AnimationFilm & TV

2D or Not 2D: The Different Types of Animation

Animation is present in nearly every aspect of the digital world, though not often acknowledged. From basic 2D transitions to highly detailed 3D animations, our visuals are constantly flooded with animation. Aspiring animators (or just inquisitive minds) need to have some understanding of the types of animations which are currently trending and how each style is typically used.

2D and 3D animation

Animation can at its most basic level be broken down into either 2D or 3D animation. 2D animations appear to be flat or “traditional” in nature. This is not to say that the animation does not have shading and styles applied to make the animation have depth, but that the animation does not have polygons, models, and such that 3D animation has.  2D animations use an axis of x and Y with X being horizontal and Y being vertical placement.

3D animation is growing more and more into the style which most people are referring when talking about animation. 3D animation involves animations that work with a depth of field or Z axis.  So instead of having a horizontal (x) and vertical (Y) you also have a front to back (Z) way of looking at an object. 3D animations also involve polygons, particles, meshes,  NURBS, and various other elements.

2D Animation Types

2D animation was the birth of animation. Animations such as Gerde the Dinosaur and Flowers and Trees made the way for further animations. These “traditional” 2D animations were drawn using a drawing board and painting each cell[1]. You can quickly see how this methodology of animation required a great deal of detail and patience.

In modern times, the practice of hand drawn 2D animation has been greatly modified. Typically, 2D animation is now composed using a Wacom tablet and a sketching program. Compositing is done in animation programs such as Flash or Toon boom.

2D animations can be seen primarily in:

Cartoons and anime films – Though transitioning more to 3D, 2D animations remain the dominant format for a cartoonist. The ability to save 2D elements into libraries which can easily be recycled in additional episodes (for example if you have a character’s mouth saved in a library you can use the speech/mouth on another character without having to redraw or reanimate the mouth).

Web advertisements – Banners, Gif animations, and page transitions are all animations. Granted, most of these are not usually noticed as animations by the common viewer, but if we keep in mind that animation is any article created motion which is created to give an emotional response we can see the application.

Apps – Apps, especially that of online games use 2D animations alongside scripting to make animations for a low cost which can, therefore, turn a larger profit from the sales of the app. The 2D format also allows for quicker loading on mobile devices.

3D animation

3D animation is very vast in its applications but can be seen dominantly in:

Cinematic Film – Where the creatures in Avatar are easily identified as being 3D characters, the implementation of 3D animation is not always that plainly seen. Glass shattering in vehicle accidents on sitcoms are often made in 3D. Explosions and other virtual effects are made to reduce costs and clean up. War movies (such as Troy) have used 3D to make their armies.

Commercials – many products are modeled in 3D and presented in commercials. These products range from cologne bottles to Conditioners.  Also, all that movement that you see in the background of a commercial or scrolling the bottom of the screen is animation.

The news – If you watch the news you will see that it is saturated with animation. From the scrolling bar to the network logo or simulated hypothesis (think of the animations concerning downed aircraft recently), most of the elements are animated. This is not done by chance. The movement, as well as the mingling of 2D and 3D elements, make the user stay engaged. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than an orated newspaper.

Gaming – As consoles get more advanced, so has the demand for more detailed and engaging games. 3D has become the standard for games and game designs. With the development of gaming engines such as Unity, Unreal, Blender, and Cry Engine the 3D gaming industry has expanded dramatically.

Augmented Reality – Augmented reality has to be 3D. The definition demands it. Augmented reality is making a virtual reality in which a person can interact and move about. It mimics reality and since our world is in 3D (well 4D if you want to get specific) then Augmented reality has to be 3D. Usually, augmented reality is used in marketing and developments. Particularly, augmented reality is a primary tool for architectural development and conceptualizations.

As you can see there are several different genres to be considered within the animation world. Each of these genres has various styles and techniques which define them. I would recommend that any aspiring animator looks into what inspires him or her to want to animate, identify the genre, and then pursue that field. Remember, animation is an art form and like any great art requires passion, patience, and practice.


[1] A cell is a single frame of an animation. In film there are 29.95 cells per second.

Richard Hammond

I am the founder of 9Mousai and am deeply interested in creativity and what inspires it. My main passions are writing, film and music but I have huge respect for the arts. I'm also an animal lover and have a little cat called Winston and enjoy the occasional whiskey.

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