This is my personal recommendation. I just want to mention that this is my personal opinion from my own experiences.
As a hobbyist animator I have tried almost every single animation program out there. I’ve always wanted to do classic frame by frame animation but doing it traditionally can be very expensive and I switched to digital animation. Besides being eco friendly you only have to pay for your tools once. I love the advantages of digital animation.
The only program I haven’t tried was CelAction simply because it didn’t have anything I needed and it was far too expensive for a hobbyist like myself.
If you are into classic animation like me and do frame by frame animation I highly recommend theses 6 programs. I will however be giving honorable mentions of other programs that you can animate with or use to prepare to create great animations. (I only use the first 4, specifically I only own ToonBoom Animate Pro and studio. I can’t afford TVPaint but I hope to one day.)
- Sketchbook Pro 7
- ToonBoom Studio, Animate, Animate Pro, Harmony (any of these suites are great for animation but I highly recommend Animate or higher)
- Adobe After Effects
Sketchbook Pro has always been an excellent program for doing concept work but with the added feature of flipbook, it can make creating keyframes very enjoyable. It loads and runs fast and has very basic animation. One of the more notable features is the perspective rulers, this is particularly useful when creating background art for animation since most animation programs do not offer perspective rulers and you have to draw them manually. Taking advantage of these rulers can really help you excel in creating high quality animation and various graphics. This is excellent if you’re new and can help ease you into 2D frame by frame animation. You can then export and import into ToonBoom to take it further and create amazing things. Sketchbook Pro is also excellent for doing storyboarding and various concept work as well making it a very important tool during the early stages of design and creating model references.
ToonBoom has a wide range of software specifically for animation but each suite is aimed at specific types of animation but it can do it all. I recommend any of the Toon Boom products from Studio to Harmony. They are all capable of symbol animation, morph/tween, cut out, bone/puppet animation, stop motion and frame by frame. I also like the onion skin options and settings. I’ve found it to be very efficient. However I do recommend that you check the specs and use a trial before committing. There are still some compatibility issues. The only other con I can think of is the learning curve. Some say it is intuitive to learn while others don’t. I did not find it very intuitive but I did find it fairly easy to navigate through the tools. It was difficult at first to remember where everything was but fortunately ToonBoom allows you to fully customize your workspace. I would also like to add that unless you have Harmony you can only create vector art. If you want bitmap or raster based painted backgrounds or assets you have to import them. Fortunately ToonBoom offers an excellent library that you can customize and save your items for reuse later.
CACANi is excellent for a lot of reasons. The main one being that it can automate inbetweens and it’s stroke steadying settings. If you have shaky hands or an over sensitive tablet you will find this extremely useful. It’s not flawless with auto inbetweening and you still have to inbetween complex animation but it can be a great time saver and still produces quality animation. It basically does advanced vector morphing. It’s also all vector based. Some that are use to raster animation may not enjoy it and find it a disadvantage, but it is worth learning and using. Once you get use to vector animation you can really take full advantage of it and create some incredible things. Particularly if you’re a professional with limited time to get things finished. You can draw in it frame by frame by hand as well and you may find you only need Cacani and Sketchbook Pro for most of your work. CACANi is especially good for a more classic cel animation with cel shading. Anyone that has used ToonBoom or flash and tried to animate cel shading will know the difficulties it can involve. With it’s unique colour line separation pen and quickflip preview ,it makes the flow of animating cel animation much easier smoother and get it done in a much shorter amount of time.
Adobe After effects is a compositing program. I recommend it for filters and basic particles. It’s extremely useful to use the particles to make snow or falling feathers, leaves blowing in the wind or anything else you can think of. It’s especially good for glowing and various lighting or shading effects. I recommend it mostly because subscribing is cheaper than trying to buy Harmony. If you have ToonBoom Harmony, it’s unlikely that you would need After Effects. After Effects is also capable of puppet animation and does a really good job of it. In short it’s like photoshop for animation. I highly recommend it for it’s filters to edit your animations and push them further in design, effects and quality.
TVPaint has a lot of tools. If you have it, it’s unlikely that you will need any other program. It is mostly raster based. Recently it was upgraded with a lot of amazing new tools. If you are into puppet or bone animation I don’t recommend TVPaint. It’s mostly a frame by frame animation program. It has advanced and customizable lightbox options that make inbetweening and onion skin easy to use. With TVPaint you can do storyboarding as well which is a big pro including adding audio to your storyboards. The only Con is unless you have a Cintiq or dual monitors, it can get very cramped very quickly. It is professional grade software and has a fairly steep learning curve. However if you have some experience in animation with other programs you might find it fairly intuitive. I highly recommend trying the demo. Unlike other programs there is no time limit to test the software. You can’t save and it uses a watermark. Unlike ToonBoom animate family where you have to import raster images from photoshop for backgrounds, you can paint within TVPaint lessening the need for any other program.
Celtx is not animation software but it is a necessary program to have and use. It’s replaced word and OneNote for me. Celtx has online cloud storage and offers a range of writing formats from script writing to storyboards for film and comics. It’s most unique feature is the character database. You can create and story a database for all of your characters with indepth information plot ties and image reference. It’s freeware and well worth downloading and using. If you decide to get into serious animation I highly recommend using it and taking advantage of the character database to use alongside your script and storyboards. I personally use to use this for my comics in combination with Sketchbook Pro and it certainly has been a great help in the past.
Other programs that can be either used for animation or are extremely helpful during the animation process and concepting stages are listed below:
- OneNote (Organising, scripting, concepts, storyboarding, mindmaps (very important), ability to share with team members)
- Clip Studio Paint Pro and EX (Perspective rulers, paint, raster drawing, background, concept, storyboards and assets with transparency)
- GIMP (animation and concept)
- Photoshop (animation and concept, transparent image assets)
- MyPaint (unlimited canvas, fast loading, variety of natural feeling brushes)
- ArtRage (Beautiful backgrounds, program imitates natural media very well. Personally I think it does it better than Corel)
- Corel Painter (animation and concept, natural media feel)
- Paint Tool Sai (for raster images, backgrounds, concepts, storyboards and ease of use)
- OpenCanvas (perspective rulers, painting, concept, storyboarding)
- Audacity (for audio recording)
- FL Studio (Unless you’re a composer I only recommend basic FL for creating your own sound effects and music. It is professional grade software and has a very steep learning curve. However it is well worth learning.)
- Pencil (Free frame by frame animation. Still buggy and has been known to crash. Save frequently)
- Blender (now has frame by frame animation. Done with grease pencil)
- Tab (various suits, mostly all vector and I think cut out animation)
- Digicel Flipbook (a lot of people still use and recommend this program. I personally did not take to it)
- Anime Studio (vector bone morph animation)
- Retas Studio (I don’t think it’s sold outside of Japan in english any more but I have seen some artists purchase it so I’m not totally sure.)
- GraphicsGale (gif animation)
- Synfig (free, mostly vector. Very steep learning curve, lots of issues for windows. Best used on Linux)
- Toonz (same company that makes Tab, but to my understanding this one is more advanced)
- Flash (animation, symbols, tweening, frame by frame)
If you feel I have forgotten any 2D programs you think should be mentioned please leave a comment. This was very quickly written.