The Differences Between 2D Animation and 3D Animation

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The differences between 2D and 3D animation are stark enough for us to distinguish easily. In 2D animation, every part of the animated piece appears on a flat surface. And in 3D animation, every object seems to exist in a world full of depth.

Through the different forms of media we consume daily, we have trained our minds to see what separates the two. For example, we know how Studio Ghibli’s animation traditionally looks. So when the studio deviated from their well-recognized 2D animation with Earwig and the Witch’s 3D animation, long-time fans were baffled.

Yet, despite our intuitive knowledge of 2D and 3D animation, we still search for their definitions to articulate their differences better. And in this article, we break down both of these graphics-based animation styles into their primary elements. 

Before that, we first need to establish what “animation” is in its broad sense.

Animation, like all film, is an illusion of fluid movement…

— Science World, a center dedicated to scientific literacy and innovation

In this definition, we can already see animation’s main objective — to create “an illusion of fluid movement.” Animators achieve this kind of movement in various ways to simulate motion in 2D and 3D art. But generally, animation involves approaches applicable to both 2D animation and 3D animation. Here are some of the most common animation principles, according to George Maestri, an animator and instructor at LinkedIn Learning.

Common Animation Principles

  • Arcs
  • Squash and stretch 
  • Exaggeration

According to Maestri’s LinkedIn Learning course Animation Foundations: Fundamentals, characters and objects with natural motion move in an arc. This entails animation tends to look more believable when it considers natural forces, such as gravity. 

Squash and stretch is the animation principle that demonstrates an object’s flexibility, which gives a 2D or 3D object life, Maestri says. And exaggeration is the twisting and bending of animation’s rules to help an object or character convey a certain emotion or story.

2D explainer video by NarraSoft

What Is 2D Animation?

When you’re viewing a piece containing 2D art, you see an illustration whose dimensions are based on length and width. When you see this piece of art move, its movement is flat, occurring along a linear surface. 

An article published in gaming website Kotaku says purely 2D video games are either side-scrolling or vertically-scrolling. Applying this definition to 2D animation, we can say this type of animation occurs along the x-axis and y-axis.

So, in summary, 2D animation is essentially movement:

  1. By 2D art
  2. Along the x-axis and y-axis

To help you visualize better, here are a few processes animators do to execute a piece of 2D animation properly.

Several 2D Animation Processes & Techniques

  • Inbetweening
  • Onion skinning
  • Pose-to-pose

Inbetweening (or tweening) is the process of filling in the gaps to complete an animation or movement. Animators will plot out the beginning and end points they want an object or character to do. After, they create transition frames, which are images mid-sequence, that will make the movement fluid. 

To get a full view of the transition, animators commonly practice this technique called onion skinning. Through onion skinning, animators get a sense of what makes their animation work or how they can improve a particular movement.

And in pose-to-pose animation, animators draw the first and last position and then fill in the movement with transition frames based on a few key frames. According to another animator and LinkedIn Learning instructor Dermot O’ Connor in his course 2D Animation: Tips & Tricks, pose-to-pose animation lets artists work in a non-chronological manner. As opposed to straight-ahead animation, pose-to-pose allows for more flexibility.

3D promotional video by NarraSoft

What Is 3D Animation?

In a previous article, we defined 3D animation as:

  1. Three-dimensional art
  2. Performing movement outside the x-axis and y-axis

Beyond the x-axis and y-axis is the z-axis, which Dictionary.com notes as existing “in a three-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system”. This axis simulates depth in 3D animation — not only in terms of movement but also in terms of art.

If you’re going to differentiate 3D animation from 2D animation, the z-axis is the main variable that separates the two. And in much simpler terms, this axis translates to depth

Because the existence of depth introduces other variables into a piece of animation, such as shadows and lighting, the process of animation can be a little more complicated. But thanks to the available software today, animators have an array of approaches they can use to make their work easier. Here are some of the processes and techniques involved in 3D animation.

Several 3D Animation Processes & Techniques

  • Rigging and skinning
  • Inverse kinematics
  • Motion capture

Rigging and skinning is often the first process of 3D animation. It’s when animators build a character’s bones and then fuse these bones to the design. With rigging and skinning, 3D characters are smoothly animated. However, this process generally does not apply to objects.

Inverse kinematics is a technique originating from robotics. Applied to animation, this refers to a type of animation where manipulating a character’s or object’s movement is done through the end effector.

And motion capture is integrating movement from real people into a character. It’s often used in hyperrealistic animation, and more popularly, in cases where realistic 3D characters occupy the same spaces as live actors.

Image credits to Unsplash

Applications of These Two Graphics-Based Types of Animation

Aside from gaming, movies, and other forms of entertainment, 2D and 3D animation have a variety of uses in different fields. These are only a few types of output animators can do with either 2D or 3D animation.

  • E-learning modules
  • Medical explainers
  • Promotional material
  • How-to videos
  • Dynamic content

In e-learning and medical explainers, 3D animation is particularly helpful for more complex concepts. Over the years, studies have consistently supported the idea of 3D’s capacity to educate and engage. This is because 3D makes visualizing new or complicated subjects an effortless task.

The same can be said for promotional material. With 2D or 3D animation, you provide your target audience a clear preview of a new product or service. Dropbox is a classic case study showing the effectiveness of animation with regard to promotional material and how-to pieces. Through their animated explainer, they were able to increase their conversion rate by 10%. Because their kind of product was novel at the time, they successfully walked an interested audience through their product’s main function with a 2D video explainer.

And if you want to engage your audience in a different way, you can still use 2D and 3D animation to create meaningful, dynamic content. You can create and apply these pieces either on your website or on social media, helping your platform attract more eyeballs and, in the long run, brand advocates.

In Summary

The main factor differentiating 3D animation from 2D animation is depth. While 2D animation occurs on the x-axis and y-axis, 3D animation moves along the same but with an added layer of depth through the z-axis.

Depending on your company’s goals, you can use either 2D animation or 3D animation for the following types of content:

  • Video games
  • Movies and television series
  • E-learning modules
  • Medical explainers
  • Promotional material
  • How-to videos
  • Dynamic content

Let’s get your message across in the most effective way through 2D and 3D animation

NarraSoft’s animators are highly skilled and knowledgeable of the basic and advanced methods in animation.

Contact us today, and get a free consultation! Email us at sales@narrasoft.com or send us a message on our contact form or chat box.

Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan is a content and copy writer. She has written for a popular business daily in the Philippines and for various startups across the globe before transitioning to work for NarraSoft. She graduated cum laude from the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a bachelor's degree in journalism.