file.

Make sure to choose Import As: Composition Retain Layer Sizes

How to import a .ai file into After Effects

Once imported, you should see your Illustrator file as a composition in the After Effects project panel. There will also be a folder with all of the layers. Double click the composition to open it in the timeline.

An Illustrator file in After Effects
The size of the composition AE creates from your Illustrator file will be the same size as the Illustrator artboard. If you need to adjust any of the composition settings, the keyboard shortcut is ⌘/Ctrl + K.

Common Mistake

If you forget to change the "Import As" settings and import your Illustrator file as footage, it will show up as one flat image. You won't have access to the layers you separated out in Illustrator.

If you choose "Import As: Composition", all of your layers will have a bounding box that's the size of the composition. This makes it difficult to select layers in the Composition Viewer.

Animate Illustrator Layers

Illustrator layers have all the usual Transform properties (anchor point, position, scale, rotation, and opacity) that you can keyframe to animate. Click here for a refresher on how to set keyframes.

Keep AI Artwork Looking Sharp - Continuously Rasterize

Adobe Illustrator is a vector-based program, meaning that it uses math behind the scenes to calculate how graphics look. This means that you can scale up vector artwork (indefinitely!) and it will never become pixelated or blurry; artwork will remain looking sharp.

Programs like Adobe Photoshop and After Effects are pixel-based. They use tiny blocks of different colors (pixels) to make up an image. If you scale up a pixel-based image, it will look pixelated (i.e. you'll start seeing these blocks of color).

This comes into play when you scale up an Illustrator layer in After Effects. Initially, the layer will start to look pixelated, but if you click the sun icon on the layer, it will continuously rasterize the layer. This means that After Effects will calculate the vectors of that vector-based Illustrator layer for every frame so that it always looks nice and crisp.

Continuously rasterize makes vector graphics sharp when scaled up

Keep in mind that if you look at your artwork really zoomed in (like 800%), it's normal that it will look pixelated (even if it's continuously rasterized). You can zoom into your composition with the drop down in the bottom left corner of the Composition Viewer or by using the period key on the keyboard.


  • Color changes
  • Add a stroke or fill to an existing element
  • Adjust a gradient
  • Scale an element*
  • Delete an element from an existing layer*
  • Add an element to an existing layer*
  • Move an existing element from an existing layer into another existing layer*

Doesn't Work

  • Change position
  • Add a layer
  • Delete a layer
  • Rename a layer (in AI or AE)

Convert to Shape Layer

After Effect shape layers have additional properties, like the path and stroke and fill properties that Illustrator layers don't have. Here's the same layer as a shape layer verses an Illustrator layer:

Convert a vector Illustrator layer into a native After Effects shape layer

To convert an Illustrator layer to a shape layer:

  • Select the Illustrator layer/s that you want to convert to shapes
  • Right click the layer in the Composition Viewer or the Timeline
  • Choose to Create > Create Shapes from Vector Layer

Convert a vector Illustrator layer into a native After Effects shape layer

This will create a shape layer from your Illustrator and turn off the visibility of your Illustrator layer. You can delete the Illustrator layer because if you ever need it again, you can find it in the folder for that Illustrator file in the Project panel.

Common Issue

Sometimes the process of converting an Illustrator layer to a shape layer doesn't work perfectly. If you see the shape layer's bounding box around the edge of the entire composition, but your shape layer shouldn't be that big, After Effects probably added an unnecessary Group and Merge Paths.

To fix this, toggle down your shape layer: Contents > Group. Look for Group and Merge Paths in here. You can probably delete these. Worst case, you can always undo if it messes up your shape.

How to fix issues when converting Illustrator layer to shape layer


If you tend to convert a lot of Illustrator layers to shape layers or get frustrated with the link between Illustrator and After Effects, you might want to check out Overlord.

Overlord is an extension that you buy, download, and install (it's very easy). It allows you to push artwork including shapes, paths gradients, text, guides, and more from Illustrator to After Effects. The benefit of this workflow, is that all your layers are automatically shape layers or text layers. This means they can be edited and animated with the additional properties that shape layers, or text layers, have that Illustrator layers don't. You can even make changes in After Effects and push them back into Illustrator.

I use Overlord at least 90% of the time to when working with Illustrator artwork in After Effects. It feels like a more flexible system where I have more control.

Purchase Overlord here!

By using this affiliate link, I get a small cut of the sale, at no cost to you. I promise I only recommend things I actually use.

Abstract illustration representing the uses of After Effects plugins

Learn all about Overlord...

...and four other plugins that can help you work smarter, not harder, in my class: Top 5 Plugins for Efficiency in Adobe After Effects.

Check out the class

All the keyboard shortcuts you need, in one place:

Up Next

In the next lesson, you'll learn about working with effects.