What is animation, what types of animation are there?

What is Animation?

Animation is an optical illusion

This optical illusion is called Persistence of Vision.

The simplest explanation is that it is:

“A series of created images, viewed as a sequence, at a speed that creates the illusion of movement.”

But live action, is also an optical illusion, but the way the image sequence is made is different. In live action the sequence is filmed and played back at the same speed (except in slow-motion and time-lapse!). Therefore it will capture the action, live in front of the camera, and play that back. Hence ‘Live Action’. It’s important to know that it’s still a sequence of images. In fact the definition would be “a series of photographs, filmed and viewed in sequence, at a speed that creates the illusion of movement.”

The definition of animation is that a moving image is made by creating each frame in an ‘artificial’ manor, resulting in an aesthetic unique from live action. That could be anything from making each frame as an independent artwork/drawing, manipulating something in the physical world frame by frame, or using computers to generate the images that we have built and animated in a software environment.

But of course there are plenty of films that defy definition. For example what is Avatar (2009) or The Jungle Book (2016) – animation or live action? The aesthetic is to match into the live action elements, so they are possibly live action, but the process of creation is closer to animation, since each frame has been created and manipulated in an artificial manor. In fact the only live action element of The Jungle Book is Mowgli, everything else is 3D animation. Should we be defining live action as ‘photoreal’, and animation as ‘graphic’? The jungle in Avatar is photoreal, but it’s not a live action aesthetic.

OK, back to the optical illusion. It’s just a sequence of images that creates the illusion of movement, but a sequence that we have created or manipulated frame by frame. Everything else follows from that. Once you have mastered the creation and manipulation of this illusion, you are then ready to move into the jungle of aesthetics.

Enough theorising! Lets ask Bob Godfrey, I think you’ll agree this is the best definition of animation:

8 categories of animation based on production technique

From the point of view of trying to understanding the scope of animation it is actually helpful to carve up the universe of ‘animation’ into types or categories based on the techniques used to make them. However at the same time it is important to understand that nowadays there will be a significant amount of overlap between techniques and therefore categories, which can complicate the idea of defining types of animation, so much so that I have resorted to an ‘uncategorised category’! All the same it’s still an essential and helpful starting point.

So here are my 8 categories. I will give more in-depth explorations of each of these categories of animation in later posts, for now I just want to introduce them.

1. Stop Motion Animation

This category is defined by the physical nature of how we interact with the subject we are animating. When we are altering a physical scene, usually with our hands, and photographing each frame, that is stop motion. It also generally requires the use of ‘straight ahead’ animating which is the process of making the frames in the same order that they will be watched.

There are many different forms of stop motion, some more well-known than others. I have explored as many forms as I can define in my post Types of Stop Motion Animation, so have a look at that to get a more in-depth idea of what it encompasses. In summary and in no particular order; clay animation, brick/toy films, puppet/model animation, cut-out animation, sand animation,  paint animation, object animation, pixilation, pinscreen/pinboard animation, destructive animation, animated light and shadow.

Stop motion animation is all about the real physical world, its tactile.

To start by throwing a spanner in the works, I’m going to illustrate this with some fantastic stop motion animation from Ray Harryhausen, embedded into live action footage. This is the skeleton sequence from Jason and the Argonauts (1963):

2. 2D Animation

Generally the portrayal of characters in action. It is made by creating a sequence of images in a two dimensional plane, but specifically in a way that allows the character or animated thing to be altered or change its shape frame by frame. So the elements of a character will move, the shape of the face may change as they change expression, the mouth will move if they talk, if they move their leg the body will shift to compensate, the body might bend, stretch or distort. This is used for expressive characters, morphing shapes, and free movement. The style of animating can be ‘keyframe and inbetweening’ meaning that the drawings will not be made in the order in which they are watched. This gives lots of control over getting just the right movement.

There are different forms and styles of 2D animation too:

Drawn animation – drawings used to create a shape or character that can morph, change and be fully expressive.

Cartoon animation – a style identified by it’s use of bounce and distortion of characters. The visual style is often rounded and colourful, and it is very fluid and active.

Anime –  characters are stylised, often with large eyes, and motion often cleverly uses more still images and cycles in production.

Cut-out animation – a character is made of a number of isolated 2D graphic elements, for example a head, a torso, two arms, two hands etc. These are moved by an animator in a software environment, usually making the keyframes and software tweens between them. (Cut-out animation can also be made a s a stop motion technique too).

2D animation is sometimes confused with motion graphics, however the two are often used together, adding to the confusion, and when done intelligently the two do work well together. What makes 2D animation unique is the level of frame by frame control used to convey character and personality, which is not really required in motion graphics.

2D animation is all about fluid movement and total control. One of the best examples of drawn animation is the work of Joanna Quinn, this really illustrates the total freedom of movement that drawn animation gives you:

3. Motion Graphics

The playful use of graphic elements in motion, used to convey information in an interesting, helpful and often mesmerising way.

The graphic elements could themselves have their own motion, for example they could  be 2D animation or live action clips. The environment for building motion graphics could be 2D or 3D or a combination of both.

Motion graphics actually has a very wide and subtle application. When done correctly it is superb. It is used very creatively in music videos, and title sequences, often as abstract moving patterns. It is used in Visual Effects too sometimes, when Iron Man wears his mask he sees information on the screen, that’s motion graphics. It’s any number of animated elements playfully merged together to create abstract sequences exploring a theme, or playfully presenting information.

Its great for information based on text and illustrations. In this use its often called Animated Infographics, Kinetic Typography, Whiteboard animation and some Explainer videos are in this category too. It is generally quicker to make, and works best combined with animated graphic elements rather than still ones. This showreel of great motion graphics illustrates a heavy use of animated and live action graphic elements put in motion to playfully explore ideas:

4. 3D Animation

Characters and environments that are built in a digital 3 dimensional space, and animated in that space. It has a very wide use, from character animation, Games, Visual Effects, to product design, simulation and architectural fly-throughs. There are many specialisms within the field, from model building, rigging, animating, lighting, texture, and many more.

Let’s start by sorting out some often misunderstood terms! ‘Computer Graphics (CG)’ are graphical elements that are generated using specific software, and they are part of the creation process. ‘Computer Generated Images (CGI)’ are what you get when computers have rendered these graphical elements into an image that can then be used for something. But ‘3D Animation’ is the process of animating an object or character made in a 3D digital space, making it move and be expressive.

3D characters can be moved, much like the puppets of stop motion animation but with some crucial differences. The animator can set the ‘keyframe’ of a character element and the computer will do the inbetweening’s for you. The more work the animator does, the more keyframes they create, the more believable the animation will be. So a character picking up a cup of tea could have 20 keyframes, or it could have 2. The latter animation may not be believable, may feel very mechanical, or ‘computery’. Puppets are also ‘rigged’ so that there are natural relationships between parts of the puppet, which helps in the animating of it. In this 3D environment the camera can fly through a scene very easily, something that would be difficult in some other forms of animation.

3D animation is not a case of ‘the computer does animation for you’, it’s a case of aesthetics, and possibilities. The 3 dimensional digital world you create opens up possibilities that may not be available to other forms. It is used extensively in Visual Effects too.

This is still my favourite 3D animated short film Ryan (2005) by Chris Landreth:

5. Visual Effects (VFX)

Some might argue that this isn’t a type of animation, rather it is a use of animation. But you could argue that it is a form of animation that is designed to hide it’s process. The audience of a Visual Effects film are not reminded, by the animation style, that the world they are drawn into is an illusion. Instead the mechanics are hidden, and it looks ‘real’.

‘Visual Effects’ films are now a hybrid between live action and animation. Some films break all the laws of nature and create a world of the imagination, that’s pretty much what any other form of animation does. There is a spectrum. On the one side we have visual effects films that are arguably animated films with a photoreal aesthetic using some live action elements, for example The Jungle Book (2016), the boy is live action, the rest is 3D animation. On the other side you have live action films much of which are extensively altered but with the intension of feeling like the real world, not an imaginary world, for example The Kings Speech (2010). Where a film sits on this spectrum will determine whether it could be considered and animated film or not.

Visual Effects (VFX) are not to be confused with Special Effects (SFX), which include the physical aspects of film effects done during filming, like animatronics, pyrotechnics, make-up and so on. VFX involves changing the footage after filming and involves the frame by frame manipulation of the live action footage. 3D animation is often extensively used, rigging is painted out frame by frame, elements are extracted from one shot and placed in another, actors faces may be altered and so on.

It’s a technical artform, involving many different elements, all of which must blend into one convincing world and seem completely believable.

Here is a VFX breakdown of Blade Runner 2049 (2017) from Framestore:

6. Games and Interactive Animation

This can have a 2D or 3D aesthetic, but the common factor is that the animation needs to be controlled to some degree by the player.

In film animation you control what the viewer sees, and your character only needs to do what you want them to do for that shot. In games, the player might need the character to alter their action in the middle of an activity, and for a natural flow to be maintained programming needs to kick in to activate workable intermediate steps. For example your character is running, and the player wants them to immediately run in the opposite direction, then stop and wait. So an intermediate stage of stopping, turning and running needs to be activated through programming and scripting, then a pause/breath cycle needs activating. A library of ‘cycles’ is needed to be called upon in response to player commands. The body mechanics of a puppet needs to be very well developed to cope with any number of things the puppet is asked to do.

Ultimately what differentiates game animation is that action is triggered by the gamer, it requires scripting, programming and body mechanics to deliver believable movement.

Here is a montage of 15 games from 2018 with the best animation graphics, according to GamingBolt:

7. Mechanical Animation

This includes the Victorian toys and entertainments such as the Zoetropes, Praxinoscopes, spinning disks, and Magic Lantern slide shows. Today it would include paper flickbooks, animated optical illusions and also drawing directly onto film stock and projecting it back through a film projector. Installation artists may also create a series of images or puppets mounted round the edge of a record player and shown with a strobing light, this give the same effect.

This non digital aspect of animation is great for helping children understand how animation works. It is also interesting for historians and installation artists, and is a playful way of understanding and exploring the boundaries of persistence of vision as an experience in itself. Because animation itself is the persistence of vision illusion my ‘mechanical animation’ definition does not include animatronics, I would include that in live action as the mechanised puppet is filmed at live speed, often along with actors.

Here is an example of a Zoetrope in action:

8. Animation that defies categorisation

Yes I have indeed made a category out of everything else that doesn’t fit anywhere, a dumping ground of possibilities if you will! But read on, these are still interesting.

8a. Rotoscoping & Motion capture

Some people present this as a category. But I’m arguing that it is not a type of animation, but it is a way of animating. Specifically it is a way of copying movement from the real physical world to a graphic object. It could be used in 2D, 3D or motion graphics and even games too. But if a category is defined by the way animation is made and its aesthetic then it could be given its own category.

Rotoscoping is the process of using live action footage and extracting a moving element from it. This could be done by using a digital brush or drawing tool and drawing over or around the element you want to copy the motion of, for example a dancer. Playing back this sequence of drawings would give the impression of the drawn lines moving like that dancer. In Visual Effects a number of shapes would be used to very carefully and accurately mask the same dancer so that it could be extracted from one background and added to another.

In Motion Graphics specific points on an actor are matched to equivalent points on a CG model. As the actor moves, the movement of these points is recorded, and matched to the equivalent points on the model. This model will then move using the same motion of the actor.

Using the motion of a live figure or natural phenomenon, is used in films to create a very specific motion aesthetic, giving the film a specific feel and style. It is also used in Visual Effects to give artificial characters (monsters, aliens etc) a natural feel and movement, so they will be more believable alongside live action actors.

Ways of animating, types of movement, will be covered in another post. For now here is the trailer of a film that uses Rotoscoping in a playful and mesmerising way, Waking Life (2001):

8b. Virtual Reality

I’m not going to make this into a separate category for the time being. To me the animation itself is either going to be in the category of 3D, or games and interactive. It’s the digital environment in which the animation is both made and experienced that is different.

VR offers an immersive interactive environment for creating animation. Thus the process has some similarities with stop motion only in that you might physically move the limb of your virtual puppet, you will be using your arms to place a block on top of another, or adjust a characters position, with the aid of hand held tracking devices. Or you may create motion with the aid of motion capture devices. The way the movements are recorded are closer to 3D animation, as is the building of the puppet.

This field is relatively new and still developing, so it’s yet to attract enough artists and audiences to make the impact that it will. At the moment it is being explored in the 5D experiences (visuals, moving seats, water and wind), immersive video, and in single player creation games (Blocks, Tiltbrush, Mindshow). Watch this space, as there will be developments that make a big impact on how we do and experience things. For now here is an example of Mindshow:

8c. Projection mapping and holographic displays

This is animation and other motion elements used in live performance, or art installations. Again I’m not going to give this a category of its own because the animation will be made using one of the above techniques, it’s the way that it is displayed to an audience that is different. However it does have unique aspects to the creation process, so I’m mentioning it here.

Projection mapping will involve building a model of an existing environment, and using this to design animation that will respond directly to this environment. Either to defy the shapes of that environment (for example make a building look like a tunnel with objects flying from it), or to add to that environment (for example make people appear in the windows of a building). You can also project it into ‘living’ surfaces (for example a curtain of water, or smoke). This clearly will distort and alter the animation adding a live element to the result.

Here is an example of one of the McGuires installations, which combines projection mapping with holographics elements, made for Hull City of Culture 2017:

8d. Animation of multiple categories

This actually applies to many great animated films! The aim of animation is to make a great film, not to fit into a production method. The point of making these categories is to help people to understand the different ways that animation is made and ultimately the different ways that it will look, time taken to make, cost and expressive possibilities.

Even a simple flick book defies categorisation. Really it is drawn animation, but you will use the straight ahead method of animating, you will make it by hand, and it is a mechanical way of showing persistence of vision. It can end up in three different categories. Lots of animation will appear in a number of categories. But there may be one category that it applies to more than the others.

Just for the sake of it, here is a lovely FlickBook video:

There are limitless different ways to make your image sequence.  So many that it ultimately makes no sense to use category’s to limit them, the point is to use this as a way to gain greater depth of understanding to the ‘animation universe’. Experienced animators will pull together a plethora of techniques to make their animated film. Making an illusion, creating magic, pulling your audience into another world, and suspending their reality is the ultimate aim of animation.

Persistence of vision

Peter Mark Roget wrote about looking and seeing in 1825, this was later developed into the ‘Persistence of Vision’ theory. This is generally accepted as the reason we are able to see movies as movement, but there is always a counter argument!

Here is a very good TED ED explanation of how we see movies:

So as we can see there are a number of processes going on which enable us to see the illusion of motion. What’s interesting is that when we add appropriate sound, the illusion becomes even more convincing.

The habits of the brain are why we can see a movie as a moving image. It’s in the vary act of being able to take a limited number of images and using that to create an image of what’s out there that makes it possible to see a movie as a convincing moving image. The brain will happily take a series of just 12 images per second and process this as smooth movement, and it will not see that it is actually simply 12 separate images each flashed by in one 12th of a second. In fact in the days of celluloid film ran at 24 frames per second as the standard. Now there are various standards of video speed so in the NTSC system it’s 29.97 images per second, and the PAL system is 25. But you are getting the idea that the brain does not bother to see a series of separate images, it processes them in its own way and decides that what it can see is actually a moving image. Filmmakers are in the business of creating this unique optical illusion.

Here is a fun exploration of Persistence of Vision, for your entertainment:

Animators in particular are the masters of this optical illusion. We have a whole range of language around this, one of the most import being “timing”, “frame speed” and simply “frames”. I’ll look at this in more detail in a separate post.

So now you know that animation is made in lots of different ways, it’s an optical illusion. Most importantly animation is anything that is not live action, and that means we can free our minds from the confines of reality if want.

Please leave a comment and let me know if you agree or disagree with my animation categories! Is category 8 just too big?

Thanks for reading!

Lucy Lee


  1. Hi and thanks for an interesting article. I am a big fan of the whole creative process of animation and I am stunned by how much animation has moved on to today’s standards. Your clip of f Jason and the Argonauts brought back memories. It’s a timeless classic. Looking forward to your future work. Kenny 

    • Thanks Kenny, the process of making animation is a fascinating subject and I’ll be sharing more on each type of animation… animation today has developed enormously, but the is so much to be learned from the classics too! Thanks for you comment, and I’m looking forward to writing more posts too!

  2. Coooool!  I love animation!  I love learning about it and seeing the different types there are.  I like most of the animations.  The gaming aspect of animation is really enticing!  I have noticed, though, that Virtual Reality is getting more and more popular within the gaming community.  It seems they’re looking more and more into it.  I think that’s good, because I think it’s a whole new take on how we’ll be playing games and more!  Thanks for your article.  I’ve bookmarked your site and can’t wait for more information from you 🙂 

    • Wow, thanks Kaeyoes! Yes VR gaming is amazing, there is certainly lots of potential in VR for all sorts of things, and luckily gaming is putting lots of development money into the technology. I have an embryonic site for VR called justmakevr.com I’ll be showing people how to make immersive videos and the like. Thanks for the comment, glad you like the site!

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