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

8minutes read


With film, TV, and video game fans all over the world hungry for fresh content, there are more opportunities than ever before for aspiring 2D and 3D Animators. But what is the difference between 2D and 3D animation, and which style of animation should you dive into? 

First things first: neither 2D nor 3D animation is objectively “better". Both have their place!

In 2D animation, all characters, props, and backgrounds are drawn or created flat (two-dimensional) which means they can only be viewed from one side and must be redrawn to show them from another angle. On the other hand, objects in 3D animations have height, width, and depth (three-dimensional) which means they can be viewed from any angle. Another key difference is that 2D animations are based on frames whereas 3D animations are based on movements.

2D vs. 3D animation in comparison

The main difference between 2D vs 3D animation, for animators, is that 2D animation is more artistic and 3D is more mechanical/technical. 2D requires a large amount of illustration, as every frame needs to be drawn, either on a digital tablet or hand drawn. While 3D animation is tasked with creating movement via 'rigs', where a 3D model is essentially given a skeleton that can be manipulated in a virtual 3D space.

To take a classic video game example, Mario 64 needed 3D animation as it used a 3D game engine. On the other hand, classic Super Mario has no use for a 3D Animator because the art is two-dimensional. Neither of these games suffers because of their art style—both are great games!

Or how about the original 2D animated version of The Lion King (1994) versus the 3D animated version (2019)? Both films have their own different appeal — the 2D animated version is wonderful because of its unique artistic style and the 3D animated version is impressive because of how realistic it looks.  

The type of animation you pursue will mostly come down to your artistic preference. If you are creating a new video game, TV show, web series, or even a static medium such as a comic book, you might decide that one type suits the premise better. 

Difference between 2D and 3D animationMatthew A. Cherry, Director of the Oscar-winning Hair Love, decided his short film would be better suited to 2D animation.

There are times when more practical aspects come into play, such as budget. For a show like South Park, the animation is very straightforward and would undoubtedly be more expensive were it done in 3D. On the other hand, a film like Frozen would be prohibitively pricey to achieve anywhere near the same level of detail using traditional 2D animation.

How 2D animation works

The illusion of movement is created when individual drawings are sequenced together in quick succession. One second of time is usually divided into 24 frames, and there can be as many as 24 unique drawings in one second of animation (24fps), or as little as two. 

Interview with leading 2D Animation Filmmaker and CGS mentor, Sykosan, who animated Katy Perry's Cry About it Later music video.

The easiest way to see this technique in action is in "flipbook" animation. Draw a ball on the lower corner of a notepad. On the next page, draw another ball but have it be slightly to the side of where the original ball was. Continue this process for several pages and then flip through them quickly. If done correctly, the ball will appear to move as you flip through the pages. This demonstrates the illusion of movement.

Fully-fledged 2D animation works in the same way but is far more complicated. Picture our 2D animated ball, but instead of a rough circle doodled on a notepad, it's an entire scene with multiple moving parts. There will also likely need to be at least a dozen pages per second, over the usual 24 frames, to achieve the desired smoothness of the animation.

Now with computer software like Toon Boom Harmony and Adobe After Effects, mainstream 2D production has replaced these traditional hand-drawn processes using pencil and paper for much faster and more cost-effective digital techniques. This allows 2D Animators to create in minutes what used to take weeks. 

Most common 2D animation techniques and software

There are techniques to make life easier, of course. For example: if parts of the scene are static, there is no need to redraw them every frame, you can simply use the same image. Tweening animation has also become quite common in the 2D animation process, where static parts of the model are moved around to achieve animation, rather than redrawn. 

The above-mentioned South Park is one example of this. It can help to think of this method in terms of drawing a scene, creating some characters and cutting them out, and then placing them on the scene and moving them a frame at a time. The advantage of this technique is that it is much faster, especially with modern animation software than traditional 2D animation. The downside is that it is much harder to achieve natural-looking motion.

One of the most popular 2D animation and storyboarding software is Toon Boom Harmony which is used in hit TV shows like Rick and Morty, The Simpsons, Klaus, and Family Guy. CG Spectrum is proudly one of only 16 Toon Boom Authorized Training Centres authorized and the only 100% online animation school with this designation, ensuring students learn 2D animation with industry-standard tools.

How 3D animation works

3D animation is a layered process that involves many skills. Unlike 2D animation where the ability to draw is all you need to get started, 3D requires digital models which are 'rigged' and then animated. Using a program like Autodesk Maya, a 3D animator will drop their 3D rigged model (character, prop, machine, etc.) into a digital scene in order to be able to manipulate it.

buzz lightyear toy story In 1995, Pixar's Toy Story made history as the first feature-length 3D animated film

The placement and movements created by an animator are relayed into a relevant software as mathematical equations. This input is then rendered via a graphics processing unit that outputs the final animation which is known as a 'playblast'.

Playblasts are then reviewed by supervisors, directors, and clients for approval as the animation progresses through stages such as blocking approval, temp, and final approval (commonly, for final approval, a client will want to see the animation rendered and not just in a playblast).

An animator can optimize the animation process by setting keyframes for key actions and allowing the animation software to fill in the frames between. 3D animators can also work with motion capture data which can help enhance the realism of their animations. 

The different stages of 3D animation

The first step along the road to creating 3D animation typically involves sketching out how you want your scene and characters to look. From there, you create a 3D model of your animated object. This model is then textured (color and detail are added to your 3D model). 

The model also needs rigging. A 3D model rig is like a skeleton that helps the 3D character, prop, or vehicle move. For the most part, the rig follows the basic structure of a real skeleton (if the 3D animated model is a person or animal), though not precisely.

Now your model is ready to be animated. You can drop your rigged 3D model into your scene and begin posing it. It's not always necessary to pose each frame in the same way you would draw each frame for a 2D animation. Using keyframes to determine the position a given part of the model needs to be at and allowing the animation software to interpolate the frames in between can save a lot of time.


Learn from 3D animation specialists

If you become a 3D animator for film and game studios, there will typically be dedicated artists such as 3D modelers, riggers, layout artists, and animators all working on their part of the movie. It's also not uncommon for each stage to be compartmentalized. 

If you're going to make your own 3D animations, you will need to become competent in every step. Even if you're planning on specializing in 3D animation, it doesn't hurt to become familiar with every step of the pipeline. Doing so will help you become a more well-rounded animator.

At CG Spectrum, you'll be personally mentored by 3D animation professionals who've worked on blockbuster films including War for the Planet of the Apes, The Golden Compass, and The Willoughbys, and video games like Dauntless, Resident Evil, and Batman: Arkham Knight. They'll provide you with industry insights, advice, and up-to-date techniques and workflows, including how the VFX and game pipelines work.

2D or 3D animation, which one should I learn?

Choosing between the two styles will primarily come down to personal preference — whether you find 2D or 3D animation more enjoyable. Although by no means a hard rule, 2D tends to suit people who are more artistic in nature, whereas 3D often suits those with a more technical mind. 

For a deeper understanding about each type of animation, check out CG Spectrum's animation courses in both 2D and 3D disciplines.

The online The Foundations of 2D Animation Course teaches you how to use Toon Boom Harmony (industry-standard software used to make Klaus and Rick and Morty). Build on your character animation skills by creating exciting and complex scenes. Learn body mechanics and anatomy, Toon Boom shortcuts, and other practical job skills to speed up your workflow.

You’ll become adept in how to create appealing characters, solid drawings, expressive acting, a polished solo dialogue scene, and FX animation. Lastly, finalize your animation projects for your portfolio and explore next steps with your mentor.

Taught by former Disney and DreamWorks Animators, you'll learn 2D animation fundamentals and practice making fun animations, like this classic character walk by student Tasmiyah Saloojee:

2D animated character created in Toon Boom

In the Bachelor of Digital Art, majoring in 2D animation, you'll get to create fun bipedal and quadrupedal characters, and work on a two-character dialogue scene using the cutout animation technique.

You will also design and animate multiple characters, create background elements and add camera movement, FX, and compositing in Toon Boom. Then, guided by your expert mentor, you’ll take the work you’ve produced and refine it for your showreel while exploring career options.

The online Foundations of 3D Animation Course gets you feeling confident rigging and animating your own 3D characters using the computer software Autodesk Maya, which is used by major film and game studios around the world.

Make characters interact with their environment, experiment with force and weight, and create a believable fight scene, all while learning valuable job skills and industry insights. You’ll finish the course with a polished, emotive character dialogue piece complete with lip sync and facial and body expressions ready for your demo reel. You'll graduate with an original piece of work for your demo reel.

The Advanced 3D Animation Course helps you achieve industry-standard skills. You’ll master more complex creature and character animation techniques and create compelling scenes using professional workflows. In your final term, with your mentor’s guidance, you’ll polish your best pieces for your portfolio and learn how to develop your competitive edge, market yourself, and make the best possible impression in front of employers.

How to get into 2D or 3D animation

With the wealth of resources the internet provides, getting in a job in 2D or 3D animation has become much easier (provided you have an excellent understanding of the principles and awesome work in your demo reel to show for it!). There are many free tutorials available to help you get started. 

It goes without saying that you can accelerate your career by taking a formal animation course through CG Spectrum. These courses are taught by industry experts with years of experience working on blockbuster films and Triple-A games. With their mentorship, you learn animation skills for success and get amazing insights into life in the industry.

Besides a high-quality education, here are two more tips to help you become an Animator:

Tip 1: Work on your own project 

Have a go at making an animated movie and sharing it on YouTube or your own website or social media. Doing solo projects will give you experience as well as something concrete to show prospective employers.

If going it alone does not suit you, (for example, you may be a great artist but not so good at storytelling), partner with someone whose skills complement your own. If you're looking to break into 3D animation, you could team up with someone who is making their way into 3D modeling. The resulting product will serve as a portfolio piece for both of you!

Tip 2: Internship

Another route to consider is an internship. Some internships are paid, however, most are unpaid and not always a viable option when you have bills to pay. The advantages of an internship are the chance to get real-world experience and get your foot in the door. If you make a good impression, you can increase your chances of getting hired when a job becomes available. The experience gained from working in a real studio will be invaluable, even if your ultimate goal is to freelance. 

In conclusion, it's clear that 2D vs 3D animation really comes down to your personal preference. If you're still undecided after reading this, give both a shot. You may be surprised to find that despite being a very talented artist, you find the mechanical nature of animating 3D models more enjoyable. Or perhaps your love of drawing steers you towards the more traditional 2D animation route.

Tip 3: Chat with someone who is studying or teaching animation

Start a chat with one of CG Spectrum's student ambassadors who are actively studying and working in animation (and other film and game areas). They'll give you an honest review based on their experience.

Ask CGS ambassadors about: 

  • How the 2D and 3D animation courses and mentorship work
  • CGS culture and community benefits
  • What it's like to learn from industry animators
  • Career support services
  • Events and networking opportunities

Start chatting to learn about whether 2D animation or 3D animation is right for you.

Learn animation for film and games!

There's no better way to learn animation than from award-winning animators who have worked on blockbuster films and best-selling games at top studios like Disney, DreamWorks, Industrial Light and Magic, Capcom, and Blizzard! Take a look at our animation courses taught by some of the best in the business!

Learn Animation

Tags:   Animation ,   2D Animation ,   3D Animation