Complete guide to computer animation: history, techniques and examples.

Computer animation refers to the process of generating digital moving images - the kind you see in many modern Disney films and video games. But you can also create computer animations for smaller projects. Understand what digital animation is, how it works and its history. Then learn some useful tips and techniques - everything you’ll need for your computer animation research.

What is digital animation and how does it work?

Computer animation — also known as digital animation — is a form of computer-generated imagery (CGI) that focuses on moving images. While CGI can refer to static digitally generated images, computer animation is only about moving ones. Films like Toy Story and Frozen are two popular examples.

At their core, computer animations essentially bring to life static images or objects by digitally introducing movement to them. Animators use software to draw, model and move them in their desired way. The static image displays on a computer and constantly replaces it with an almost identical one to create the movement (known as keyframing).

You can use a variety of computer animation algorithms and techniques to create digital animation. The exact methods differ depending on the specific task at hand — from keyframing to motion capture and more.

Digital animation v traditional animation: which is best?

While digital animation grew out of traditional animation methods, today there are some clear differences between the two. Understand how they differ to see the pros and cons and uses of both, to work out which method is right for you:

Digital animation
Traditional animation
A computer powerful enough to run your chosen animation software.
Paper, pencils, coloured pencils/paints, erasers and more stationery, which needs replacing as it runs out.
Virtual vs physical
Any computer animations are completely virtual, so they can be stored and shared online easily.
Traditional animation involves creating physical artwork, which requires storage space but is a physical asset.
Digital animation is generally far less labour intensive and requires fewer tools, making it cheaper.
The number of hours to hand draw images for traditional animation makes it a costlier method.
Using a computer to create animations is much quicker, with the ability to animate on the move with a laptop.
Hand drawing images takes a lot longer and requires a proper set-up with no ability to do it on the move.
You can quickly and easily undo or remove errors with digital animation.
Correcting mistakes can be trickier and take longer with traditional animation.
After creating a digital animation, you can edit and reuse in new projects to save time and money.
It’s harder to reuse traditional animation, as the process would involve adapting your physical images.
Create photorealistic renders for some fantastically real animations.
Even the best artists will struggle to capture photorealism.

Uses of traditional and digital animation.

Traditional animation, where each frame is drawn by hand, was the main method used until digital animation arrived. It’s still used today - but mainly for 2D animation.

Computer animation is now the primary method for many artists and is used to create:

  • Films
  • Video games
  • Simulations
  • Adverts
  • Scientific visualisations
  • Animated computer cartoons

Computer animation v CGI animation: key differences.

Computer generated imagery (CGI) is sometimes used to refer to computer animation. However, the two techniques are distinct from one another. The main difference is that CGI covers graphics created with software that are both static and dynamic, whereas with digital or computer animation it refers to only moving images.

Jurassic Park is a common example of CGI as it was used to create the designs of the dinosaurs, as well as many important shots of them in action. The actual static designs of the dinosaurs were done with CGI, while computer animation essentially brought them to life.

Therefore, the terms cannot be used interchangeably.

TL;DR: if it moves then it could be computer animation, but if it’s a static design then it’s CGI.

Further types of animation include:

Learn more about CGI animation

History of computer animation.

The history of computer animation overlaps with that of CGI, tracing back to the spiralling staircases in the film Vertigo from 1958. In the 1960s a range of early computer animations were developed, including Catalogue in 1961, which is widely viewed as the first computer animated short film.

Computer Ballet in 1965 became the first human figure computer animation, while The Stick Man in 1967 was the first motion capture animation. A lot of these were short, experimental breakthroughs. However, in 1973, the film Westworld became the first feature film to use digital animation.

From then onwards, the use of computer animation in films and TV series became more prevalent - especially in the 1980s. Live action films Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Tron both came out in 1982 and used digital animation. It wasn’t until 1994 however when Reboot became the first fully computer animated TV series, followed in 1995 by Toy Story as the first fully computer animated feature-length film.

Since then, Disney and Pixar (both independently and after the former bought the latter), with DreamWorks, have led the Hollywood charge of full-feature films using computer animations.

Landmark examples of computer animation.

Toy Story (1995).

The first fully computer animated feature-length film was Toy Story, developed by Pixar and released by Disney. There were 27 animators working on Toy Story - who used 400 computer models to animate the characters. The family comedy was such a success it has gone on to spawn three sequels (so far).

Shrek (2001).

After the release of Antz three years earlier, DreamWorks followed it up with their second full-feature-length computer animated film: Shrek. It features 36 separate in-film locations, which at the time DreamWorks claimed was a record for a computer animated film. Shrek was a box office smash and went on to spawn three sequels and various spin offs.

Ice Age (2002).

The early 2000s saw an influx of computer animated films and Ice Age attempted to challenge Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks’ dominance. Produced by Blue Sky Studios (and distributed by 20th Century Fox), it starred a range of animals never previously animated in films (sloth, woolly mammoth and sabre tooth tiger), making it a challenge to get their movements realistic yet engaging. A huge success, it also spawned many sequels.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011).

This Hollywood blockbuster combined a mixture of motion capture and traditional computer animation that took seven years to develop. Various production companies were involved - namely Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures and Nickelodeon Films. The unique style created the vintage atmosphere director Steven Spielberg desired.

Computer animation techniques.

Digital animation comprises different computer animation techniques. Using computers provides near endless opportunities to bring static designs to life through a range of different techniques, including:

  • Digital cut-out animation. Traditional cut-out animation uses puppets that are cut out of paper or card and animated frame-by-frame, like the original episodes of South Park. With digital cut-out animation, these puppets still exist but are designed and moved digitally - ultimately saving time.
  • Paperless animation. This technique follows a similar process to traditional animation without the need for physical paper. You can hand draw characters, backgrounds, frames and more directly on an electronic drawing tablet that transfers these images to your computer for you to animate digitally.
  • 3D animation. First you need to create a 3D character, model or object and build a virtual skeleton for it. From here you can animate it like a puppet - moving points of the skeleton in a similar way to 2D animation, but for more realistic results.
  • Motion capture. To get realistic movements of people, animals and some objects, motion capture animation techniques are commonly used in many films and TV shows. Usually, an actor’s performance is recorded and the information applied to an animated 2D or 3D character, so their movements are accurate.
  • Motion graphics. These are famous as part of the intro sequence to films as early as the 1960s, such as West Side Story. Shapes and text are animated to help tell a story (often combined with atmospheric music).
  • Typography animation. Similar to motion graphics, but solely applied to words, is typography animation. Visual effects applied to words can have a more dramatic impact, whether conveying stats in an educational video - or presenting film credits in a visually appealing manner.
  • Stop motion animation. The Clangers and Wallace and Gromit are prime examples of traditional stop motion, with constant photographs and movements to create them. Modern, digital stop motion animation have helped make the process faster - combining real models with contemporary techniques.

Fascinated by the world of animation?

Keep learning by reading our beginner's guide to animation.

Learn more

How to make a computer animation: two methods.

There are two main methods you can use to get started with computer animation.

Adobe Animate.

To make a computer animation with Adobe Animate:

  1. Open Adobe Animate and click Create New on the left-hand side.
  2. Choose the type of animation you want to create and enter its size, frame rate and platform type. You can right click the stage when you start animating to change these if you need.
  3. Use the toolbar on the left to start making your creation, adding pins, changing the size and more.
  4. With the properties panel you can edit what you create and intend to animate with a range of options.
  5. In the library panel you can add previous assets, such as an image created already.
  6. Once your starting image is ready, create frames and a key frame, then add animations to your image.
  7. When you’re done, save and publish your animation on your chosen platform.

Get started with Adobe Animate

Adobe Character Animator.

To use Adobe Character Animator for computer animations:

  1. Create your character. Either select a template puppet, customise one with Puppet Maker or make your own using Characteriser.
  2. Use your webcam, microphone and mouse to animate your character. Enable both the camera and body tracker input, then click Calibrate.
  3. Move your head, change your facial expression and wave your arms to track your movements.
  4. Adjust the behaviour parameters of your character to customise how they move and react in a way that meets your needs.
  5. Record the scene and export in a variety of ways for playback. You can also stream a scene live.

Get started with Adobe Character Animator

Digital animation FAQs.

Is computer animation a good career?

Computer animation presents a lot of opportunities, with the ability to work on digitally animated films, games, adverts and more. There are various degrees in animation you can do to get started, as well as teaching yourself with online tutorials. If you have a passion for design and bringing your creations to life, then computer animation could be the right career choice for you.

How do I become a computer animator?

There are a few things you can do to become a computer animator:

  • Start an animation undergraduate degree.
  • Enrol in an animation course online or in person.
  • Build a strong portfolio and demo reel.
  • Get as much work experience as you can at professional animation studios.
  • Develop your skills at home with professional animation software.

Which software is best for computer animation?

You can use various software for computer animation - the best one depends on what you want to do. Adobe Animate is great for creating computer animations from scratch - starting with a blank canvas and building it up frame-by-frame. However, if you just want to animate a character, as part of a project or for live streaming, Adobe Character Animator is more appropriate.