Updated May 2023
Animated content has become increasingly popular in recent years—especially when pandemic restrictions forced the shutdown of live-action productions.
But if you’re interested in taking advantage of that wave and launching a career in this field, you may be wondering about the differences between 2D and 3D animation.
Obviously, 2D only deals with length and height, while 3D adds depth as well. But what’s involved in each type of animation? What is each used for, and what skills do they require?
In this post, we answer all of those questions and more.
Trying to decide between 2D vs. 3D animation? Here’s what you need to know.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN 2D AND 3D ANIMATION?
Gabriel Choquette teaches the 2D animation program at Herzing College Ottawa. He summarizes the differences this way:
“2D exists on a flat surface like a sheet of paper inside the computer. It’s a combination of drawing and moving a digital puppet.
3D exists in a three-dimensional space inside the computer. Once the animation is done, you can move the camera around the character.”
Let’s dig into this a bit more.
☑️ 2D animation is created frame by frame (one second of time typically equals 24 frames). It’s traditionally drawn by hand, although much of the work is now done on computer.
A 2D animator produces a series of images, each with a subtle positional change. When the images are joined together in rapid sequence, they create the illusion of movement.
2D allows for more creative freedom. Because you control what a character or object looks like in every single frame, you can sometimes “cheat” and defy the rules to create a movement that works.
However, any time you want to change the angle of the shot, you have to create entirely new drawings.
In short, 2D animation:
- Can be inventive and fairytale-like; less realistic
- Offers unlimited creative potential
- Requires new drawings for each viewing angle
☑️ 3D animation is more mechanical and is done entirely on computer. Objects and characters are created as 3D models and rigged, which means they have skeleton-like structures that can be controlled via software.
Once the models are created and rigged, the animator can essentially manipulate them as physical objects and pose them as desired.
In 3D, you don’t necessarily have to create each frame. You can use keyframes to set the position of a model at certain points and have the software interpolate the frames in between.
You can also change camera angles easily without having to redraw anything.
However, you are a bit more constrained in how you make a character move because you are really just rotating an object. You can’t arbitrarily break the laws of physics.
In short, 3D animation:
- Has a high degree of realism
- Allows for reuse of models and easy camera changes
- Is entirely software-driven
WHAT SKILLS DO YOU NEED FOR 2D VS. 3D ANIMATION?
Gabriel says there are certain fundamentals that apply to both fields.
“No matter what type of animation you do, you must learn and master the 12 principles of animation. As the saying goes, ‘Same rules, different tools.’”
Outlined by Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas in a 1981 book, the 12 principles of animation are the foundation of all motion-based media.
Squash and stretch—Keeping the volume of an object consistent when it’s stretched thin or squashed flat
Anticipation—Preparing the audience for an action, like raising a character’s arm before he tosses a ball
Staging—Placing the camera and the characters in a way that draws the viewer’s attention to the scene’s most important elements
Straight ahead action and pose to pose—Creating each frame in order (straight ahead action) vs creating the first, last, and middle frames of a sequence, then completing the rest (pose to pose)
Follow through and overlapping action—Having different parts of an object move at different rates (i.e., arms vs legs) and stop at different rates (i.e., hair or clothing will keep moving briefly)
Ease in and ease out—Adjusting the motion of an object as it speeds up and gradually slows down
Arc—Following the natural arched trajectory of a motion, such as a ball that’s thrown from one person to another
Secondary action—Adding complementary motions that enhance the main action, like one character scratching his head while he talks to someone
Timing—Using the appropriate number of frames to demonstrate an action and convey a mood
Exaggeration—Emphasizing a character’s appearance or actions in an extreme way for effect, such as having a character’s jaw literally drop to the floor when she’s surprised
Solid drawing—Considering volume, weight, shadows, etc. to ensure that even 2D animation gives a three-dimensional effect
Appeal—Creating characters that engage the audience
A quality animation program will provide thorough training in these principles. You’ll also learn about character rigging, storyboarding, lip synch animation, and other key techniques.
DO YOU HAVE TO BE ABLE TO DRAW?
2D animation involves a lot of drawing. As Gabriel points out, that’s not the case in 3D, although the ability to draw is certainly an asset.
“2D is designed more for artists, people who enjoy drawing and have strong drawing skills. 3D does not require any drawing skills; however, 3D artists who are classically trained in 2D tend to be more successful and have stronger animation skills.”
WHAT ARE SALARIES LIKE IN 2D VS. 3D ANIMATION?
Earnings are roughly the same in both types of animation.
According to PayScale, 2D animators in Canada make a median salary of $54,000. Salaries range from roughly $40,000 to $70,000.
Meanwhile, PayScale says 3D animators make a median salary of $53,000. Salaries range from $39,000 on the low end to $74,000 for the highest earners.
WHICH IS MORE POPULAR: 2D OR 3D ANIMATION?
Both 2D and 3D animated content is in huge demand around the world. It’s used for films, television shows, commercials, video games, corporate videos, product demos, engineering renderings, and more.
Streaming services like Netflix, Prime Video, and Disney+ are continually coming out with new animated TV shows. And Netflix alone aims to release six new animated feature films each year.
Gabriel says 2D tends to be used for the small screen while 3D dominates feature films, but that isn’t always the case.
“3D is more commonly used for movies while 2D is more commonly used for TV shows since it is cheaper to produce. That said, there is no set rule for that and it can change depending on what looks better for each specific project.”
WANT TO GET STARTED WITH ANIMATION TRAINING?
Herzing College offers a 2D animation program through our campus in Ottawa. It's 12 months long and includes a six-week internship.
We also offer a 3D animation program through our Montreal campus. It's 17 months long and includes an eight-week internship.
Both programs are delivered online.
Click below to get more details on each program and chat live with an admissions advisor who can answer all your questions.