Our round-up of the best 2D animation software will help you get to grips with your latest creative project, whether you’re a complete beginner or a professional animator. Packed with useful tools, features and pre-built templates, the packages each offer something slightly different and come with their own benefits and drawbacks.
We think that the best 2D animation software for most people will be Adobe Animate, as it’s regularly updated with new features and comes with tons of export options. However, it is fairly pricey. If you’re not looking to spend any money on your cartoon projects, we think that Autodesk Sketchbook is the best free 2D animation software currently available.
All of the programs below will work on Macbook and Windows PCs – Powtoon actually opens in your browser and works best with Google Chrome. Most of them have quite a steep learning curve, but if you’re looking for a really easy 2D animation tool for complete beginners, we recommend Moho Debut 13.
A lot of the packages below come with their own drawing tools and various brush effects, but you can also create detailed characters by using one of the best graphic design software packages. Or, if you want to create a completely different kind of masterpiece, you can get creative with one of the options in our round-up of the best comic creator software.
1. Adobe Animate: Best 2D animation software overall
Adobe Animate is a big name in the world of 2D animation and it gets that recognition for a reason, it's one of the best. Thanks to frame-by-frame animation at a very high quality it's possible to easily create super lifelike animations with a very professional feel. But, crucially, it can be done relatively easily once that learning curve is dealt with.
On top of the intuitive layout, features which standout include excellent vector brushes with wide styles, a modern timeline plus lots of updates which add more all the time. Thanks to a wide selection of export options, including HTML5 Canvas, WebGL and SVG, this can be shared on desktop, mobile, TV and more.
Being Adobe, this does require you to pay a bit more than some of the competition and that's via a subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud. On the plus side this mean you get all the latest fixes and updates as well as some other software you may enjoy too, like the Adobe Character Animator.
Since this is Adobe, there are lots and lots of guides and tutorials out there making this great both for professionals that need a great depth of features as well as beginners who don't mind learning.
2. Autodesk Sketchbook: Best budget 2D animation software
Autodesk Sketchbook has always been a top-end 2D design software offering that had a price to match that. Now it is totally free. From drawing and animating to editing, this does it all – this will even turn your webcam into a scanner if you want to draw new resources into your project. In fact, this could easily take the top spot if it had a few more animation tools rather than being so drawing focused.
This works on a host of devices with great app optimization, meaning drawing on tablets, laptops and phones with or without stylus is all excellent. The 100 mpx canvas gives a really lifelike feel to drawing and the plethora of tools makes it better in many ways. The 16-sector Radial Symmetry and Predictive Strokes smooths lines and corrects shapes, making it great even for those newer to the software.
This is PSD compatible on all devices allow you to export to other types too like JPG, PNG, BMP, TIFF and more.
3. Harmony 20: Best professional 2D animation software
Toon Boom Harmony 20 is the professional standard for 2D animation software. In fact Toon Boom software is used by plenty of big name shows like South Park, The Simpsons, SpongeBob, Rick and Morty to name just a few. From cartoons to games, this helps you build characters and animate them from the ground up.
You get a super advanced brush engine, unlimited traditional paperless animation, superb cut-out animation and rigging, deformers for plenty of textures and depth realism, pipeline integration and special effects. And that just scratches the surface of what's on offer here.
Yes, there is a steep learning curve and yes, it is pricey for the top-end software. But is it worth it? That's another big yes.
4. Moho Debut 13: Best 2D animation software for beginners
Moho, formerly Animation studios, offers its Debut 13 as a 2D animation software that's great for beginners but delivers the end result expected by pros. The relatively affordable program offers a great place to start learning 2D animation with some very impressive tools including powerful vector drawing tools, audio recording and sound effects, timeline controls, auto lip sync and more.
Once mastered, there is also Moho Pro 13, which takes everything to the next level, for those looking to earn a living from their art. In Debut there is plenty on offer though, with bitmap drawing tools and professional quality characters that could be more than enough for many animators.
5. Powtoon: Best marketing 2D animation software
Powtoon is an animation software designed to be super quick and easy, aimed at marketing, business, school and blogger use. This uses templates with drag and drop functionality, all within an online platform. That means it can be used by virtually anyone, on any machine and easily shared to most platforms including direct website, Facebook and YouTube, to name just a few.
This is more about getting a message across in a fun and engaging way, rather than being creatively original. As such this lets you pick and chose pre-built pieces to build your storyboard, rather than focusing on building from scratch.
There are multiple pricing plans and the option to pay monthly or annually, so there should be something to suit most levels of need.
6. BrashMonkey Spriter Pro: Best 2D animation for games
BrashMonkey Spriter Pro is purpose built 2D animation software that's made for gaming. This is an easy yet feature rich way to get your gaming characters built, animated and even audio backed, from one place.
Spriter animation files work directly in games making the export and installation of them into gaming environments straight forward. They're also super efficient in size meaning they won't take up a lot of memory in your game build. From customizable player characters to mightly on-screen bosses, this handles them all well.
Choosing 2D Animation Software
When deciding on 2D animation software, you will need to consider your skill level and your willingness to learn. Experienced users will obviously want a variety of advanced tools and features. Beginners should determine whether they are willing to invest time in learning advanced tools or not.
How Much Does 2D Animation Software Cost?
As fun as it is to use, Animation software can be rather costly, especially if you're wanting to get a version that allows you to draw your own characters and use onion skinning and bone-rigging tools. Fortunately, the larger animation companies tend to offer 2-4 different versions of their software so you can find a software that fits your price range and usage needs.
The most basic programs tend to sell between $35 and $80 while the most advanced versions can be upwards of $400. Some animation programs, like Adobe Animate, are subscription based so you will have to pay a monthly fee in order to have access to the software.
Some animation software offers student editions and pricing to make the software more affordable. If you aren't sure about spending your money, try to find a software that offers a free trial.
Do you need a drawing tablet?
If you plan on drawing your figures and backgrounds from scratch, then we recommend you invest in a drawing tablet. If you’re using a program that employs pre-drawn characters, a mouse and keyboard will be a better fit. Most drawing tablets connect through USB or wireless connection and feature programmable buttons to speed up your drawing process without having to touch your keyboard too much.
Drawing tablets come in several sizes, from small 4-inch surfaces to upwards of 20 inches. We recommend the Wacom Intuos Pro if you are a beginning digital artist. This tablet is also a favorite device for many professional digital artists. It comes in three different sizes, which affects the price and drawing space. It also works wirelessly, so you won’t have to worry about damaging or tangling any cords.
If you’re willing to spend a lot more, drawing monitors like the Wacom Cintiq Pro are incredibly useful. This type of monitor allows you to draw directly on the screen so you don’t have to look between your drawing tablet and your computer monitor when drawing. These monitors feature pen sensitivity so you can create thicker or thinner pen strokes by pressing harder or lighter on the screen.
Useful tools to look for
More-advanced 2D animation programs allow you to create storyboards to visualize each shot of your project. The best storyboards help you add dialogue to each scene, apply sketches and figure out camera placement. Not all 2D animation programs come with storyboards, but if you simply want to have fun with the program, it isn't necessarily a needed feature.
The tools you use to create your characters can give them added depth. Some programs come with a variety of brush types to help you find the right style to match your visions. Example brushes include watercolor, pencil and felt tips. Layers are also useful in helping you design the perfect visual style. Advanced programs will help you add effects to various layers that can be altered independently of the other layers.
When we contacted Troughton at Toon Boom Harmony, she told us that depending on your experience level, it can take anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks to become proficient in the software. But it can be made easier with the help of an extensive learning center complete with forums and tutorials. Many professional-level companies will also offer learning courses on their website or on sites like Lynda.com. While you must pay to attend, you will better understand the software in less time. Troughton also told us that Toon Boom has a huge community of users who "are creating content to help others learn [the] software."
Defining Onion Skinning, Bone-Rigging and Tweening
When it comes to animating your characters, there are a few advanced tools that can make your creations move more smoothly and believably. The onion skinning feature can be found in both advanced and beginner programs. This allows you to compare your current frame against the previous and upcoming frames in order to make sure your character moves fluidly.
Rigging is basically the same as puppeteering: It allows you to move your characters in the way you want. Bone-rigging is a more complex tool that basically allows you to create a skeleton within your characters that you can move. This gives you more control so you can orchestrate more lifelike movements. Tweening is a term that refers to making transitional images between various character positions in order to create the illusion of movement. Some programs can complete tweening for you, which saves time and helps your animations move smoothly.
You can find plenty of additional drawing and animation tips online from artists. Additionally, the developers of most animations programs offer tutorials and online courses for you to learn from. If you aspire to improve your drawing and animation skills, you shouldn't be put off by your first drawing attempts.
It also helps to take a break from your art for 10 minutes or more and then to come back to it with fresh eyes. You might notice an obvious flaw or perception issue that you hadn't seen previously.
Learning from life will help you develop an eye for believable body movements and a better understanding of the human figure so you can incorporate those skills into your animations.