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What is 2D Animation? Guide + Top Software

by | Last updated Feb 15, 2024

Are you interested in learning about 2D animation? If so, you’ve come to the right place. 

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about 2D animation and even tell you about some of the best software available.

Ready to get started? Let’s dive in.

 

What is 2D animation? 

2D animation (also called two-dimensional animation) uses several still images to bring a scene to life through movement – without any actual movement.

Instead, animators create the illusion of movement by displaying several still images, each one a bit different from the last, in quick succession.

Because the animation is two-dimensional, the characters, objects, and environments are flat. That’s why they’re limited in movement and can only move in four directions: Up, down, left, and right. 

When working in 2D, animators draw each individual frame by hand before uploading them into a computer software that will then bring them to life. 

Now that 3D animation has become the standard, you might be wondering… is 2D animation still popular? 

The answer is yes.

Most people are quick to associate 2D animation only with older works such as Cinderella, Snow White, The Simpsons, and South Park

That’s fair – most of Disney’s animated films were produced between the 1990s and 2000s. And 3D animation is the industry standard. 

But 2D animation has actually been used in some of the most popular works of recent years, like Rick and Morty, Bob’s Burgers, and The Princess and the Frog

One of the best parts about 2D animation is its flexibility. It can be created using several different methods, including traditional hand-drawn animation, computer-generated animation, and stop-motion animation.

Let’s talk about some of them.

Types of 2D animation

There are a few different types of 2D animation that you should be aware of:

  • Traditional animation: This is done by drawing each image, frame-by-frame, on transparent sheets before arranging them to create movement. Also known as cel animation, it allows animators to add more detail and greater realism. 
  • Stop motion animation: To create motion, stop motion animators place drawings on a flat surface and then photograph them one at a time in slightly different positions, making it one of the most time-consuming animation methods.
  • Cutout animation: Traditionally, cutout animation has used paper, cards, and fabrics to create the elements of a scene, including characters and props. Today, many studios use technology to replicate the style.
  • Rotoscoping animation: Animators use a lightbox or tablet for tracing live-action footage. Doing so allows them to create more realistic characters and movements.
  • Motion graphics: Motion graphics uses animated digital footage to create motion and pair it with audio to use in digital multimedia projects.

Now that we’ve covered what 2D animation is, let’s talk about what it’s like to be a 2D animator.

What does a 2D animator do?

As a 2D animator, you’ll be responsible for drawing frame-by-frame images that will bring a script or storyboard to life within a two-dimensional space. 

Some of the most important responsibilities of a 2D animator include:

  • Developing script-based storyboards, models, illustrations, and backgrounds
  • Creating frames and choosing colors and styles
  • Animating characters, objects, and scenes
  • Adding essential scene elements such as lighting, shadows, and particle effects
  • Making sure animations meet project requirements and then revising when necessary
  • Ensuring audio effects and voiceovers are perfectly synced with what a viewer will see
  • Working closely with several other team members, including directors, writers, audio engineers, and video editors

Like other animation jobs, there are a lot of roles an animator can play. Some 2D animation jobs include:

  • Character animator
  • Character designer
  • Animation supervisor
  • Background artist
  • Storyboard artist
  • Compositor

Industries that you might work in include TV, film, video games, and advertising. 

Are you interested in learning about other animation roles available? If so, you should check out this guide to more than 10 of the best animation careers available.

Keep reading to learn about the differences between 2D and 3D animation.

What is the difference between 2D and 3D animation? 

It’s true that 2D and 3D animation do have a few things in common.

They both call for technical skills and an artist’s background. 2D and 3D animators alike should have a deep understanding of composition, color theory, and principles like timing and spacing.

But there are some critical differences between the two, as well.

  • 2D animation is made up of lines and curves (called vector-based); 3D animation creates and manipulates models using pixels
  • 2D animation relies more on artistic skill than 3D animation, which calls for a knowledge of physics and motion
  • 2D animation is traditionally done by hand before being uploaded to a software program, while 3D animation is typically done using only computers
  • 2D animation is faster and more cost-effective to create than 3D animation

A common question I get asked is, “Is 2D harder than 3D?”

The simplest answer? It’s not harder or easier. It’s just different.

2D animation is focused on the artistic elements of the animation process (e.g., drawing and character design), whereas 3D animation is focused on the technical (e.g., modeling and computer programming).

Regardless of your preferred animation style, you should be creative, collaborative, and experienced in Adobe After Effects.

I also see a lot of beginner animators worry about whether it’s better to get into 2D animation or 3D animation. 

The truth is that there’s no right answer – it all depends on what interests you. 

If you’re more interested in the creative side of animation, go 2D! If you’re more technically minded, 3D animation would make the most sense for you.

There’s no harm in exploring both, either. Having the skills needed for 2D and 3D animation will set you up for a long, varying career if you want it.

But 2D animation is typically a great starting point for all animators. Not only is there less of a learning curve associated with it, but the hardware and software needed is also far less expensive.

To find out more about the differences between 2D and 3D animation, check out this guide

Keep reading to learn about how 2D animation is used today.

How is 2D animation used today? 

Overall, 2D animation remains popular today and will continue to stay popular in the future. After all, you can find it anywhere you look! 

It’s used in several industries, including some you might be surprised by. Some of those industries include: 

  • Film and television
  • Marketing
  • Education
  • Medicine
  • Architecture
  • Urban planning
  • Data visualization
  • Retail

Next, we’ll take a closer look at some of the best examples of 2D animation.

Examples of 2D animation 

When you think of 2D animation, you probably think about TV shows and movies. 

But it’s used far more widely than you might think. In fact, it’s been used in everything from video games and commercials to apps and websites.

Some famous examples of 2D animation include:

  • TV shows like Rick and Morty, Adventure Time, and Big Mouth
  • Movies like Spirited Away, Klaus, The Iron Giant, and Lion King (which is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time)
  • Advertisements for well-known brands such as Nespresso, Nestle, and McDonald’s

On that note, Coca-Cola’s 2019 Super Bowl commercial, called “A Coke is a Coke,” was created entirely in 2D animation:

2D animation has also been used in a few video games as well. 

For example, the 2019 game Cuphead took inspiration from the classic animation style of the 1930s. 

To bring it to life, animators drew each frame in traditional cel animation and only used watercolor backgrounds. You can see it come together here:

Even social media platforms are also getting in on the action! For instance, Snapchat’s Lens Studio allows users to upload textures or GIFs and turn them into 2D animations.

Now that you have an understanding of what 2D animation is and know what it looks like, let’s talk about the most important part: how it’s created. 

Read on to find out!

How is 2D animation created? 

There are three main components of the 2D animation process: the pre-production stage, the production stage, and the post-production stage.

Each of these stages is crucial to the final project and has its own unique process. Let’s take a look at them.

Pre-production stage

The pre-production phase is exactly what it sounds like: everything but animation. Instead, people are working together to bring an idea to life and move it into production. 

During this stage, several teams work together on character and background brainstorming, storyboarding, script editing and finalization, and production scheduling. 

As part of the pre-production phase, you’ll be involved in:

  • Securing funding and finalizing the budget
  • Idea development and brainstorming
  • Scriptwriting and storyboarding
  • Creating animatics (animated storyboard)
  • Designing characters and environments
  • Establishing visual thematic elements, including color
  • Casting
  • Finalizing delivery date

This doesn’t take as long as you might think; pre-production typically takes three to six months. Once it’s done, the project can move into production.

Production stage

The production stage is arguably the most exciting part of the entire animation process. After all, this is when the animating takes place.

There are a lot of moving parts in the production stage.

The first part of production involves the characters and backgrounds being sketched out, finalized, and turned into assets.

Then, the team moves on to creating the storyboard and concept art, which provides a clear outline as to what the script will look like on screen, as well as how the characters will move. These will guide animators’ drawings later.

When all of these things are done, the animators are able to get started!

On any given project, you’ll find two types of animators: Key animators and tweening artists.

Key animators are responsible for drawing every scene in which a specific character appears. Typically, it’s the character they designed.

Once the key animators have finished this, the drawings are then handed over to tweening artists for final touches.

Also referred to as inbetweeners, tweeners are responsible for filling the scenes with even more frames. These extra frames are what add realistic details to the characters and make them look and feel more human.

Tweeners are also the ones who work to create smoother transitions between images to ensure that there are more fluid movements within a scene.

When both the key animators and tweeners are satisfied, they conduct what’s called a pencil test, in which they view the rough draft of what will eventually be the final project.

Conducting a pencil test is an important part of the production phase, as it allows the team to make sure that everything flows. In the event of a mistake, it can be fixed quickly before moving on to post-production.

If and when everyone is satisfied with the final animated product, it will be moved into the final stage, called post-production.

Post-production stage

Last but not least, the post-production stage! In this stage, animators put the final touches on the project.

The first phase of post-production is what’s called inking and coloring.

In inking and coloring, the animated scenes are delivered to the inking department to be transferred onto a piece of transparent plastic called a celluloid (or cel).

But how they do it depends on how the project is going to be animated.

If the animation is being done traditionally, the team will ink the outline onto the cel. On the other hand, if it’s done digitally, they’ll simply photocopy it onto the cel.

Next up is sound design.

Sound designers are the ones responsible for designing, creating, and recording any sound that isn’t part of the dialogue recorded by the cast. Some common examples of 2D sound effects include footsteps, doors opening, and dogs barking. 

Although sound designers used to have to make the sounds themselves, technology has made it possible to do so digitally. In fact, many studios have a library of sound effects to choose from.

Once all of the sounds are finalized, composers get to work on any background music that may be needed.

Dialogue is also added to the animation at this stage. At this point, the team watches closely to make sure that every sound is aligned with the characters’ movements, dialogue, and facial expressions.

Finally, the entire project is moved into sound mixing. There, it gets put together and equalized, treated, and mixed into the final project.

It’s important to acknowledge that digital tools have made the 2D animation production phase far faster than it was in the past. In fact, animators rarely have to draw characters for every frame anymore! 

If you’re looking to start learning how to animate in 2D, keep reading. We’ll talk about some of the best 2D animation software available today in the next section.

2D animation software 

There are a lot of options when it comes to 2D animation software, and it can be overwhelming to know where to look.

So, in no particular order, here are some examples of 2D animation software that you should be aware of and that could even help you learn the tools of the trade!

Toon Boom Harmony

Toon Boom Harmony is known for its rigging tools and the variety of 2D animation techniques, which include hand-drawn, cut-out, and stop-motion. Harmony is also great for creating animation featured in video games and websites.

With that said, keep in mind that it is geared towards professionals, so you might want to learn the ins and outs of 2D animation before you try it.

Features include:

  • Color management
  • Compositing and special effects
  • Lip-syncing technology
  • Sound design
  • Control Center for large projects

Price: $28.50 to $129.50 per month or $230.50 to $1,051.50 per year

Adobe Animate

Adobe Animate, which is part of the Adobe software family (including Illustrator and After Effects), allows users to create everything from 2D cartoons to mobile games and videos. If you’re looking to develop interactive 2D animation or website assets, this might be your best option.

Features include:

  • ActionScript scripting
  • Vector and bitmap animation
  • Audio syncing
  • Rigging
  • Asset panels
  • Tutorials
  • Quick sharing and publishing to multiple platforms (HTML5 Canvas, WebGL, Flash/Adobe AIR, and more)

Price: $20.99 per month

Moho Debut 14

Formerly known as Anime Studio, Moho is famous for its easy-to-use bone rigging tool that makes it easy to create skeletons of all shapes and sizes. It also features automatic lip-syncing, sound effects, video and motion tracking, and a library of pre-existing content and characters.

Moreover, you can create characters directly within the app or import your own images from Photoshop.

Features include:

  • Two smart bones per project
  • Photoshop PSD file integration
  • Content library
  • Vector-based drawing tools
  • Follow Path tool
  • Finish for web, TV, film, or stills

Price: $59.99. A Pro version is also available for $399.99

Synfig

Since 2005, Synfig has operated as a free, open-source 2D animation software and has become revered for bone rigging and tweening tools. 

Instead of having to animate your project frame-by-frame, it empowers you to do so more easily with vector tweening and bitmap artwork, which makes it perfect for anyone new to the world of 2D animation. Other features include layers, filters, and advanced controls.

Features include:

  • Morphing
  • Tweening
  • 50+ layers and filters
  • Skeleton Distortion

Price: Free

OpenToonz

This free, open-source software is the same software used by Studio Ghibli and gives all users access to the same powerful technology as large studios.

On OpenToonz, users can animate in several styles, including hand-drawn, cut-out, stop-motion, and more. There’s even a deep learning tool that changes picture styles with the click of a button.

While it’s an excellent resource for anyone looking to learn, be aware that there is a steep learning curve, so you might want to take the time to find a few resources about it before diving in.

Features include:

  • GTS, a Studio Ghibli scanning tool
  • Digital painting
  • Filming
  • Raster and vector compatible
  • Wavy distortion animation 

Price: Free

Krita

While Krita is technically a digital painting resource (it was named Best Free Painting Software in 2019), it’s also a free, open-source 2D animation program. If you’re looking to learn about the frame-by-frame process, this is your best bet.

In addition to vector tools, several brush tools, and a resource manager feature, it also houses several learning resources for beginners. These include general art and technology concepts, a tutorial, FAQs, and more.

Features include:

  • Animation Timeline Docker
  • Onion-skinning
  • Animatable raster layers
  • Color coding

Price: Free

Adobe Character Animator

When you use Adobe Character Animator, you’re the force behind the character itself – because it’s based on your performance! 

Using your webcam and microphone, the software layers your body and facial movements with a pre-selected or designed character (also called a puppet) for quick animation.

Features include:

  • Quick Export
  • Auto-swap positioning
  • Puppet Maker

Price: Free (basic version)

Pencil2D

Pencil2D is a free, open-source software for anyone interested in the traditional frame-by-frame method of 2D animation. 

In addition to bitmap and vector graphics, the interface is easy to use and comes with a frame-by-frame animation editor. You can even easily switch workflow styles, which means you don’t have to commit only to sketching, inking, or painting.

Features include:

  • Raster- and vector-compatible
  • Cross-platform
  • Sound import and export

Price: Free

Next steps

There you have it! Everything you need to know about 2D animation.

Are you thinking about going into 2D animation or just want to explore it for fun?

If so, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about 2D animation (including how to make it into a rewarding career) in the courses available at our Animation Academy

Learn more

Learn Animation Online: The Beginner’s Guide

The Different Types of Animation

The Ultimate Guide to a Career in Animation

 

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

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