4 Free Apps to Get You Started with Hand-Drawn Animation

justGoscha
Sep 22, 2019 · 10 min read

In this article, I want to quickly present to you my free animation toolchain and review some of the apps I was using for 2D animation over the past months.

I took some time off my day job, traveled and concentrated on art and animation for 3 months this year. I took a very rudimentary setup with me a 12" Macbook and a Wacom Intuous drawing tablet. And of course some non-digital sketch material.

On this sparse setup, I wanted to try a bunch of free animation software and decide which one is the best. At this point, I didn’t want to buy one, until I tried first the free options that are available.

Mainly I tried Krita, Autodesk Sketchbook and Blender >2.8. Further, my toolchain consists of an app that helps cut multiple scenes together and edit. For those I used iMovie and Shotcut, I’ll give a quick review of these, too.

🎙 DISCLAIMER: My review is mostly aimed at people starting out, that want to try getting started with animation. Not professional animators, although you might still find the reviews useful.

TLDR: For those whose time is sparse

Use Autodesk Sketchbook to get off the ground quickly. It has the best performance and most intuitive user interface to get something done quickly, but it lacks in features (especially more layers) to build more sophisticated animations.

Use Krita if you want more complex animations and still the full power of brushes. But beware, you might need a more powerful machine to run it smoothly.

Use Blender 2.8 if you want to enhance or support your 2D animations with 3D effects, cameras, and environments. Be prepared for a steeper learning curve, but also the most professional of the tools on this list.

Use Flipaclip for animation on the go if you want to try out some ideas.

If you want to read about my experiences with these programs and a more in-depth comparison and review—read on!

Krita >3.0 (Mac/Win/Linux)

Krita is an open-source and free digital painting application with a pretty long history. I discovered it in 2015, when the animation feature was just in development and only in alpha/beta versions.

Back then it was a mix of frustrating and delightful experiences. Since then a lot of things happened. By now the animation feature seems pretty stable.

When you open the program you should switch to the Animation-workflow. It arranges the user interface so it is suitable for animation, with a view of the timeline in the bottom, and the layers on the right.

From there it’s pretty simple, you can create keyframes in the timeline, select and move them and so on. The movement of the frames always gives me quite some problems, especially if I want to move multiple frames a few frames further. It just does not let me drag and drop as I would expect. It often takes me two operations. First, drag it further than I wanted, and then move it back to where it should go. Not very intuitive.

In general, it’s a good program. What was most frustrating to me though and distracted me from being productive was often the brush settings. Although they are very powerful and allow for a lot of customization, this sometimes led me down the path to over-experiment to get it *just right*. But to me, it never felt just right. I think the biggest issue, that I could not pinpoint was the performance of the brush itself. It was just not that instantaneous like I have been used to from Photoshop.

I’m not sure if it is my current setup, which is a Macbook Pro 2016 (no dedicated graphics), or the software itself. But I want this program to succeed and get better, so I will keep coming back to it. Also for lack of other good free alternatives with such powerful painting tools.

Example Animations:

Summary:

This is probably the most sophisticated free drawing and painting program ever created, and it brings all the features along for the animation process. The complexity comes at the price of a learning curve and some time for customization. You’ll be still up and running fairly quickly and can create your first animations. It’s a very customizable experience. You get a lot of features, but trade it for convenience of good presets and default workflow.

Pros:

+ Most powerful drawing tools (perspective grids, effects, mirroring, etc)
+ Most powerful brush tools and customization
+ Very customizable onion-skinning
+ Unlimited layers
+ Layer effects/blending/masking
+ Super customizable
+ Raster / Bitmap based

Cons:

- brush has some latency on non-high-end machines
- not the most intuitive UI
- moving frames on the timeline is inconvenient
- not the most convenient export functionality

Autodesk Sketchbook (Mac/Win)

Sketchbook is a software that was released for free a short while ago. It used to be a paid application and in its Pro version it still is, but the basic version is now free (you need to create an account though to use it).

And — oh boy — you really feel that it was a commercial product, but in a very good way.

Its basic focus is like the name says is to sketch. And at this, it really excels.

The user interface has only tools that help you draw, sketch and paint. Not much to distract you from this main purpose.

The performance of the brush strokes is flawless. From the moment you set your brush on the canvas, it just flies and feels natural. There is no noticeable delay for me. The brush customization is not as extensive as in something like Photoshop, or Krita, or some other programs focused on painting. But it still has a good collection of brushes and you can make a few adjustments to them (like changing brush tips, or feedback to pen pressure).

I used Photoshop in the past, and it was my favorite for drawing and sketching. It felt comfy, it had pretty cool brush tools. But I think, the focus and simplicity of Sketchbook makes it my new favorite tool for drawing and sketching and doing short animations.

Now finally a few words to the animation feature of it. I believe the animation feature was first only in the pro version, but now it is also available in the free version. It is a bit hidden though.

To use the animation feature you need to go to “File > New Flipbook”. Then it basically opens for you a new canvas with a few limitations. For example, you will have only 4 layers—Foreground, Midground, Background, Background Color. You can paint only on 3 of them. And animate only 2 of them.

That’s quite a bummer since it restricts pretty much the complexity of your animations. For example, if you want to make a sketch, and then paint over it to do the final lines. That’s it right there — you used your 2 animation layers! So you either have to do the sketch on the same layer or no sketch at all, draw your final lines. If you want some animated action in the background, well it’s not impossible, just very, very inconvenient with only 2 layers.

Another thing is, you cannot rename these layers, change their opacity or their order. So if you want to draw something on top of your foreground layer, and you didn't think about that before. You are out of luck. You either have to draw really over it, in a destructive action. Or copy every frame down one layer. Frame by frame.

That all seems like very harsh criticism. Clearly Sketchbook was not created with animation as its main feature. But still, it hurts a bit to have only these rudimentary features included since I really like the look and feel of the application as a whole.

So the main selling points for me to still have it as kind of a favorite here is the speed that you can get up and running. You just open up the application, start a new file and can animate away. It has a robust timeline, onion-skinning, and playback, framerate settings to support basic animation needs.

Overall still a recommendation, it’s the software that gets me productive the fastest.

Example Animations:

This is composed of about 6 separate animations—all done in Sketchbook.

Summary:

If you just want something to get started or create simple animations, with a minimal amount of setup — This is it. You can jump right in. It’s performant and focused on the creation process. If you plan to do more complex animations, with multiple animated layers, you will hit a wall pretty quick (rather try Krita).

Pros:

+ Best performance (brushes very smooth/low latency)
+ Easiest start
+ Intuitive user interface (you can get up and running in a minute)
+ Essential drawing tools easily accessible
+ Extensive and customizable brush collection
+ Basic onion skins
+ Export to GIF and MP4
+ Import image sequence

Cons:

- only 2 animated layers (+1 static background layer, +1 static color layer)
- no control over layer blending, opacity or other properties (only hide/show)
- timeline manipulation limited (moving frames on the timeline etc.)
- a maximum of 1000 frames

Blender 2.8 (Mac/Win/Linux)

Blender is generally known to be a 3D rendering, sculpting application and a pretty successful one at that. Recently they’ve introduced the Grease Pencil tool and completely re-imagined it in version 2.8.

First time I stumbled over the feature was a few years back, but what really re-ignited my interest in it was this video a couple of months ago https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5HzSa6WdeI.

I thought to myself:

“Wow! That is the next level of 2D animation. You drawing a few assets. Move them in 3D space. Use 3D objects to aid you in drawing 2D things.”

All this looks pretty amazing, right? Yes. But it also looks, like it’s effortless. Which, I can assure you — it is not.

The first time I opened blender 2.8beta, I was just baffled by the complexity of the user interface. Coming into 3D software is always a bit overwhelming at first. You need to get over it and accept:

“You know nothing!”

Then you have to turn around and look for a good tutorial, workshop, getting started guide. I used this one to get familiar with the UI and the grease pencil tool: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywuiImWAsZ4

Another tip, start with a simple animation. Do a walk cycle or a bouncing ball. Something you already feel comfortable with. By the way, I recommend this for EVERY new application you try out. That way you combine something you know and like, with something unfamiliar and daunting. This is a good learning technique in general—combining something you like, with something you fear.

This focus on completing your first short animation will take you through all the basic features you need to know to operate the software. And you can quickly determine what works well and what doesn’t in this app. If you attempt something you haven’t done before, in an application you never used. Well… let’s just say you make failure more likely.

So what I did first, is something more complex. I guess, I don’t always follow my own common sense and logic. But still, I learned a couple of things.

The brush is for the most part pretty performant. It only supports vector brushes, but some of them have a pencil effect or other traditionl brush effects. You can manipulate your initial brushwork with some convenient transform tools. The timeline is pretty straight forward and works pretty well. It took me a few hours to figure out how to export the animation. I should have looked it up sooner instead of trying to find it on my own. Oh, the pride…

The hardest part is definitely getting started with Blender and getting accustomed to the whole user interface and different modes. I think a lot of features make sense down the line, but not in the beginning when you’re just starting out.

I myself have still to dive deeper into it. For my current aspirations, it is a bit of an overkill, but I will experiment further with it in the future.

Example animation:

Not very impressive, I didn’t add any colors.

Summary:

For beginners, I recommend starting more simple. Learn the basics in another program. I recommend it to those who want to bring more of the 3D possibilities into their work (Zooming, panning, camera movement).

Pros

+ can be used to make extensive animation films
+ powerful and easy timeline manipulations
+ powerful in combining 2D + 3D
+ onion skins
+ ability to transform and adjust your lines easily
+ move 2D drawings in 3D space
+ unlimited layers

Cons

- very complex
- hard to get started
- confusing UI
- only vector brushes (so not that much customization)
- confusing export/rendering process
- awkward color settings for your brush (creating materials)

Special favorite: Flipaclip (Android/iOS)

I want to include this special favorite of mine. I didn’t think it was possible to enjoy doing animations on a mobile device, especially a phone. But Flipbook is so intuitive, performant and fun that it’s just delightful to create animations on it.

Sure you are pretty limited in the extent of animations you can do. But sometimes something pops into my head and I just want to try it out. And the restrictions of it, being on such a small screen allow me to think more about the composition and movement of the shots much more than on the big screen. It just doesn't make as much sense to jump into detail.

You can still take the animations you do there as rough animatics or storyboards and import them into a real animation program on your desktop. Or you just use it as a fun little exercise and leave it what it is. Which has it’s own charm.

Here’s a little animation I did with it. I was quite happy with the result:

Example animation:

Pros

+ intuitive & focused design
+ good performance
+ seamless zoom/rotate functionality
+ intuitive brush settings
+ good for on the run
+ audio syncing features

Cons

- hard to be precise on a phone
- limited amount of layers (free version)
- the free version has onion skin limited to previous frame

If you like it, it’s probably worth it to get the full version. It’s not that expensive (Like 6 or 7$/€, depending on where you live and what device you have).

Conclusion

Those were my experiences with those free animation applications. There are lots of other tools out there. I’m curious what your favorite free and paid tools for animation are, write them in a response!

If you’re interested in more articles in animation start following my new publication on animation:

I would gladly accept great articles on animation there, too. Don’t hesitate to approach me if you have written some material on animation.

If you’re interested in my origin story. How the heck did I ever start animating? You can read about it here:

If you want to follow my animation work or get in touch. Follow my profiles:

Instagram: @batcatanimations
Twitter: @justgoscha

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Now venture out folks and start animating!

The Inspired Animator

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