Animation 2D Or 3D: That Is the Question

Animation 2D Or 3D: That Is the Question
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Although you may be familiar with the terms 3D and 2D in terms of animation, you may not know what these terms mean or what the differences between the two are. In this article we examine these two important forms of animation and, explain the crucial differences between the two as well as giving examples of the kind of work to which each is most suitable.

When you think about the term “animation”, chances are that the first thing that springs to mind are cartoons – from the old and much loved Bugs Bunny cartoons to the much more sophisticated Toy Story films – but, there’s a lot more to animation than children’s entertainment.

Today, animation is used extensively not just for entertainment but also in the business and education sectors. These organisations employ a professional animation studio to create customized animated videos to illustrate their websites, logos, social media, emails and marketing materials.

When looking at animation for business, it’s important to know the difference between the two most widely used forms, 2D and 3D animation, in order to choose the right format for your requirements.


So what’s the difference?

2D (2 Dimensional) animation is a “flat” form of animation which comprises of only an X axis and a Y axis which means that, only height and width are represented within the image. 3D (3 Dimensional) animation comprises of not just the X and Y axes but also a Z axis which provides depth to the image.

In simplistic terms, 2D animation is a traditional form of animation where an image is either drawn by hand or created on a computer in a simple form and will appear as a flat, or hollow, image. 3D animation, on the other hand, is a more complex and sophisticated technique whereby a model or framework is created on a computer before detail is added in layers, creating a more realistic, comprehensive image than 2D.

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A picture paints a thousand words

From as far back as the 1800s, 2D animation was being used, albeit in a crude form, to create a moving story from a series of drawings.

2D animation is still widely used today and can be seen in modern cartoons such as The Simpsons and Family Guy as well as older favourites like Bugs Bunny and The Jungle Book.

Traditionally, the artist would create a storyboard which would show, scene by scene, the story that was to be told. He or she would then create a series of drawings by hand, painstakingly changing poses and character expressions, in order to 24 frames per second, around a total of 28,000 frames for something like an episode of The Simpsons. This was incredibly skilled and meticulous work as the artist would need to ensure that each character looked exactly the same, except for clothing, expressions etc, in each frame.

This very aspect has, at times, become an issue such as with beloved cartoon favourites, Tom and Jerry, whose friendship and rivalry has spanned 77 years. A number of different artists used throughout the decades has meant that, although Jerry’s appearance has changed relatively little, the original shaggy faced Tom is barely recognisable from the more modern and smooth-faced version.

The drawings would generally be done in pencil and would then be painted onto clear plastic sheets known as ‘cells’ which would then be photographed, one at a time, over a hand-painted background image. Thankfully, the use of computers in animation has revolutionised (and considerably speeded up) the process of creating 2D animation – although an artist may begin by hand-drawing the concept art, once done, this can be scanned into the computer and manipulated for further frames thus ensuring continuity in appearance and expression.

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Keeping it real

Born in an animation studio in Utah, many believe that the first display of computer, or 3D, animation appeared in a 1972 experimental short called ‘A Computer Animated Hand’, in which students Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke created an animation of a human face and hand.

One of the most famous examples of 3D animation is the creation of the dinosaurs in the smash hit Jurassic Park movies. Widely hailed as one of the most realistic and successful uses of the format, movie-goers were blown away by the terrifying creatures in the movie with many stating that they found it difficult to believe that they were simply created by a special effects team.

3D animation is 100% computer generated and can be integrated to great effect, such as in Jurassic Park, into movies and other filmed projects which also feature traditional camera-work.

To create a 3D image, a graphic artist will begin with a frame (imagine a wire dressmakers dummy or a globe). Once this frame, or model, is created, the artist will then add detail, fleshing out the image until it achieves the realistic effect used in films like Toy Story and games such as Grand Theft Auto. Once the model is created, it can be manipulated relatively easily by moving the computer’s camera in order to look at the model from different angles and perspectives.

2D or not 2D?

Deciding which kind of animation to go for in business is, of course, a very individual choice but there are a few guidelines to help make the right decision.

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Typically, for logos or for character focussed projects, 2D is considered more effective in terms of driving the concept as it’s often simpler and more straight-forward. The drawback to the use of 2D animation for business is that, being at least partially hand-drawn, it may not be a true indicator of a finished product, rather just a representation of it.

An example of the use of animation in business is the training manual – something that most companies use as a tool for new employees. 2D animation would generally not be accepted for an animated explainer video if it depicts the company’s products as, although this would be a ‘likeness’ it would not be a true or accurate representation of the product. For businesses featuring products, 3D animation or even video is considered more effective and accurate.

2D animation can also work out to be expensive if multiple projects are to be completed simultaneously meaning that more than artist needs to be employed for the project.

For projects requiring a high level of realism and continuity, 3D animation is a more accurate and cost and time-effective option. Due to its use of technologies such as motion capture and the flexibility of not having to re-draw characters and scenery, 3D will usually be a much less expensive than 2D. For projects such as films whereby a real-life celebrity is to be depicted, 3D animation (and in particular, the technique known as Fully Realistic 3D Animation) can be used to great effect.

For now, none of us can say what the future holds for animation but it’s safe to say that this multi-billion pound industry will only go from strength to strength, one frame at a time.



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