What is the difference between 3D and 2D animation?

The easiest way to explain the difference is by using examples of animation that you might have seen.

2D Animation Examples

Example of 2D animation
  • Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd.
  • Snow White, The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid.
  • The Simpsons
  • Family Guy
  • South Park

2D animation is the traditional animation method that has existed since the late 1800s. It is one drawing followed by another in a slightly different pose, followed by another in a slightly different pose, on and on for 24 frames a second.

Example of a 2D Walk Cycle

Traditionally these were put together in an amazing process where artists drew pencil drawings of every frame of film, then these images were painted onto clear plastic sheets called ‘cels’, and each of the thousands of handrawn and painted cels were photographed one at a time over a hand painted background image and those thousands of images compiled to run as film at 24 frames a second.

Example of Cell Animation

Today most 2D animation involves using computer software to one degree or another, from just digitally coloring the cels to be photographed in the traditional method, to doing every single element in the computer.

A screenshot of 2D walk cycle

3D Animation Examples

Example of 3D animation
  • Toy Story
  • Shrek
  • The Incredibles
  • Jurassic Park (the dinosaurs)
  • The Transformers (the robots)

3D animation (aside from stop-motion, which really is a form of 3D animation), is completely in the computer. Things that you create in a 3D animation program exist in an X, Y & Z world. Instead of a drawing of a globe, I have a sphere that can actually turn 360 degrees.

Graphic showing evolution of 2D animation to 3D animation

3D allows you to do things that simply are not possible in 2D animation.

  • 3D objects, once modeled, can be treated almost as a physical object. You can light it differently, you can move a camera to look at it from above, or below. In 2D animation EVERYTHING is drawn. “Moving the camera” in 2D means drawing everything from another angle. “Moving the camera” in 3D is simply dragging it to another position to see if you like it better.
  • 3D allows you to create realistic objects. You can use textures and lighting to create objects that appear solid, and can even be integrated seamlessly into live video elements.

There are pros and cons about both methods. Which method of animation is best is based the specifics of  what a client needs, but like all animation it lets you do things that would be otherwise implausible or impossible.