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What is 3D Animation? The Complete Guide (2024)

by | Last updated Jan 11, 2024

Considering a career in 3D animation but don’t fully understand what it entails? You’ve come to the right place. In this article, you’ll learn about what this exciting and lucrative field is like. 

Want to learn more? Let’s get started.


What is 3D animation? 

3D animation is used to create moving images in a three-dimensional environment. How is this done? With computer-generated imagery (or CGI). 

See, in its most basic form, animation is when static images are organized in such a way that they look as if they’re moving. 

So, animation is defined as a graphic technique that uses motion to bring characters, objects, props, and more to life. 

The 3D aspect then comes into play when those static images are developed within a multi-dimensional environment to give the illusion that they’re moving in a life-like way. 

This process is called 3D modeling and uses a series of polygons, edges, and vertices in a simulated 3D space.

The 3D model is then rigged with a skeleton, which can be animated to fit its purpose. Finally, the animation is rendered as a sequence of images to create the illusion of motion. 

Now, there are different 3D animation professionals who finish these scenes by, for example, lighting them to create the right mood and environment. 

To explain 3D animation even further, let’s take a look at the three different types: passive, interactive, and immersive.

Passive animation

In passive animation, the experience is purely visual with little to no interactivity. This is typical in animated movies like Pixar’s Toy Story but can also be used in promotional videos or informative explainers. 

So, passive 3D animation requires the use of glasses with polarized lenses. When not using the glasses, the screen looks normal but a little fuzzy. With the glasses, the graphics appear to be three-dimensional.  

Interactive animation

Common in video games, interactive animation is when the viewer engages with the animated digital items. So, during interactive animation, the viewer has a first or third-person perspective and moves around or manipulates objects in a 3D space. 

Immersive animation

Using virtual and immersive reality technology, immersive animation creates experiences for the viewer. This is the most complex form of 3D animation, and it’s also more costly than the other two forms.

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

Thanks to computer graphic imagery (CGI), 2D and 3D animation is possible. 

Wondering what the biggest difference between 2D and 3D animation is? For one thing, 2D images are flat, while 3D images are multi-dimensional. But that’s not the only difference. 

3D imagery looks more realistic because 2D objects are rendered and lit in such a way as to make them appear to have more depth. They are also composed into a sequence of actions and played at a high frame rate to give the appearance of motion. 

While more compelling than 2D animation, 3D animation can also be time-consuming to create and more expensive because of the varying production stages involved. 3D animation is also less forgiving when corrections or revisions need to be made along the way. 

As mentioned, the 3D animation process is more complex because it involves rigging and skinning, animation, and asset integration. Meanwhile, in 2D animation, there’s only rough animation in between keyframes and a full render.

Specifically, there are 11 primary steps in 3D animation:

  1. Concept and Storyboards – The conceptualization of ideas and the creation of the storyboards that translate these ideas into visual form.
  2. 3D Modelling – The process of taking a shape and molding it into a completed 3D mesh.
  3. Texturing – Also referred to as mapping, the process of adding high-frequency detail, surface texture, or color to a 3D model.
  4. Rigging – The process of setting up a controllable skeleton for the character that’s intended for animation.
  5. Animation – The process of taking a 3D object and getting it to move.
  6. Lighting – The process of applying simulated lighting to make a scene convincing.
  7. Camera Setting – The process of establishing camera angles and techniques.
  8. Rendering – The process of creating a final render of a scene.
  9. Compositing and Special VFX – The process of bringing final renders into compositing programs to edit, touch up, and add special effects.
  10. Music and Foley (Sound Effects) – The process of adding music or sound effects to a sequence.
  11. Editing and Final Output – The process of combining the composited renders with music and foley and editing them to ensure that everything is in synchronization.

Regardless of the intended deliverable, the first thing an artist does is create a rough sketch of the figure, object, or character starting at the beginning of the sequence and then adding the endpoint. 

Finally, transition frames are inserted between the two points. Once the sketches are refined, the artist renders their work. 

What are some 3D animation examples?

Some of the most beloved movies were made using 3D animation. These include Frozen, The Incredibles, Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, and elements of Avatar.

Check out this video for an inside look at how Frozen 2 was made:

But even though 3D animation is used in films, it can also be used in plenty of other fields and settings. Here are some examples:

  • Education
  • Medicine
  • Marketing
  • Training
  • Engineering
  • Architecture
  • The military
  • The police 

3D animation has also been used for medical diagnoses, legal proceedings, and accident reconstruction.

So, what are some techniques used to create 3D animation? Here’s what you need to know. 

What are some methods used in 3D animation?

Depending on the desired outcome, there are several methods or approaches to 3D animation:


The stop-motion technique quickly combines individual frames to create a video. Wondering how many frames per second are needed to create movement? Approximately 10 to 12. 

Stop-motion animation often includes using clay to form the objects and characters starring in the video. Also, illustrated still images can be used with slight movements between frames. 

Here’s a list of 49 stop-motion animated movie examples. 

Stereoscopic 3D Videos

This type of 3D video is an illusion of depth perception. So, there’s a right and left perspective simulating the distance between the viewer’s eyes like a pair of binoculars. Using filtered lenses, the brain fuses the two views together to create a 3D perspective. 

This stereoscopic 3D documentary created for Canon shows how this type of 3D illusion works:

CGI Cutout Animated Videos

In this type of animation, objects and characters are cut out of paper and connected together. So, using pre-cut shapes from paper, cards, stiff fabric, or photographs, the animator moves the items at the right speed to give the illusion of movement. 

Here’s a quick demonstration:


This is a type of animation that makes computer graphics appear to be hand drawn, almost like a comic book or cartoon. It’s different from conventional rendering, though, because it uses non-photorealistic lighting. (For a notable example of cel-shading, check out anime, like The Legend of Zelda movies.)

Wondering what tools are used to create 3D animations? That’s what we’ll look at next. 

What software and tools do 3D animators use?

People who work in 3D animation use both computer hardware and software. So, what’s the key piece of hardware required? A computer or laptop. 

For 3D software, there are specialized applications, including: 

  •     Maya
  •     3D Studio Max
  •     After Effects
  •     MotionBuilder
  •     Mudbox
  •     Premier
  •     Cinema 4D
  •     LightWave

What are some 3D animation careers?

Basically, an animator’s role is to manipulate digital objects using computer hardware and software. These objects can be illustrated, digital representations, or motion-captured using specialized technology. So, there are numerous jobs available for 3D animators. 

According to ZipRecruiter, the most popular types of 3D animator jobs in 2023 are technical animators, medical animators, game animators, and 3D character animators. Other parts of the 3D animation pipeline include 3D lighting, visual effects, and rigging.  

So, are 3D animators in demand? 

Absolutely. There are many industries that are looking for talented animators. In fact, animation jobs are expected to grow by 5% every year until 2031. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that between 2018-2028 there will be around 3,000 3D animation job opportunities across the United States.

Interested in learning more about this field? My ultimate guide to a career in 3D animation explains what it takes to be successful. 

How to become a 3D animator

Ultimately, the path to becoming an animator depends on the type of animation you want to specialize in. Why? Because there are many different kinds of animation jobs that focus on different phases of a project, like pre-production, production, or post-production. 

So, to be a 3D animator, you need to have visual imaging knowledge and computer skills. You also need to have an artistic eye, although that doesn’t mean an artistic background is mandatory. 

But how do you learn these skills?

Interestingly enough, a college degree isn’t required for most animation jobs. So, online courses can be a cheaper, less time-consuming, and highly relevant way to acquire the knowledge you’ll need, especially if they include mentoring and are created by people in the industry. 

To actually get a 3D animation job, you can start with an internship. I explain how to get one in this article

But the most important part of becoming a 3D animator? Your demo reel.

Why? Because with your demo reel, you demonstrate your skills. And ultimately, that’s what hiring managers care about (besides your soft skills, like how good you are at communicating or collaborating).

So, here’s my ultimate guide to creating your own demo reel

Wondering what studios you should work for? Take a look at this resource we’ve created that covers the top studios in the world. 

Over to you!

So, what is 3D animation? Now you know!

Animation is an exciting industry where you can model a career you really love. 

And now that you have a better understanding of what this type of animation is all about, you can set your sights on honing your skills and landing that first job.

Learn more: 

Types of 3D Animation and 3D Animation Techniques

How to Become an Animator (Without a Degree) 



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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