What is 2D Animation? Everything You Should Know

Interested in 2D animation? Our guide will introduce you to digital 2D animation and provide the knowledge and tools to become a skilled 2D animator. Let’s get started!

2D animation - a boy walking

Storytelling may be one of the most important human pastimes. As time has passed, we have improved the tools we use to tell these stories, whether it be for entertainment or education. One of the many mediums developed to help us share these stories is animation. While animation now comes in a few different forms, today we want to highlight a particular type: 2D Animation.

If you have a TV or access to the internet, you have more than likely experienced a 2D-animated production. What you may refer to as “cartoons” are popular examples of 2D Animation — classic films such as The Lion King and Spirited Away were also made using this technique.

Walt Disney Studios, the creator of The Lion King, is also responsible for creating the very first 2D animation feature film in the USA, which you may already know – Snow White. This famous Oscar-winning Disney animation took over 750 artists to create more than 2 million sketches to accomplish this incredible feat of hand-drawn animation.

Since the year the Disney animation Snow White was released, the techniques and technology associated with 2D Animation have significantly advanced, making becoming a 2D animator more accessible than ever. For those interested in becoming a 2D animator or character designer, we are offering this guide to help you learn more about the industry and direct you on your journey to creating animation.

By the end of this guide, you should have a basic understanding of 2D Animation, how it has progressed from traditional animation techniques, and how it is used in the creation of films, games, and other media. We will also provide some key info on how to further pursue the goal of becoming a 2D Animator and some tools you can use to get started. Let’s get into it!

What Is 2D Animation?

2D animation is accomplished by creating many images that, when viewed in a sequence, appear to show action and movement. These types of animation are defined as “the technique of photographing successive drawings or positions of puppets or models to create an illusion of movement when the movie is shown as a sequence.”

2D animation -cat design

The 12 principles of animation, developed by Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas in their 1981 book “The Illusion of Life”, are crucial to creating believable and captivating 2D animation. The principles include squash and stretch, anticipation, staging, and timing, among others. The image sequence used in 2D animation is very detailed and particular, requiring thousands of precise images to create just a few short minutes of video. The simplest example of this would be a flipbook, which can also be seen as the foundation of traditional animation techniques.

With increased tools and techniques comes increased complexity and time needed to complete a project. Feature-length 2D-animated films can sometimes take nearly a decade to complete and feature the work of over 40 key animators.

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How Is It Different From Stop-Motion Animation?

This step-by-step, frame-by-frame process may sound similar to stop-motion animation (and it is!). So, how do they differ?

Stop-motion videos will use essentially the same basics of animation. With stop-motion, pictures of a scene and inanimate objects are taken and then subtle movements are made to the objects before another picture is taken. When viewed in a sequence, this series of pictures of inanimate objects will also appear as “motion,” just like with 2D Animation.

The reason stop-motion and 2D are not always the same is that stop-motion productions can also use 3D Models — the most popular example probably being Tim Burton and his feature films.

How Is It Different From Rotoscoping

This step-by-step, frame-by-frame process may sound similar to stop-motion animation (and it is!). So, how do they differ?

Rotoscoping is another animation technique that is often used in conjunction with 2D animation. Unlike stop-motion animation, rotoscoping involves tracing over live-action footage frame-by-frame to create realistic movement. While stop-motion animation uses pictures of inanimate objects, rotoscoping uses live-action footage as a reference for animating characters and objects. Additionally, stop-motion productions can also use 3D models, while rotoscoping is typically done entirely in 2D.

How Is It Different From 3D Animation?

The most obvious difference is that 3D Animation utilizes 3D models, while 2D Animation is based on 2D drawings. In 3D Animation production, you will build 3D models using 3D objects and pose and move them, almost like a stop-motion production, but handled digitally.

2D Animation Media

2D Animation is a broad term that encompasses many different styles and techniques. We already mentioned stop-motion as one possible variation, but there are many other unique types of animation under this umbrella.

Straight Ahead Action

Cel Animation

This is a more traditional hand-drawn technique that doesn’t see as much use, especially with the increase in digital animation technology. Cel animation involves animators transferring their paper drawings onto a transparent sheet called a cel. This drawing will then be painted and placed over another sheet that has a static background. Cels will be photographed and then swapped, with each succeeding cel making another subtle movement. This sequence of images will eventually create the experience you know as animation.

Cels will be photographed and then swapped, with each succeeding cel making another subtle movement. This series of photographs will eventually create the experience you know as animation.

Cel animation made it possible for different animators to work on sections of the same animation at the same time, and the static backgrounds only needed to be drawn and colored once. The use of multiple translucent cel layers not only saved time but also opened the door to more complex animation technologies.

Flipbook Animation

We used this as an example earlier, and while simple versions of this may exist in classrooms across the world, more detailed and sophisticated flipbooks persist in the industry.

Digital Animation

Digital Animation still adheres to the fundamental principles of animation but just utilizes more digital tools to get the job done. Now, instead of using sheets of paper or cels to make drawings, artists and their animation teams can manage their art, special effects, and background music in computer programs. This innovative approach has revolutionised the process of drawing cartoon characters, and nowadays, most cartoon characters are produced through this method.

2D animation design - character fighting

Less Prominent Animation Forms

  • Drawn-on-film – Drawn-on-film is a method of animation where you directly edit film strips to produce an animation. More traditional forms of 2D Animation will photograph their frames and then have them printed onto film stock to use.
  • Erasure Animation – Erasure animation is an incredibly unique technique that is known for its simplistic style and rough animation. Typically only relying on paper, charcoal (a pencil), and an eraser, erasure animation will have the animation team working on a single page. Instead of making incremental changes using multiple drawings, they make drawings and erase them to make changes on the same paper, taking photographs in between.
  • Auteur Technique – This doesn’t have a simple definition, as auteur will emphasize their unique vision by utilizing animation tools in their own way. Looking at individual directors and seeing how they have accomplished their style through a sequence of images is a good way to learn about auteur techniques, and consider your own.

Digital 2D Animation

Snow White may have been the first 2D feature film in the USA, but a short silent film called Fantasmagorie by Emile Cohl is credited as the very first piece of 2D animation video. Created in 1908, it comes in at just under 2 minutes of runtime and is composed of 700 drawings. A lot changed for Snow White, with its 250,000 final drawings, to accomplish this feat. Specifically, the technique and technology available made it quicker and easier for people to create 2D animation videos, and this trend has continued for many years.

The earliest forms of 2D animation video involved artists making thousands upon thousands of drawings, making subtle changes throughout to show action through a series of pictures. Snow White was aided by cel animation techniques, which meant the focus was on small incremental changes and artists would not have to redraw larger figures and backgrounds repeatedly.

Since Snow White, 2D animation technology has come even further with an increased focus on digital animation software. Many animation projects have gone paperless as digital files can manage all areas of the animation process. It is now easier than ever for personal and professional animation projects to be completed, and the tools are becoming more accessible every day.

We offer 2D animation software in a convenient app that you can use on your laptop or tablet. You won’t have to worry about the logistics behind traditional animation productions, as we provide the tools and tutorials you need to start creating animations of your very own, with no extensive team required! 

Animation Desk is beginner-friendly and free to use. If you are a student or faculty, Animation Desk offers a special discount to unlock all premium features.  

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We have done our best to make using the app accessible for people who typically use a paper-based animation process. But once you try out a digital feature like accessing multiple brushes with your one tablet pen, then you may feel more eager the switch to digital animation.

Now, let’s look at the entire 2D animation process to understand how all great animations are made.

Pre-Production in 2D Animation

The pre-production process for the 2D style of animation covers all the work that is done before any of the animations begin. This phase involves laying out a plan and generating assets that you will use in the production phase.

Certain studios or individuals may label or organize their process with subtle differences, but there are some general concepts that each pre-production process should cover. These include writing the script or screenplay, storyboarding, character and environment design, audio recording and animatics (if applicable), and color styling.

Script or Screenplay

Whether you are producing an animation for a movie, television show, or even a business advertisement, you will need a plan for what happens during the duration of the video. A script is essentially the written version of your project, containing information on the story, environments, dialogue, and even sound effects.


The script will then help you produce a storyboard. A specific role (a storyboard artist) is tasked with turning this script into a visual outline of what the eventual animation will be. Characters, scenarios, dialogue, and sound effects are noted alongside a rough image sequence that gives an overview of the final animation.

Character and Environment Design

It is important to have a consistent visual style when producing an animation. If characters do not look like they are created by the same artist, or appear awkward with certain backgrounds, then it may disrupt the viewing experience (although this can be an artistic choice). Character and environment design, often occurring alongside or before the storyboarding phase, involves artists defining what characters, backgrounds, and other environmental props will look like.

Your favorite cartoon characters have probably gone through a couple of different design concepts before their final look was decided. This stage of pre-production gives artists the room to explore ideas before committing to a design that will have to hold up throughout the extended production process.

Color Styling

Once black and white designs are finalized, these models can be sent to color stylists, who help define what the colors used in the animation will be. Some productions will want to use certain color palettes, which will be emphasized during this stage.

Audio Recording and Animatic

There may be some projects where audio recording and animatics are not essential. Audio recording is what you might expect: actors recording lines for dialogue written in the script. Some sound effects might also be recorded during this time. Then, these audio recordings and a storyboard are combined to create an animatic.

The result is a sort of slideshow, with the various frames of the storyboard gradually progressing as relevant voices and sound effects are played over top of them, helping the team to understand what the final product will look like.

Dialogue and other sounds may also be well defined so that animators can understand how to move characters’ mouths and draw other actions. An exposure sheet is one way that animators have traditionally kept track of all the elements that go into a scene. This way, they can keep track of things like how the camera is supposed to move, what dialogue is present, what sound effects are necessary, etc.

Now, it is important to note that many animation productions will do some audio recording in the pre-production phase, but this isn’t necessarily the standard across the industry. For instance, Japanese anime productions will typically record their lines in the post-production phase, after most of the animation process has been completed. 

Production – Lights, Camera, Action!

Some pre-production steps may be considered part of the production process based on the studio and how techniques develop. As sound cartoons (simply animated videos with sound) became more common, many animation workflows considered audio recording and voiceover as part of the production and even post-production processes.

After the pre-production steps, the production process for animation is rather straightforward, with clearly defined goals and roles to work towards completion. Traditional hand-drawn animation and new digital animation projects will differ a little in some steps, but they still follow the same principles of animation.

What you can expect from the production phase of an animated project is Background Layout and Posing, Animation, Compositing, and Rendering.

Background Layout and Posing

For this phase, someone on the production team will organize the environment of scenes and pose characters in key positions that were considered in the storyboard. With characters posed, animators can then begin to animate characters by drawing their following actions.

Background Color and Painting

Part of getting the environments settled in animation is making sure they are colored appropriately according to the style guide. The person responsible for this may differ from the person doing the background layout and posing.


Depending on the size of your production team, you have a few different teams of animators. For big studios, you may have Key Animators, a senior position in charge of composition, and the primary color guidelines for animation production.

They are also responsible for drawing the frames with the most “key” poses that characters will be in, which are typically the beginning and endpoints of an action (these are referred to as a keyframe). Then another animator will draw the in-between frames to complete the feel of the animation.

Clean-Up / Inking and Painting

Often, the animator will complete most of the process with rougher lines, then a clean-up artist will come in and make sure everything is neat. The artist responsible for this may also be an inker or painter, who is responsible for making sure all drawings are neat and receive their proper color. This may be the longest part of the production process.


A compositor will combine elements from the various phases of production and pre-production to complete the final frames. Special effects, highlights, and shadows are all examples of things a compositor might add to the cleaned-up and colored drawings to produce the final frames.

Many different artists may be working on the same animation project at one time. The compositor will make sure that any subtle differences are also equalized. This is why cartoon characters can maintain the same appearance and animation style even while being handled by multiple different artists.


Once the final frames have been decided upon, all this work must be rendered to create the movie or animation. This will be handled by your chosen software program, where the sequential images created during the production process will be formatted into a video.

Post-Production in 2D Animation

Post-production involves fewer defined steps than the other phases of the animation process. Here, you will make your final edits, including adjusting effects and adding transitions and other flairs to your animation.


Editing mainly consists of audio and video editing. Audio editing will make sure that the volume is adjusted correctly and that dialogue and other sounds are matching up with the animation. Effects will be added, and actors may come in to do some final voice lines. Dubbing may also occur in this phase.

Video editing will ensure that all the scenes flow correctly and that any awkward art or animation can be caught before release. The cartoon characters you know and love have gone through this entire process so that your favorite show can exist.

When your project has undergone thorough checks and all edits have been made, you are ready to export the final digital video files and prepare your animation for distribution.

How To Become A 2D Animator

how to be 2d animator

The animation market offers a lot of different options for choosing a workplace. Today, 2D animators can be found in the film industry, television, video games, app development, and education. Your specific role and employer will come with their own requirements, but there are some general qualifications that will prepare you for a job in 2D animation.

What Education Is Needed To Be A 2D Animator?

While education is often an important factor for employers, it is still possible to land a 2D animator position without a formal degree. However, when a degree is required by employers, they will typically look for at least a bachelor’s degree.


Common degrees for 2D animators include a B.A. in Animation and Visual Effects, Fine Arts, Illustration Digital Arts, or Computer Animation.

Outside of in-person college programs, if you are looking for some online courses to begin your 2D Animation education, there are a few great options we can recommend:

  • CG Spectrum Advanced 2D Animation – CG Spectrum offers in-depth guided coursework with experienced industry professionals. With small class sizes and a convenient structure, this is one-course hopeful animators should look out for.
  • CG Master Academy Foundations in Modern 2D Animation – This is another course that utilizes industry professionals to help its students understand the reality of modern animation work and provide them with the tools and techniques to succeed.
  • Idea Academy 2D Digital Animation Course – Featuring animators who have worked for such companies as Cartoon Network and even Pixar, Idea Academy’s course is an extended program ideal for students who are eager to master 2D Animation.
  • Check out the options at Udemy – Udemy includes many different animation classes created by artists offering their experiences to students. If you have a specific artist you want to learn from, or a style you want to work in, looking here for courses could be a good option for you.

However, if you are interested in a university animation experience, then there may be no better place than the CalArts animation department. This university is significant because it is where many of the most prominent Walt Disney Studios animators studied for their undergraduate degrees. You may have heard of the A113 easter egg in Disney animation; this is a reference to the classroom used by graphic design and character animation students who go there.


Experience is where you can set yourself apart, especially if you don’t have as much education to reference. Every person aiming for a 2D animator position should have a portfolio and demo reel.

A portfolio usually comes in the form of a website where you showcase your work history/experience and can provide examples of your work. A demo reel is a showcase of your best work and is typically under a minute long.


2D Animators will need a few essential skills no matter where they find work, and these include:

  • Knowledge of the animation process and workflowThe steps of production we mentioned before are important for maintaining the timeline and output of a project. You should be aware of the steps involved in an animation project and the techniques used to accomplish the various steps (or at least the ones you are focused on).
  • Experience with animation techniques or programs If you are looking for traditional paper-based 2D Animation projects, then being able to accomplish work through this medium is important. Many, if not most, 2D Animation projects will rely on sophisticated animation software, which you should become well versed in.

When you finally begin your search for jobs, look for teams that will be able to fully utilize your capabilities and style. You can also consider joining organizations and networking with others in the industry to find work that way.

Other Career Opportunities

In addition to pursuing a career as a 2D animator, there are various other exciting opportunities within the field of animation to explore and build rewarding careers in animation.

  • Character Animator: One notable example is Sandro Cleuzo, an awarded character animator, who brings life and personality to characters through movement and expression. This role plays a crucial part in creating engaging and believable animations for films, TV shows, video games, and advertisements.
  • Animation Mentor: Aspiring animators can become animation mentors, helping refine skills and develop artistic vision. Experienced animators find immense satisfaction in guiding the next generation, sharing knowledge and expertise to shape the industry’s future.
  • Storyboard Artist: They are responsible for translating a script or concept into a series of visual panels that represent the key scenes and shots in an animated project. They help plan the visual storytelling, composition, camera angles, and transitions, serving as a blueprint for the animators to follow during production.

Furthermore, 2D animators can collaborate with content creators to produce animation for YouTube videos , enhancing the visual appeal and storytelling of their videos. With access of animation tablets, animators can bring their ideas to life with precision and control, creating captivating visuals that make the content more engaging and memorable for audiences.

Whether specializing as a character animator, animation mentor, or exploring animation jobs in various industries, the world of 2D animation offers a wide range of prospects. By honing skills, staying updated with the latest techniques, and showcasing creativity, individuals can forge a rewarding path in this dynamic and ever-evolving field.

2D Animation Software Options And Pricing

There are more animation software options than ever; whether you want free options just to test or want to develop your portfolio more with premium software, there is a wide variety available to you. As long as you can work on art to your liking and reliably receive your digital video files, then there isn’t necessarily a wrong choice in software.

To help provide some insight and guide you to an ideal starting point, let’s cover some of these free and premium options in more detail. 

Free Animation Tools for 2D Animators

  • Pencil 2D – Pencil 2D is free and open-source animation software. Its biggest advantage is probably its open-source nature, so it is beginner-friendly and can be scaled up as you become more skilled in the process.
  • Synfig Studio – This software was used by a professional animation studio that then released it to the public, meaning you know it can accomplish quality animations. It does require more computer power, and it can be a little difficult to get started.
  • Creatoon – this is another powerful free tool that offers a lot of abilities and effects to make your projects look professional. The only downside may be finding the educational material to get your journey started with this program.
  • Blender – Blender has been popular for 3D animation artists with its variety of tools but increasing advancements in their 2D animation offerings have made it a powerful tool for 2D animators as well. It is open-source, which is why it sees so many advancements. Any tutorials you find will be from independent creators, rather than official ones from the company itself.
  • Animation Desk – Our own app is also free to use, but that doesn’t mean it is lacking in tools or power. Animation Desk has various features for both beginners and advanced animators. You can also view some animations created in our software to understand what your capabilities are (and perhaps surpass them!)

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Premium (Paid) Animation Tools

  • Toon Boom Harmony – Toon Boom Harmony is professional-level software and is used by many studios. All the tools you would want to manage the animation process are available here, but that also means it can get overwhelming for beginner animators.
  • Toon Boom Storyboard Pro – We discussed how important pre-production is in getting the production process started smoothly and functioning well in the long term. Toon Boom Storyboard Pro is a great tool for handling just about every step of the pre-production process, like storyboarding, animatics, character designing, and more.
  • Adobe Suite (After Effects, Photoshop, Flash, Encore) – Adobe Suite may be the most well-known entry on this list, as photoshop is one of the most popular editing apps in the world. The interface and tools across the many different Adobe apps can be challenging but is often necessary for some companies. Luckily there are extensive tutorials to help you learn how to master any particular digital feature.

Embarking on a Journey to Become a 2D Animato

The goal of this guide was for those interested in animation to learn where the art form came from, and how it is flourishing now. From its early paper roots to its current digital branches, animation has made an incredible impact on how we tell stories.

The dream of becoming an animator, working on your favorite movies, games, or other media, is an admirable goal. For those of you who want to pursue this goal, we also wanted to discuss the process of animated production and help start your journey to becoming a 2D Animator.

With education and career resources becoming more accessible than ever before, it has never been easier to pursue 2D Animation. As technology becomes even more intuitive, even young children can create their own animations and games. 

When it comes to art and creative pursuits, the best way to learn may be to observe others. For your personal path in animation, consider artists and styles you really enjoy and learn more about how they came to be and even what tools they use. This could help solidify a starting point and help orient you as you reach your goals.