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You can change the start point in the right-click context menu for masks and shape paths. For the rest I don't see much potential for optimization, at least not based on genuine paths from AI. It would be possible to create some similar stuff using animated properties and e.g. The Echo effect in a pre-comp, but that may not offer the exact control you may need. And of course at least for the color changes expressions could be set up...
Thanks for your help! Back to Cmd C and Cmd V then, haha.
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I would do that kind of thing differently and 90% of the work would be in Illustrator.
I would start by drawing a path in Illustrator, duplicating the path and changing the size and position and changing the stroke color to the color I wanted for the inside of the first shape at the start of the animation.
Then I would use the blend tool to create a blend between the two shapes specifying the number of steps so my completed first shape for frame one looked like this:
I would then do the same thing for my second shape using different colors so I got this:
With both Blends turned on you would see this:
The top blend layer is where your animation will start and the bottom is where your animation will end.
The next step is to select both blend layers and Expand the blend so you end up with two groups:
Here comes the fun part. Select both groups and then specify the number of steps you want as the number of frames you want in your animation. In this case I want a 1 second transition and my comp is 29.97 fps so I choose 30.
Now expand the blend:
You should end up with a group in layer 1 with 30 sub groups:
Ungroup the top group only then deselect all layers and select only layer one and then choose Release to Layers (Sequence).
now select all of the sub layers in the layer panel and drag them above layer 1. Layer 1 is now empty so you can delete it:
Save the AI file and import into AE as a comp with Retain Layer Size selected:
Open the comp, select all of the layers, move the CTI one frame to the right by pressing Ctrl/Cmnd + right arrow, then press Alt/Option + ] to set the out point of all layers, then use the Keyframe Assistant to Sequence layers with no overlap:
I usually then go to the out point of the bottom layer and press N to set the work area's out point, then trim the comp to the work area.
This comp is then nested in your main comp and you can enable time remapping so you can change the speed and use CC force motion blur to smooth out the animation.
You'll find that it is much easier create the morph for a shape layer in Illustrator than it is in AE, you don't need to convert anything to shapes and most of the work is done for you before you start. Total time to create this project with about 1/4 the time it took to create this post.
If Ae and An would join forces there would be a simpler solution for this... but... Ai and Ae and Ps work well together.
Wow, I am amazed with the detailed post, thanks rick, really appreciate all the effort! That's a lot to digest and I will try this first thing in the morning!
I tried your method, it works well.
However, I went ahead and use the original method because the animation looks smoother and it'll be easier to make changes if needed. Took quite a while to paste all the properties, but it will make my life much easier when I need to twig it later on.