Learn the Distinctions Between Traditional and Computer Animation

Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between animation methods

Hand drawing on an animation tablet

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It's easy to define the difference between traditional and computer animation: Traditional animation uses methods that don't involve digital tools, while computer animation methods use — you guessed it — computers. Another way of distinguishing the two is physical versus virtual; traditional animation uses physical materials and activities, while computer animation uses virtual materials in a digital space.

Traditional Animation Dominated Early Animation

Traditional 2D-cel animation and stop-motion animation both fall under the category of traditional animation, even though both may use digital methods of filming in the end. What matters is the method of producing the animation itself. Cel animation involves hand-drawing, hand-inking, and hand-painting thousands of frames on clear cells that display against painted backgrounds and photographed in rapid sequence, while stop-motion animation involves working with physical models and objects captured on camera one frame at a time.

This hands-on method requires a team of artists, cleanup artists, painters, directors, background artists, and camera crews — along with the storyboard artists and scriptwriters to work out the original concepts. For large-scale projects, the amount of time, labor, and equipment involved is staggering.

Computer Animation Is Cheaper and Faster

If you're animating on-screen, you're working with computer animation. 3D animation came into its own with computers. Computer animation can be either 2D or 3D, but 2D computer animation often involves virtualization of the traditional 2D animation workspace, bringing pen and paper into the digital environment to recreate cartoon animation workflows and styles. 3D computer animation employs hybrid workflows following traditional timelines adapted to working in a virtual 3D space.

Computer animation simplifies the animation toolkit; all you need is a computer with enough system requirements to run the 2D or 3D software application of choice and people trained to use that software.

Depending on the type of animation desired, sometimes the process can be wholly computerized. In other cases, such as in many 2D "cartoon" animations, the hand-penciling work is still necessary, before individual drawings scan to the computer to be colored and sequenced digitally.

Computer animation is much less labor-intensive and much cheaper. It comes with a greater margin of error because you can undo any mistakes on digital files up to a certain number of steps.

In many cases, it's hard to classify an animation as strictly one or the other, as many animators take a hybrid path in which some parts of an animation are produced using traditional styles before they are completed or enhanced using digital methods.

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