What Is 3D Animation? Types, Processes, and Uses.

3D animation refers to the process of taking digital objects and making them come to life by creating the illusion that they’re moving through a three-dimensional space. These computer-generated objects appear on a two-dimensional screen, but they’re crafted to mimic the principles of a 3D world. They appear to move, turn, and rotate like a real-world object, allowing for a 360-degree view of all sides.

3D animation was originally used primarily in video games, television, and filmmaking. Pixar’s “Toy Story” is an early example of 3D animation.

Today, 3D animation is used in a much wider array of digital environments. From marketing materials to medical imaging, 3D animation serves many purposes. This article provides a quick overview of 3D animation, including:

  • What is 3D animation?
  • Differences between 2D and 3D animation
  • Ways to use 3D animation
  • 3D animation process
  • What are the benefits of 3D animation?

What is 3D animation?

3D animation is the process of creating moving three-dimensional images in a digital context. These visuals are made using 3D software, allowing animators to create computerized objects that look 3D even though they’re on a 2D surface. Through visual effects and precise timing, animators can make anything from a video game character to a car in an advertisement look like it’s moving through a three-dimensional space.

Differences between 2D and 3D animation

In a 2D world, the images all look flat, spanning only an x-axis (horizontal) and a y-axis (vertical). However, 3D animation adds a critical third axis, the z-axis, which creates depth. Old-school Disney animated movies like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Bambi” provide an example of 2D animation. In contrast, “Frozen” and “Ice Age” offer examples of 3D animation.

The technical processes to create 2D versus 3D animation are responsible for this key difference. How is animating in 3D different from animating in 2D? To create a 2D animation, the animator creates a sequence of drawings on a flat plane. The illusion of movement is created by slightly altering the animation figure’s position across frames, which are then played in rapid succession to create a dynamic image.

Traditional animations like “Bambi” were hand-drawn. Today, computer graphics software can be used to create 2D animations much more quickly. Animation software is also used to create 3D computer animations. However, the animations are created in three dimensions based on tangible physical (3D) models. You’ll find more details on how 3D animation is made below.

Ways to use 3D animation

3D animation first got its start in gaming, TV shows, and movies. However, it’s become widely used beyond these contexts. From corporate ad campaigns to architectural modeling and medical research, 3D animation is used across many industries and for diverse purposes. Here’s an overview of common uses of 3D animation today.

Television and movies

3D animation is often used for character animation in TV and movies. The technique can make characters seem more lifelike, enhancing the emotional connection viewers establish with them. A 3D animated character is more vivid and engaging, almost like playing with a toy.

This makes 3D animation very useful for kids’ entertainment. The “Frozen” movies are a great example. Elements of the story, like the main character Elsa transforming objects into ice, become more enchanting in 3D. Scenes like having the character sing, dance, and twirl also gain impact in a 3D image. Even facial expressions gain poignance.

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3D animation can also give a more lifelike feeling to video games, intensifying the action for the player. When you’re battling an enemy or racing through an obstacle course, having the 3D sensation can make for a far more thrilling experience. 3D animation can also be used with virtual reality and augmented reality special effects, giving the player the sense that they’re inside the world in real-time.

Horizon Zero Dawn is one example of how a video game animation can leverage 3D technology. The action game involves a lot of physicalities, from avoiding traps to solving puzzles and battling enemies. The combatant robots in the game are far more intimidating in 3D, making for a more adrenaline-pumping experience.

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Company presentations

The days of boring PowerPoint presentations are long gone. Presentations with 3D animated features help draw the audience in and command their attention for the entirety of a presentation. This how-to tutorial from Microsoft featuring imagery of a drone in flight gives you an idea of how intriguing a 3D presentation can be.

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3D animation can also prove valuable in marketing. For example, a marketer might use this technique to show off all the product’s features as they would appear in real life. Audiences can get a better sense of what the goods look like. Brands can also use 3D animation to showcase products through tutorials or demos.

3D animation can also simply be used to create more captivating content. In a world where audience attention spans are getting shorter, a compelling video ad with 3D techniques can keep consumers interested. This ad for online casino app Borgata is a great example of the visual intensity 3D techniques can create to boost conversion rates.

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Architecture and design

3D animation is also handy for creating life-like renderings of houses and buildings before they’re constructed. Combined with VR and AR tools, architects can even step inside and walk through their designs. This is also useful for interior decorating, letting designers get a concrete idea of what a room will look like. These 3D rendering examples rounded up by LCP360 show what this technology can accomplish.

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3D animation can also be combined with another cutting-edge tool, 3D printing, to create product prototypes at a low cost. From engineering firms to medical technology companies, businesses can save money on raw materials as well as time and manpower by visualizing and crafting a low-cost prototype. They can then tweak their goods based on the prototype before developing a finalized product.

The tech and machinery industries are especially active when it comes to developing prototypes using 3D tools. Sculpteo provides a handy roundup of some impressive 3D printed prototypes, from bridges to eyewear, furniture, and robotic arms. Race car companies even rely on prototypes to find ways to speed up the wheel-change process.

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Medical professionals can use 3D animation for teaching, to show detailed imagery of the human body, and even digitally demonstrate medical techniques. For areas that are hard to experiment in, like surgery, this can be invaluable. Medical animation can also be used to communicate with patients—for example, by showing them what to expect from a procedure. This video from Philips Healthcare is a great example:

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3D animation can also be combined with VR tools to reduce anxiety during certain medical procedures. MRI scans are a great example. Many people get nervous in this enclosed space, and providing them with a lifelike animation of a scene like a beach or a forest can help soothe them, improving patient care.


Finally, 3D animation can be used in simulations across an array of fields. For example, 3D videos can be used to help enhance employee training. A single 3D animated video can be accessed by workers whenever they need it, minimizing the need for costly and confusing mass training sessions. Car brands like Audi use 3D animation coupled with VR tools to provide employees with training, for instance.

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3D animation process

3D techniques can take an animated figure that appears on a two-dimensional screen and not only can they make that object look three-dimensional but they can also make it look like it’s moving through a three-dimensional space. A skilled animation will have you reaching out and expecting to touch a 3D object, only to face a flat-screen. How is 3D animation created? Here’s an overview of how to 3D animate for beginners.

1. Modeling

In the modeling phase, animators create 3D objects that will serve as the basis for animation. This kind of animation is achieved by using a modeling tool. A 3D mesh is made from a simple object, called a primitive, which is then shaped and refined to the desired figure. The 3D models are then given details like color and texture. This is followed by a process known as rigging, which sets up a skeleton for the animation character that will allow it to move.

2. Layout and animation

Only once the above steps are complete will a 3D animator move on to the actual animation process. At this point, they can take a 3D object and make it move. There are different ways to do this, from using keyframes—moving the object on a frame-by-frame basis—to using motion capture data.

3. Rendering

Once the animation is perfected, along with the lighting and camera angles, the animator can move on to rendering. In this process, the graphic images that have been designed are actually created and exported. The final render of the 3D character will be tweaked according to light and shadows, reflections, transparency, and other details.

What are the benefits of 3D animation?

3D animation has shown its utility in an array of contexts, from advertising to medical research, architectural design, and beyond. Why are so many industries embracing this cutting-edge graphic technique? These are some of the distinct benefits offered by 3D animation.

User engagement

By creating more lifelike and interesting imagery, 3D animation can boost user engagement. This applies across various contexts—from video games to marketing and company presentations—by drawing the viewer in and keeping them captivated, and great animation ups the odds that the viewer will stay alert and engaged.

Larger audience attraction

3D animation appeals to a broad range of audiences. It can also be used to target large crowds of people. Placing a 3D animation on a giant screen can be a great way to draw the attention of a big group. For example, a digital billboard with 3D animation can make a big splash in a crowded space.

Communicates effectively

It’s possible to create clearer images that provide a real-world impression by using 3D animation. This can enhance communication, eliminating confusion—for example, as to what a product might look like in a 360-degree view. Thanks to its visual impact, 3D animation can also boost emotional connection, further enhancing communication.

Excellent branding tool

3D animation allows businesses to better convey their brand by providing more detailed insights into their products, services, and overall vision. Companies that use this kind of cutting-edge technology can also establish themselves as a more modern and forward-thinking brand in the eyes of consumers.

Need help? Hire a freelance 3D animator

Want to harness the power of 3D animation techniques for your brand or business? Find the right professional to craft the compelling computer-generated imagery you want on Ndiwano.com. You’ll find graphic design professionals with 3D expertise and can browse from a global pool of talent. Find your 3D artist today.

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