Cartoon animation: Digital efficiency gives you more time to create

Although cartoon animation has been around nearly as long as cinema itself, technology has enabled the craft to advance and evolve in remarkable ways.

Mad Scientist image courtesy of Darko Mitev

An animated octopus holds a gold ring underwater.

An octopus holds a ring in the animated short film Taking the Plunge. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Ku-Herrero

What is cartoon animation?

3D cartoon animation is a blend of the old and new. Whereas traditional animation was done with individual hand-drawn frames, modern animation renders transitions between frame states automatically using software.

An animated baby dragon perches on a mountaintop.

An animated little dragon sits atop a mountain. Image courtesy of Gabriel Richaud

Cartoon animation meets software

Pioneering work by Disney and Warner Bros. between the 1920s and 1940s established the techniques of cartoon animation, with artists painstakingly drawing or painting every frame to be made into short loops or entire feature films.

But artists (along with software engineers) later realized computers could do the same thing, taking character rigs and programming simple instructions about movement, camera angles, and light levels—a practice spearheaded by Pixar.

Today, almost every major 3D animation project contains CGI elements and post-production. Animation software—including Maya, 3ds Max, and MotionBuilder from Autodesk—can automate the simulation of complicated elements such as ocean waves or hair.

When the environment of a scene is built in the software, you can place your virtual camera anywhere inside it. Shifts in this perspective can completely change the emotional context of a scene. And advanced pipeline management can help make production management, asset, and milestone tracking seamless.

Autodesk software for 3D cartoon animation

3D animation, modeling, simulation, and rendering software for film, games, and TV

A review and production tracking toolset for VFX, games, and animation teams

Scale your studio’s rendering and simulation capabilities, while equipping artists with powerful modeling and animation tools

Cartoon animation in action

A woman poses physical characters used in hand-made automation.


Augmenting handmade animation for memorable characters

This animation studio is known for its unique handcrafted aesthetic, but uses a digitized workflow for the best of both worlds.


Image courtesy of Laika

An animated Pinocchio speaks to his master, Geppetto, in a scene from the Netflix film.


Creating Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio

The animation studio’s first project to receive an Academy Award reimagines the classic children’s tale through stunning stop motion.


Image courtesy of Netflix

The monster in the Netflix animated film Troll roars at the screen.


A monstrous achievement on Netflix’s Troll

This studio was challenged to build a gigantic mythical creature with a permanent scowl, sharp teeth, and a scaly body—and to make him sympathetic instead of just scary.


Image courtesy of Netflix

3D cartoon animation resources

Find exclusive animation learning content, get visionary industry insights, and go behind the scenes into a world of realistic 3D characters, exceptional effects, and expansive worlds.


Join Autodesk’s AREA 3D community to read user stories, share your work, and learn new skills with breakdowns and tutorials on 3D animation software.


Learn how director Cinzia Angelini recruited 350 collaborators from across the world to work remotely on her animated short film Mila.


From beginner- to experienced-level tutorials, find free learning videos about Maya, animation, and beyond.


Explore animation organizations, education options, events, networking forums, and more tools to help you get ahead in your animation career.


In this course, learn how to showcase a complicated 3D model as an “exploded” view that zooms in and out to highlight components.


Frequently asked questions (FAQ) on cartoon animation

How does cartoon animation work?

Like traditional handmade animation, CGI cartoon animation works by designing your world and the characters who will inhabit it—all with a style of their own.


Rather than hand-sketching or sequentially painting every frame, cartoon animation is the process of using motion, lighting, and camera-position parameters and rules in software. The computer then automatically renders each frame, breaking motion down into changes between frame states.

What are the advantages of using cartoon animation software?

There are many advantages of using cartoon animation software. Here are just a few of the ways you can work smarter:

  • Create anything you can imagine without limits
  • Iterate endlessly until the shot is perfect
  • Save time during expensive shooting
  • Retroactively change a character or object design

What is the difference between 2D and 3D cartoon animation?

In basic terms, 3D adds depth to a scene or frame. Traditional animation comprised flat, two-dimensional drawings, with drawn background elements providing the illusion of depth behind foreground elements. 3D cartoon animation software builds a 3D space in which to situate characters, landscapes, backgrounds, and other elements that are necessary to build the story of a scene. Those elements are positioned in the space, and viewers’ eyes respond to those 3D spaces the same way they do in the real world.