2D Animation: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fundamentals

2D animationFrom the classic animated films of our childhood to the cutting edge CGI we see in blockbusters today, animation has been turning dreams into reality since the 1600s. Since the dawn of modern animation software like Flash and Creatoon, animation has only become more prevalent in our society, evolving from basic flipbooks and cartoons to web applications and marketing tools. Animations can teach, entertain and display data in a way that is intuitive to the viewer, and has revolutionized, or even inspired entire industries, such as Data Visualization.

The animation industry relies on a skilled and highly specialized workforce to undertake some of the massive 2D animation projects we see today. Through recent advances in animation software and online classes like Michael Bernstein’s Learn to be an Animator class, right here on Udemy, it has become many times easier for a beginner to learn the fundamentals of 2D animation right from your own PC.

What is 2D Animation?

Before you launch headfirst into the world of animation, you should get to know exactly what 2D animation is. As children watching our favorite Saturday morning cartoons, it was clear that animation is more than just pictures played in a sequence, but how much more exactly?

Animation is, at a very basic level, nothing more than a series of pictures, called frames, quickly played along a timeline or reel. So why does animation work? Why don’t we just see a bunch of still pictures?  The phenomenon that enables humans to perceive animation is called Persistence of Vision, a theory that supposes that an afterimage exists on the retina for one twenty-fifth of a second before escaping the present consciousness, allowing for frames to bleed into one another and create the perception of motion.

2D animation is a type of animation created in a two dimensional context instead of a three dimensional context. Many modern animation studios (such as DreamWorks and Pixar) use 3D animation tools to create the characters and environments for their movies, sculpting them out of thousands of tiny digital polygons and animating them with computer code like puppets on strings. 2D animation doesn’t employ any fancy digital models or virtual spaces, opting for a more straightforward approach: simply drawing the frames of each scene and letting our brain fill in the rest.

Of course, modern 2D animators don’t just use paper and pencils to create the animated features we see on TV and in the movies. 2D animation has gone fully digital, and uses cutting edge technology to create the breathtaking detail and artistic fidelity we’ve come to expect from modern films. Some of the digital tools developed for 2D animators are highly specialized to perform one function, while others offer almost everything you need for creating a full-length animation right from your home PC.

Check out some of the animation tools you can learn to use on Udemy.

Tools of the Trade

Every animator relies on a specialized set of tools to do their job. Fifty or sixty years ago, these tools would have been nothing more than paper, a pen and a pencil, but today there are entire applications and software suites dedicated to animation.

While modern animation software might be less straightforward than the classic approach, they give the animator a significantly more robust set of tools to work with, allowing animators to explore more complex and detailed styles without an entire team of artists backing them up. Where entire teams of artists used to toil for hours to bring a single scene to life on the screen, a lone animator can now simply turn to the many 2D animation tools at his disposal. Here is a list of few of the best animation apps for the 2D animation beginner, most of which can be learned on Udemy.

  • Synfig

Synfig is a free, open source program for 2D animators that offers a powerful suite of tools that can be used to make anything from quick motion graphics to cinema quality animation. Available for Windows, Linux and OSX, Synfig is an extremely low overhead way to start producing awesome 2D animations. Since it’s open source, Synfig is constantly updated with new features that are often more refined than the ones offered in it’s costly alternatives, not to mention the extensive and easy to use documentation in the form of the Synfig wiki.

You can learn the basics of Synfig right here on Udemy. Check out Creating Cutout Animation in Synfig Studio by Konstantin Dmitriev, Nikolai Mamashev and Julia Velkova Öber to learn everything you need to know about getting started with Synfig.

  • Toon Boom Studio

Toon Boom Studio is an all in one animation application for beginners that is actually designed to teach you the fundamentals of 2D animation as you work. It’s full of powerful features that make the hardest parts of animation easy enough for an absolute novice to understand and execute. Special effects, lip syncing tools, and tween generation are all pre-packaged in Toon Boom Studio, which is a fair bit of utility for the price, not to mention the advanced features like a Chroma key suite and stop motion tools. Start animating your first cartoon in minutes with Infinite Skills’ Toon Boom Studio Tutorials on Udemy.

  • Flash

Adobe Flash is the most widely used piece of software for animations and motion graphics on the web and has been around for over 15 years. In terms of short 2D animations, games and interactive multimedia, Adobe Flash is the industry standard. It’s pervasive presence in the animation world coupled with Adobe’s lust for perfection in their creative products has made Flash the go-to tool for animators of any skill level. Though it may be a little pricey, Adobe Flash is well worth the investment for any amateur animator looking to step up the quality of their work. Get a closer look at Adobe Flash CS6 with this class by Peachpit Press, where you’ll learn everything from how to operate the user interface to advanced animation techniques.

  • Storyboard

Storyboarding is an important step in the animation process that simply can’t be overlooked. On larger productions like movies, storyboard artists will layout the storyboard for animators, but for smaller 2D animation projects, software like Storyboard allows smaller teams to translate their ideas into visual stories quickly and easily. Created by Toon Boom, one of the most respected names in 2D animation, Storyboard is a must have tool for committing your stories to visuals.

  • Creatoon

Primarily used by animators looking to employ the “cut out” style of animation, Creatoon is a free and powerful piece of animation software that is praised for its ease of use. Learning Creatoon is intuitive and is extremely forgiving for such an in depth application. Creatoon won’t cost you a dime, but it’s only available on for Windows, and with development permanently discontinued, it doesn’t look like it will be getting support for Mac or Linux any time soon.

  • Pencil

Pencil is a more barebones studio application designed to resemble the traditional flipbook style animation. While it’s not a great program to create feature length animations, it is the perfect toolbox to use to practice the fundamentals of 2d animation. It’s simple user interface offers only the tools a beginning animator needs to start creating basic animations on their own, and the Pencil Wiki is full of simple tutorials to help new animators find their footing and solidify their style.

  • Animate

Another great app by Toon Boom, Animate is a digital tool for fans of classic frame-by-frame animation. While frame-by-frame animation is possible in other 2D animation apps, the comprehensive tools offered in Animate make it a whole lot more intuitive for beginners.

Animate encourages artists to draw in an environment that feels natural with most digital drawing tablets, and simulates an entire animation studio within a small, easy to use application. This animation suite provides advanced features like interactive camera tools that drastically cut down on the time and effort needed to achieve that perfect studio quality aesthetic. Toon Boom Animate is one of the most widely used and acclaimed programs for high end 2d animation.

The 12 Laws of Animation 

Much like the laws of physics in the real world, the “12 Laws” or 12 basic principles of animation are a set of rules to adhere by for consistent and beautiful animation. First outlined by Ollie Johnston, the directing animator of Pinocchio, and Frank Thomas of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves fame, animation studios the world over look back to these tenants from the golden age of cartoons. In their book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life these animation greats lay out the 12 basic principles that ensured the Disney movies from the 1930s onward would be remembered as classics for years to come.

Though the 12 basic principles were originally intended for the hand-drawn animation style of the time, they still apply to the computer animation standards of today, and are important for any animator to learn, in and out. Mastery of the 12 basic principles of animation is the first step to getting hired at big name animation studios, and animations that exhibit tight control over these elements are widely regarded as some of the best pieces of animation ever created.

1. Squash and Stretch

The first and most important of the 12 laws is used to give drawn objects a feeling of flexibility and weight. Squashing and stretching are the two most basic animated reactions a drawn object can exhibit, and they apply to everything from a simple bouncing ball to the intricate and photorealistic animations of the human body. Squash and Stretch are often manipulated to create a cartoonish comedic effect but are utilized in all types of animation.  In more realistic animations, squash and stretch are linked, meaning that if an object is stretched vertically, its squashed horizontally.

2. Anticipation

In 2D animation, the anticipation of a movement is just as important as the movement itself. The moment of anticipation informs the audience that an object or character is about to take action and directs their attention appropriately. Much like squash and stretch apply to object, anticipation applies to movements, giving them a sense of authenticity. A boy kicking a ball must first wind up his kick, creating a moment of anticipation for the kick and implying a cause for the next action. Some gags omit anticipation altogether for an anticlimactic comedic effect, but there are few other reasons not to express anticipation.

3. Staging 

Just like in theater, staging is the layout of objects and characters in a scene that draw the audience’s attention to the subject of the scene. A proper use of staging will make the audience absolutely certain what is going on in a given scene. Wide, medium and close up shots, camera angles, colors, and the amount of movement should all be taken into consideration when contemplating the staging of a scene. Too much motion makes a scene look cluttered, but a wider camera shot can alleviate that issue without much hassle.

Hayao Miyazaki, one of the most prolific and influential animators of our time, is said to be a master of staging, his films often incorporating vast and expansive settings that give his movies the grand sense of adventure that makes them so notorious.

4. Straight Ahead and Pose-to-Pose

Straight Ahead and Pose-to-Pose are two different approaches to animation that yield two different results. Straight Ahead or “frame-by-frame” animation is a continuous process in which the animator draws each scene a single frame at a time. Straight Ahead animation gets its name from the fact that the animation is moving straight ahead from the first drawing in the scene. Employed mostly by cartoonists, the Straight Ahead style yields a wild and engaging animation with a fresh and spontaneous feel, but is less precise, which often leads to the warping of a character volume or proportions.

Pose to pose animation is a far more controlled method of animation in which the animator plans out the key poses in the scene. Typically referred to as “keyframes” these poses are drawn by the animator and then, with the help of an assistant or animation software, fills in the frames between each keyframe.

The resulting animation is usually much more consistent than Straight Ahead animation and proportions tend to stay uniform instead of jumping around.

Many animators are known to combine both styles of animation in certain scenes, using Pose-to-Pose style techniques to give the movements texture, while still incorporating all the fun spontaneity of Straight Ahead animation.

5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action

The next principle pertains to drawn objects that are in motion. Follow through is the time it takes for the extraneous parts of a character (such as arms, hair, coat, tail, etc.) to stop after the main mass of the character. As in real life, in animation nothing should stop all at once, so when the leading mass of an object comes to a halt, any connected or trailing parts of it should offer a sufficient wind down time.

Overlapping action comes in to play when the main mass of an object in motion changes directions while the extraneous parts of the object take time to adjust to the new direction. A character with long hair should have his hair billow when he turns around, instead of just turning with the head entirely. Overlapping action is used heavily in Disney’s television cartoons to set up comedic gags and express exaggerated motion.

6. Slow-Out and Slow-In

The smoothness of an animation is governed mostly by how many frames the animation contains. More frames means smoother, slower animation, fewer frames will speed up the animation. Slow-Ins and Slow-Outs make use of this relationship by adding more frames at the beginning or end of an action respectively.

An object that is beginning motion will have a Slow-In  to show the finer movements of the object as it accelerates, and a Slow-Out to wind the action down smoothly. Omitting a Slow-In or Slow-Out will typically make the scene feel more snappy and less flowing, but can be used to great effect in some comedic gags.

7. Arcs

Natural movement tends to follow the basic trajectory of an arc, as such, it is important for animators to consider implied “arcs” for each movement. The faster an object is moving, the more subtle it’s arc, making the proper use of arcs absolutely imperative for expressing speed. Thrown objects, limbs, and even free moving characters follow what is called a “natural arc” for the scene, which is determined by the staging and perspective of the scene. If an object breaks it’s natural arc the movement will seem out of place or erratic, which can be used to set up a comedic element.

8. Secondary Action

The addition of secondary action can make a scene more interesting to the viewer and further help enforce the illusion of reality. Instead of simply walking, a character can bend its knees, swing its arms or nod it’s head. Typically used to convey strong emotions, secondary action is an integral part of creating engaging animations that are more than just one moving part.

9. Timing 

Timing, or the number of frames in a given scene or action, dictates the overall speed of the animation. Having the right amount of frames in an action is integral to creating a scene that looks like everything is happening at the same time. The timing of on screen movements also affects how real the movements seem, whether or not they obey the laws of physics, and how detailed each movement actually is.

10. Exaggeration

Arguably the most common way of making a scene interesting is exaggerating one aspect of it over another. Cartoons use exaggeration as a way of suspending the reality of the animation. Whether or not exaggeration should be used as well as how heavily it is used depends on the style the animator is looking to achieve. Judicious use of exaggeration can help animators achieve any number of different themes and styles, from dramatic tension to just plain funny gags.

11. Solid Drawing

Solid drawing is a principle that applies to objects drawn in three a three dimensional space. Animation that takes place on a 2D plane is often insufficient to realize the full motion of an action. An animator that is also skilled in drafting will be able to use solid drawing techniques to give their drawn objects three dimensional aspects like weight, balance, anatomy, lighting and more.

12. Appeal 

Appeal is to an animated character as charisma is to a real life actor. Audiences will have a hard time sympathizing with an unappealing character. There are a few tricks to designing appealing characters, for example the Chibi style of drawing capitalizes on big heads with expressive faces and cute small bodies.

The most appealing characters tend to become favorites of the audience and make them care about what happens to the character, however, just because a character is an antagonist or seen as “evil” doesn’t necessarily mean that the character is unappealing. Animators strive to make the leading characters in any project as appealing as possible to captivate the audience.

The 2D Animation Process

Every animation studio has a slightly different animation process, but the steps for going from a simple idea to a fully animated film are pretty much the same anywhere you go. The animation process differs slightly depending on the scale of the project, the type of animation used and the size of the team creating it. Most animators have adopted Walt Disney’s animation process as the standard approach to creating an animated film. It is by no means the only way to do it, but as a new animator it will be useful to learn the steps that are still in use by major animation studios today.

Step 1: Storyboards

The first step for the inspired animator is creating a storyboard. Be it an adaptation of a script or an original idea, drawing out a storyboard is an important first step to creating your final product. Originally developed by Walt Disney in the 1930s, storyboards as graphic organizers to pre-visualize their work and pitch their idea to movie directors and other animators who want to work on the project, think of them sort of like a visual script or stage directions for animated characters.

Creating an animated feature is an expensive and time consuming process and can take anywhere from a few weeks to entire years to create, and a storyboard is the best way of editing the story before its been animated. An animated film will of course be edited throughout the creation process, but scraping an entire animated sequence is costly in terms of both time and money, so editing at the storyboard stage is doubly important for studios on a budget.

Step 2: Audio Production

After the story has been laid out with a storyboard and pitched to a team of animators, directors, and producers, it’s time to start recording the dialog. At this point, if they haven’t already, the writers and director will adapt their storyboard into a written script, complete with an outline of what each character is doing during each scene. This process is meant to further expand on the ideas presented in step 1, as storyboards are generally only rough, fragmented outlines of what the final product will look like.

After the script has been finalized, it is provided to the voice talent for the film, who works closely with the director to nail down each character’s individual personality. Though it may not be apparent to the audience, voice actors play a huge role in fleshing out their characters’ on-screen personality. Often times, scripts are used mostly as loose guidelines for the actors, who ad lib the character to life, giving them an even more appealing personality than originally intended and even affecting the artistic style or final cut of the film.

Robin Williams’ performance as Genie in the Disney classic Aladdin is a perfect example of how a voice actor can influence the personality of a character and the direction of the film as a whole. The directors of Aladdin allowed Williams to ad-lib most of his lines, only sticking to the script when it was absolutely necessary. They even let him add his own jokes and gags to the script. Animators used the personality that Williams created to come up with the final look for Genie, including how he moves and how he interacts with the other characters. The result was one of the most memorable and lovable characters in the history of animated film.

Step 3: Visual Development

The process of visual development has evolved considerably since the 1930s. Originally, artists and animators would draw thousands of sketches of characters, scenes and objects to perfect the aesthetic of the film. These sketches would only be slightly more detailed than the original storyboard and serve as sort of a halfway point between the extremely rough storyboard and the actual animation of the film.

During this phase artists strive to perfect the appeal of each character, taking into account any personality quirks or changes incorporated by the voice actor. Some characters receive massive makeovers over countless iterations, while others are sketched, inked and ready to be animated.

Today, visual development requires much less manual labor, but is no less an important step in the creation of an animated film. Artists use specialized tools to digitally draw and refine the characters and scenes, saving them hundreds of hours of sketching, inking and painting. After the designs of each character and scene have been finalized, the production process can begin.

Step 4: Production

During the golden age of animation, the production process was an extremely labor affair. Every shot in an animated film will have anywhere between ten to twenty drawings, which all must be inked and painted by artists before the filming process could begin. The top animators at each studio would only have time to draw the most important frames in the animation, called keyframes. The frames between the keyframes, known as tweens, would be filled in by junior animators, then all the frames are put together and photographed to create an animation sequence. This process would be repeated for every shot in the film, often making for hundreds of thousands of final drawings, each one requiring a sketch, coloring, inking and photography.

The modern production process is a whole lot easier and requires much less manpower than the classic method. Thanks to advances in 2D animation technology artists can draw, ink, paint and animate a scene all by themselves without ever having to leave their desk.

Massive digital drawing tablets enable animators to draw their keyframes digitally and create the tweens automatically using 2D animation software. Characters and backgrounds are drawn separately using this method, then transposed on each other and saved as a video file, saving the studio both time and money over traditional methods and allowing for more flexibility during the last step of the animation process.

Step 5: Post Production

The characters have been colored, animated, and set on their backgrounds. Each scene has been painstakingly composed and optimized. Every key is colored, every tween in place, and the animation is essentially complete! All that remains is to edit and polish the final product with special effects, sound effects and visuals to perfect the animator’s artistic vision. Post-production is usually when the entire team sits down to review their work and make whatever tweaks are necessary to call the film complete.

So there you have it, everything a fledgling animator needs to begin their foray into the world of 2D animation. Will you become the next animation legend like Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki? Or will you bring something new to the table and revolutionize animation once again? Check out Academy Award winning animator Tony White’s 2D Animation Masterclass to further hone your animation skills and learn how to create the next classic animated film!