Animation offers the promise of creativity without limits. Animated characters can give the elevator pitch for your business or illustrate critical business concepts for your products and services.
Telling your story with animation often costs less than a traditional live-person video. Once you’ve done the hard work of creating animations, animation software provides a convenient (and logistically easier) format to reproduce, update, and repurpose your message faster and easier than a live-person video.
Character animation software can help you create a short explanation video for your website or provide a more in-depth explanation of your unique value proposition (UVP). Character animation software options are available for all skill levels. Would-be animators can benefit from presets and design libraries, and expert animators can save time and effort with powerful new automations, tool sets, and processing power.
Let’s talk about the character animation process and some of the best character animator options for beginner and pro animators.
The best character animation software
We’d like to give you the nitty-gritty details of the best animation software. These include both 3D and 2D animation software. Their feature sets vary, but all are powerful tools in their own right. Some are designed strictly for character creation, while others deliver broadcast-quality 4K+ motion video.
Harmony 21 from Toon Boom is the character animator of choice for TV shows like “Family Guy,” “The Simpsons,” and “King of the Hill.” This is clearly a character animator that can produce high-quality content.
The Harmony 21 software allows users to create artwork and add animation, audio files, and special effects all in one tool. It also lets you import creative files from Illustrator, multilayer PSD and PSB files, PDFs, media, and bitmap files, giving you the flexibility to create in multiple tools. If you’re skilled at drawing by hand, Harmony 21 offers the breadth of tools required to scan and tidy up your illustrations.
Harmony 21 is a powerful tool that can take a project from the initial drawing stages to final production. While it’s used by many professionals, significant online community support makes it a viable tool for beginners too.
Toon Boom is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems.
- Comprehensive tool that has everything needed to create broadcast-quality animated content
- Color management: color spaces, color palettes, and painting
- Deformers for even more textures, depth, and realism
- Special effects, including lighting and auto toning
- Complete sound management and manipulation capability
- Integrate 3D elements with 2D characters
- Traditional paperless animation or innovative cut-out animation and 3D rigging
- Reliable support options, including community forums
- Export support for gaming engines
Pricing: Free 21-day trial; tiered subscriptions from $25.50 to $117.50 per month (billed annually)
Developed for illustrators, animators, and graphic designers, Daz 3D allows users to develop 3D characters and digital environments. Utilize the complete suite of Daz products (Studio, Hexagon, and Genesis 8) to create rigged 3D human models and surrounding environmental elements.
Daz 3D is a free tool for figure posing and rendering that helps illustrators, designers, and animators create (or purchase) 3D human models. You can add lighting effects, create poses, and animate model characters in the software.
Daz 3D is available for both Windows and macOS systems.
- Supports model posing, 3D motion pictures, and animation
- Detailed modeling and lighting options
- Morphing technology lets you change individual character attributes (great for demonstrating before and after)
- Easy export of designs into 3D animation tools like Maya or Cinema 4D
- Export in COLLADA, Universal 3D, BVH, and FBX formats
Pricing: Free with paid add-ons
Adobe Character Animator is an easy-to-use animation software that lets users turn virtually any artwork into an animated character. This is a great tool for beginning animators or marketing departments to create simple animated videos.
Using only a webcam, Adobe Character Animator can mimic facial expressions (e.g., raised eyebrows, smiles, frowns, side-eyes) and body movements (e.g., head, arms, legs, hands, feet) to generate a simple character animation in real time. Simply choose from a pre-developed character (or puppet) or an imported creation from software like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, then turn on a webcam and microphone and the software does the rest.
There are limits to what you can do to your background environments using Adobe Character Animator. Still, it’s a great tool for creating a simple and creative explainer video—and it’s already available to Adobe Creative Cloud All Apps subscribers.
Adobe Character Animator is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems.
- Creates real-time facial animations (eyebrows, mouth, eyes) based on your facial expressions
- Automatically animates body movements (heads, arms, and legs) based on your actual movements
- Automatic lip-syncing with audio
- Pre-designed “puppet” characters available
- Support for input from Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator
- Close-up and zoom shots
- Preset options to animate walking, breathing, blinking, and more
Pricing: Free seven-day trial; included in Creative Cloud All Apps starting at $54.99 per month for individuals and $84.99 per month for teams and businesses
Other character animation software worth considering
Some other top picks when it comes to character animation software include:
Stop Motion Studio helps users create 4K-quality stop motion videos using a mobile phone (iPhone or Android) or desktop (macOS or Windows). Stop Motion Studio is an affordable tool that can create unique, eye-catching promotional videos to share on your website, social media, presentations, and more.
The software can also seamlessly integrate 2D backgrounds into your work. The animation app also lets you switch between devices for added flexibility.
Stop Motion Pro is available for mobile (iPhone iOS, Android) and desktop (Windows, macOS) operating systems.
- Seamlessly switch between devices—iOS (iPhone, iPad), Android, and desktop (macOS and Windows)
- Compatible with DSLR cameras
- Background image library options with Green Screen
- Creates HD and 4K ultra resolution quality animation
- Trigger shortcuts let users create and save movements to animate characters
- Import images, audio, and video files to use in your animations
Pricing: One-time payment of $4.99 for iOS and Android; $9.99 for macOS and Windows
MotionBuilder is a character animation software with professional-caliber features and functionality. Use it for motion capture editing, keyframe automation, and virtual cinematography.
The price point will tip you off that this is not the best choice for novices. MotionBuilder is designed by Autodesk, which also developed industry-standard Maya 3D animation software.
MotionBuilder is currently available for Windows and Linux systems only.
- Capture, edit, and play back complex animations
- Work faster and more efficiently in an interactive environment
- Seamlessly exchange data between 3D animation tools like Maya and 3ds Max
- Manipulation tools let users change the position and orientation of a character to create or alter the animation
- Real-time 3D character engine helps create realistic character movement
- Edit keyframe animation by manipulating function curves and modifying interpolation
- Unified nondestructive, nonlinear editing environment
Pricing: $2,045 (yearly subscription) or $1,500 for 500 tokens (Flex—pay credits for what you use)
Autodesk Maya is a leading 3D animation software program used by some of the world’s top professional animators and animation studios, including Disney. This is not software for beginners. It’s a complex software that can produce lifelike character animations, making it an incredible storytelling tool.
Any business that wishes to invest in Autodesk Maya software will find the best pricing comes with a three-year license, reflecting the amount of time required to create this calibur of content. If you want the production quality that Maya can deliver but don’t wish to add a permanent animator to your team, you can always hire an independent professional animator from Upwork as needed.
Autodesk Maya is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems.
- Create 3D models using geometry based on vertices, edges, and faces
- Create physically accurate simulations in a single visual programming environment.
- Load and edit large datasets quickly and work directly with data using native tools.
- Review animations faster and produce fewer playblasts with cached playback
- Make high-level animation edits with a nondestructive, clip-based nonlinear editor
- Create, view, and modify animation curves using a graphical representation of scene animation.
- Accelerate workflows for faster work and better productivity
Pricing: $1,785 for annual subscription, $5,085 for three-year license, or $1,500 for 500 tokens with Flex
Cinema 4D is a professional 3D animation software offering from Maxon. Cinema 4D can be used to create 3D animations, as well as 3D modeling, simulation, rendering, texturing, lighting, and visual effects. Cinema 4D is user-friendly enough for savvy intermediates and has a strong feature set for expert animators. With powerful 3D modeling and simulation capabilities, Cinema 4D can play well in both business and creative sandboxes.
Cinema 4D is available for Windows and macOS operating systems.
- Well-conceived workflow enhancements (e.g., track modifier tags, scene nodes)
- Integration with Photoshop, After Effects, Illustrator, Unity, Vectorworks, ArchiCad, BIM, and other popular 3D tools
- Simulate dynamic relationships between objects
- Tool to pull, smooth, flatten, cut, and pinch for sculpting organic models
- Spline imports allow vector art, PDF, and SVG files; symbols and gradient-filled shapes supported
- Quickly turn a series of pictures into a 3D model
Pricing: Starts at $59.91 a month with annual subscription
Pencil 2D is a free 2D animation software program that features a simple user interface for easy, old-school animations. Pencil 3D is open-source, so you can access source code to add features and functionality to spruce up your animated videos.
Pencil 2D is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems.
- Free, including commercial use (provided creative content is original)
- Cross-platform compatibility
- Seamlessly switch between raster and vector workflows for flexible creating (bitmap)
- Includes preset special effects
- Export frames as GIF files for alternate uses
What is a character animation?
Character animation is the process of bringing drawn characters to life by giving them sentient-like qualities like motion, speech, expressions, and other characteristics. Animators start with a vision and create characters and a world for them to interact within. Animated characters come to life with unique personalities and can tell stories that inform and inspire. Like a director, animators create the actors, setting, and movement for the story.
Character animation lets us travel to new worlds, from South Park to Pandora. In their earliest form, 2D animations were hand-drawn and movement was created frame by frame (like a flipbook). Today’s animation software advancements have made those once laborious processes seemingly effortless.
3D animation software can model in fine detail, allowing users to explain macro and micro concepts with ease.
Questions to ask yourself before choosing character animation software
Before starting your journey with character animation software, consider a few questions.
- What kind of animation would you like? Consider whether you want to create cartoon-like 2D content or lifelike 3D animations. Determine which best suits the story you wish to tell.
- Who is the video’s target audience? You should have a solid idea of who you’re creating your character animation for. Match your animation style with the personality and quality they expect from your business.
- What is the video’s level of complexity? Consider the details required to tell your story. Can you effectively explain your product, service, or story with a talking character alone? Or is there a benefit to having them engage with a product or an external environment?
A professional character animator can help
Professional animation software is an investment. Tutorials provided by developers and expert users are available online, but tight deadlines and limited resources might mean becoming proficient in a new animation software isn’t the best option.
Upwork is the world’s work marketplace, a great place for businesses to find experienced professionals for projects that require specialized skills. You can search the extensive network for a specific skill set, software proficiency, location, and more.
If you’re looking for a character animator who can help you bring animated characters to life, start with Upwork.
Upwork is not affiliated with and does not sponsor or endorse any of the tools or services discussed in this section. These tools and services are provided only as potential options, and each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.
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