2D Animation vs. 3D Animation

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Animators bring stories and games to life. But why do many of today's characters look so unlike old cartoons? They're created in very different ways! In this lesson, learn about the differences between 2D and 3D animation.

To understand how 2D animation differs from 3D animation, let's first review what each one is and how they are done.

What Is 2D Animation?

In 2D animation, a character is drawn by hand, on computer, or a combination of both. Even with today's technology, most traditional 2D animation starts with drawings. The artist creates a whole series of images, one after another, making slight changes in the character's position. When these images are run together quickly, it creates the effect of movement.

Early animators did all their work by hand, and prepared each image, or cel. When all the cels were finished, they were edited into a film that ran at a speed of twenty-four frames, or individual cels, per second, which was the standard for motion pictures. Classic animated films like Bambi or Fantasia (both by Walt Disney Studios) were done this way.

Scene from the Walt Disney motion picture Bambi
Scene from Bambi

In the Bambi image, the flowers and the skunk have height and width. But you can't see behind the flowers and the scene has a flattened quality to it. The background is beautifully rendered, but doesn't exist in the spaces hidden by the characters.

What Is 3D Animation?

In 3D animation, the process still starts with the creation of a character. But then the animator works on a computer and rigs the character, which means they create a skeletal structure on the computer for the character so they can control its movements, including every curve of a finger and every eye-blink, much like a virtual puppet. Animating in 3D requires much more work with mathematics, such as graphs and curves, than traditional drawing. And it's all done on computer.

The character's whole body is always there (arms, legs, back, etc.), even when you don't see it. And, unlike their 2D counterparts, 3D characters need to be in constant movement. Why? Think of the world around you. Something is always moving, even if only twitching an eye or blowing in a gentle breeze. To achieve an effective sense of 3D animation, you need to capture everything.

In the final 3D images, characters exist in three-dimensional space. They have height, weight, and depth. They can be manipulated and rotated 360 degrees, and you can see more of them. Animators can play with lighting and shadow effects, just as you could in the 'real world.'

Image from Big Buck Bunny
Image from Big Buck Bunny

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