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Animation Software Showdown: Industry Favorites Reviewed

The vast array of digital animation software can often be confusing to compare. There are many tools on the market, both free and paid, yet, which ones will actually help you accomplish your next animation project? From Toon Boom to Cinema 4D, in this blog, we’ll review and rank five top animation programs to help you make an informed decision on which one to use in your next paid project or school assignment.

Factors Considered in Our Reviews

Before we begin, we want to preface which factors were considered when reviewing our list of five animation softwares.

  • Usability and Interface – Many of the software we chose are suitable for all skill levels to grasp a basic understanding of, however, the usability and interface does play a role in the user experience of these products, which we’ve taken into consideration.
  • Features and Capabilities – Perhaps the most important factor when evaluating any software for review, features and capabilities make or break professional workflows and beginner-friendly projects.
  • Compatibility and Integration – If a software is only developed for a single operating system or struggles with optimizing your computer’s hardware, we’ve considered it here. Additionally, plugin integration plays an important role for professional-level work, which we’ve also factored into our scores.

Top Industry-Favorite Animation Software

Ranked from five to one, explore the score, price, system requirements, key features, and our thoughts on the animation softwares below.

5. Adobe Animate

  • Score:

5.0/10

  • Price: 

$22.99 / month (individual software)

$59.99/ month (Creative Cloud bundle)

  • System Requirements: 

Windows: Intel Pentium 4 (2GHz or faster)

Mac: Intel Processor with 64-bit support, ARM-based Silicon

  • Key Features:

Vector graphics: Adobe Animate utilizes vector graphics which help keep file sizes small and allows for the quality to be scaled to an infinite number of resolutions.

Adobe Stock: The large library of Adobe Stock brings a lot of value to this animation software. Simply browse directly in Animate and bring it into your project.

Creative Cloud Library: If you’re in need of design assets during a project, the Creative Cloud Library is a useful tool to use natively within the Animate app.

Released in 1996 under the name FutureSplash Animator, Adobe Animate has long been a popular tool in the animation software industry. It has undergone several name and ownership changes throughout its time, eventually being purchased by Adobe. This vector-based 2D animation software is a useful tool if you are already familiar with the Adobe Creative Cloud ecosystem. 

Because it’s a vector-based software, drawn lines will allow for additional flexibility for artists compared to raster lines. The software also allows for interactive video and the use of HTML5, meaning you can make something as simple as a button or as complex as an animated game. Over 33 million users have a Creative Cloud subscription, which comes with Animate, so it might be advantageous for those who actively use the subscription to check out Animate. 

Like all softwares, there are some disadvantages to using Adobe’s animation software. Some users report issues with stability which might lead to projects crashing. Artists who prefer bitmap drawing may want to stick with a different software as well due to its vector-based nature.

4. Blender

  • Score:

7/10

  • Price: 

$0 / month

  • System Requirements: 

Windows: 4-8 cores with SSE4.2

Mac: Apple Silicon or Intel

  • Key Features:

Non-Linear Animation: A wonderful feature of Blender is its non-linear animation tool, or NLA for short. NLA allows you to quicken your animations by not having to animate a repetitive motion frame-by-frame. For example, let’s say you want to animate a character waving to their friend. Instead of animating the full 5-second clip, you can animate the base wave, and simply extend the timeline to make it longer.

Grease Pencil: Blender’s Grease Pencil is a unique feature to the software that allows you to draw in a 3D space. Most notably, this tool was used in Spiderman: Across the Spider-Verse alongside Maya.

Character Animation Pose Editor: Although not exclusive to Blender, the character animation pose editor allows you to save one-frame poses of your character to use again at a later time. If your character is repeating a lot of the same movements, this tool will save you a lot of time.

Released in 1994, Blender was one of the first programs to become open-source animation software and free to use. This allowed the tool to be used for commercial use right away. In fact, with a GNU General Public License, users can keep all rights to anything they make, including .blend files. It also allows users to distribute copies of Blender, improve Blender, and distribute updated copies.

With over 14 million downloads in 2020 alone, many students and aspiring-animators use Blender due to its free price, features, and capabilities. For example, users have the ability to create every aspect of the 3D animation process natively within the software. As good as the software is, it has not been picked up by the majority of larger studios, and as a result, the program is used most by hobbyists, freelance artists, small teams, and independent contractors.

3. Cinema 4D

Score:

7.5/10

Price: 

$116 / month

System Requirements: 

Windows: Intel or AMD with AVX2 support

Mac: Intel SSE4.2 support

Key Features:

Adobe Compatibility: Users who utilize Adobe After Effects can seamlessly integrate Cinema 4D into their workflow natively which allows a better experience for editing 3D animations.

Virtual Walkthroughs: Oftentimes, animators use virtual walkthroughs to share their work with others. Cinema 4D makes creating a walkthrough very simple for all skill levels.

Redshift: It takes a strong computer to work with complex projects inside Cinema 4D. Luckily, Redshift is a lightning fast GPU-renderer that allows animators to spend less time waiting for a project to load and more time creating.

Cinema 4D is a 3D modeling, animation, simulation, and rendering program developed by Maxon in 1993. The software is very popular within the motion graphics industry and is often combined with Adobe After Effects. We appreciated the easy-to-understand user interface and know beginners will too.

For those straying away from motion graphics and into traditional animation and simulation, this might not be the tool for you as it lags behind in several features compared to tools like Blender and Maya.

2. Autodesk Maya

  • Score:

8.5/10

  • Price: 

$235 / month

  • System Requirements: 

Windows: 64 bit Intel or AMD with SSE 4.2

Mac: Silicon arm64 or Intel x86

  • Key Features:

3D Animation: Maya is perhaps the king of 3D animation due to it being used in almost every big-budget, modern production.

Node-based Rigging: Increased efficiency and faster animating, what’s not to love? “By using animation nodes, you can create complex animations without having to use any coding. Animation nodes are easy to use and allow you to create stunning animations with ease,” writes 3D Blendered Magazine.

Rendering Engine (Arnold): The Maya rendering engine is extremely powerful, taking advantage of a computer’s full CPU processing power.

Released in 1998, Autodesk Maya has since become an industry-leader in 3D animation. It is the most expensive subscription on our list, however, the animation software is primarily used by professionals in production studios around the world. Due to its legendary status, learning Maya through formal education can open up many doors for animators looking for high quality work.

The usability of Maya for beginners can be challenging without serious mentorship. However, with most things, the more you practice, the easier it will get. Additionally, the price and monthly subscription model keeps many learners away from the software.

1. Toon Boom Harmony

  • Score:

9/10

  • Price: 

$27.50 / month (essentials package)

$71 / month (advanced package)

$129.50 / month (premium package)

  • System Requirements: 

Windows: Intel Core i7, Xeon, or better

Mac: Silicon or Intel Core i7, Xeon, or better

  • Key Features:

Deformers: “Deformers give the ability to animate objects and parts of a character model using computer generated deformations,” writes Toon Boom. This means that if you’d like your character to flex, morph, or stretch, you can use deformers instead of drawing another pose.

Visual Effects: Visual effects can add a much-needed look of professionalism to a Toon Boom animation. From fun glows to transparency filters, Toon Boom Harmony offers an easy-to-understand effects tab.

3D Space: Using the Stage or Camera View tool, users can create a 3D space in Toon Boom allowing objects to flip and turn in any direction.

Created in 1994, Toon Boom Harmony is the essential 2D animation tool for most modern television shows streaming today. It’s also the tool many universities and classes use to prepare students for their professional career. Students at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design receive Toon Boom Harmony Premium included with their tuition.

Customer Support and Community

Adobe Animate: Customer support for Adobe can vary widely and is often criticized for being lackluster. Adobe Animate does have its own forum through Adobe, however, much of the activity is bug reports and issues with the software. Because of newer softwares on our list, the online community behind Animate has a lot of room to grow.

Autodesk Maya: Autodesk, the developers of Maya, host a forum for each of their software, similar to Adobe. The main use of the Maya forums consist of questions about the software and reporting bugs. Autodesk also has a gallery where users can post their creations from all of Autodesk’s offerings, including animations, modeling, and architecture.

Toon Boom Harmony: Toon Boom’s customer support leans slightly more positively than the previous two tools, however it’s clear that many animation software developers have a long way to go. Toon Boom forums are incredibly active due to it being an industry leader around the world. In the forums, animators are encouraged to ask questions about the software, request features, report bugs, and showcase their work.

Cinema 4D: Cinema 4D does not have a community forum, however, Maxon, C4D’s developer, has forums for Redshift, Zbrush, and Forger.

Blender: Perhaps the largest online community due to the software’s accessibility, Blender has a large network of students and beginners across the internet creating tutorials, guides, and documentation on the software.

Large Studio Productions

There are many hollywood blockbuster films and television shows using the animation softwares that made our list. From Toon Boom to Maya, here’s the software behind your favorite animated stories:

Adobe Animate: Teen Titans Go (2013)

Autodesk Maya: Spiderman: Across the Spider-Verse (2023), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023), Pixar’s Elemental (2023)

Toon Boom Harmony: The Bob’s Burgers Movie (2022), The Looney Toons Show (2011), Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Blender: Spiderman: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)

Emerging Tools and Future Predictions

Besides pushing new firmware and updates to the software above, there is a lot of innovation happening in the world of animation. Let’s take a look at a few tools pushing the status quo.

Up-and-Coming Software

Procreate, the highly-successful iPad app for artists, announced in 2023 its new animation-dedicated software, Procreate Dreams. This opened up the market to allow users to practice creating animations on the go from a tablet. Another tool that is gaining popularity with independent studios is CACANi, a software that can generate in-between frames with vector lines. This helps drastically cut down the time it takes to bring a project from draft to completion.

Ready to Animate?

No matter your software of choice, animation is a skill that can progress your career for years to come. With a job outlook growth rate of 8%, the demand for qualified animators for television, movies, and social media continues to grow. To learn more about an animation degree from Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, check out our on-campus and online programs today.

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