Before Disney Pixar’s Toy Story, cartoons were hand drawn and the idea of computer-generated animation films was unheard of. But the days of drawing thousands of cells against various backgrounds in a rapid sequence are over; animators now use a bevy of computer programs to create animated films.
Computer animation made animated films much cheaper to produce. And faster too. These tools present a diverse selection of features for endless experimentation. Most of these programs, however, are expensive and not all animators have hundreds of dollars to spare for a single animation software. Thankfully, there are free graphic design software programs that suit every designer and budget!
Whether you are an aspiring animator making his first film or a seasoned artist, here are some of the best free animation tools that you can use to hone your craft and satisfy your visualization needs:
KeyShot is a standalone real-time rendering application with animation capabilities. This program offers a host of useful features for turning 3D models into animated visuals. With the KeyShot Animation software, you can build, light, and customize your animation as you create it. The system is designed for creating animations quickly and easily thanks to its user-friendly controls and settings.
KeyShot also boasts of dynamic texture mapping that allows animators to create a photo-realistic appearance of a landscape as well as a library of material templates “with support for the widest number of 3D file formats on both Mac and PC.” KeyShot’s free version comes with a fully functional license and complete features. Some of KeyShot Animation’s core features are:
- 2D and 3D animation
- HDRI Lighting
- Camera control that mimic real-world camera behavior
- Focused Caustics for better lighting
- Advanced Lighting options
- Color libraries
- Toon Shading
- Real-time Ray Tracing
- Procedural Textures
Download the KeyShot Animation software here.
PowToon is a web-based animation software that lets you make short videos in minutes. This tool offers an array of styles, backgrounds, characters and pre-created objects that you can use to create professional-looking video presentations and short clips. PowToon also comes with imported images, music, and voice-overs for creating dynamic video content. This program utilizes an Apache Flex engine to create an XML file, which can be played in the PowToon online viewer, exported to YouTube, or downloaded as an MP4 file.
PowToon offers different license types but the free version comes with 100MB of storage and access to all free content. To access PowToon for free, simply sign up for a basic account. PowToon is also available on the Google Chrome store and Edmodo.com. Some of PowToon’s core features are:
- Animation creation
- Offline Presenting
- Video Editing and management
- Customizable templates
- WYSIWYG editor
- Multimedia support
- Collaboration tools
- Image library
- Data import/export
- Customizable branding
You can create your own PowToon account here.
K-3D is a free 3D modeling and animation software program that offers a full suite of useful features, flexible plugins, and a visualization pipeline architecture that any artist would love. This animation tool utilizes OpenGL for graphics hardware acceleration and node-based visualization pipeline to produce stunning 3D graphics.
K-3D also comes with an advanced undo/redo feature to prevent irreversible errors. With this feature, you can always go back at the beginning of the workflow or move forward to get the job done. The customizable properties can be adjusted interactively and all modifications are applied in real-time. K-3D’s complex workflows are surprisingly user-friendly and the tool itself adapts for any animation purposes.
This program comes with native RenderMan support and is written in C++ for utmost platform independence. K-3D is available for GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, FreeBSD, Microsoft Windows, and others. All of the K-3D source code is available under the GNU General Public License. Some of K-3D’s core features are:
- Basic tools for patches, animation, NURVS, and curves
- User-friendly controls
- Intuitive features
- Procedural and Parametric Workflows
- Node-based visualization pipeline
- Advanced Undo/Redo System
- Native RenderMan(TM) support
You can download K-3D here.
Pencil2D is an open-source 2D animation software that utilizes bitmap/vector drawing interface to create 2D graphics, animation, and traditional hand-drawn scenes. Written in C++, this Qt-based application is available in Mac OS and Linux. The minimal design means the application is lightweight and easy to use. Pencil2D could switch between raster and vector workflows, allowing users to draw, ink and paint on the go! Some of Pencil2D’s core features are:
- User-friendly controls
- Minimal design
- Switch seamlessly between Raster and Vector files
- Cross-Platform functionality
You can download Pencil 2D here.
Any animator worth his salt knows that Blender is one of the best animation and rendering applications on the market. Blender is a free, open source 3D graphic design and animation software that supports the entire 3D creation pipeline. It can be used for modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing, and motion tracking. This software is also useful in video editing and game creations.
Blender comes with a diverse selection of tools including skinning, fluid and smoke simulation, particle simulation, soft body simulation, sculpting, match moving, rendering, motion graphics and compositing.
Because Blender is an open source software, it is being developed by hundreds of people all over the world, including animators, artists, VFX experts, hobbyists, and scientists. Blender’s API for Python allows you to customize the application and write specialized tools. Blender is available for MAC OS, Windows, and Linux. Some of Blender’s core features are:
- Camera and Object Motion Tracking
- Animation Toolset
- High-End Production Path Tracer
- GPU Rendering
- Sophisticated Lighting
- Camera effects
You can download Blender here.
Plastic Animation Paper
For beginners who are looking for an animation software for practice, we highly recommend Plastic Animation Paper or PAP. PAP is a free animation software that creates traditional 2D animation. PAP is ideal for home use as well as for creating animation courses. Users could create and save their work instantly.
The fast, responsive and non-intrusive interface offers quick and real-time workflow, which is perfect for animators with a tight deadline. PAP comes with small to large format frames, quality lines, and light table. Some of PAP’s core features are:
- Customizable tool bar
- Quick select
- Basic drawing tools
- Zooming and rotating a sheet
- Import video or frame-stacks for rotoscoping etc.
- Export mp4, .mov or frame-stacks as .png, .svg, etc.
You can download Plastic Animation Paper here.
OpenToonz is an open-source animation production software by Digital Video S.p.A. This software allows users to create basic 2D animation. OpenToonz comes with a unique set of animation features including GTS, a scanning tool for making animated objects, digital drawing tools, and indexed color palette.
Because of the open source nature of OpenToonz, this software can be freely modified based on the license. It is completely free to use by anyone no matter the purpose. OpenToonz can be used in all kinds of scenes, including professional production, amateur production, and school education. Some of OpenToonz’s core features are:
- Sequence number scanning for in-between animation numbers
- Produce affected incident light
- Create wavy distortion
- Compatible with 4 types of scanning
- The settings for scanning can be saved
- Compatible with the TWAIN standards
- Frame-by-frame Animation
- Scan and Cleanup
You can download OpenToonz here.
Synfig Studio is an open-source 2D animation software that boasts a timeline-based computer animation program and vector graphics. Synfig Studio is a true front-end and back-end application, allowing you to animate in the front end and then render your work at a later time with the back end. Synfig Studio has the ability to produce feature-film quality animation without spending a dime on animation software.
This application can simulate soft shading using curved gradients. It also comes with a host of real time effects that can be applied in groups or layers such as color tweaks and radial blurs. In addition, Synfig Studio works with High Dynamic Range Imaging. Some of Synfig Studio’s core features include:
- Completely Reworked UI
- Full-featured Bone System
- Advanced Image Distortion
- Cutout Tool
- Sound support
- Dynamics Animations
- New SFG file Format
- Image Painting Engine
- Preliminary support for frame-by-frame animation
You can download Synfig Studio here.
Rounding up our list of free animation software that you should download is SketchUp, a 3D modeling computer program by Google. SketchUp offers a selection of drawing features that could be used in many applications including architectural, interior design, landscape architecture, civil and mechanical engineering, film and video game design.
This program comes with a diverse library of model assemblies, 3D warehouse, drawing layout functionality, and different rendering styles. SketchUp also supports third party programs hosted on Extension Warehouse. Some of SketchUp’s core features are:
- Lighting effects
- Layer manager
- Build 3D models
- Import and Export CAD and PDF files
- Create multi-page presentation sets
- Produce construction drawings
- Export animation videos of any size
- Add custom attributes and behaviors
- Use solid modeling tools
- Make hand-drawn rendering styles
- Work with simulated film cameras
- Import, Export, and Create IFC Files
- Use Terrain and Satellite Imagery with Geo-located Models
You can sign up for the free version of SketchUp here.