How Are Layers Used in Animation and Graphic Design Software?

What GIMP, Maya, Photoshop, and Paint Shop Pro have in common

Cat and person paper cutout effect over drawing paper

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In animation and graphics software, layers refer to the different levels on which you place your drawings, animations, and objects. The layers are stacked one on top of another. Each layer contains its own graphics or effects, which can be worked on and changed independently of the other layers. Together all the layers combine for a complete graphic or animation. 

In most cases, when you open a new file in a software program, you see only the base layer of the file. You could do all your work there, but you would end up with a flattened file that is difficult to edit and work with. When you add layers on top of the base layer as you work, you expand the possibilities of what you can do with the software. A single layer in Photoshop, for example, can have up to a hundred possible settings, most of which can be previewed in combination with other layers without actually changing them.

What Software Uses Layers?

Layers are prevalent in all the high-end graphic arts and animation software programs and in free open-source software such as GIMP as well. You'll find layers in Photoshop, Illustrator, and many of Adobe's other graphics programs. They are there in Maya, Animate, Poser, and open-source Blender. You'd be hard-pressed to find a decent animation or graphic design program that doesn't offer layering capability.

Benefits of Using Layers With Animations and Graphics

The benefits of layering are unending and depend on exactly what you are trying to accomplish, but in general:

  • Working with layers in animation lets you composite animation scenes in a way that doesn't require fitting everything together perfectly in each frame.
  • Layers give you more freedom in editing and give you a way to keep objects from merging on one layer when you need them to be separate in others.
  • Layers can be rearranged, allowing you to change the order in which objects are displayed, thus changing the composition of your scene. Want that red ball in the background to be upfront? Easy. Just change the layer order.
  • Individual layers can be turned on and off temporarily, which allows operators to focus on one particular part of a project at a time without the distraction of the other layers.
  • With layers, you can apply effects to individual elements of a single graphic. Want to animate only a few bones of a skeleton without affecting the rest? Do it with a layer.
  • Apply transparency (or opacity) to an individual element of a file by placing it on a layer and applying the effect to only that one layer. You'll be able to see through to the layers below.
  • Try out special effects with an adjustment layer that previews the effects of an effect on the layers beneath it without changing them.
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