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Teaching Yourself Animation - The Tools Part 4

Learning animation on your own is very doable. This fourth of the four part series on the tools of the trade looks at vector based softwares for animation.

In Part 1 of this series on software for creating 2D frame-by-frame animation, we looked at the basics of mark making in a digital world. In the second part of the series, we examined a couple of inexpensive, small, and fast storyboarding softwares that can be used to learn the basic principles of animation. Part 3 checked out the upsides and downsides of vector based animation softwares.

For this, the fourth and final part in our series, we run through the bitmap animation softwares available on both Mac and PC.

I’ll first address the mother of all image editors: Adobe Photoshop. Adobe advertises that the Adobe Photoshop Extended supports frame-by-frame animation. This is by no means an easy software to learn and I don’t recommend it for those at the bottom of the learning curve. If you already have it, or can afford it and want to use it, get hold of one of Richard M. Harrington’s books – for example Photoshop for Video. He’s one smart guy when it comes to Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, and video production (he solved two of my toughest recent software dilemmas) and his books are an essential resource unless you have a parallel lifetime to re-invent that wheel.

Right from its earliest versions Painter had highly realistic brushes that mimic what you’d find in the average painters studio. My experience with the software goes right back to the earliest available version and while I keep the software around for image editing (I believe I have version 12), I’ve never animated a film or sequence in it. The reason for that is two-fold: I’m not a fan of pretend real brushes. If a brush is digital, I believe it should have qualities that distinguish it from the analogue equivalent. After all, a rose is a rose is a rose - and not a tulip (to badly paraphrase Gertrude Stein.) 

The second problem I had with the software was the animation module. I found it difficult to navigate and movie playback was slow. That being said, I do know that some animators have used this software with succes. Corel does have a short video online that presents Painter’s animation tools.

In conclusion, Painter’s cost is reasonable with the full version coming in about $429.00, and educational pricing being less. It comes fully loaded with tutorials, and libraries packed with brushes, photos, paper textures, gradients, etc. Try the trial version and see if you like it and if it has use for you. If you like it and want it, Corel’s online store may offer good pricing if you buy a Wacom tablet and Painter together.

TVPaint Animation is a high end, complex, and powerful animation software. It’s also pricey even for the educational version. Built on a bitmap or pixel based foundation, it is packed with the features that make animating anything from a sequence through to a full film a reasonably fluid affair. Designed by and for animators, it is a fully professional software packed with features like a high end gradient light table, custom built drawing and painting tools (design your own), paper textures, scripting (create custom actions), custom panels, a full range of field grids, rotating canvas, Xsheet, peg hole registration, and much more - features animators crave.

Along with the hefty price tag, it comes with a steep learning curve. Many of the best animation schools have switched to TVPaint Animation though and for good reason. It is well supported by the company (bugs and feature requests are addressed) and users make good use of the forum, sharing brushes, techniques, and other content, and posting feature requests. It’s powerful, it’s reasonably user-friendly, and even the standard version is packed with features.

A huge feature set can have a steep learning curve. That’s eased significantly in the case of TVPaint by the very active and welcoming online forum. It’s a fabulous resource for getting up and running quickly and for solving dilemmas, finding tools, etc.

The software comes in two flavours - standard and professional. The standard version has all the basics for producing good frame-to-frame animation. The professional version has all of the standard elements plus some fine bells and whistles - for example storyboarding, soundtrack, and the means required for sophisticated special effects - that I consider essential for professional production. The software starts at about $700 for the Standard version, and artists and animators can expect to pay about $1700 for the professional version. Unlike Toon Boom, TVPaint doesn’t offer a solid and affordable package for those starting out in animation. 

Synthetik StudioArtist is a jam packed creative application that is completely unique. It is directed at artists of all kinds and includes a module for animation. It also has a learning curve to go along with it’s powerfully diverse engine. I own and use Synthetik StudioArtist and all but my two first films were animated in this software. The brushes are brilliant - I have found none to compare in any other drawing, painting, or animation software. The animation module is robust but basic – note that onion skin is limited to only a couple of frames, the layers are of limited use for animating backgrounds, and there is no timeline where frames can be easily dragged into new positions. But then StudioArtist was not designed for commercial animation techniques. It was always meant to be a tool for experimentation and exploration first, production second. For those looking to create imaginative work, there is nothing that compares.

There are several other high end 2D animation softwares out there to consider, for example CelAction 2D  and Crater CTP but I’m not familiar with them. If you know of an application I haven’t mentioned, please post a comment; I welcome the information. And for those who do puppet, cut-out, 3D, and other types of animation feel free to suggest your favourite tools, software, etc. 

While the animated sequences are created in frame-by-frame softwares, editing the clips together to make a coherent film complete with transitions and credits usually requires a video editing suite. But that’s a whole other post.

Series index

Teach Yourself Animation - The Art of Timing 

Teaching Yourself Animation - The Tools Part 1

Teaching Yourself Animation - The Tools Part 2

Teaching Yourself Animation - The Tools Part 3

Teaching Yourself Animation - The Tools Part 4