How to Create Animations — The 8 Stages of Animated Videos & The Apps You Need
Animation is one of these art forms that combine numerous disciplines to create the end product. To create a successful animated short film there are many stages, and thus many different tools and apps involved. In this article, I would like to share the general process, and the software involved in each stage.
I will provide my own favorites and some alternatives I know of. I will always try to include free alternatives as well for those who just want to dip their toes into animation.
The Animation Process
Briefly, most animation films go through the following phases:
- Concept & Ideation
- Compositing and VFX
- Sound Design
- Export and Encoding Video
Depending on the complexity and length of an animation some of these steps may be skipped. Some other might be just merged together. But this is roughly the process it goes through.
Don’t worry if you don’t understand what some of the terms mean. I will explain further below. Strap yourself in for a deep dive!
1. Concept and Ideation
In the concept and ideation phase, you try to explore what you want to do. If you are working with a client you are trying to figure out a style, explore different ideas loosely, find color palettes, character designs. You try to answer as many questions as possible about what you are trying to achieve and go into as many directions as necessary without committing to something too soon.
This step of the process might be the most individual one. It can be a very structured approach involving moodboards and styleframes, or a very loose one.
Tools for Concept and Ideation
Since there are no rules here that are set in stone, you can use whatever software you like. For me, this stage is mostly about getting ideas out and visualize them. If I want to do it fast, I will just use paper. This is my first recommendation. Nothing beats paper in terms of getting an idea out. And you can do it even without electricity.
However, there are also excellent digital painting tools that I will utilize at this stage. I use Procreate a lot considering how frictionless it is to use the iPad. It is the next best thing to paper. Embarrassingly enough, I started using the Procreate gestures on regular paper sometimes, trying to UNDO or ZOOM IN.
When I’m drawing on my PC, I like using Autodesk Sketchbook. It has a clean user interface and I feel productive in it. If I need more powerful brushes I will use Adobe Photoshop. Or as a free alternative Krita, which is in some ways even better than Photoshop, though I find the interface a bit overwhelming. But the same applies to Photoshop when you open it for the first time.
Creating moodboards also helps out to set a direction for your ideas and there are multiple options to create good ones. Usually I just start collecting ideas on Pinterest and then my moodboard would just be the Pinterest board. But sometimes I need to group things, and see them in context and add annotations. Then you need a good software solution (or a real life pin board).
Since I come from the design world, I love to use Figma for my moodboards. It is actually an app to design user interfaces, but it works great for moodboards. You just copy paste, drag and drop pictures in, and can arrange them in any way you like. There is Milanote that is specifically made for moodboards, but there is no compelling argument over Figma and the free version is much more restricting.
If you need drawing capabilities there is Concepts. It offers an infinite drawing canvas to explore you ideas without restrictions. And you can also add pictures and inspirations. The only downside is that a couple of useful features are locked behind a paywall.
If you are planning to create your moodboards in a workshop style, you could even use something like Miro, it is an online collaborative pin board. It works great for online meetings and more.
💡 There are many apps out there, if you already have a favorite drawing app, just use that for starters.
- Figma (Win/Mac) — FREE option
- Concepts (iPad/Win/Mac/Android) — FREE option
- Good Old Paper + Pin Board (Physical World)
The storyboarding stage is when you try to bring the story you have in mind into a sequence of shots and scenes. I am assuming at that stage you already have a screenplay or a story in mind that you want to turn into a moving picture. This stage requires only rudimentary drawing skills. But on the other hand, cinematography plays a big role. Thinking about how to frame shots, how to move the camera, how to create drama, how to set characters into the scene and make them tell the story visually are all important skills to be mastered.
A good director and a good screenplay might help a lot here.
I have a book that taught me a lot, and that I still reference every time when I try to tell a story effectively — and that is “Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytellers” by Marcos Mateu-Mestre.
For my own productions I often skip this step and go directly for the animatic. It often helps though to be more efficient in later stages to go through this step, ad it is an essential step in bigger productions.
Tools for Storyboarding
Sometimes I scribble out a very minimal storyboard on paper or just the Notes app on the iPad. I heard of many people preferring just to use their preferred drawing program, for example, Photoshop. Yet, there are also tools specifically designed for this in mind.
A really good free tool here is “Storyboarder” by Wonder Unit. It’s very professionally developed by industry experts and packs a ton of features to create storyboards and turn them into animatics. Even if you can’t draw it has an automatic shot generator with 3D characters in it that you can pose and reposition. And you can easily import your paper storyboards. It really feels like a professional tool rather than something free.
I prefer to start with really small thumbnails of shots, and that why I still would go many times for just simple drawing tools.
- Storyboarder (Win/Mac) — free
Now we are finally going to make the pictures move for the first time. In the animatic phase we take the storyboards we have created and put them on an actual timeline. We will determine how long to hold each camera shot. We will create key poses for actions and reactions. We might even put the first audio track and dialog under our pictures.
The whole point of the animatic is to get the main timing right of the overall scene. Not necessarily the timing of each individual movement, but the timing of the main “acting” choices and things that are vital to the story you want to tell in this scene.
The animatic gives a clear idea about what an animation wants to tell.
At this point color and final design don’t play a huge role yet. But the overall lighting and contrast should be figured out here. It’s enough to have 3 or 4 values — highlight, light midtone, darker midtone, shadow.
Tools for Animatics
This a stage between animation and drawing. But the artifacts you want to produce at this stage are already video files. So you want something that produces video as output and allows you to visualize the action. You also want software here that allows you to put audio under your pictures.
The free “Storyboarder” app mentioned in the storyboard section also allows you to create animatics. It’s a natural choice to create the animatic if you already created your storyboard in the app. Even if you created your storyboard on paper or another app, with the easy import option in Storyboarder you can still get it done with this app.
Since oftentimes the animatic is already a piece of animation I am usually using an animation program for it. My personal favorite at the moment is “RoughAnimator” — it’s a simple-looking, yet very powerful app that I often use in multiple stages. From animatic to final animation and coloring.
Increasingly I also hear from people using “Blender” for animatics. It’s a 3D app, but with the new Grease Pencil tool it allows you to draw in 2D. With the 3D capabilities, it allows you to visualize scenes pretty quickly and add camera movements. It might be daunting to jump in right away if you never used it though and just want to quickly punch out an animatic.
You can basically use any animation program for it. Be sure it allows you to import sound and has some good timeline capabilities though. Because this step is mostly about timing, not about detailed animation.
- RoughAnimator (iPad/Android/Win/Mac) — $5
- StoryBoarder (Win/Mac) — FREE
- Blender (Win/Mac) — FREE
- Boords (Win/Mac) — $12/month
- Adobe Animate (Win/Mac) — $21/month
- Toonboom Harmony (Win/Mac) — $17+/month
- TVPaint (Win/Mac) — $500+
This is where the magic happens. Now we finally arrived at the thing you actually set out to do — Animation. Now even within the animation stage, there are a lot of sub-stages that you usually go through, and in those stages, you can go even through multiple iterations. You start with a rough animation and progress into refining further into the final colored animation.
It’s like a whole Russian doll of work. In this article, I am not going too much into detail of this entire process. Let’s just say this is the part where you bring the drawings truly to life and go from animatic to a finished animation.
This is where you will spend the majority of your time if you are doing short films by yourself. And that’s also why all the previous steps are important to determine what exactly you want to animate. You don’t want to end up animating an action, a scene, or character that will end up cut from the final piece.
Tools for Animation
Because you are spending so much time in this stage, this might also be the most important tool choice you will have to make. You will want to use something that is most comfortable for you. And the least frustrating. Something you can easily get behind and enjoy using every day.
For me, this is currently RoughAnimator for frame-by-frame animation. It does not look pretty the first time you open it, but it gets the job done, and it is very well thought out. It has a decent timeline, unlimited layers, onion skins, sound import, different export capabilities, simple brush tools, and even integrates well with After Effects. I would say this is one of the easiest tools to pick up and start animating. Apart from something that’s even more simple, like Flipaclip. And although it is not free (it costs $5), it is worth it at least tenfold. In terms of software pricing, this is nothing.
Other honorable mentions I used in the past are Krita, Photoshop, OpenToonz, and Adobe Animate. But at the moment I don’t see a strong personal reason to revisit them.
And I’ve been dying to try out Animation Paper which is still in ALPHA, but touts to be “the best software for hand-drawn animation”. But they are still missing quite some features to make it usable beyond line animation.
And of course, for any 2D motion design work, there is no way around Adobe After Effects.
- RoughAnimator (iPad/Android/Win/Mac) — $5
- Krita (Win/Mac/Linux) — FREE
- Blender for 3D and 2D (Win/Mac/Linux) — FREE
- OpenToonz (Win/Mac) — FREE
- Synfig Studio (Win/Mac/Linux) — FREE
- Animation Paper (alpha) (Win/Mac) — FREE
- TVPaint (Win/Mac) — $500+
- Adobe Animate (Win/Mac) — $21/month
- Toonboom Harmony (Win/Mac) — $17+/month
- Adobe Photoshop (Win/Mac) — $21/month
- Adobe After Effects (esp. for Motion Design work) — $21/month
5. Compositing and VFX
Once you finished your main animation you will usually go into post-production with it. Post-production can include a lot of things, applying effects to your animation, like glows, textures, grains, and color effects.
It can also include stitching together your backgrounds and foreground animation. A lot of times backgrounds are painted individually from the foreground animation because often it’s not even animated. Or it can even mean combining different animations and videos together into one shot. For example, combining 3D with 2D footage and live-action. This process is called compositing.
Tools for Compositing
One of the most important tools in the film and animation industry for compositing work is After Effects. It is a very powerful program that allows all of the things mentioned above and more. I hate a love-hate relationship with it After Effects. It’s very powerful, yet sometimes easy things are hard like looping footage, and performance can be super slow. The interface is also a legacy of like 20 years of development and that is how it often feels like. It’s too cluttered and not beginner-friendly at all.
If you just want to do simple compositing, or some simple motion graphics and hand-drawn animation, you can get around using After Effects. Yet, the overall consensus seems to be that there is no true alternative for 2D motion design. If you want to get serious about 2D motion design then sooner or later you will need After Effects.
But if you want to go an unconventional route here, I would recommend again Blender. When you will dive deeper into Blender, you will find ways to create different kinds of 2D and 3D motion graphics. Some things will be even easier to achieve than in After Effects, especially when it comes to everything in 3D space.
Additionally, when you are not afraid to dive deep into the shaders and material nodes you can achieve some truly stunning effects, that you couldn’t achieve in After Effects in the same way. Some prior programming experience will be an even greater advantage, but there are enough tutorials to learn about that even with no programming experience.
For cinematic compositing, there are also alternatives like Nuke, Natron, Apple Motion, Blackmagic Fusion, Hitfilm, and more. I never tried any of those and cannot give any recommendations.
Most video editing software also supports at least the basics of compositing, so you can get by without specialized compositing software in your pipeline.
My personal favorite
- Adobe After Effects — $21/month
- Blender (Win/Mac/Linux) — Free
Other alternatives (I can’t give any recommendation about those):
- Natron (Win/Mac/Linux) — FREE
- Hitfilm Pro — $349+
- Blackmagic Fusion — $295
- Apple Motion (Mac only) — $50 (requires Final Cut Pro)
- Nuke — Too much for you if you are reading this article
6. Video Editing
Now one of the last steps of creating a film is putting all your scenes into a sequence and aligning it with an audio track. This is where good video editing software comes in.
A lot of films come truly together in the editing process. This is where you can fine-tune all the timing of the dialog, the action, intercut scenes, or even completely change the order of scenes and pull off a Memento backward storytelling if you like.
Here you want software that makes it easy for you to navigate a timeline, cut clips, and move them around. A professional tool should also have more advanced features, for example, color correction and time stretching.
Tools for Video Editing
There is a wide variety of free and paid software for video editing, so first I will write about the ones I used. And then I provide a list of alternatives that I heard good things about.
One of the industry standards — Adobe Premiere Pro — is my current tool of choice. It comes obviously with all the professional editing capabilities you need. But it’s also not too hard to get started with it. For me, it sometimes just lacks performance, and I wish it would tell me it’s so slow at times. Sometimes a 15min video takes a couple of hours to render and then you can spend some time figuring out which video clip or setting is the issue. The previews also render often too slow. So there is on occasion some fighting with the software involved, but in general, it does its job. One nice thing is also that it integrates with After Effects, so you can seamlessly integrate AE compositions into your project.
I heard good things about Davinci Resolve and might try it out in the future. It is a video-editing program that is also used by Hollywood professionals and includes tons of functionality. It has tools for compositing and VFX, and sound mixing and mastering. It’s supposed to be easy to learn and the best thing of all they offer it for free. The free version should have enough functionality for most users.
When I just started animating, I did most of the work in my animation program and then just wanted a simple software to glue clips together and export a single movie. For this simple use-case, I just used iMovie. It comes free with a Mac, but it’s very limited in what you can do with it.
Once I needed more features, I started using the free editing tool Shotcut. Shotcut has enough features to even work on complex editing projects. The most significant downside for me was though that the interface is horrible. Especially if you apply effects to your clips, it was very confusing and unintuitive to use. Even the desktop icon of Shotcut looks like it glitched out.
- Adobe Premiere Pro (Win/Mac) — $21/month
- Davinci Resolve (Mac/Win/Linux)
- iMovie (Mac only)
- Shotcut (Mac/Win/Linux)
- OpenShot (Mac/Win/Linux/Chrome OS)
- KDEnlive (Mac/Win/Linux)
- Davinci Resolve Studio (Win/Mac/Linux) — $295
- Final Cut Pro (Mac only) — $300
- Hitfilm Pro (Win/Mac) — $350
7. Sound Design
Sound Design is a topic that deserves an article of its own, but I cover here the basic tools that everyone should still have in their toolchain. Now I put sound design in position 7 here, but that doesn’t mean that it comes after everything else.
Depending on the type of project, sound design and audio work might be involved very early on or even be the focus of the project. If you are doing an animation for a music video for example you have the audio ready before you even start with the animatic.
Other times you are thinking about the animation first and just later add sound effects and ambiance to it.
Sound can elevate your animation to a new level and even suggest things that are not even on screen. That means smart sound design can help you be more efficient and animate less.
Tools for Sound Design
At the minimum, you need something to record, cut, and clean up sounds. An app that does all that and almost everyone, amateur and professional alike uses, is Audacity. It is a free program and includes all the necessary effects and cutting tools you need to get you started working on sound. Whenever I record something or download a new sound, it almost always goes through Audacity to get the simple editing out of the way, like cutting it to the right size and reducing noise.
It is an app that might look outdated, but don’t be discouraged by its looks.
You can even do more advanced actual sound design with it, and record music. And it also supports VST plugins. That is a standard for audio software plugins and instruments.
If you want to dive deeper into the sound design space, you might want to get a Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW. This is how you call apps that are specifically made for the music and sound production process, and allow non-destructive editing and setting up of complex toolchains for your audio effects.
If you are on a Mac, a good starting point is Garageband — it’s free. I used it for a couple of years and I was able to achieve some satisfying results with it. You can import video to help you sync up your sound with video. The integrated instruments are really top-notch, and I still go back to it from time to time, just for this.
Nowadays I use Reaper, it has a nice performance and is very customizable. It helped me to be much faster in my sound design workflow. Especially when it comes to cutting and mixing. I would not recommend it when you are just starting out though.
One other DAW I like is Ableton, I used it the first time more than 10 years ago and it was fun to play around with it. I never used for it video production though, but there are many people doing awesome sound design work with it.
DAWs come in many flavors. It is quite difficult to recommend something that will suit everyone. Especially if you are starting out in the world of audio, I would maybe start with something simple, like Garageband and Audacity.
A lot of Video Editing tools, like Premiere Pro and Davinci Resolve, have audio tools already integrated. That means for simple effects and adjustments you won’t even need a digital audio workstation but can simply go with your video editing tool.
- Audacity (must have) Win/Mac/Linux — FREE
- Reaper — $60 (free 90 day trial)
- Garageband (Mac only) — FREE
Free alternatives for DAWs:
- Ableton (Win/Mac) — $359+
- Cubase (Win/Mac) — $589
- Pro Tools (Win/Mac) — $30+/month
- Logic Pro (Mac only) — $200
8. Export and Encoding
You are finished with cutting your film and everything is ready. Now you only have to render and distribute it on social media, on Youtube, maybe even as GIF (I hope GIFs get finally replaced by video files that loop). You want to deliver the best quality and best file size for each use-case.
Most video editing programs allow you to export a video file, but not all of them have extensive features where you can specify the codecs, the desired quality, and file size.
Tools for Exporting and Encoding
The best tool I’ve found here is Handbrake. It is really good at compressing video in good quality and small file size. In fact, I find it much better than the Adobe Media Encoder that comes with Adobes Creative Suite.
I use both, but Handbrake helps a lot to compress all kinds of video files. For example, Premiere Pro does not handle MKV files. So I quickly run them through Handbrake and can use them afterward.
- Handbrake (Win/Mac)
This is my non-exhaustive list of all my favorite tools and the ones I am aware of to produce animations. If I have missed any essential favorites of yours, please write a response!
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