Animation is a big industry – and while you may think of animators as the people who work at Disney or Pixar making Oscar-Award-winning films, animators can be found in many different industries using various tools.
Many of the animators working today will have something in common. Animation artists use digital software to help them tell a beautiful story through whichever creative style they pursue. Animation Desk is one of these software tools, designed to be intuitive and accessible to even amateur and aspiring animators looking to start their journey.
To help showcase the various forms of animations, and how digital technologies like – Animation Desk – can assist you with producing them, we have created this guide to discuss 18 different types of animation. By the end, we hope you can identify the distinct animation type you prefer, understand its target audience, and begin producing your own animated works.
What is Animation?
While almost everyone with a TV or internet-connected device has seen some form of animation, it might be difficult for them to define what exactly animation is. Whether you were watching an old stop motion animated video, a 3D animation from Pixar, or a more traditional 2D Anime, you were engaging with some form of animation.
For a more general definition that leaves a lot of room for creativity, Encyclopedia Britannica defines animation as “the art of making inanimate objects appear to move.” The animation process by which an animator gives these inanimate objects the illusion of movement is one aspect, but all forms of animation will have this in common.
Animation has been a part of creating general marketing content and the entertainment industry for generations, and perhaps even further than many people believe. The first recorded animator in history was known as Pygmalion, a sculptor who was a figure in Greek and Roman mythology. His work was very early in the timeline that would eventually lead to films featuring the animated characters you know and love today.
While animated storytelling videos and films can be found all over the internet and streaming services, we want to share the long journey of animation, and the many different styles that make up the artistic discipline that is animation. What started as showing motion with a series of images, has grown to billion-dollar 3D animated films featuring software created through decades of work.
To start this journey, we want to discuss one of the earliest animation examples the Phenakistoscope.
Let’s begin with one of the oldest animation techniques, and talk about the pioneer of animation, the Phenakistoscope. An interesting fact about this device is that it was created at the same time by two separate inventors, without them even knowing each other. In 1832, Joseph Plateau and Simon von Stampfer would present the device known as the Phenakistoscope within weeks of each other.
The basic idea of this device is that a round cardboard disc is painted with a sequence of images. This sequence is composed of images that differ just slightly from each other. When viewed in succession, they give the illusion of movement, which is the fundamental concept behind animation.
The cardboard disk would then be mounted to a spindle with a handle so that the disk would be rotated, moving the images, and producing the appearance of “movement.”
While animation techniques and technology have come a long way since then, it can still be fun to create your own Phenakistoscope and begin your animation journey. If you’re looking for more advanced animation software to assist your creations, you should consider trying out Animation Desk. Animation Desk allows you to create and export the keyframes that you need to make your Phenakistoscope. The software also has many other forms of traditional and modern animation to experiment with.
Soon after the Phenakistoscope (almost immediately after, in fact), the Zoetrope was created. It would be many years however before the most popular version, created by Milton Bradley (the board game company), would become a success on the market. The Zoetrope was essentially fashioned as a cylindrical version of the Phenakistoscope. This new form allowed the movement to be displayed more conveniently, and several people could view the animation at the same time, versus the Phenakistoscope.
In a Zoetrope, the sequence of images that form the animation is found on a paper strip that is lined around a small drum. There are slits on the sides of the drum, and the drum sits on a spindle. The faster this drum spins, the smoother the animation appears. While you could still make your own version of this device, there are more convenient tools to use.
Using Animation Desk, you can plan out the sequence of images to establish a working format. You can export your image frames (frame by frame) to be printed on a paper strip that you can place in your Zoetrope drum.
Since the first designs of the Zoetrope, artists have developed the technique to make even more complex and astonishing Zoetrope animations.
3. Lightning Sketches
While the Phenakistoscope and Zoetrope are interesting glimpses of the early days of animation, it may be difficult to understand how they made such a drastic jump to the animated films we see today. Well, one popular animation technique that is considered another stepping stone before animated films is Lightning Sketches.
Lightning Sketches were popular in Vaudeville, during a period at the end of the 19th century. Performers would monologue while drawing images on a large easel, making rapid transformations that would help tell the story. George Méliès was a pioneer of this art form, and his groundbreaking film – The Living Playing Cards – would showcase an early precursor to animated films and storytelling.
4. Traditional Animation
After Lightning Sketches, the first ‘true’ animated films would feature traditional animation techniques, made most popular by Walt Disney Studios and their massive hit Snow White. Traditional Animation features animations were created by drawing and coloring. Most of the early animated films you know would also feature cel animation.
With cel animation, the film would be composed of drawings made on “cels,” with multiple cels being layered on top of each other to keep environments consistent. This technique enabled character movement and action. Cel animation was invented in 1915 by Earl Hurd and John Bray, and their creation would eventually become one of the most popular and sought-after animation techniques. This was until computer-generated imagery (CGI) and software gave rise to 3D objects, characters, and films.
While traditional hand-drawn 2D animation may not be conducted the same way today, digital 2D animation can still accomplish many of the same aesthetics as traditional hand-drawn animations (in an easier and cheaper way).
5. Chalkboard Animation
A close relative of Lightning Sketches, Chalkboard Animation was another early form of animation. While Lightning Sketches were more popular for their live performance uses, Chalkboard Animations aren’t always necessarily live performances. In fact, some of the most popular examples are not live.
Émile Cohl is known for his animated feature Fantasmagorie, which is largely considered the first-ever hand-drawn animation film. This film was stylized to resemble a Chalkboard Animation, where the artist uses a chalkboard to draw and erase images to tell a story. Fun fact, Émile Cohl may have stylized his film to look like he was making chalk drawings, but he actually accomplished Fantasmagorie by making the drawings on negative film!
As chalkboards have fallen out of popular use, this animation style has also declined a bit. A more modern take on this style is Whiteboard Animation, which uses a whiteboard instead of a chalkboard. This style has been more notable in recent years on YouTube. An example would be “draw my life” type videos, as they often feature this style of animation and storytelling.
6. Puppetry Animation
Puppetry Animation, which is a bit different from the characters on Sesame Street, could be considered a form of Stop-Motion Animation. With Puppetry Animation, figures are posed, photographed, and posed again to give the gradual illusion of movement when viewed in sequence. One of the earliest pioneers of Puppetry animation was Aleksandr Shiryaev, a ballet master who made the world’s first puppet animation film over the course of several months.
The years following this pioneering film would give rise to new and even more ambitious puppetry animation projects, with the largest puppet animation film ever being released in 1935. Known as The New Gulliver, this film would feature over 1,500 puppets and utilize a mix of puppet animation and live-action filming.
7. Stop Motion Animation
Stop Motion Animation is more of an umbrella term, featuring many substyles such as clay animation known as Clay Animation (featured in a popular series like Wallace and Gromit). Claymation was made even more popular with the work of Tim Burton (though it should be noted that he actually uses plasticine character models).
When Stop Motion was invented, a technique known as a “stop trick” related to Stop Motion was used as early as 1895 by the Edison Manufacturing Company in their film, The Execution of Mary Stuart.
Stop Motion Animation works off of the same principles as Traditional Animation. In Traditional Animation, you create the illusion of movement by showing individual frames in sequence with subtle changes making the characters and objects appear life-like.
With Stop Motion Animation, the same effect is achieved through the use of clay figures or other models. In a Stop Motion Animation production, the animator will pose their character models and film one frame at a time, adjusting the models with the result being a collection of these frames shown in rapid succession.
8. Cut-Out Animation
What makes Cut-out Animation stand out from other Stop Motion Animation – and even Traditional Animation – is its two-dimensionality. With Claymation, the figures you see will typically be 3D. More modern digital animation and CGI will also feature this format. With Cut-out Animation, figures will typically be composed of paper or cardboard which usually means they are featured as 2D characters and objects.
The world’s earliest known Cut-out Animation film came from Argentinian artist Quirino Cristiani. Many early animated works would utilize this technique, due to the relative inexpensiveness of the materials and the ability for expression. Modern-day popular Cut-out Animation works include early episodes of shows like South Park and famous scenes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
9. Flipbook Animation
Flipbook Animation is another more traditional form of animation (it even predates Phenakistoscopes) that still sees some use today. Chances are you’ve indulged in creating your own flipbooks with post-it notes or index cards, making a ball appear to bounce as you flip through the various pages of your book. If you have ever created such a thing, then you have successfully created a Flipbook Animation.
This technique can be relatively simple using your creativity. With Flipbook Animation, you draw a sequence of images on sequential pages. When you flip the book pages quickly, it appears to show movement or animation. This is the same concept that gave rise to the Phenakistoscope and the beginnings of animation.
While flipbooks have certainly become more intricate, they aren’t the most dominant form of animation you’ll see today. They can be a great tool for artists, however, as you can use your flipbook to conceptualize the proper sequences for your final animation, think about the time and effort required to complete the project.
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10. Motion Graphic Animation
Motion Graphic Animation may be one of the lesser-known styles of animation (at least by name). Motion Graphic Animation combines graphic design and animation. It is commonly used in:
- Explainer videos
- Educational videos
- Advertisements and promotional videos
Motion Graphic Animation is also referred to as Motion Design. It frequently features Typography Animation (the animation of text), which can be referred to as Kinetic Typography. This technique is used extensively in marketing material, so odds are you have come across it before in ads on YouTube or on TV.
11. Code-Based Animation
While much of modern animation (3D and CGI) uses code for its software, it differs from explicitly code-based animation. This type of coding requires special software that is used to draw and animate, versus the code creating the computer-generated images and animation itself. This is a less prominent form of animation, but it is an incredible sight when you get a chance to see them.
12. 3D Animation
3D Animation has become one of the more prominent forms of animation due to studios like Pixar creating groundbreaking films featuring this technique. With 3D Animation, animated characters, and objects are rendered as three-dimensional entities, giving the film a much more realistic effect.
The most notable early film in the history of three-dimensional animation is Toy Story, the initial outing of Pixar as a studio, and a film that introduced much of the world to the capabilities of 3D animation.
The process of 3D Animation has also introduced many new roles in the animated film space. Rigging, lighting, character design, and environmental design are just some of the prominent roles that go into creating an extensive 3D animated video production.
13. Pixel Animations
Pixel Animations may be most well-known for its use in old video games. Eight-bit video games would feature “sprites” pixel art versions of characters that would be manipulated to produce the gameplay you enjoyed. The Mario Brothers are a famous example of Pixel Animations. You maneuver a small character made of pixels that are animated to support gameplay features.
Pixel Animations still find some prominence today in computer animations and artists’ specialties, though they have fallen out of favor with most game developers.
14. Live Action Animation
Live Action Animation is an incredibly unique animation technique that mixes CGI with videography to produce a combination of real actors and animated characters or environments to tell a story.
“Koko the Clown” was one of the first major characters to be utilized in live-action films to interact with the real world. Films like Space Jam and Who Framed Roger Rabbit are popular examples of modern Live Action Animation films that feature real actors and locations alongside animated counterparts.
Rotoscope Animation was significant in the early days of animation and retains its usefulness to this day. With Rotoscoping, an animator uses a real-life model. Their movements are “traced” over to produce a digital animation with a character with more realistic movements.
Before Rotoscoping came about, characters were criticized for their clunky or unconvincing movements. Still, by using video footage of real-life actors playing out scenes, animators could have a guideline for producing more realistic movements. The “Koko the Clown character is also an example of Rotoscoping being used to provide more life-like movements to characters in a live-action setting.
16. Mechanical Animation
Mechanical Animation is less well-known for its use in films. Instead, this technique is more important as an educational tool to help demonstrate the processes by which machines and other devices operate. With Mechanical Animation, realistic 3D model renderings of machines are created, and their functional processes are animated to observe the mechanical processes they follow.
Mechanical Animation is a great tool to help prototype ideas and identify issues that may occur with the function of a device. It can help investors or students understand more about the particulars of their devices.
17. Augmented Reality Animation
We discussed Live Action Animation earlier and Augmented Reality Animation essentially applies the same idea to real-life situations outside of the film. Augmented Reality (AR) has been gradually becoming more popular. Apps like Snapchat have introduced filters that rely on AR to help users try on outfits or take pictures in fantasy locations. As another example, IKEA has implemented AR technology that enables customers to place a virtual sofa or home mattress into their space to try before purchasing.
With Augmented Reality Animation, 3D environment characters, and objects are overlaid onto real-life backgrounds to provide a realistic appearance of the object in the real world.
These animations are usually viewed through a phone or camera, which provides the backdrop for the object to be placed. AR glasses (most notably Google Glass and Snap Glasses) provide a hands-free alternative to viewing AR animations.
18. Virtual Reality Animation
Next to Augmented Reality Animation, Virtual Reality Animation may be the most cutting-edge animation technique listed here. Virtual reality was introduced in more primitive forms long ago, but it has since become incredibly accessible to consumers. Headsets such as the Oculus are making VR more of a household name.
With VR Animation, viewers are fully immersed in an animated world. Because the VR viewer allows you to see and interact with the images in front of you, VR animators can construct worlds and scenes from entirely new viewpoints. VR also offers viewers an unprecedented way to interact with their favorite animated stories.
Produce Your Own Stunning Animations with Animation Desk
Among the 18 animation styles we shared, it would be difficult – if not impossible – to choose one that is better or more enjoyable than the others. Each style has its own strengths and enables artists to explore their imagination and abilities.
One thing that all of these animation techniques have in common is that they were born out of a desire to tell stories. As time went on, artists and engineers continued to improve these techniques to further equip animators with powerful new tools.
Today, digital environment, animation software can be used to assist in nearly all of these animation techniques, whether it’s printing paper frames for Phenakistoscope, or rigging 3D characters for a CG animation.
Animation Desk was created to combine these powerful animation tools into one convenient location so that animation could be more accessible for artists aspiring to tell their stories. See for yourself how other animators have found their voice and told their stories with the help of Animation Desk.
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