Animation Styles: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

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If you’re looking to create an animated video, one of the first things you’ll have to decide on is the style of animation you’d like to produce.

But here’s the thing:

There are so many different animation styles that it can be difficult to decide on which one is best-suited to your project. 

Having seen thousands of animation projects completed through our platform, we’re here to help you get to the bottom of this.

In this article, we’re going to break down all the different animation styles out there, showing you how they differ and which medium each style is best-suited to. 

Ready? Let’s get into it!

2D Vs. 3D

Most forms of animation can be grouped into either 2D animation or 3D animation. 

Here’s the difference between the two: 

2D animation is animation that exists in a two-dimensional format. This is where it appears to have length and breadth, but no depth. It can be either hand drawn or computer-generated. 

2D animation style

3D animation exists in a three-dimensional universe, meaning it contains the depth that 2D animation misses out. Unlike 2D animation, it can only be made using computer-generated imagery. 

3D animation style

2D animation is built upon well-designed imagery, making it a far-more creative style of animation. 3D animation has a much heavier focus on mathematics and physics, which is required to create a more realistic-looking product.

As a result, 3D animation is often more expensive to produce that 2D animation.

To keep it simple, here’s a quick comparison of the main differences between 2D animation and 3D animation: 

2D Animation 3D Animation
Can be either hand-drawn or computer-generated Can only be computer-generated
Cheaper & quicker to produce More expensive and time-consuming to produce
Less realistic More realistic
Less dynamic More dynamic


Main Animation Styles

Anime

Anime refers to any type of animation that’s produced in Japan, regardless of technique or style. 

anime animation style

Although incredibly diverse, it differs from Western animation by primarily targeting adult audiences (whereas most Western animation is made for children). 

Anime places significant emphasis on character emotion & personality, often featuring highly-immersive and emotionally-complex storylines.

Anime storylines are generally slow-burning, with the plot slowly unfolding over the course of dozens of episodes. 

Anime has built up an incredibly loyal fandom, with dedicated cosplay and anime conventions taking place around the world each year.

Key features:

  • Exaggerated physical features
  • Emotionally-complex characters
  • Complex, slow-burning storylines
  • Adult audience
  • Vivid colors

Commonly used for:

  • Web series
  • Comic books
  • Feature films

Example – Death Note (2006):

Disney

Disney is a world-leading animation brand that’s famous for its feature films and animated shorts. 

disney animation style

As one of the longest-running and commercially successful animation brands, it developed many of the techniques and processes that are now standard practice in traditional animation. These include:

  • Storyboarding 
  • Three-strip coloring
  • Use of multiplane cameras

Disney is well-known for its emphasis on family-friendly storylines, often setting films within a magical universe. This is supplemented by a set of core themes that are present in almost every production, including love and loyalty .

Disney productions are also well-known for their emphasis on music, with many characters being associated with a distinct musical theme.

Key features:

  • Family-friendly
  • Themes of love, magic and loyalty
  • Fully-scored Western soundtrack
  • Emphasis on magic 

Commonly used for:

  • Feature films
  • Cartoons

Example – The Lion King (1994):

Vintage Animation Styles

Traditional Animation

Traditional Animation refers to animation that has been hand-drawn on paper. It served as the leading form of animation throughout most of the 20th century. 

traditional animation style

Traditional animation works by having an animator draw each frame by-hand, with each frame being slightly different from the previous one. 

The individual drawings are then placed into plastic cels and photographed in order. The images are then played back at high speed, giving the illusion of movement. 

Throughout the 20th century, traditional animation was primarily used for both cartoons and feature-length films. Although still in existence, traditional animation has subsequently been overtaken by digital animation as a means of producing 2D animation

Key features:

  • Hand-drawn appearance
  • Exaggerated movements
  • Vivid color

Commonly used for:

  • Feature films
  • Cartoons

Example – Pinocchio (1940):

Stop Motion Animation

Stop motion animation is an animation technique used to give physical, inanimate objects the illusion of movement. 

stop motion animation style

This is done by incrementally moving the objects in-between frames. The frames are then played back in rapid chronological order to create a continuous motion sequence. 

Stop motion serves as one of the earliest forms of commercial animation, rising to prominence in the late 19th century with the advent of silent films. 

Although stop motion animation can be made using any type of inanimate object, plasticine character models are one of the most-popular choices due to their ease of movement. The use of plasticine characters makes up a closely-related style called Claymation. 

Although still used for animated shorts and feature-length films, stop motion animation is now a commonly-used technique for marketing/explainer videos. 

Key features:

  • Rapid/inconsistent movement
  • Presence of puppets or clay figures

Commonly used for:

  • Feature films
  • Cartoons
  • Explainer/marketing videos

Example – Wallace & Gromit: A Grand Day Out (1989):

Rotoscope Animation

Rotoscope Animation is where animators trace over live action footage frame-by-frame. This is done to produce realistic-looking movement and save time during hand-drawn animation. 

rotoscope animation style
Rotoscoping was invented in 1917 by animation pioneer Max Fleischer, who’s known for working on productions such as Betty Boop. The technique quickly rose to dominance in the industry, with Disney famously using it to produce Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs

The technique began to fall out of popularity with the advent of digital 2D animation in the late 20th century. 

Key features:

  • 2D style
  • Realistic movement 

Commonly used for:

  • Feature films
  • Cartoons

Example – Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937):

Modern Animation Styles

Digital Animation

Digital Animation (also known as Computer Generated Imagery) is any type of animation that’s created using computer software. It’s currently the most widely-used form of animation for feature films, animated shorts, video games and explainer videos. 

digital animation style

Having gradually developed since the 1940’s, digital animation replaced traditional animation as the industry standard in the early 1990’s, with Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) being the first feature-length digitally-animated film. 

Digital animation encompasses a wide variety of styles, including:

  • 2D 
  • 3D
  • Cutout
  • Typography 
  • Motion capture

Digital animation is highly-affordable and can be turned around on a relatively short timescale, making it it a popular choice amongst businesses for either marketing material or training videos. 

Key features:

  • Highly-versatile
  • Computer-generated
  • Realistic-looking

Commonly used for:

  • Feature films
  • Animated shorts
  • Web series
  • Explainer videos 

Example – Toy Story (1995):

Motion Graphics

Motion Graphics serve as a middle-ground between animation and graphic design. 

motion graphics animation style

They’re essentially graphic designs with animated movement, which adds a sense of flare to what would otherwise be a static design. 

  • To convey information (e.g. explainer video)
  • To enhance the look and feel of a design (e.g. animated logo)

Therefore, motion graphics are most-commonly used by businesses for branding, promotional and/or informational purposes. 

Examples of motion graphics include:

  • Explainer videos
  • Animated logos
  • Lyric videos
  • Website graphics

Key features:

  • Simplistic 
  • Information-driven (rather than narrative-driven)
  • Business-focused 

Commonly used for:

  • Marketing material
  • Branding 
  • Social media content

Example – How Does Twine Work? (2017):

Virtual Reality Animation

Virtual Reality Animation is animation that takes place in a three-dimensional digital environment that can be explored by a person. This makes for a highly-immersive and interactive experience. 

virtual reality animation style

Having began development in the 1970’s, it entered the commercial animation market in 1991, with Sega releasing a VR headset for the mega drive console. 

Although commonly-used for feature films and video games, virtual reality animation is commonly used to create marketing material for businesses, such as this VR catwalk experience by Topshop:

Key features:

  • 3D 
  • Highly immersive
  • Responsive

Commonly used for:

  • Video games
  • Marketing/demonstrative material

So, there you have it! An all-encompassing guide on the top animation styles. If you’re ready to get started with your animation project, head over to our freelance marketplace to post up a job and hire the perfect creative.

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George Shuter

George Shuter