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Best 2D animation software

Best 2D animation software
(Image credit: Adult Swim)

The best 2D animation software packages provide versatile tool for artists and designers of all skill levels. You can use them for work, game design, school projects and even just for fun. But with a wide range of 2D animation software options to pick from it can be tough to find the perfect one for your particular needs.

We've taken the hard work out of that by rounding up the very best options out there right now. These are listed each with their special skill so that you can easily, at a glance, spot which is ideal for your needs. To be clear, 2D animation software is used to create 'flat' work rather than the more lifelike 3D modelling software out there. So you can move up, down, left and right but not forward and backwards. This can lend an element of animated fun to your project and, crucially, can be more easily shared and viewed. 

It's more focused on moving animations, so differs from the likes of comic creator software. Combine it with something like the best graphic design software, and you have everything you need to craft your own animations.


1. Adobe Animate: Best 2D animation software overall

Adobe Animate: Best 2D animation software overall

(Image credit: Adobe)

Adobe Animate

For the widest number of features and compatibility, look no further

Platform: Mac, PC, iOS and Android | Export options: HTML5 Canvas, WebGL, SVG | Payment: Subscription model

Regular updates with new features
Lots of export options
Very lifelike animation results
Top vector brushes
Pricier than some

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

(Image credit: Autodesk)

Autodesk Sketchbook

A top quality program that is now totally free to use

Platform: Mac, PC, iOS, Android | Export options: PSD, JPG, PNG, BMP, TIFF | Payment: Free

Now free to use
Webcam scanner feature
Wide compatibility
Great app optimization
Not the easiest to learn

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

Harmony 20: Best professional 2D animation software

(Image credit: Toon Boom)

Harmony 20

If you want to have professional tools this is the place to look

Platform: Mac, PC, Linux | Export options: 13 types including MP4 and AVI | Payment: Three models

Super sensitive brushes
Wide texture selection
Super UI
Steep learning curve
Expensive

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 Debut 13

(Image credit: Moho)

Moho Debut 13

For newbs that want to go all the way to pro, this is the first step

Platform: Mac, PC | Export options: WAV, AIFF, MP3, M4A and more | Payment: One off payment

Great to learn
Relatively affordable
Bitmap frame by frame
Limiting for some

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

(Image credit: Powtoon)

Powtoon

For business, marketing and schools, this is very easy to use

Platform: Online | Export options: HTML5, YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo and more | Payment: Three plans, paid monthly or annually

Easy to use
Perfect for video work
Template based
Business focused
Basic tools

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

(Image credit: BrashMonkey)

BrashMonkey Spriter Pro

Gaming animations made easy

Platform: PC, Mac, Linus | Export options: Spriter | Payment: One off payment

Relatively easy to use
Easy export and installation
Low memory usages
Very gaming specific

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.

There are lots of Spriter API options that work with the likes of Javascript, C#, C++, Construct 2 and plenty more. If you're after this very specific 2D gaming animation character building need, then this is the platform for you.


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.

Artist Tips

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.