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Intro to Video AnimationMonday, April 27, 2020


Toy Story. The Nightmare Before Christmas. Avatar

Modern filmmaking has surpassed the boundaries of reality. For years now, storytelling has no longer been limited to the characters, props, and settings of the real world. It's now not just possible to use computer generated effects to enhance real life, but also to create it, in the form of brand new characters, props, settings, and realities.

What we're talking about is video animation, and it's come a long way since the days of Steamboat Mickey. And while the average filmmaker may not have the resources to create a feature length animated film on the same scope of Frozen or The Incredibles, it is entirely possible to use many different kinds of animation to supplement your live action shots, or even create entire animated films from scratch.

Consider this article a primer to get the gears turning in your head if you've yet to dip your toes in animation. We'll give you a brief overview of the main types of animation most commonly used in filmmaking today, and some software choices to get you started making your own animations. Many different types of animation have been used throughout the years, but most instances of video animation today can be placed in one of these five categories:

  • hand drawn animation
  • vector
  • stop motion
  • motion graphics
  • 3D

Let's dig in and see what makes each of these animation styles different, and how you can get started using them in your filmmaking.

Traditional Hand Drawn

In the earliest examples of video animation, everything was drawn by hand--and it's a style that is still sometimes used today.

Simply put, this style uses a lot of hand drawn images, each one tweaked slightly so that when they are displayed very quickly one after another (think about the old animated flipbooks) they create the illusion of movement. In the old days this meant drawing everything frame by frame and then transferring it to clear acetate sheets called "cells", where they were colored and then animated. Each cell was a single frame, so if you can imagine today's standard film rate of 24fps, a 60 minute animated film would have over 86,000 individually drawn cells!

Beginning in the 1990's the drawings were scanned and digitized using computer software, and now they are often drawn directly into the computer using a digital tablet.

Early examples of hand drawn animation include Steamboat Mickey (the precursor to everyone's favorite Disney mouse), and most of the early Disney animated films like Snow White, Cinderella, and Bambi.

Modern hand drawn animations are turned into films using software like Toon Boom HarmonyTVPaint is another popular 2D software used for hand drawn animations that is made in France, and used to create many notable 2D animated films, including Loulou, l'incroyable secret, the 2013 French-Belgian film that won the César Award (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Animated Movie.

Vector Based 2D Animation

In many ways vector-based animated is similar to the hand drawn method, except that it gives you the option of creating "rigs" for your hand drawn characters. This allows you to move and manipulate character body parts individually using the computer software instead of having to draw the characters over and over for each frame of animation. This saves you a lot of time by not having to create all the animation by hand, but it doesn't create that smooth, natural "realistic" sort of animation that you'd expect from a blockbuster Hollywood animated film.

The Simpsons, Archer, and Rick and Morty are examples of this sort of 2D vector animation. Toon Boom Harmony is used for both hand drawn mentioned earlier and  for vector based 2D animation like this--in fact, Toon Boom Harmony is used to create all three of the animated shows in this example. Adobe Animate CC is probably the most popular 2D animation software for the average home filmmaker, but Adobe's After Effects and Character Animator programs also have features that are useful in creating 2D animation. The Adobe programs are all easy to use and affordable as a part of the Creative Cloud software package


Stop-motion is like the gateway drug for young filmmakers to get hooked onto more sophistocated animating techniques. Many a young person has used Legos or action figures to create their own rudimentary home films.

Stop-motion comes in several variations, but all of them involve the manipulation of real world objects. Objects are photographed, moved slightly, and then photographed again, one frame at a time. When shown in sequence, these frames create the illusion of real life movement--sort of like animating hand drawn characters, except using real world, 3D objects. 

Stop-motion can be a very painstakingly slow process, and because of the minute details involved in moving each object, sequences must be shot linearly (i.e. frame by frame in the order they will be viewed in that scene or sequence--in digital animation if you make a mistake in a frame, you can just go back and redraw it in your sequence, but that isn't possible in stop-motion).

Claymation, action figures/Lego characters, paper cut-outs, and pixelation (photographing real people and real environments but using stop-motion techniques to create the animation) are all types of stop-motion animation. Shows like Gumby or Wallace and Gromit, and animated feature length films like The Nightmare Before Christmas are all examples. 

While it is possible to go very low-tech and just use individual still images strung together in sequence within a standard non-linear editing system, there actually is software designed for creating stop-motion films. Dragonframe is the industry standard, and is the best tool for professional level videos. Stop Motion Studio is a very inexpensive, entry-level stop-motion app for all devices and platforms that is a great alternative if you're just starting out with stop-motion.

Motion Graphics

Motion graphics are very common in film & television today. Motion graphics use basic illustrations or moving text logos to create animation in either 2D or 3D. They can be seen frequently in the form of animated titles, lower thirds graphics, and moving logos in film, the news, TV, sports, and explainer marketing videos. 

One of the basic principles of motion graphics is using "key framing" to animate. Key frames are the starting and end points between two animated frames that are then put into motion, so your animated object moves from one keyframe to the next. For example, one key frame might be your character with mouth closed, and the second key frame would be the character with mouth open. The animation is then "tweened" to create smooth transitions between key frames--the animation software generates intermediate frames between the two images, creating the illusion of smooth movement. In our example, the tweened images would be all the slight variations in frames between your character's mouth closed and mouth opened, so when the animation is rendered it creates smooth motion.

Adobe After Effects is commonly used for creating 2D motion graphics, and Cinema 4D is a similar program intended for 3D motion graphics. Users of After Effects should have no problem using Cinema 4D to create their 3D animations. 

3D Animation/CGI

Finally, we come to the "Rolls Royce" of video animation, full-blown 3D animated computer generated images (CGI). This is the professional standard of animation that you would expect to see in a Pixar film.

CGI uses 3D models created and designed in computer software. Under the hood of the 3D model is a linear skeletal model, similar to a skeleton underneath our human bodies. These skeletal models are segmented into different positions (often corresponding to actual bones in their human counterparts, or to various facial features) called "Avars". The Avars turn out to be the positions and facial expressions of the characters, and there can be many of them used to animate a realistic 3D character. For example, 'Woody" in Toy Story uses over 700 Avars to create the character's movement and animation, 100 of them in the face alone.

The animator uses keyframes to set the Avars at strategic points, and then the computer generates the inbetween frames (tweening, again) to create the motion. This type of animation requires a lot of computer horsepower to create--professional 3D feature films use render farms of multiple high-powered workstations to create animation in 1-5 years that would take hundreds of years to create on a home computer.

This is the realistic, high quality 3D animation we're used to seeing from Hollywood studios nowadays--in films like Toy Story, Moana, and Frozen.

Adobe has a number of products that could be used in tandem to create 3D animation (Illustrator, Character Animator, and Animate), and Cinema 4D is also very popular. However, Blender is another very widely used open source 3D creation suite, and is completely free. 

This covers the most commonly used types of video animation. However, there are a couple less commonly used types that we want to quickly mention as well. We're accepting all types of video animation for the inaguaral 48x2 Animation Project, including these less frequent ones below.


The word machinima comes from a mashup of 'machine' and 'cinema'--it uses machine technology from video game animation engines to create cinematic films. Machinima films are 3D animated films actually created within video games like Halo or Quake, or within the world of virtual world simulations like Second Life.

Machinima has pros and cons--on the pro side, you don't have to create everything from scratch since you're using graphic elements already created within the world of the video game. It's also often easier to organize the character actors and everything required to created machinima than it would be to create brand new animated characters and settings, and it's very similar to organizing an actual real life film shoot. However, there are some legal complications over using the copyrighted proprietary characters found within the games themselves. Throughout the years video game designers have lessened their restrictions on machinima, and in general it's now OK to create machinima films for non-commercial use.

Live Action Compositing

Live action compositing is a type of animation that mixes live action characters or scenes with CGI animated elements. This can be as simple as using a digital fire effect or blood splatter in a real life scene, or as complex as dropping real life actors into an animated world like in Avatar. 

Blackmagic Fusion is considered the best, and was used to create Hollywood films like The MartianAlice Through the Looking Glass, and The Legend of Tarzan. However, After Effects is one among several options that could also be used for more basic compositing.

Ready to start animating? 

The inaugural 48x2 Animation Project will take place from May 13th-17th, and registration is open now! It's the perfect reason to bone up on your animation skills and use them to create a great short film. Learn more at

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