3D animation has been around for over a hundred years. Although it is only really in the past 25 or so that it has become more mainstream and accessible, [since Pixar became the first studio to release the first full-length 3D animated film, Toy Story], particularly because of the relative ease of digital technology.

To understand as best we can what 3D animation is all about we are going to journey through this process:

  • Animation
  • 2D Animation
  • History of 3D animation
  • 3D animation
  • How is 3D animation made
  • Benefits of 3D animation


Before we look a little closer at what 3D animation is all about, we need to take some time to try and understand the art of animation itself. While in this modern era, most animation takes place via computer technology, it was not always that way. The process was slow and arduous. On the foundations of that history, today’s animations stand and rise.

The word ‘animation’ would have originally had people thinking of hand-drawn or painted images – which were then photographed and showcased afterward. The process creates a type of optical illusion that suggests to our minds that still images or drawings are in fact moving. When you are able to speed up the drawings to 24 pictures [or frames] per second then the manifestation of motion is complete and the spell is cast.

Flipbook Animation

Some of you may remember when you were a child and discovered the art of the flipbook – spending a lot of time meticulously drawing a number of almost identical pictures on the bottom right corners of the pages of a pad and then when you flip through the page at the end your picture would ‘come to life’.

 A flipbook or flick book is a booklet with a series of images that very gradually change from one page to the next, so that when the pages are viewed in quick succession, the images appear to animate by simulating motion or some other change. Often, flipbooks are illustrated books for children, but may also be geared toward adults and employ a series of photographs rather than drawings. Flipbooks are not always separate books, but may appear as an added feature in ordinary books or magazines, frequently, using the page corners. Software packages and websites are also available that convert digital video files into custom-made flip books.[Wikipedia]

Once celluloid was developed in 1913, the movement from paper to film was imminent. Today, most animations are done via computer technology. Known as CGI or computer-generated imagery, the process has been made a lot simpler and easier to produce.

Another type of traditional animation that has been used to incredible effect is what is known as stop motion animation.

Stop Motion Animation

With stop motion animation, three-dimensional figures are filmed and then moved in the slightest way and then filmed again, frame by frame, painstakingly creating a collection of similar images that again create the idea of movement when watched at speed.

Stop motion is an animated film-making technique in which objects are physically manipulated in small increments between individually photographed frames so that they will appear to exhibit independent motion or change when the series of frames is played back. Any kind of object can thus be animated, but puppets with movable joints (puppet animation) or plasticine (clay animation or Claymation) are most commonly used.

The most popular Claymation creator must be Nick Park of Aardman Studios who brought ‘Wallace and Gromit’ to the big screen. The main problem with stop motion animation is that it takes so long to produce [Completing three seconds of film in a day is seen as a good day’s work so just imagine a full-length feature].

2D Animation

When it comes to traditional 2D animation, pictures are hand-drawn and – similar to the flipbook – each one has subtle changes from the previous one. When they are played back in order, it creates the illusion of movement. Essentially 2D creators are designing 2D flat images which means they have to focus on width and height but do not have to take depth into consideration.

You could say that 2D animation is about creating the idea or experience of movement in a two-dimensional space. This includes your characters, backgrounds, and any effects that take place. One second of time is usually divided into 24 frames, although there are exceptions when specific effects are desired.

Some of the most well-known [and loved] 2D animations include your classic Disney movies, Looney Tunes, TV shows like The Simpsons, Gummy Bears, Futurama, South Park, and Family Guy.

History of 3D Animation

The origins of 3D Animation fall to the designers Edwin Catmull and Frederik Parke. Before them, 2D animation was the only accessible animation style that was available to animators. Moving from paper to digital and then with the advent of 3D, we have seen animation rise to a whole new level creating so many different opportunities. In its time, many would have suggested that 3D animation was the peak of animation technology and yet with 4D [3D technology plus the seats move] and 5D [3D technology, moving seats and various effects such as water or wind being added to your experience] and the rise of Virtual Reality, the experimentation continues to create new and exciting ways to experience movies.

In the 1970s the film Futureworld used 3D wireframing to create a hand and face, which was the first big step towards true 3D animation. By the end of the 1970s this wireframe technique had been used to create some of the most memorable moments in Hollywood blockbusters such as Star Wars [for the Millenium Falcon] and Alien [the alien itself].

At the same time, computer graphics were advancing at speed as new technologies were emerging from different spaces such as NASA, film studios, research institutes, and different companies. One such advancement was the use of fractals which brought a greater sense of realism to 3D animation.

By the end of the following decade, there was greater access to computers as well as an expansion in the types of software available that gave people the means with which to produce computer graphics and 3D animation. The software that came out in the ’80s is the foundation on which the 3D animation software that we still use today were built.

what is 3d animation

What is 3D Animation?

3D animation is the process of creating three-dimensional moving images in a digital environment which includes height, width, and depth. Manipulation of 3D models or objects by 3D software creates the idea of animation or movement. This procedure is divided into three main phases which are known as modeling, layout, and animation, and rendering.

How is 3D Animation made?

#1 Modeling – creating a computer-generated model of the object

There are two primary methods of doing this. One is when an engineer uses a 3D modeling tool to create a 3D object inside a computer. The other is when actual objects are scanned into a computer to create the model.

At its most basic form, a model will comprise a series of polygons which are defined by points or vertices. A computer will read these as completely geometric forms and will render them in that way. A 3D modeling tool will be applied to them as digital sculpting similar to how you would mold clay. This adds the fine detailing and the specifics to each object. Other software might use a mesh which is then manipulated by tools to give the object form. Materials are added which will program the rendering engine as to how it treats light that hits the object. Then textures are added to bring color to the materials or features on the surface.

#2 Layout and Animation – placing and moving an object in a scene

The second phase has to do with the placement and movement of the object. The layout phase has to do with placing the object into the set. This includes determining the size and placement of each object and their relation to each other.

During the modeling phase, a large number of controls are placed into the model which allows it to be animated. For example, if the model is a human or an animal a skeletal type structure will first be made. This allows for each specific part of the body to be moved independently. These animation variables are known as Avars. For example, Woody from the movie ‘Toy Story’ had something like 100 Avars in his face, while the lion Aslan from ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ had over 700 in his face.

The Avars give the animator control of the object in a similar way to a puppetmaster controlling a really complicated puppet. This process is known as keyframing.

An alternative method known as motion capture has been used extensively. Actor Andy Serkis demonstrated just how incredible it could be through his portrayal of Smeagol/Gollum in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. This method typically has actors in costumes covered in dots that are caught on video. Then the computer adds the creature/person to the scene based on the movements of the actor.

#3 Rendering – Computer calculations that generate the image

3D rendering is the 3D graphics process of converting 3D models into 2D images on a computer. There are two main types of this – for photorealistic results [such as the new 2019 Disney ‘The Lion King’ movie] and non-photorealistic [such as we see in beautiful form in the Robin Williams movie ‘What Dreams May Come’ and in a lot of computer game graphics].

Photorealistic rendering typically simulates light transport and scattering whereas non-photorealistic rendering has more to do with applying an art style. Rendering requires specialized software because it is such a huge process requiring immense power. It also requires what is called 3D projecting which has to display the 3D image in two dimensions.

Rendering produces the end result of the completed computer graphics.

What are the benefits of 3D Animation?

3D animation can be used in a number of different ways for a variety of purposes. It has been used in industries as diverse as medicine, advertising, and gaming. It is often used for presentations and marketing in a whole range of different industries.

Some of the reasons that make it so advantageous are the following:

  • It catches the audience’s attention. Different from the medium that we normally face, it inspires a sense of wonder and grabs attention.
  • It engages the audience. Because 3D explores depth, it creates a world that feels a little more believable and alive. Really advanced 3D effects will often have audience members literally reaching out to try and touch objects that appear as if they are right in front of them.
  • It helps to build a brand.  As a medium that is different to most of what we are used to, if the 3D animation is well-produced it can quickly be used to create a new world people are eager to explore. Think James Cameron’s Avatar movies and their approaching sequels.
  • It lets you tell your story most effectively. There will always the need to suspend your disbelief with regular 2D animation as the disconnect is obvious. But a 3D telling of the story allows you to suggest a world that the viewer might easily inhabit. This adds to the mystery and intrigue of whatever story you are busy telling.


When telling a story, one must always consider the medium you are going to use. 3D animation is not going to necessarily be the best means of telling every story. The visual preferences of people will play a huge role in whether you go for 2D or 3D animation. If you do decide to go for 3D though, you will need to take into consideration a number of things. Target audience, timelines, necessary skills, and of course budget. But many people do suggest that 3D animation is the future of animation. And we have yet to discover just how far it will continue to take us.