2D film animation explained

2D animation has existed since the 1800s, and it’s commonly used for cartoons and animated movies. Unlike in 3D animation, the characters, storyboards, and environments all exist within a two-dimensional (2D) space and use some form of sequential images or objects to create the illusion of movement.

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2D animation overview

What is 2D animation?


Animation means making visual objects move. 2D animation is the process of creating that illusion of movement for characters and objects within a two-dimensional space. Traditional 2D animation was hand-drawn, but it can now also be computer generated. 

In 3D animation, characters and objects move through a three-dimensional space, but 2D animation is limited to up, down, left, and right movements, giving the appearance of length and breadth, but no depth.

2D animation production process


The process of 2D animation involves three parts: preproduction, production, and post-production. Pre-production for 2D animation includes character design, sketching background designs, and storyboarding – a comic strip-like graphic visualization of the actions and events across an entire animation. It is during the production phase, however, that the animation takes place. 

The animation of 2D characters or objects occurs when multiple frames – singular, static images – are shown in quick succession. Slight differentiations are drawn on each frame, and this causes the illusion of movement, just like a flipbook or stop-motion animation. 

One second of animation is traditionally produced from 24 frames. Also known as 24 fps (frames per second), this means that 24 unique drawings are required per second of animation time. However, animation is now generally done at 12 fps, or one drawing every two frames, to save on production time and costs.  

When creating an actual scene of an animated film or cartoon, animators combine the character model sheets, storyboard, layout, and backgrounds from the preproduction phase and ‘act’ out the scene before animating to ensure all the elements work together in harmony. 

The pencil drawings are then cleaned up, and, when not using animation software, photographed on an animation camera to check the movements and background transitions. When this rough animation is ready, solid, clean lines are drawn over the pencil sketch. This is cleaned up further by adding a new drawing layer to color the final frame. 

These final frames are then transferred onto the background of each scene. Each animated movement within that scene, made up of those multiple frames, then undergoes the process of “tweening.” This means generating the intermediate frames between two images to give an even transition, and ultimately, smooth animated movement.

2D animation types and techniques


Stop-motion animation

Stop-motion animation involves physically manipulating objects in front of a camera to create the illusion of movement. This approach can be used in both live-action and computer-generated animations, and it’s often used in television shows and video games. A common example of stop-motion animation is the claymation technique common in children’s shows.

Frame-by-frame animation

Frame-by-frame animation involves drawing each frame of an animation separately, but as a series rather than individually. The individual frames are then played back in rapid succession to create the illusion of motion. This technique is often used to create complex animations with large numbers of moving parts.

Cutout animation

Cutout animation involves selectively removing and replacing different pieces of an animated character or object in order to create the illusion of movement. This technique is commonly used in cartoons and animated films because it allows for a high degree of control over the shape, color, and size of the animated characters.


Rotoscoping is an animation technique that traces over a live-action video or frame in order to create an animated version of it. This technique can be used to simulate realistic movement, as well as more stylized animation effects. A good example of rotoscoping is the early cinematic animation films, which were hand-drawn over live-action footage.

Computer animation

Computer animation involves creating digital versions of hand-drawn or 3D models, then manipulating them on the computer to achieve the desired movement and look. This technique is often used in advanced video games and animated films because it allows for great flexibility and detail in the animation process.

Careers in 2D and 3D animation

From animation director to games developer, there are many career opportunities for animators. Click the link below and check Unity’s job board to discover your career opportunities.

What do 2D animators do?

2D animators create every element of an animation that moves, such as characters, objects, and backgrounds. Depending on the production or studio, this can also include producing storyboards and character designs, adding visual or sound effects to animations, and editing or compositing existing animations. Additionally, 2D animators may be responsible for color correction, lighting, or other post-production tasks.

Job titles for 2D animators can include character designer, storyboard artist, motion designer, animation supervisor, and background illustrator.

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

2D animation is motion that takes place within a flat, two-dimensional space. 3D animation adds the concept of depth. This means that 2D animation can often be created more easily than 3D, using less technical and specialized tools. For example, you do not need to create 3D models in order to create a simple 2D animation. Instead, you can simply draw your characters or objects on a flat surface and then animate them by manipulating the individual frames of your animation.

Find out more about the differences between 2D and 3D animation.

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