2D vs 3D Animation: What’s The Difference?
Whether or not video games are a form of art is open to debate. The fact that visuals are a crucial factor is not. In a global animation, VFX and video games market that was worth $261 billion in 2020, the competition is fierce. Good graphics and animations allow to stand out from the crowd, find your own target audience, and stay on top of the pack.
But which type of animation to use? The 2D vs 3D animation debate is still running. Some may claim 2D is “dead”; some view 3D as complicated and expensive. Is it indeed so? What should you know about the two types of animation to choose wisely? Experts at Whimsy Games debunk misconceptions and share insights based on their work on a variety of highly customized, unique projects.
What is 2D Animation?
In 2D animation, all the objects and backgrounds exist as flat images drawn by an artist. The only two real dimensions are width and height; motion is created by quick succession of frames. It is like a flipbook: a character changes slightly on each page.
Professional 2D animation takes this approach to create visuals with varying levels of realism — from South Park with its deliberately flat characters to older Disney movies. This control over style is a great advantage. Professionals from 2d art studio Whimsy Games use the artistic flexibility of this approach to deliver animations that fit into any game aesthetics.
2D animation types are numerous:
- Character design
- Environment design
- 2D concept art — drawings that help define the visual style
- UI/UX design for software
- Minimalistic art (used to convey simple ideas without distracting), etc.
Examples of 2D Animation
It is a good idea to look at examples of 2D animation and art to understand its potential. Here are two completely distinct projects by Whimsy:
While the style of the game in the bottom left is pronouncedly “flat,” the top right example is more elaborate to fit the epic story. The backgrounds are designed to provide perceived depth, while the action still takes place on a 2D grid:
What is 3D Animation?
3D animation involves creating three-dimensional virtual models of objects using a special program. These can then be manipulated to move in a virtual space (width, depth, and height). “Sources of light” are placed strategically, and the resulting scenes are rendered to yield the animation. In essence, this is a computerized version of the puppet theatre.
The applications of 3D are manifold:
- Character design
- 3D sculpting
- 3D art — a combination of software and artistic talent to obtain aesthetically impressive results
Examples of 3D Animation
Here are two examples of 3D game designs developed by Whimsy Games: a space-themed shooter and a more laid-back, calming board game with 3D elements.
The principal advantage of the shooter is that a player can move in all possible directions, and the designs are made to convey the main visual tone from any angle. In the board game, the “rewards” are visualized to look appealing and contribute to the general mood of the game.
This is where the concept of 3D art becomes relevant — mesmerizing imagery can be produced using 3D techniques, merging painting/drawing, sculpting, and theatrical illumination. Here are several examples:
Here is how one can apply this sort of art to game character design (characters by Whimsy Game artist):
Difference in 2D and 3D Animation Creation Process
While a 2D artist is primarily a good sketcher who can capture movement in poses, the requirements for 3D designer are different. Working with digital “puppets” requires more sculpting skills, lighting and spatial intelligence.
Typically, 2D visuals and animations are more “cartoonish”, while 3D provides higher realism. With two-dimensional characters, for example, it is easier for the artics to produce a comical effect by exaggerating some features, making them “jump out of their skin” (remember Tom and Jerry) and so on. A 3D artist, however, has to worry more about lighting, since they can not “tweak” the shadows cast from the light sources.
The “common wisdom” says 2D is cheaper while 3D is more expensive. This is generally true: it takes less time to produce a 2D animation these days, especially with computer-generated “in-between” (tweening) frames. With 3D videos, however, the rendering takes long, and there are more factors at play, so more hours of effort are needed.
Generally, 2D animation uses tools that are simpler technologically and do not require as many resources (including graphics card capacity) as 3D platforms that perform complex rendering operations. At the same time, some 3D solutions incorporate functionalities for two-dimensional graphics.
Some examples are:
- Maya: a 3D platform for animation, sculpting and rendering; good for adding effects
- Unity: an engine used for both 2D and 3D animations, primary scripting, etc.
- Toonboom: a widely popular 2D platform, typically used for cartoons
- Spine: software for 2D game animation
- Adobe: sets of tools to cover various aspects of artwork and production
- Unreal Engine: advanced tool using its own Blueprints (no-code) approach
- Blender 3D: a toolkit allowing modeling, composing, motion tracking, rendering, and video work
It is incorrect to assume that 2D is somehow “worse” than 3D and used only for lack of resources. In reality, both have their niches and applications. The choice of 3D vs 2D animation for a game depends on several factors:
- How much the players will be invested in the game. 2D games are easier for the user to learn, so 2D is the option for casual games, time wasters, as well as games for kids and beginners
- The nature of the game. If the point is to move in a 3D space (plane simulator, shooter, etc.), then 3D is a better option than trying to “fake” it with artistic effects
- Mixing the approaches: both can be combined in a single game
To summarize the differences between 2d and 3d animation:
2D Animation Process
What is the difference between 2D and 3D animation process? Here is what it looks like for 2D.
Pre-production starts with generating the overall idea, the script for the future game, and concludes with production scheduling.
This stage involves making more concrete decisions, providing concept art and a storyboard. Based on these, artists create characters and locations to animate.
It is common practice to include coloring and background works in this stage after the animations are ready. Post-production also involves adding sound effects, testing and releasing the game.
Tips for 2D Animation
A successful 2D animation is the one that exploits its possibilities: you can draw anything. Some things that would look ugly in 3D can be spectacular in a flat image. Here are some tips to consider:
- Use exaggeration! In 2D, you can have, e.g. a character whose jaw drops to the ground and is bigger in that position than normally.
- Make the key frames powerful and memorable. People remember keyframes, not the tweening ones that fill in the gaps.
- Ensure the movement is natural. Good 2D animators give attention to details and non-obvious movements.
Of course, this is not the complete tutorial — specialists have their own best practices. At Whimsy Games, 2D artists carefully combine their own findings in the craft with what the customer’s intentions are to produce characters, environments and concept art.
3D Animation Process
In fundamental parts, the process of creating 3D animations is similar to its “flat” counterpart. However, there are additional stages to go through.
As with 2D, pre-production starts with the concept, script, and scheduling the to-do’s for the production stage.
Production process starts with the storyboard and mockups for the main elements. Character concepts are first designed as sketches. Based on these, the actual 3D creation starts.
For a 3D character, this involves four principal stages: modelling, rigging, skinning, and animation.
- Modelling goes from simple blocks to more precise, detailed sculpting — and then back to reducing the number of polygons in the mesh for optimization.
- Rigging means defining a “skeleton” inside the model: the fixed parts and moveable parts, “joints” and so on. This ensures the character will move in a natural way.
- Texturing and skinning: applying different 2D images to make surfaces look smooth, rough, furry, metallic, shiny, woven, crispy and so on.
Lighting can be crucial to how the game is perceived, so professionals decide where to put sources of light so the renders look appealing.
After the rendering and sound effect work, the production is finalized and tested.
Tips for 3D Animation
As 3D animation is a complex process, there are professional tips for every one of its aspects. Listing all of them would require an entire book, but here are several general best practices:
Respect the fine nuances of motion. Things like elasticity, weight, surface traction do not exist in a 3D simulation, so they need to be emulated carefully
Don’t overcomplicate. This concern s multiple aspects — for example, the rig (“skeleton”) should be simple enough to operate when creating the animations.
Observe the psychology of motion. It is a good idea to follow the “anticipation — action — reaction” pattern.
Often, 3D artists excel at some particular aspects of modelling or animation. It is a good idea to contact a team whose portfolio reflects something similar to what you want to achieve.
Which do I use for my project? How to choose
The choice of 2D animation vs 3D animation is determined by several factors. We have learned to differentiate between 2D and 3D animation, and seen how the two methods are fundamentally different in essence, artistic potential, production details and costs — but the decision is always ultimately yours.
We have seen some of the major uses of 2D graphics:
- Casual games
- Games for kids
On the other hand, 3D animations work best in:
- Atmospheric environment games
- 3D-motion games (flying simulators, etc.)
- Universes for hardcore gamers
There is no rule you could not possibly override with your decision. The important thing is to make sure the designs are done by the right specialists in correctly assembled teams. With over 150 projects successfully implemented for 70+ happy customers, 3d game art studio Whimsy Games has all the necessary expertise to offer for extremely diverse concepts. From creating the initial artwork and helping define the general look and feel to implementation using the latest technologies, we offer full-cycle services in 2D animation and 3D animation alike.