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What Is 2D Animation?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

2D animation is a form of animation in which the scene and characters in the animation are created in a 2D space, rather than a fully realized 3D environment. These animations can use perspective and foreshortening, much like 2D still images, to create the illusion of depth, but do not use 3D computer graphics technology. This type of animation was largely established through traditional animation techniques, in which images were drawn onto a clear sheet that was photographed one frame at a time to create a final animation. 2D animation can be more easily created using computer technology, though many of the techniques used in drawing the animation are fairly similar.

Also called two-dimensional animation, 2D animation was the primary form of animation prior to the rise of three-dimensional, or 3D, animation. The dominant feature in this type of animation is that the images that are viewed and animated exist only in a 2D space. This can be achieved by filming hand-drawn images on paper, clear cels, or any other flat, two-dimensional surface. In contrast to this, 3D animation is created using 3D software that allows animators to create digital models of characters and environments that exist in a fully realized three-dimensional virtual space.

2D animation is the more traditional form of animation.
2D animation is the more traditional form of animation.

Though different methods can be used to create 2D animation, traditional animation methods were used for many decades throughout the 20th century. In traditional animation, also called cel animation, images are created on clear sheets of acetate called “cels,” often by drawing images directly upon them. Paint can be used to provide color for these inked images, which is why the term “ink and paint” has also been used to refer to these animation methods. Each cel is then photographed with a painted background behind it to create a single frame of the final animation, which typically plays at about 24 or 30 frames per second.

In 1894, Herman Casler invented the Mutoscope, which mechanized the process of flipbook animation.
In 1894, Herman Casler invented the Mutoscope, which mechanized the process of flipbook animation.

Modern technology has made 2D animation significantly easier to create, though the process is somewhat similar. Computer software can create a 2D image in a file that acts as a virtual “cel,” and the image is typically colored using such software as well. Digital backgrounds can then be created, usually in one of several different graphics programs, and the “cels” can then be layered over these backgrounds to create each individual frame. While this form of 2D animation is still quite time-consuming to create, it is often somewhat easier and more “forgiving” for animators than traditional methods.

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Discussion Comments


@everetra - Programmers can use a toolkit from Microsoft, the XNA framework. It has greatly simplified the creation of games and animation.

You have to do the animation in code, but it’s a lot less code than the kind of code you would have written years ago. It’s easy to create sprites for example.

Sprites are the graphic images that move about on screen, like spaceships or what have you. It used to take a lot of code to draw this stuff in the past. But with XNA it’s a lot easier.

I’ve tinkered with it some. I still haven’t written any games but I am enjoying the simplicity of the framework. What’s even better is that you can download this framework for free online.


@NathanG - I would have to echo your sentiment. Years ago I bought Macromedia Director thinking that it would make me an animator.

It’s a great product, but I didn’t have basic drawing or animation skills. These software tools don’t make you an animator. If you are just starting out, I would start out with a very basic, free stick figure animation tool and go from there. You can find these applications online.


I played with Toon Boom animation studio some time ago. It advertises itself as an easy to use animation program. That may be true, but I think it should be understood that you need to be an animator to use it.

Toon Boom uses a bone rigging system to animate the body parts of the characters in the animation and it’s fairly straightforward. However, even with the bones you will need to animate their movements in such a way that they move freely, in a way that simulates real life motion.

Otherwise your animations will look jerky and not lifelike. I recommend that you get a book on animation that shows you how to create fluid motion. The book will deal with things like anticipation, stretch and squash, which are some of the postures that you deal with in animation. If you can model these things in real life, you can model them in the software.


@popcorn - If you are looking for free animation software there are actually several available and choosing one is really a matter of taste. I suggest you run a search for animation freeware and download a few to see which you like. For myself I love Pencil, which is great for beginners. It combines a bit of flash animation with what you would do in Adobe Illustrator.

As far as coloring your images goes, I would try and get a copy of Adobe Photoshop. If you have a drawing tablet for your computer you can do an amazing job of coloring in images with a variety of virtual brushes. The quality is really amazing.


Can anyone recommend some good free animation software if I would like to try and take my 2D drawings and make a short cartoon out of them?

I have been drawing for years, and while I have made some pretty impressive flip book animations, I would really like to try my hand at putting things together on the computer.

I am also interested in learning about the best computer software available for coloring in my sketches. I would like to find something that allowed me to take a sketch and make it look as professional as anything I see on television.


Some of the best free animation you can find that still uses 2D is Japanese animation. They pride themselves in making beautiful animation that is sophisticated and suitable for all genres.

While the 3D animation software has taken over Hollywood, artists in Japan are still working tedious hours creating hand drawn art cells. They use some animation software to help them put things together, but the greatest works are still done in the traditional way.

If you want a starting point, anything by Hayao Miyazaki is going to be fantastic, and Studio Ghibli has so many great classics available. Nothing better than 2D animation in my opinion.


It used to be that doing a 2d animation was an incredibly tedious process where almost every panel had to be drawn by hand. But there are now a number of animation programs that make this process much easier.

They allow you to manipulate 2d images that you have either drawn on the computer or scanned from a physical image. They offer a number of tools that streamline the traditional animation process. You can save dozens of hours of work if you learn to use the tools.

Some of these you have to buy but there is good 2d animation software free if you look around on the internet.


Most of the animated films that come out these days are made using 3d computer animation. On top of that a lot of them are projected in 3d as well. I think this is a real shame. 2d animation can be so beautiful and there are still so many styles and techniques to be explored.

I know this because there are still lots of great 2d animation movies being made on a smaller scale. Adventurous animators are making short films and videos that push the limits of 2d animation in exciting new directions. I have hopes that some day a major studio will give a significant budget to a 2d film.

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    • 2D animation is the more traditional form of animation.
      By: eyewave
      2D animation is the more traditional form of animation.
    • In 1894, Herman Casler invented the Mutoscope, which mechanized the process of flipbook animation.
      By: Juulijs
      In 1894, Herman Casler invented the Mutoscope, which mechanized the process of flipbook animation.