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Modern video games are extremely diverse. These days, it’s easy to find both complex titles with outstanding 3D visualization and indie 2D games with a unique look and atmosphere. Which type of animation would be the best fit for your project? To answer this question, let’s dig deeper into the definitions of 2D and 3D animation and its creation processes.

What exactly is 2D animation?

Many of us have grown up watching 2D animation: classic cartoons like Tom and Jerry and Disney movies were made using it. And not very classic too — let’s take The Simpsons and South Park as an example.

2D animation is made using flat images, which have two dimensions: width and height. To animate these images, an artist has to create a flipbook — a series of drawings, when a character changes a bit on every page. That’s how cartoons were made before. Although these days artists also use software to animate action sequences, the first action scene still has to be created manually.

2D animation is widely used in character and environment design, minimalistic art and 2D concept art, and in UI/UX design for software.

What exactly is 3D animation?

In 3D animation, an artist uses special software to create three-dimensional virtual models. These models have width and height, like the 2D ones, but also have depth. The artist also places light sources around the models and uses the same software to animate them.

Although the process of creating 3D animation seems more automated, it is at the same time more complex. It requires more steps, such as modeling, animation, and rendering. 3D animation is used in character and environment design, 3D sculpting, and 3D art.

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

The main differences are the time and money spent on the processes and the tools the artists use. 2D animation is usually cheaper than 3D one — however, this often depends on the project’s complexity. This is because 3D animation is done using complex software, which is often expensive and requires powerful computers to perform well. 2D animation, on the other hand, is mostly done manually. Even if animators use the software, they could animate objects with the help of free or at least less expensive computer programs.

The process of creating 2D animation

2D animation is generally more time-consuming as most of the work process cannot be automated. Artists have to understand how anatomy works to be able to animate and build movements correctly. They also have to manipulate each frame to make the animation work.

Everything starts with scripting. It serves as a base for 2D animators, allowing them to create a rough representation of a scene, frame by frame. This process is called storyboarding. Each shot is hand-drawn to define what the story will look like. After a storyboard is approved, the artists refine it with ink to give the characters and objects a more distinct look. At this stage, many big animation companies use digital software to save hours of work.

2D animation software is also used at the next stage of the process — the animation itself. Although it’s still necessary to draw the characters, objects, and background separately after it an artist merges them as a video file using special software. Then they add animation frame by frame to create a video. Only after a video is reviewed and approved, do the animators add visual and sound effects.

The process of creating 3D animation

Just like 2D animation, 3D one also requires scripting and storyboarding. However, in this case, it’s not enough to hand-draw pencil sketches for the storyboard. It has to not only define the story but also reflect how the characters will look in 3D. Therefore, 3D animation software such as Cinema4D, Maya, and 3DMax is used for 3D storyboarding.

The next stage of the process is modeling. This is the process of designing both the characters and props in 3D. Sometimes artists do that using simple geometric shapes and then add more details and depth to them. After that, modelers move to the map. This is the process of overlaying 2D images on the 3D models to make them look more realistic by adding textures, colors, and designs. Once the mapping is finished, animators start rigging and skinning. This means they create the skeleton for a 3D model and then define how the character will move in the animation process.

The production phase starts with animation. In 3D game animation, models have animated either frame by frame using the keyframe method or by importing movement and animation data from external sources. After that, designers and animators pick the most beneficial lighting settings for each frame to make the visuals even more appealing. The next stage is compositing and adding visual effects. Elements from different sources are combined into one place to form a scene and be merged together. For instance, to create a visual effect of the explosion, designers merge digital environments with live-action scenes.

Now all that is left is to add sound effects, edit the video, and start rendering. Rendering is the final step of the process. A special computer program uses previously created 3D models to generate an image from them. Then the file is exported into a video format and is ready to watch. Although it seems that the 3D animation is done mostly with the help of special software, it still takes more time to produce. This happens because the whole work process consists of more steps than 2D animation creation and therefore requires more time to finish.

To sum up

2D and 3D animation are widely used in different areas, from design to games and videos. 2D animation is considered more traditional and might seem a bit outdated compared to the 3D one, both types could be a great option for video games. In the end, it all depends on the atmosphere the game developers want to create and the style they find the most appropriate for a certain story.