To answer this question, first you have to ask yourself: “What do I want to make?” (Duh, obviously) Are you looking for 2D or 3D software? Do you want to do stop-motion or motion design? Do you have a large budget or do you want it to be cheap as fuck? Once you figured this out, you can take a look at the list of software below
Free animation software
1. Animation desk
This is a free app available for Mac, Windows and Android. We’ve only tried the free version, but there is a pro version for the iPad pro. Although it’s free, we have to say it is not too shabby. From the moment you open it, it feels pretty intuitive. You click on the plus to make a new project, name it, choose your timing options and your good to go. The control panel on the bottom is well thought of. On the left you have an extra panel with the standard navigations. After a few minutes fiddling around you will have it all figured out. Also, the screen Capture option is a nice plus.But it is still a free version and it does have some restrictions. The biggest problem We’ve had, where the brushes. They are pressure sensitive which is great, but for us, it just didn’t feel right. It annoyed us a lot that there is a limit to how small you can make the brush size. When you animate you want your brush to be nice and sharp. So, the fact that the minimum pencil size stopped at 15 points bugged the hell out of us. I mean really guys, did you put this restriction in, just to bug people?Conclusion: should we use this for professional assignments. Probably not, but we did have fun playing around with it. So, if you are new to animation and you just want to try and learn about animation, this is a good way to start.
Actually, this isn’t really animation software, it’s much more. You really have to see it as a very powerful freeware version of Photoshop. With all the tools you need to make wonderful illustrations. And the animation workspace is a bonus. However, it's a million times better than the equivalent in Adobes photoshop. Well maybe not a million times, but you get my point.The timeline is very similar to what you find in professional (paying) software. Every block is a frame and you can easily extend or shorten the timing. The onion skin is great, and the interface is pretty straight forward. Everything is just a right click away.Just don’t expect everything to be the same as photoshop. Because it looks a bit similar, you might expect the same workflow. But you know, other developer, other rules. There is a free desktop version and you can also download a mobile version of Krita in the Microsoft app store for less than 10 dollars.
Paying animation software
This might be our personal favourite. Although we are a version behind, this, for me, is the most user-friendly software for hand drawn animation. I used it a lot while studying animation and it has been used on major productions such as “song of the sea”. (which was nominated for an Academy award and won a ton of other awards) From the moment you open the program, you intuitively know how it works. With a logical timeline, precise drawing tools and an adjustable onion skin, it almost feels similar to animating on paper. [Almost 😉] It also has a great ‘Bucket’ tool, which has an adjustable gap filler. So, no more looking where you didn’t perfectly close that line.It is bitmap based, which means it gives you the possibility to work similar to photoshop. You can paint with different brushes, giving you the tools to make beautiful artwork in no time. The downside: it’s not vector based, so if you want to enlarge the drawing, you will start to see pixels. It also makes it harder to adjust colours afterwards. Another thing that bothered us, is the fact that you need to use a dongle if you want to use the program. This is a kind of USB-stick that you need to plug-in to run the program. It’s easy to lose and if you work on recent laptops, you often don’t have a USB-sloth anymore. (Yes Apple, I’m looking at you)
2. Toonboom harmony
This is the software, I believe, is most used in professional studios. The company itself says it’s the most flexible and complete animation software, and this could be true. It combines vector and bitmap (they have some very good textured brushes btw) which makes it easy to switch between the rough animation and the clean-up process. It is possible to rig your characters and combine it with traditional animation. You can motion tween and so on, and so on. It truly is an animation chameleon. And that's a big plus, but it also is the biggest issue with Toonboom. Because it wants to do everything, it becomes very complex. And in contrast to TVPaint for example, it doesn’t have the plug and play mentality. The node system for example is really strange if you are not used it. So, if you are a beginner I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you want to step up your animation game, this is the way to go.
3. Adobe Animate
TAPFKAF. The animation program formally know as Flash. For a long time this was the program you wanted to put in a box and hide away in the darkest corner of your basement. So the team of Adobe decided to give it a new name and rebrand it. Although this is not my favourite program, I have to admit it has come a long way. They have some descent vector brushes, a super easy bone-rigging tool and of course if you have an adobe cc license, you can start using it without having to pay for something new. This is probably one of the reasons why it’s getting used more and more in studios.But for us, it’s just not intuitive enough. So, if you want to try to animate something, make sure you have a good tutorial to guide you.
This is animation software is specialised in digital puppetry. This means that you add a skeleton to your character and then you animate the skeleton instead of the character itself. It plays well with photoshop, but you have to make sure that when you build your puppet, everything is nicely organised. When you import the PSD, it will automatically recognise the layers. Something the program does not do with Illustrator. You can design inside Moho as well, but we have the feeling that the program isn’t optimised for this.And then you have the animation part. This is keyframe based like After Effects. But there are some really cool features that make it more user friendly for animation. For example, when you select a bone, the corresponding layer will be automatically show on top of the other layers. Showing all the keyframes you need. You can easily switch between IK & FK. There is an amazing feature called “smart bones”, and we have to say it like it is: “It works amazing!”. What does it do, you ask? Well a smart bone contains an animation you’ve made in advance. Let’s say a head turn for example. When you make your final animation, you can just pull your smart bone to the left, to make your character look left and pull the smart bone to the right too… Well you get the point!
5. After Effects
Of course, we are biased... But without a doubt, this is the most flexible software out there. Actually, After Effects is a compositing program and was originally not designed to be used for character animation. But today it’s one of the ‘go to’ tool for animators and motion designers. Thanks to the puppet tool (and the major improvements in AE 2019) rigging arms and legs became very easy. The layer system feels very intuitive, especially when you are used to working with other Adobe software. Another big plus are all the compositing and effects possibilities. Which makes it really easy to create top notch content in no time. But I have to admit that when you are new to the program it can be quite overwhelming. And when you want to take your animation skills to the next level, things can get quite complex. But no worries, that’s why we are here to help ;)If you want to try out some character animation in after effects, check out our pre-rigged characters here. And yes, there are some free characters as well.
Is this all the software out there? Definitely not. As said before, it’s just a selection we have worked with, and found worth while sharing. We left out some software that was to buggy or unstable. Yes OpenToonz, we are talking about you. If you think there is something else worth mentioning, please let us know. We also like to keep learning and exploring every day.