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2D vs. 3D Animation: What’s the Difference? [2024 Guide]

by | Last updated Jan 10, 2024

What’s the difference between 2D vs. 3D animation?

You’re in the right place. Here, you’ll learn what 2D and 3D animation is, what type of animation is better to pursue as a career, and so much more.

Ready to get started? Let’s go!

 

What is animation?

Before we get started, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what animation is.

Simply put, animation is the process of making pictures appear to move.

This is done by displaying a series of still images quickly enough that the viewer perceives the sequence as a single movement.

In years past, artists did this by drawing or painting images on individual transparent sheets and then filming them. Today, animation is done primarily on computers.

Animation is used to create visual effects in movies, on television, and in video games.

It can also be used to create interactive experiences like online tutorials or virtual reality simulations. For example, a 3D animation of a car engine can allow viewers to see its individual components and how they work together to make the engine run.

2D and 3D animation are among the most common types of animation. To learn about them – and the differences between them – read on!

What are the differences and similarities between 2D and 3D animation?

It’s true that there is some crossover between 2D and 3D animation.

For instance, both 2D and 3D animation involve computers and require a keen eye for detail.

They also require that an artist has, well, an artist’s eye.

At the very least, they should be able to draw, have a basic knowledge of composition and color theory, and understand key animation principles like timing and spacing.

But there are a few key differences between them, too.

I’m talking about things like:

  • 2D animation is vector-based (composed of lines and curves), while 3D animation uses pixels to create and manipulate 3D models.
  • 2D animation relies on artistic skill, while 3D animation requires a deep understanding of physics and motion.
  • Because 3D animation is immersive and realistic, 2D animation is typically faster and less expensive to create.
  • 2D animation is traditionally done by hand and imported into a computer software program, whereas 3D animation is often done exclusively with computer software.

Here’s an example of 2D animation:

And this one is made with 3D animation:

Both forms of animation are produced through three stages.

The first step is creating the art assets.

In 2D animation, this is done by drawing the characters and backgrounds.

In 3D animation, it’s done by creating models and textures.

The second step is animating those assets.

This can be done with software like Adobe After Effects or Autodesk Maya, but the process differs depending on the type of animation.

2D animation involves manipulating individual images, and 3D animation involves manipulating objects in a 3D environment.

The third step is compositing the animation.

This refers to combining the animation with other elements like music and sound effects.

Again, there’s a difference between 2D and 3D animation. In 2D animation, compositing is done post-production.

But because 3D animation involves rendering digital elements in each scene, like light, shadows, and texture, compositing is done in real-time.

Salary ranges also differ for 2D and 3D animation artists, with 3D animation artists making a bit more because of high demand and the complexity of the work.

At the end of the day, 3D animation artists can make $84,000 or more, whereas a 2D animation artist can expect to make $67,851 per year.

If you’re ready to explore what 2D and 3D animation is, keep reading!

What is 2D animation?

So, what exactly is 2D animation?

2D animation involves creating images and scenes with two-dimensional art. It’s usually done using hand-drawn illustrations and computer software.

This technique requires an artist to draw each of the individual frames that will make up the animation itself. Then, they’ll upload them into computer software that will assemble the frames and make them move.

Famous 2D animation examples include classic cartoons such as The Simpsons and Looney Tunes and modern shows like Adventure Time and Rick and Morty.

There are pros and cons of 2D animation. Let’s talk about them.

Pros and cons of 2D animation

The pros of 2D animation are that it:

  • Requires fewer resources and is cost-effective
  • Has a shorter production timeline
  • Is capable of creating a variety of visual styles

On the other hand, the cons of 2D animation are that it:

  • Is a time-consuming process
  • Can be expensive to create compared to other animation techniques
  • Is harder to create realistic effects and movements than in 3D animation

Now that we’ve covered what it is, let’s talk about the techniques and software involved in 2D animation.

2D animation techniques and software

There are a few key 2D animation techniques. They include:

Traditional animation (also called cel animation), which is the most traditional form of 2D animation. It’s done by drawing each image, frame-by-frame, on transparent sheets and arranging them to create the illusion of movement. This style allows for a greater level of detail and realism.

Rotoscoping, in which artists trace over live-action footage to create realistic animated characters and movements. For this method, artists trace one frame at a time with a lightbox or tablet.

Stop motion, one of the most time-consuming methods of animation. It involves drawings placed on a flat surface and photographed one at a time in slightly different positions to simulate motion.

The most popular 2D animation software programs are Adobe Animate, Toon Boom Harmony, and TV Paint.

The cost of software programs like these can vary depending on the features and capabilities. It’s worth noting that most offer free trial versions that will allow you to test it out before you commit.

Now that we’ve covered 2D animation, let’s talk about 3D animation.

What is 3D animation?

3D animation uses computer-generated images to create animated scenes in a 3D environment, which allows the characters and objects to move and interact realistically.

Just like with 2D animation, there are also pros and cons of 3D animation.

Pros and cons of 3D animation

The pros of 3D animation are that it can:

  • Be used to create images and characters that look realistic but remain cost-effective and time-efficient
  • Allow for easier manipulation of scene elements as well as greater creative control over the final product
  • Create a greater range of motion and depth, which is especially useful for creating realistic effects and movements

There are also cons for 3D animation, including that:

  • The required software can be complex and difficult to learn
  • Animators must have a strong understanding of 3D space to create realistic animations
  • It’s difficult to update and modify, thus making adjustments difficult after the animation is completed

3D animation techniques and software

3D animation techniques include keyframe animation, motion capture, rigging, and inverse kinematics.

Keyframe animation is when an artist creates individual frames that a computer then interpolates into a complete animation.

Motion capture uses live-action footage to create realistic animations.

Rigging creates a skeleton structure for a 3D model and uses inverse kinematics to control and automate character movement.

Now that we’ve covered the similarities and differences between 2D and 3D animation, as well as what each one is, let’s talk about which technique you should learn.

Should you learn 2D or 3D animation?

The simple answer is both.

Anyone looking for animation work will want to learn the ins and outs of both 2D and 3D animation.

Why?

Because they equip you with two very different yet valuable skills.

2D animation will be more suitable for creating cartoons. It’s also more straightforward to learn, making it a great jumping-off point before moving on to the more complex 3D animation.

On the other hand, 3D animation is better for creating realistic visuals. But it also requires more technical know-how, like how to create realistic lighting, textures, and shadows.

Knowing how to create both will equip animators with a wide, valuable range of skills.

Which is better – 2D or 3D animation?

When it comes to 2D vs. 3D animation, one’s not better than the other.

It all just depends on the project requirements, desired output, and budget.

2D animation can be used to create a more stylized look with lower production costs, but may not be as detailed or realistic.

3D animation, on the other hand, can create a more detailed and realistic image – just with higher production costs.

Ultimately, the choice depends on the desired outcome.

Which is harder, 2D or 3D animation?

Again, it’s not that one style of animation is more complicated than the other.

They’re just different.

2D animation involves creating individual frames and playing them in succession to create movement. It’s more focused on the artistic aspects of the process with an emphasis on drawing and character design.

3D animation is far more complex and technical, as it involves creating a three-dimensional model of an object or character and giving it instructions to move a certain way. The focus, therefore, is more on modeling and computer programming.

Regardless of the style they work in, animators should be well-versed in software like Adobe After Effects and Autodesk Maya to be successful. Additionally, animators should have a creative eye and be able to work well with others.

So, which one should you learn first? Read on to find out.

Should you learn 2D or 3D animation first?

At the end of the day, deciding whether to learn 2D or 3D animation first is a personal preference and depends on which style you find most appealing.

While it’s not a hard and fast rule, 2D animation tends to be geared more toward the creative mind, while 3D animation interests the technical sense.

That’s why 2D animation is a good starting point. It’s less of a learning curve and requires less overhead regarding the hardware and software you’ll need to get started.

Conversely, 3D animation is a more rigorous learning process because it’s a more advanced form.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which type of animation you want to learn first.

Regardless of which you choose, be prepared to put in the time and effort needed to become proficient.

Some online courses will teach you the basics of both, and some are free! The right course can help you learn the skills needed to become a successful animator, but take time to ensure it’s suitable for your needs before you sign up.

How do you jumpstart your animation career? Keep reading to find out.

How do you get started in 2D or 3D animation?

Animation is a very hands-on field, so the most important thing is to jump right in.

Start practicing today and get comfortable with all the tools you’ll need to create a portfolio of work.

Here are a few tips to get started.

Create your own projects

Developing your own projects will help you learn new skills and think outside the box.

Plus, it’ll allow you to create a robust portfolio that showcases what you have to offer as an animator and serve as an opportunity to collaborate with others.

Portfolios are also a great way to get the attention of employers – giving them a way to find and view your work easily will help you stand out from the competition.

Get an internship

Internships are one of the most valuable ways to get a leg up in the animation industry.

Not only do they provide invaluable first-hand experience and an insider’s look at the industry, but they can also open doors to future job opportunities and help you build professional relationships.

Next steps

There you have it! The differences between 2D and 3D animation.

Having a good grasp of both types of animation can open up more career opportunities for animators. But whether you choose 2D or 3D, you’ll need to practice and hone your skills to become a professional.

As you do so, you’ll build your portfolio and demo reel. Download our free PDF for three insider secrets to make your demo reel stand out:

 

Read more:

Animation for Beginners: Guide

How to Become an Animation (Without a Degree) 

The Top Animation Apps and Software 

 

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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