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2D and 3D Animation: What Are Their Differences and Uses

Learn the difference between these two types of animation, and the skills and software needed to master them

Besides the obvious end result, the main differences between animation and modeling in 2D and 3D are the tools used, the skills, the goals, and creative profiles.

We talked to Carlos Albarrán, better known as Zenzuke (@zenzuke)–an expert in motion graphics and animation, who teaches in the most renowned schools in Madrid–about these two arts, and what they involve.


The birth of 2D animation as a concept dates back to the 19th century when the first flipbook was produced. The images drawn in the book are gradually changed in each page, and when flipped quickly, they create the illusion of movement:

As for 3D technology, British photographer William Friese-Greene came up with the idea in 1890. However, the historical origin is more commonly traced to 1922, when the film The Power of Love, which is considered the first 3D reel, was first screened.

Depth: the main difference

Let’s begin with the key difference between the two graphic formats. When we talk about 2D, we refer to flat images based on two variables of measurement: height (X-axis) and length (Y-axis). Three-dimensional animation, or 3D, also has depth (Z-axis), the main feature through which we perceive reality.

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This graphic feature is decisive in the processes of both formats. To better understand this, we need to realize that in 2D Animation and modeling, each element must be created and modified frame by frame. In contrast, in 3D, this is not necessary. The axes are always there, irrespective of what movements or manipulation we give to the object in the composition.

On the one hand, the absence of movement is not usually problematic for narrative in 2D Animation, because visual continuity is maintained through rhythm. Conversely, rigidity in 3D animation will always appear like a mistake, even if it only lasts one second.

Formats and narratives

How do you know which is the ideal format for a project? Zenzuke explains:

Although you can use both indistinctively, being competent in 3D can give you more freedom when handling cameras, using perspective, and looking for different transitions. Even when you are making traditional 2D animation, you can often start in 3D to visualize complicated stuff that you will complete in two dimensions.
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The following tools are recommended by Zenzuke for each format:

- 2D: After Effects, Illustrator or Adobe Animate

- 3D: Cinema 4D

Even though Zenzuke uses 2D and 3D in equal measure, he recognizes that there is an advantage in mastering the use of animation programs in the latter:

Even for a project designed for 2D, many things are easier to execute on a 3D program. Having the option to do something with different tools will always be advantageous. Having competencies in 3D can be useful in many fields. It is used more and more in areas such as branding and illustration, and if your domain is motion graphics, you need to be learning this art.

If you want to learn more about animation, we recommend Zenzuke’s course Introduction to After Effects, in which you will learn to master this software from scratch.

You may also be interested in:

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- 10 Essential shortcuts to Master Adobe After Effects
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- Photoshop Tutorial: How to Cut out Images so You Can Animate Them


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