Animation Tools and Software for Digital Artists

In animation’s early days, artists used pencil, paint, and paper. Today, the growing use of digital tools opens up new and exciting opportunities for artists.

Digital artists seeking to enter the global animation industry, valued at $264 billion as of 2019, have many career options. Creative disciplines in the field include film, virtual reality, animated character design, game design, and education.

An animator sits at a desk in front of a laptop using a stylus to draw

Digital artists can also work in many types of animation, including 2D and 3D animation, motion graphics, and stop motion. This guide explores the top animation tools and software, discusses animation history and its impact on society, and introduces the steps to becoming an animator.

Below are a few examples of resources for digital artists seeking more information about the animation industry and careers.

Animation industry and career resources:

  • AnimationThis interdisciplinary, international, peer-reviewed journal focuses on scholarly animation research.
  • Animation World NetworkThis resource brings together information about the animation field, covering areas such as film distribution, commercial studio activities, licensing, and animation technologies.
  • Animation Magazine. With an online and print version, this resource discusses technology, business, art, and other topics of interest to individuals in the animation industry.
  • S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Individuals looking for comprehensive insights about the responsibilities, salaries, and job outlook for animators can turn to this trusted resource.
  • Houston Chronicle. This resource provides animation career information, such as duties and education requirements.
  • VaultThis resource offers insights about animation careers, including details about what an animation career looks like.

Top 21 Animation Tools

Animation is the process of transforming still images into moving images. When still images are displayed rapidly on media, such as film or video, they create the illusion of motion.

Animators are digital artists with competencies that include conceptual design, drawing, creative development, and curiosity. They also use animation tools and software. The following list offers a glimpse of the tools animators use:

  1. Maya (Autodesk)This commercial software provides digital artists with a comprehensive platform and an extensive feature set, including modeling, simulation, and rendering, to create 3D computer animations.
  2. 3ds Max (Autodesk)This commercial animation software tool allows digital artists to produce 3D animations, including developing models and rendering them into 2D or 3D images.
  3. After Effects (Adobe)Digital artists can use this commercial tool to add visual effects and motion graphics elements to film, TV, video, online content, presentations, and more.
  4. Animate (Adobe)Users can create animations across multiple media, from cartoons and banner ads to interactive content for games, TV shows, academic content, and infographics.
  5. Blender (The Blender Foundation)This free open source 3D graphics creation suite offers a comprehensive feature set to create animations, digital art, visual effects, 2D and 3D models, and more.
  6. Cartoon Animator 4 (Reallusion)Digital artists across TV, film, web, and game development using this versatile animation tool can create 2D animation with 3D motion.
  7. Character Animator (Adobe)Digital artists can use their own movements and expressions to create animated characters in real time.
  8. Dragonframe (DZED Systems)The advanced image capture interface of this tool is popular among digital artists in the movie industry for stop motion animation, motion design, and visual effects.
  9. FlipBook (DigiCel)Whether drawing with a stylus and tablet or using pen and paper, this animation software offers digital artists intuitive tools to create 2D animations.
  10. Moho Pro 13 (Smith Micro)Formerly known as Anime Studio, this vector-based 2D animation software gives digital artists various tools to create animations and cartoons, including 2D and 3D characters.
  11. Moovly (Moovly)The novice and expert can use this cloud-based software to create animated videos and videos with animated graphics for various applications, including marketing and training.
  12. OpenToonz (Digital Video SpA)This software tool allows digital artists to create 2D animations. As open source software, it’s free to use, anyone can modify its source code, and it’s frequently updated.
  13. Pencil2DFor digital designers interested in using traditional drawing techniques, this open source software allows users to create 2D cartoons using both bitmap and vector graphics.
  14. PhotoMirage (Corel). Corel, the developer of the world’s first full-featured graphics suite, continues to build innovative tools. For example, PhotoMirage is an animation tool that enables users to combine still images with motion graphics.
  15. PiskelThis free online editor allows digital artists to create animations reminiscent of the pixel art in video games created in the 1980s.
  16. Powtoon (Powtoon).This cloud-based animation software for digital artists and amateurs alike in business, education, and other sectors allows users to create animated explainer videos, demos, and presentations.
  17. Spine (Esoteric Software). For digital artists interested in gaming, this software offers users the tools to create 2D animation for games, as well as 3D effects.
  18. Stop Motion Studio (Cateater)This software provides an intuitive interface. Its features include frame-by-frame editing to allow digital artists of all ages to create stop motion movies using a desktop or phone app.
  19. Synfig StudioOpen source software such as Synfig Studio provides users with a host of features to create 2D vector-based animations, and it’s free to use.
  20. Harmony 20 (Toon Boom)This popular 2D software tool includes end-to-end features to enable digital artists to create animations, from conception to final production.
  21. TVPaint Animation (TVPaint Development). For animators who may want to draw on paper, this 2D software, based on bitmap technology, allows artists to create animations using traditional and digital methods.

Popular Animated Movies

Modern animation plays a key role in entertainment, especially in the cinema. What makes great animation? It’s in the eye of the beholder; everyone has different opinions on a favorite animated film. However, as with any great film, an animated movie achieves a balance and harmony. It combines artistry, colors, content, movement, timing, music, and more to transport viewers into the film and its emotions.

Here’s a list of recent popular animated movies that advanced the development of modern animation technologies and creative processes.

  • Toy Story.The story about a boy’s favorite doll (cowboy) that feels threatened by a new spaceman toy in this 1994 animated film has become a franchise. What makes this animation stand out is that it was the first full-length computer-animated feature film created by Pixar Animation Studios, which pioneered the use of computer-generated images (CGI) in film. There are four “Toy Story” movies.
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas.Confusion stirs in this 1993 animated film as a ghoulish king tries to bring Christmas to his home: Halloween Town. This film offers an example of stop motion animation, in which every frame was staged and every shot was storyboarded. The film took three years to produce and, at its peak, had up to 17 animators to put it together.
  • Spirited Away.In this 2001 animated film, a 10-year-old girl who recently moved to the suburbs finds herself in a world where gods, spirits, and witches are in control. This film was created in the anime style, known for the vibrant colors and dramatic facial expressions typical in Japanese-style animation. Anime is a type of niche animation typically created for adult audiences. “Spirited Away” broke away from that tradition, as it was written for children. Its impact opened doors for current popular anime TV cartoon series in the United States, such as Dragon Ball Z.”
  • The Lego Movie.The beloved plastic construction toys come to life in this 2014 animated film in which a Lego construction worker fulfills his calling to stop an evil villain. Lego toys had been a favorite of children for many years, but the brand’s popularity had been in decline. This movie offers an example of how marketers can use animation to reignite a brand’s popularity.
  • The Lion King.The future king of the jungle becomes the target of his father’s rival, who also happens to be his uncle. He ultimately grows up and finds his proper place in the world. While previous Disney films were largely based on existing stories, “The Lion King” was the company’s first animated feature to be an original story. Another distinction of this animated feature is that its story has successfully crossed over to another medium: musical theater. It’s the third-longest running Broadway show in history.