Animation for beginners — your guide to getting started

Image: The Simpsons

5minutes read


Animation has come a long way since ancient Greek pottery drawings. It has evolved and has now entered the digital age. Animation is the art of bringing 2D drawings or 3D models to life. Today, artists use this artistic style to share narratives on a screen, entertaining audiences worldwide.

Learn more about this fun and expressive art form and how to get started as a digital animator! 

What are the different types of animation?

There are several different styles and techniques of animation. The most common types of animation are:

  • 2D animation
  • 3D animation
  • Stop motion animation
  • Motion graphics

2D Animation 

2D animation uses hand-drawn two-dimensional characters, props, and sets to tell a story and create movement. It’s how early Disney movies like Snow White and Bambi and popular cartoons like The Simpsons were created. In early 2D animation, characters were drawn frame-by-frame and transferred to clear sheets, called cels, for painting.

traditional-2d-animation-snow-white-celColored-in cel from Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

While this process is sometimes referred to as traditional animation, mainstream 2D production has evolved from hand-drawn processes using pencil and paper to the implementation of digital techniques using computer software like Toon Boom Harmony or Adobe After Effects.

(Read What is 2D Animation? to find out more about this style of animation.) 

3D Animation

3D animations are computer generated using 3D digital models. It’s a popular technique for feature films and games (think film studios like Pixar and modern Disney animations or game studios like Ubisoft and EA Games). Popular movies, TV shows and games that use 3D animation include The Incredibles, Frozen, Transformers, Pacific Rim: Uprising, and Batman: Arkham Origins

In 3D animation, animators start with a rigged 3D model, positioning the character, prop, or vehicle and developing motion paths between poses (key frames) for their movement. The computer fills in the gaps and animates the character. The animator can refine each frame until they are happy with the animation. 

frozen-rigged-character-3d-animationIn a 3D animation like Disney's Frozen, a rigged 3D model can have thousands of articulation controls that allow animators to pose a character and craft a believable performance. (Image: Disney)

Once the movements are refined, the frames are passed to a lighting or FX artist to render and add effects for the final output.

(To learn more about the role of a 3D animator, check out What is 3D Animation?)

2D vs. 3D animation

Although both animation styles are very popular art forms used frequently in film, TV, games, and advertising, there are several key differences between 2D and 3D animation.

2D Animation

3D Animation

Objects appear flat (two-dimensional)

Objects are more life-like (three-dimensional)

Objects have height and width

Objects have height, width, and depth

Animation is based on frames

Animation is based on movements

Usually less detailed

Usually more detailed

2d-vs-3d-animation-mario2D vs. 3D Mario from Mario Bros., used for different iterations of Nintendo's game animation.

Stop motion animation

Stop motion is an animation style where you use real-life objects (like plasticine characters or figurines), moving them in small increments and taking photos of each new pose. When these pictures are shown in sequence, it appears as if the object is moving. It’s how films like Nightmare Before ChristmasCoraline, Isle of Dogs, and Missing Link were made. 

Different objects and mediums can be used in stop motion animation, including: 

  • Clay: Malleable characters are made from plasticine (e.g., Nightmare Before Christmas).
  • Figurines: Objects like figurines and models are also used to create animated sequences (e.g., someone who uses their toy cars, trains, or dolls to create a stop-motion movie).
  • Cut-out animation: Characters are built out of shapes and pinned together at the joints, and photographed like a stop motion puppet (e.g., South Park).
  • People: Called pixelation, this is a less common type of animation where real people are photographed frame-by-frame, like stop motion to create a stylized effect (e.g., the sleeping bag scene in Eagle Vs. Shark).

Behind the scenes of shooting the stop-motion animation in the film Missing Link by Laika Studios

Motion graphics

Motion graphics are a technique used to animate moving text logos and basic animations, which differs from 2D, 3D, and stop motion animations. It’s like those explainer videos you see on YouTube or on TV. It’s also used in sports and news broadcasting. 

Best animation software for beginners

Your choice of animation software will depend on your chosen style of animation. Below are some popular options. 

Software for 2D Animation

  • Toon Boom Harmony: This is ideal for narrated films, web, or TV animations. This paid professional software was used to create popular shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy. It's the software taught in CG Spectrum's 2D animation courses.
  • Synfig: This animation software is excellent for both beginners and advanced animators. You can choose between a “safe” feature set or download the development version for more advanced, newly added features. With Synfig, you can create your animation and render it in the back-end later. 
  • Pencil 2D: This software is helpful for those who like to work with sketch ink and paint. It’s based on traditional animation, so it doesn’t allow for tweening between movements (creating in-between frames), but it’s flexible when you’ve mastered the interface. 

(Read more 2D animation software recommendations.) 


Software for 3D Animation

  • Maya: This is the gold standard in the 3D animation industry. A free student license is available when you enrol in any 3D animation course at CG Spectrum. Rocket the Racoon from Avengers: End Game was created using this software. 
  • Blender: This is a great free software to get started in 3D animation. It’s often a stepping stone to using a higher-end, more costly animation software like Maya. 
  • Houdini: Houdini is great for team animations, as you can create multiple iterations and rapidly share workflows with colleagues. It has intuitive and artist-friendly tools and features, including helpful viewport and shelf tools. 

What is the process of animation?

Once you have a story idea and you’re ready to animate, here are six common steps to animating your character: 

  1. Record yourself: It may seem silly at first, but recording yourself doing your character's actions will help you study the movement. 
  2. Pose: Next, begin by animating your key frames of the movement. These are often the most extreme angles of the movement. For example, if you are animating a person waving, create one frame of the hand to the left, in the middle, and to the right. Pose the most important frames of your shot. 
  3. Blocking: Now, create the frames in between each keyframe. These are used to connect your key poses. The result will still look choppy, which is expected in this step. 
  4. Splining: In your animation program, convert the interpolation of the frames from stepped to splined, and the computer will fill in the motion between each blocked frame. For the smoothest results, accurate blocking frames are essential. 
  5. Refine and offset: Refine the animation curves to smooth the motions. Offset a few of the actions to make it more lifelike. Your animation should look pretty smooth now. 
  6. Add life and realism: In animations, imperfections are perfection. In this final step, add little quirks like a mouth smirk, an extra blink, or a slightly raised eyebrow. These final steps make the character more lifelike.  

Shot progression in Disney's Frozen, including recording actions to study the movements.

How to start learning animation

Learning animation usually stems from a love of animated genres. You can start an exciting future in animation by registering for digital animation courses online. There are a variety of courses available, such as CG Spectrum’s animation courses which cater to all skill levels. 

These courses can prepare you for a career path as a:

Animation by CG Spectrum 2D Animation Course grad Jae Kitinoja.

How to become an animator

To become an animator, you want career-focused training in animation from industry experts:

  • Look for an intensive animation course with an emphasis on job-readiness
  • Learn and practice the latest skills and studio techniques
  • Get mentorship from industry experts
  • Grow your network 

To get a top animation studio job, you’ll need an impressive demo reel! A good resume and cover letter will help, but your demo reel is your chance to show your future employer your animation skills. 

Are you ready to start your journey from animation beginner to animation pro?

With animation courses from CG Spectrum, a Toon Boom Authorized Training Centre, get expert mentorship from professional animators who have worked on blockbuster films and best-selling games! Explore beginner and advanced 2D animation courses and 3D animation courses and get closer to your dream job!


Tags:   2D Animation ,   3D Animation

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