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In the Illustrator file I have a layer that consists of several pictures. I'd like to export it to After Effects as one layer but have an ability to edit them individually.

With normal (aka vector, not pictures) Illustrator layers I've been using Create Shapes from Vector Layer option. However, whenever I try to use it on the layer containing pictures, all of them turn into gray boxes.

Is there any way to import this layer as a whole, but to control rotation of every picture separately?

enter image description here

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There is no way to rotate different parts of a single layer so you need to import each of your pictures on different layers.

You can easily separate everything in Illustrator to its own layer by selecting the top level layer in the Layers panel and choosing "Release to Layers (Sequence)" from the panel menu:

Illustrator release layers

The created layers will be sub-layers so you will need to drag them to the top level, like this:

Illustrator released layers

When you import your Illustrator file in to After Effects make sure you choose to import as a Composition (not footage), and After Effects will create a composition with all your Illustrator layers intact which you can rotate etc.

After Effects imported composition

If you need to affect your pictures as a single layer/group as well as individually you can pre-compose (Select the layers then go to Layer → Pre-compose...) those layers and work on the resulting composition as well as the objects within the composition.

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