Post-Production
October 10, 2021

An Introduction to the Different Types of Animation

By Jonathan Mateer 9 min read

Highlights

  • Animation presents unbounded opportunities to explore new ways of storytelling
  • Traditional methods such as 2D animation and stop motion allow you to try your hand at tried-and-true methods
  • If you want to become more technically proficient, 3D animation and motion graphics allow you to recreate life and use your creativity in mediums beyond narrative film

What is animation?

Moving images are the basis of film. In traditional film cameras, strips of celluloid pass through the camera at 24 frames-per-second to give the illusion of movement. What you see are successive images that are shots of an actual location. In traditional animation, the images that you see are photographs of drawings, puppets or other models that stand in for real-world objects and people. Usually, for moving characters, there will be 12 drawings per second, meaning the same drawing will be used back-to-back (or "on twos").

 

The process of discovering what animation is usually follows storyboarding and recording of a soundtrack. Given the complexity of incorporating voice-acting, sound and music, it is much easier to match animation to a pre-existing track than the other way around. For this reason, a synchronized track is completed first before an "animatic" story reel is composed. This will then dictate an overall design and layout that the director of the project will approve. Once approval is given, animation can begin, and you can play with different types of animation.

A brief history of animation

While the basic technology of animation is like celluloid film, its history dates back to the motion picture industry. Analog forms of animation existed for hundreds of years in puppetry, shadow play, magic lanterns, the zoetrope and flipbooks. The underlying premise is that successive images could be placed together and shown rapidly to create a sense of action. 

Eventually, chromolithography came into being and animations were put on film loops. This showed repetitive actions, as the loop would be cycled again and again. Stop motion photography eventually allowed for hand-drawn animations to be exhibited. When sound technology allowed, traditional animation merged and created the beginning Walt Disney catalog (most famously with Steamboat Willie). Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937 as the first-ever full-length animated feature film. This spawned a wave of successive pictures utilizing traditional animation in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

Television also spurred great interest and re-invention with the form of animation. Hannah Barbera Productions was remarkably prolific and popular with examples of animation like The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Scooby-Doo. Today, what is animation is largely done through computers (more on that later) but still enjoys widespread popularity in television and film. There are, broadly speaking, 5 types of animation.

Types of animation

Traditional animation

What distinguishes traditional animation from the rest is its analog nature. Each picture is drawn by hand on a table with light filtering through it. This allows the animator to create what is referred to as "keyframing," which is the positioning of objects at a certain point in time. The sequence of these frames gives the moving image the smooth transition that motion pictures are known for. For a given project, you could have a team of animators drawing with a single artist creating up to 100 frames in a day (the most experienced ones!). Traditional animation is one of the three basic types of animation. 

While different animation styles could mean different types of animation (traditional vs. 3D, for instance), there are different animation styles even within traditional animation. An example of this is the 2017 film Loving Vincent was the first-ever fully painted film. With a team of 125 artists, they constructed 65,000 frames entirely using oil paint on canvas. This shows that although the traditional animation style is the oldest used in cinematography, there is still plenty of room for re-invention.

2D animation (Vector)

While the traditional animation technique utilizes illustrators' drawings, 2D animation uses computerized drawings to "rig" the different keyframes for each successive photograph. In other words, instead of having to draw a new illustration each time to simulate movement, the artist can simply reconfigure the pre-existing illustration as a copy that creates the chain of images used to make up the motion picture. This is one of the 3 basic types of animation. Examples of animation that use 2D animation are The Simpsons, Rick and Morty, and Family Guy

To create your own 2D animation, check out software like Stop Motion Studio and Cartoon Animator.

3D animation

Today, 3D animation is the most common of the 5 types of animation. While being so proliferated throughout the animation world, being on a computer doesn't mean there isn't serious artistry and craft in working the programs. Like computerized 2D animation, the artist will reconfigure the character's body parts to create the illusion of movement. Unlike 2D animation, the entire character's body is visible, and the dimensions of the characters need to be taken into consideration. Shadows, depth and dimension all need to be taken into consideration. With a greater technical dimension, though, comes greater flexibility on the part of the artists. New possibilities relating to curvatures, movements and de-aging are all possible. This is one of the 3 basic types of animation.

Popular examples of 3D animation are Coco, Hugo, and Toy Story. In the commercial world, you can also check out the work of Vania Heyman, a commercial director who was a judge on our Edit Challenge. If you're interested in exploring this type of animation, popular software choices are Autodesk Maya, Adobe After Effects and Cinema 4D.

Motion graphics

Motion graphics follow the same logic of animation technique, being an image that is repeated to create the illusion of movement. The difference comes when it doesn't follow traditional animation in its allegiance to character and a story. It doesn't even need to have proper illustrations but can be constructed using shapes, logos or logo elements. This type of animation is popular with advertisements, business logos, explainer videos and UI animations. Examples are broad, such as in movie titles and your favorite commercials. If you're looking to cut your teeth with motion graphics, check out Adobe After Effects or Cinema 4D.

Stop motion

Stop motion is a type of animation technique done by physically manipulating objects in small increments to create the illusion of movement. Stop motion has a distinct look to it, as models made of clay or plasticine are used. Stop motion is also used in a non-animated context where a person is manipulated little by little. Examples are often used in music videos, either in Talking Heads' Road to Nowhere or Oren Lavie's Her Morning Elegance. You can check out stop motion software such as Filmora-Pro, Dragon Frame, or Heron Animation.

Conclusion

Animation has a rich history in cinema. From the early days of traditional animation, it has come a long way incorporating modern technology to innovate in feature films, television shows, and commercials. As a result, animation presents unbounded opportunities to flex your creative muscles and explore new ways of storytelling. You can do it by drawing, playing with 3D technology, using motion graphics for commercials or creating clay models with stop motion. So explore the style you're interested in and let your creativity flow.

 

About Jonathan

Jonathan Mateer is a writer based in California. Currently attending UC Berkeley, he covers topics such as filmmaking, storytelling, politics and culture.