Animation tools are an essential part of the process for a digital artist, game developer, or character designer. Seeing your artwork animated is a pretty cool feeling, and whether your animation is super short and simple or a full cartoon, bringing it to life with movement gives it a new and exciting dimension.
However, leaving your comfort zone of static images and entering the world of digital animation can be daunting. With so much to learn (including the 12 Principles of Animation) and a mountain of tools to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start.
This roundup gives you some of the best tools for creating 2D animation. The focus is on games, using pixel art for vector graphics. So what are you waiting for? Let’s go!
If you want something a little more hardcore, also check out our best animation software roundup.
Want to be as good as Studio Ghibli? We can’t promise that, but we can at least hook you up with the animation tool used to create movies like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, and customized along the way.
Ghibli started using Toonz during the production of Princess Mononoke, and in 2016 this powerful animation tool was made open-source and renamed OpenToonz (there is still a commercial version – Toonz Premium – available, if you insist on paying ). It has all the tools you’re likely to need, from drawing tools to effects, scripts, tweening and more, and new features are added regularly.
The latest version, 1.4, was released for Mac and Windows last year, adding a new stop-motion panel with support for Canon DSLR cameras, and more. And in addition to OpenToonz, there is another open source version, the Morevna edition, which is also available on Linux and includes additional features such as wizard guides to make it easier to add perspective to your environments, l integration with MyPaint brush engine, horizontal timeline and advanced color picker. If you’re not sure which version of OpenToonz to use, we recommend this one – especially since the basic OpenToonz documentation seems to be in Japanese only.
Piskel is an online tool for creating animated sprites and pixel art. It is easy to use and requires no registration. However, if you want to create a gallery, whether public or private, you can do so by signing in with your Google account.
With Piskel you get a live preview while you create your image. You also have the option to import PNGs, JPGs, BMPs and animated GIFs. Or you can import .piskel files, Piskel’s proprietary format. On the export side, you have options for animated GIFs, PNG spritesheets, or a zip with each frame rendered in PNG format.
This is an online tool, but there is also a download available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
- Price: $19.99 (trial available)
Another great pixel art and animation tool is Aseprite. This app has everything you’d expect from a great editor, including layer support, onion skins, playback modes, alpha channel control, shading modes, and custom brushes. Like Piskel, you can import and export a variety of formats, like PNGs, spritesheets, and animated GIFs.
- Price: $69 to $299 / £51 to £223 (trial available)
Coming out of the domain of pixel art, Spine allows you to animate your existing works. That’s right – there are no illustration tools included in Spine. However, since it’s such a powerful animation tool, it’s definitely worth a look.
Spine gives you all the tools you need to animate your characters, including a dope sheet and a free-form warp (FFD) tool. The dope sheet gives you a detailed overview of the timeline where you can make changes to the animation timings. And with the FFD tool, you can transform individual mesh vertices and warp your image.
This cross-platform 2D drawing and animation app is ideal for bringing your hand-drawn animations to life. With its lightweight design, Pencil2D lets you focus on the art and animation, not the interface. It supports both raster and vector, and has options to import and export different formats.
- Price: $19.99 to $249 / £19.99 to £171 (trial version available)
Like Pencil2D, FlipBook is another contender if you’re looking for a graphics application to create traditional 2D animation. FlipBook lets you draw, digitize, and import things like backgrounds, cels, overlays, and even movies. You can also add sound. When you’re done, you can export still images or the full animation movie.
06. Synfig Studio
Synfig Studio is another powerful, cross-platform, open-source 2D drawing and animation tool. Although more complicated than most other graphics applications, Synfig gives you control over almost every aspect of your animation and provides you with familiar tools such as brushes, fills, masks, layers, and more.
07. Moho Debut and Moho Pro
- Price: $59.99 to $399.99 / £52 to £298
Moho is a 2D vector animation program for beginners (Debut) and professionals (Pro). Both are loaded with tons of pre-made content and characters to get you started or fire up your imagination.
With the Debut build, you can use a character wizard to dial in things like body proportions and pre-made 2D components. Or you can import your own images and use the auto-trace option. For Pro users, you get things like FBX support, motion blurs, frame-by-frame capabilities and more.
Check out this free introductory course to Moho to help you get started.
08. TVPaint Animation
- Price: $590-$1250/£441-£1104 (trial available)
Moving on to the more “professional” toolset, TVPaint lets you render fully animated scenes from start to finish. It uses bitmap technology, which allows you to animate natural renderings, such as gouache, watercolor, oil paint, pencil and pen, traditionally, frame by frame.
TVPaint Animation is one of the more expensive options included in this roundup, but it does offer a trial version, and from what we’ve seen so far, it’s quite powerful and well worth the cost. price. Don’t believe us? Take a look at his gallery.
09. Toon Boom Harmony
- Price: $375-$1975/£280-£1474 (trial available)
Toon Boom’s Harmony, considered by some to be the de facto standard for animation tools, offers three flavors: Essentials, Advanced, and Premium. You also have three license options: perpetual, monthly (from $25/£20 per month) or annual (from $17/£14 per month).
With Harmony’s illustration and animation tools, you can sketch, draw, and paint in bitmap and vector formats. You also have access to advanced color palettes, deformers, frame-by-frame animation, and special effects.
10. Cartoon animator
- Price: $99 to $199 (trial available)
If you’re looking for software to help with audio lip syncing for Sprite and Morph based characters, or 2D face and body puppetry, Cartoon Animator has you covered.
Formerly known as CrazyTalk Animator, it comes in two flavors: Pro and Pipeline. The Pro version will get you started with the basic timeline edition and G3 character models, but to get the full benefit of creating your characters directly from PSD files, you’ll need the Pipeline version. Both versions include support for importing images and videos in a variety of formats.