Is it time to upgrade from hand-drawn animations? Animation software can help bring your ideas to life—and the screen. Whether you’re animating for a feature film, video game, or personal project, animation software can help you achieve your goals. 

If you’re animating on a budget, there’s plenty of free animation software that can enhance your artistry at no cost. Below, we walk through nine of the best animation software options—free and premium. 

You can use Autodesk Maya to take a standard motion capture clip and create your own custom animation.
You can use Autodesk Maya to take a standard motion capture clip and create your own custom animation.

Autodesk Maya

Use on: Windows, Mac OS, Linux 

Best for: Everyone, beginner to pro  

Many beginner animators want to know: What animation software does Disney use? Well, look no further—while Disney artists use a variety of animation software, one of the most popular choices is Autodesk Maya. (If your question, on the other hand, is “What animation software does Pixar use?” it’s a proprietary software that’s not available to animators outside of the company.) 

For many professional animators and animation studios, Autodesk Maya is the industry standard. This 3D animation software is ideal for character creation, modeling, simulation, motion graphics, and more. It’s been used to create animation for movies including “Finding Nemo,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Avatar.”

After a free trial, pricing begins at $122 per month (for a three-year license), although monthly plans are also available. If you’re a current student, you may be able to access Autodesk Maya for free. 

2. Adobe Animate

Adobe Animate 2D animation software enables you to create basic vector characters and easily animate them.
Adobe Animate 2D animation software enables you to create basic vector characters and easily animate them.

Use on: Windows, Mac OS

Best for: Everyone, beginner to pro 

If you want to create a traditional cartoon, Adobe Animate is a great 2D animation software option. With this software, you have the ability to animate using a variety of different techniques, including hand-drawn, frame-by-frame animation, as well as puppet animation, which allows you to manipulate a character rig without redrawing it. You can even import a character created in Procreate or another illustration tool and animate it within this software. 

Many shows have been created using Adobe Animate (previously known as Adobe Flash), such as “My Little Pony.” Adobe Animate is available as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription model, but it can also be purchased individually (unlike some other programs, like Adobe Character Animator). 

3. Adobe Character Animator

Use on: Windows, Mac OS

Best for: Beginners 

Adobe Character Animator is perfect for beginners, even those with very little animation experience. That’s because creating and animating a character in this program requires very few animation skills. 

Here’s how it works: You choose a character (called a puppet), which can be your own artwork imported from Procreate, Adobe Photoshop, or Adobe Illustrator. Then, the program uses your computer’s microphone and camera to detect your voice and movements and animate the character. Essentially, you use your own performance to animate a character in real time. Whatever you do with your face—including your mouth, eyes, and eyebrows—your character does. Plus, you can add in other movements, like hand gestures. 

Ultimately, this allows beginners to create animations quickly and easily. However, it’s best used for animations that are mostly dialogue, as there is limited functionality to create action and physical movement. Interested in seeing an example? Showtime’s “Our Cartoon President” is created with this animation software. 

Character Animator is available as part of Adobe Creative Cloud’s “All Apps” plan.

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4. Cinema 4D

Cinema 4D animation software can be used to create and texture 3D objects, and then light, animate, and render them out for final use.
Cinema 4D animation software can be used to create and texture 3D objects, and then light, animate, and render them out for final use.

Use on: Windows, Mac OS 

Best for: Everyone, beginner to pro 

Cinema 4D is a 3D animation software that’s ideal for animators at every level, from beginner to pro. Originally developed for Amiga (a computer company that’s no longer in production), the software is now available for Windows and Mac operating systems. 

In addition to animating, you can use the software for modeling, lighting, texturing, visual effects, and more. It features an intuitive interface, as well as a customizable layout to fit your needs and preferences. An annual subscription starts at about $60 per month. 

5. Toon Boom Harmony

Use on: Windows, Mac OS, Linux

Best for: Everyone, beginner to pro

Toon Boom Harmony is an industry-leading 2D animation software. You can use it for frame-by-frame animation or rig animation. In fact, if you’re used to hand-drawing your animations, this software offers unique and robust tools for scanning and cleaning up your drawings. 

While this software is appropriate for beginners, it’s not limited to those just starting out. Major studios have used Toon Boom Harmony to create shows such as “Rick and Morty,” “Family Guy,” and “SpongeBob SquarePants.” 

Animators can choose between three different levels of the software, which each offer different features and price points. The most basic package starts at $25 per month. 

6. Houdini

Houdini can be used to animate an auto rig—essentially, a character that you can manipulate to create movements.
Houdini can be used to animate an auto rig—essentially, a character that you can manipulate to create movements.

Use on: Windows, Mac OS, Linux 

Best for: Experienced to pro 

An advanced animation tool, Houdini has been used in several well-known feature films, including “Frozen” and “Zootopia.” Houdini offers what’s called a procedural workflow, which generates animation in real time. This is used to simulate things like smoke, fire, water, hair, fur, and clothing. Ultimately, this allows animators to create dynamic and realistic effects. 

Another unique feature of Houdini is its nodes-based workflow. Every action is stored in a node, which can be rearranged and adjusted to refine the final product. This provides flexibility and cost-effectiveness that isn’t always possible with other types of software. 

Even with these advanced features, Houdini is intuitive and easy to use, making it one of the most powerful and robust animation software options available. 

The more advanced versions of Houdini are available to purchase; however, students and hobbyists can access a pared-down version of Houdini to use for non-commercial projects for free.

7. Pencil2D

Pencil2D, an open-source 2D animation software, allows users to create a traditional, hand-drawn style of animation.
Pencil2D, an open-source 2D animation software, allows users to create a traditional, hand-drawn style of animation.

Use on: Windows, Mac OS, Linux  

Best for: Beginners 

A more traditional 2D animation software, Pencil2D allows users to create hand-drawn, animated scenes. Pencil2D is an open-source platform, so multiple users—even you—can contribute to its capabilities and features. As a result, it’s one of the best free animation software options out there. 

The software boasts the ability for users to seamlessly switch between raster (also known as bitmap) and vector workflows, as well as add layers. Overall, the software is fairly minimal and easy to use, so you can focus primarily on your animating. However, advanced animators may not find that the features are robust enough for their preferences. 

8. Blender

Using Blender, this artist has created the animation of a spooky cloth ghost rising from the floor.
Using Blender, this artist has created the animation of a spooky cloth ghost rising from the floor.

Use on: Windows, Mac OS, Linux 

Best for: Everyone, beginner to pro 

If you’re looking for free animation software, take a look at Blender. Blender stands out from other options in that it is an open-source 3D animation suite. That means it’s been developed by many contributors from around the world—so you can be sure that it offers robust and varied capabilities. 

Blender supports the entire animation workflow from start to finish: modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing and motion tracking, and video editing. Users also appreciate that they can import external objects, such as textures and other animations. 

Did we mention it’s free? 

9. After Effects

Animators can use Adobe After Effects for everything from setting up a canvas to animating a character.
Animators can use Adobe After Effects for everything from setting up a canvas to animating a character.

Use on: Windows, Mac OS

Best for: Everyone, beginner to pro 

After Effects, an addition to Adobe Creative Cloud, can bring your animations to the next level. Considered the industry standard for motion graphics and visual effects, After Effects integrates with Adobe Creative Cloud apps and other software/hardware providers to offer you complex animation capabilities. 

Although not ideal for frame-by-frame animation, this powerful tool can be used to create 2D and 3D animations, as well as real-life motion graphics. 

This software is available starting at about $21 per month for an annual subscription. 

Whatever your experience level or goals, there are plenty of animation software options to choose from. These tools can help bring your characters and ideas to life—and you’ll have fun along the way. 

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