What's the Difference Between Traditional and Computer Animation?

Digital Animators Use Devices Like Tablets to Draw. Madzia71/E+/Getty Images

In truth it's easy to distinguish between the two: traditional animation uses methods that don't involve any kind of digital tools, while computer animation methods use - you guessed it - computers. Another way of distinguishing the two is physical vs. virtual; traditional animation uses physical materials and activities, while computer animation uses virtual materials in a digital space.

2D cel animation and stop-motion animation both fall under the category of traditional animation, even if both may use digital methods of filming in the end.

What matters is the method of producing the animation itself; cel animation generally involves hand-drawing, hand-inking, and hand-painting each frame on physical paper and cels, while stop-motion involves working with physical models and objects captured on camera one frame at a time.

Computer animation can be either 2D or 3D. 2D computer animation often involves a virtualization of the traditional 2D animation workspace, bringing pen and paper into the digital environment to recreate cartoon animation workflows and styles. 3D computer animation tends to involve a hybrid of workflows following traditional timelines adapted to working in a virtual 3D space. Either way, if you're animating on-screen you're working with computer animation.

In many cases, it's hard to classify an animation as strictly one or the other, as many animators take a hybrid path in which some parts of an animation are produced using traditional styles, then completed or enhanced using digital methods.