Making art is one of the greatest creative adventures that you can have. But what if you could turn your static images into moving pictures or even bring a much-loved original character to life in your own short film clips? That’s where animation comes in.
We know that the idea of learning how to animate seems daunting, especially if you’re more used to working with a pencil or paints than technical software. But with the right tools, building animated images like cartoons or using photo elements to make a GIF can be easy, even for a beginner.
In this tutorial and guide, we’ll give you a quick overview of the different types of animation that you can work on, before showing you how to make an animation from scratch using some of the most popular animation programs on the market, all with expert guidance from our Skillshare instructors.
All About Animation
Before we get into how you can make an animation of your own, let’s take a moment to go through what exactly animation is and how different types of animation are used for creative projects.
Animation, in its simplest form, is the process of taking still images and joining them together in a set order to take on the appearance of movement.
These days, computer animation (also known as CGI) is the most commonly used technique, but back in the early days, everything was hand-drawn. That means that the same image was drawn over and over again with almost undetectable changes that would then be put together to create the moving sequence.
Although most modern animators work in either 2D or 3D animation and use computers to generate their characters or backgrounds, hand-drawn or cel-animation remains a popular art form and can be a fun place to start if you’re an experienced artist but still finding your feet as a first-time animator.
Types of Animation
Two-dimensional animations are made of only two elements: height and width. If you’re struggling to visualize this, think of your favorite classic Disney films like The Lion King or The Little Mermaid.
With no depth to worry about, 2D is a great place to start as a beginner. It allows you to focus on the basics of animation and practice those skills before moving onto more complicated projects.
If we asked you to name any animated film, chances are that you’d pick something fairly modern that was made using 3D animation software.
Almost all popular animated feature films and TV shows are now 3D and are carefully modeled on the characteristics and movement of people and objects. In fact, sometimes it’s easy to forget that these characters are created on a computer and aren’t actually real. But that’s the point of 3D animation: to make us forget that we’re looking at something made by a computer rather than a filmed real-life person.
3D animation software can take a while to get used to when you’re new to this type of creative work, but there are plenty of classes for you to take to learn the basics of how to make an animation in this style.
Stop Motion Animation
Stop motion animation is one of the more complex forms of animation as it requires a significant amount of time and resources to do well. Small figurines or puppets are used for each scene, with photos taken of each setup. The puppets are then moved into a slightly different position and more photos are taken. These photos are then stitched together in a sequence to create a moving final image.
This type of animation is the most similar to traditional, hand-drawn work but is still used in modern films and television. Coraline, Wallace and Gromit, and The Moomins were all created using stop motion techniques.
Most animated projects typically follow a set storyline (which is what helps to inform the sequence of images that are created), but motion graphics are often used in corporate settings to enhance a website, build a logo, or develop advertising.
Motion graphics are a good place to start as a beginner as you don’t need to learn how to translate body movement onto a computer or worry about complicated features like faces or background environments. You can use free computer animation tools like Procreate on an iPad or online resources like PicMonkey and Canva to add fades, bounces, or even flashes to your images without any previous experience in animation.
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Popular Animation Software
So you want to learn how to animate a picture, but you’re not sure where to get started. For beginners, looking for animation software free trials or free cartoon makers online can be a useful first step before you invest time and money into more robust animation programs.
Adobe Photoshop & Animate
Adobe Photoshop and Animate are some of the best software for learning how to animate online and on your desktop. You can access both (and other Adobe products) through their Creative Cloud subscription, which starts at around $20 per month. They offer student discounts, so if you’re still in school, this can be a great place to start without spending a lot upfront.
Learning how to animate in Photoshop is fairly straightforward with the Timeline function, which makes it easy to build out your individual frames. There are also features like delays and looping which you can use to make animated GIFs or short, repeating clips as you practice creating your own animated images. It’s ideal for learning how to animate a picture if you already know how to use the software for static editing.
Adobe Animate is also great software to make an animation. You can import images directly from Photoshop, and there are hundreds of features that will take you from your beginner days all the way up to professional-level animation techniques. If you’re looking for an all-in-one animation tool that’s inexpensive and will work for you as you build your skills, Adobe Animate is an excellent choice.
If you’re looking for animation software for free, Krita is the place to go. Learning how to animate in Krita is easy as the program focuses on 2D animation only, which makes it a good program for beginners. It’s open source, and there are hundreds of tutorials out there. Learn from established animators that can help you get going on your own projects.
Within the Krita platform, you’ll work frame by frame to create your characters and backgrounds in a cartoon-style, before adding in animation elements later on. It’s available for both Windows and Mac, making it easy to work on your project wherever you are.
One expense that you may want to consider investing in when you’re using a cartoon maker like Krita is a digital drawing tablet and pencil. It’s much easier to refine your character details using a tool like this instead of your computer mouse. But since Krita is free, that leaves you with some budget to invest in equipment instead. And trust us, it’s worth it.
As one of the most popular animation tools on the market today, understanding how to animate in Blender can be particularly helpful for those of you interested in working in the animation industry at some point in your career.
Like Krita, Blender is open source and a free cartoon maker that gives you plenty of flexibility as you grow your skills. Its features are more extensive than Krita though, supporting both 2D and 3D animation. You can also practice more advanced techniques like character rigging, modeling, and motion tracking.
Blender has become the go-to choice for many new and experienced animators looking for a free alternative to professional software like Autodesk Maya and Houdini.
How to Animate for Beginners
As we’ve seen, there are several excellent animation programs out there that you can use when you’re beginning your creative journey into the world of moving graphics. But for true beginners, the easiest place to begin is in Adobe Photoshop.
We’ll show you everything you need to know to get started and learn how to animate in Photoshop before you take your skills to the next level in more extensive programs like Blender or Adobe Animate.
Step 1: Plan Your Storyboard
Every good story has to start somewhere, and that’s no different with animation. Before you even think about opening up your software, spend some time figuring out exactly what you want your story to be. Building a storyboard to give you a rough breakdown is helpful for visualizing what you’ll be working on.
It doesn’t have to be a long feature film story at this stage! But even as a beginner working on short clips, you’ll need to decide what exactly you want your character to do in the animation. That way, you can prepare all of your images ahead of stitching them together to create your moving sequence.
For the sake of an example, we’re going to keep things simple and learn how to animate a bouncing ball. Your storyboard won’t need to be complicated for this, but think about how you want the ball to look. Where does the bounce start and end? What direction will the ball be traveling in? How high will it bounce? Knowing all of this ahead of time will save you from needing to make extra revisions to your drawings later on.
Step 2: Create Your Workspace
Open a new document in Photoshop and select Window > Timeline. This will enable the video timeline function at the bottom of your screen. From here, you’ll click on “Create Video Timeline” and each of your document’s layers will be split into a separate section so that you can animate each one individually.
Step 3: Build Your Framework
Set the timeline rate to 24 frames per second. This is standard for the animation industry, so it’s a good place to start as a beginner.
Create multiple layers and then duplicate these, dragging each layer to immediately follow the end of the previous layer’s frame. You’ll see these laid out in the timeline as a step-like visual.
Turn on the “Onion Skins” feature to preview the before and after frames for each layer. This will help you to see how everything will eventually line up in the sequence when it comes time to actually animate your images.
Step 4: Draw Your Static Images
Start by drawing your ball in your first layer. You can include guidelines if these help you to visualize the arc that your bouncing ball will take. Use the “Shape Layer” function to add this in and then draw your ball in the top corner, or position one.
Spacing is one of the most important elements to master when it comes to animation and this simple project will help you to understand this better. The slower you want your animation to move, the closer together the individual images will be.
You’ll also want to change the shape of your ball as it moves toward the middle of its journey. Think about how a ball would move in real life—it goes faster as it approaches the ground. So in your image, you’ll want to stretch out the oval shape to give it the appearance of faster movement as it approaches the bottom of your work frame. You’ll then work on the opposite side of the bounce, moving from fast to slow movements as you create the final frames.
Step 5: Hit Playback
Complete all of your individual drawings, and hit play on your video timeline. From here, see your bouncing ball moving along across your screen. Congratulations, you just made your very first animation!
How to Learn More Animation
Ready to take your animation skills up a notch? Here are a few classes to help you do so.
In this one-hour class, you’ll learn all of the basics that you need to know to bring your original characters to life. Instructor Fraser Davidson walks you through designing your character in Adobe Illustrator. From there, you’ll move over to After Effects to work on building and rigging your character ahead of a final walk or run animation.
For the experienced artists among us, having a go at hand-drawn animation can be an exciting way to build on your existing skills. It will likely be a bit more of a learning curve if you’re not used to working with your own drawings. However, this 60-minute class will show you how to animate a ball, text, flags, and a cycling character. It’s perfect for beginners who want to create animations that will work for any project or industry.
If you’re looking for resources to animate online images, this is the class for you. Looom is a great app for beginner animators and illustrators working on an iPad. Instructor Rich Armstrong will walk you through everything you need to know about working in the software. By the end of the class, you’ll be able to create basic animated graphics on the platform that you can use on social media, your website, or even in messages to your friends.
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