Top 7 Best 2D Animation Software (Some Are Free!)

In the 20th century, the world fell in love with animation.

Originally staking roots in media and entertainment, this swiftly evolving medium has now taken multiple industries by storm, increasing the demand for access to animation technology.

2D animation software, once kept sidelined for commercial use, now offers creators of all skill levels the tools they need to create their own masterpiece. Easier than ever before to use, and at very affordable prices, 2D animation has never been more accessible.

In this article, we’re going to explore the best premium and free 2D animation software you can use at home or the office, what key features make them unique, and what software will most benefit you.

So, professionals and newbies alike, keep reading for a complete guide of the best 2D animation software. 

What Is 2D Animation Software?

2D animation programs are a technology that allows creators to draw and manipulate motion in images, or animate, on a computer as opposed to traditional methods. 

Previously, animation was created with pen and paper. Across multiple sheets of paper, an image or character would be drawn with each sheet being slightly different, so when they were flicked through, it looked as though the images were moving in front of you.

Thanks to development in the 80s and 90s, and massive growth in the last decade, we can now do this on a computer in a quicker, more detailed way.

Example of digital 2D animation

This happens via a rigging process and the use of vectors and bitmaps. 

Bitmap graphics, or rasters, are rows of different colored pixels that create an image. The more detail you put into these pixels, the more detailed the image is. 

Vector graphics are shapes, curves, and lines made from mathematical formulas that describe color, shape, and placement. Unlike standard JPG or PNG images, they don’t lose quality when made larger.

The graphics are then “rigged” or attached to a skeleton. At this point, you manipulate the image and create scenes by moving or adjusting these skeletons, instead of drawing across absurd amounts of paper.

The end product is an animation that’s much smoother and detailed than traditional methods. 

Think Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs versus Rick and Morty, the seamless movement granted in the latter is lightyears ahead of the original.

Speaking of lightyears, if you’re wondering “what 2D animation software does Disney use”, then you’ve almost made it to the right place. Since the release of Toy Story, 2D hasn’t been high on their radar. But 3D animation has, and you can check those out on our ranking of the best 3D animation software.

The Best Free 2D Animation Software

To start our list of the best software, we’re going to highlight the best 2D animation software free for public use.

Free programs are the perfect starting place for beginners and hobbyists because the low price point makes it virtually risk-free if it doesn’t work for you. And, it’s also an excellent resource for creators, regardless of what you’ve got in the bank, to get hands-on experience.  

1. Synfig Studio – Overall Best Free 2D Animation Software

  • Cost: Free
  • Ideal for: Hobbyists and Intermediate Users
  • Compatibility: macOS, Windows, Linux

First up, we have the cross-platform open-source animation program, Synfig Studio.

Cross-platform means it has front-end and back-end support, so you can animate in the front-end and render it back-end. Open-source means you can edit the code, great for those who are looking to tailor a specific program. 

Synfig supports over 50 layers, including geometric, fractals, and gradients, with which you can also link parameters, allowing you to create complex and dynamic structures. It also has bone systems and supports vector tweening for seamless in-between frame movements.

Synfig Studio 2D animation software

There are currently two versions available, the stable version and the development version.

The stable version is perfect for beginners and those who want a bug-free program to animate and play around with to get a feel for the system. The development version is more suited for experienced users who want to explore the latest tools and extras the program has to offer, and experiment with new features. 

Having two versions provides a unique teaching opportunity for users that want to start basic but have the chance to learn and do more.

It doesn’t offer many tutorials, which can steepen the learning curve, but there are active Synfig forums that are wonderful for peer help. 

2. OpenToonz 

  • Cost: Free
  • Ideal for: Beginners and those looking for flexibility 
  • Compatibility: macOS and Windows

Next on our list is OpenToonz, an open-source platform that makes its name in its simplistic but staggeringly efficient design. 

It’s the free version of Toonz — and is used by the animation god Miyazaki himself! — offering conventional hand-crafted drawing that meets modernized features. For example, tweening coloring, bitmap tools, and AI-based image styling. 

Some of the more ingenious unique tools are its ability to scan images into the program, color or black and white, and the ability to add and distort lighting in the image by using the SDK plugin. 

Its compatibility with third-party plugins and the open-source format makes it a flexible solution for all users. 

OpenToonz’s simple design makes it perfect for beginners, but its focus on efficiency makes it an excellent choice for anyone. They’re also in the works of building a new platform that connects academic research to cutting-edge animation production. 

3. Pencil 2D – Artistic 2D Animation Software

  • Cost: Free
  • Ideal for: Beginners and Hobbyists
  • Compatibility: macOS, Windows, Linux

Ending our review of the best free animation software is the cross-platform open-source program Pencil 2D.

Hot tip: It’s written in C++ for all those coders out there. 

Pencil 2D prides itself on its minimalist platform so you can spend less time playing and more time animating. The real fun begins when you master their keyboard shortcuts, enhancing workflow to lightning speeds.  

Pencil 2D animation software drawing

This software takes 2D animation back to basics by cutting out most modern-day features like tweening and shape tools. However, it takes that saved effort and invests it back into its vector and raster workflow so you can paint and sketch simultaneously. 

It also has a tagged image file format (TIFF), so you can add layers to your images by importing pictures and laying them on top of one another. 

Its simple design is ideal for beginners and those who love to draw by hand as the stripped-back program creates a focus-based minimalist environment.

Best Premium 2D Animation Software

Now it’s time to examine which 2D animation software is topping the charts for premium uses. 

They will set you back a decent amount, but if you’re committed to becoming a professional 2D animator, these top-range 2D animation programs offer features that will have you scrambling for your wallet. 

4. Harmony From ToonBoom – Overall Best 2D Animation Software

  • Cost: $25 to $115 per month depending on the edition
  • Ideal for: Serious Beginners to Professionals for commercial use
  • Compatibility: macOS, Windows, Linux

Developed by ToomBoom, Harmony is the industry standard when it comes to 2D animation programs. Logos, films, ads – Harmony yields expert results on all projects. 

And it’s not only us who think so!

Popular television shows like Rick and Morty, The Simpsons, Futurama, and Bob’s Burgers all use Harmony to create timeless animation. 

With this software, you get 3D as well as 2D, making it easy to get experience switching between mediums and broaden your skillset. It offers full pipeline integration, so you can work on your project on Harmony from beginning to end.

Some distinctive features we want to highlight are its brush engine, Z-depth, and advanced color palettes that create stunning multi-plane scenes. 

The brush engine is an industry-changing vector and paint drawing tool that looks like real brush strokes, allowing you to create hyper-realistic artistic animation scenes.

Harmony offers three editions, ranging from essential to premium. This gives excellent scalability in the price for those who want more control over what features they get, and what price they want to pay. 

This isn’t the easiest software to learn, especially for beginners, but if you’re serious about working in the industry or are already a professional, Harmony is your go-to. 

5. CelAction 2D – Best 2D Animation Software for Beginners

  • Costs: $71 per month for studio edition, $419 to $759 for perpetual licenses 
  • Ideal for: Intermediate and Professional Users
  • Compatibility: macOS, Windows, Linux

Focusing on speed and productivity, CelAction 2D is a favorite among top-tier animators.

With clever features like automatic skeleton movement in between scenes and ergonomic controls, it boasts some of the quickest workflows around once you’re used to it. And getting acquainted with CelAction 2D is easier than ever with their free online training courses.

You can create unparalleled animations with over 16 million colors to choose from and vectors, bitmaps, and characters that can be rigged to a skeleton — so you can use them time and time again without issues.  

The more complex the better, as this platform handles thousands of layers, perfect for letting your imagination run free. 

One of our favorite aspects of this software is its low system requirements. Even if you aren’t using brand new top-of-the-range equipment, you can still run CelAction 2D without too many issues.

CelAction 2D was built with beginners in mind, but still offers advanced capabilities that even a pro would want.

6. MoHo Pro

  • Cost: $399 one-time purchase
  • Ideal for: Intermediate and Professional Users
  • Compatibility: macOS and Windows

MoHo Pro, formerly Anime Studio Pro, beautifully blends the craft of classic animation with one of the market’s most powerful 2D rigging systems. 

Used on Academy award-winning film Breadwinner, and deemed by creator Tomm Moore as his secret weapon on creating magical realism films like Song of the Sea and the Secret of Kells, this software lets animators breathe creativity into their designs. 

A still from Song of The Sea used with MoHo Pro software

It offers full pipeline support, like adding soundtracks to your animations, and possesses innovative tools like Smart Bone and Smart Wrap that help clean up any distortions and mold meshes to your skeleton for skillful clean designs. 

For those not ready to give up hand-drawing, well now you don’t have to! With MoHo you can have it all. Its inbuilt bitmap brush lets users freehand draw, making it a superb gateway for traditional animators.

You can even control the direction and pressure of the brush output to create natural-looking brush strokes. 

It’s an excellent choice for anyone looking to get into professional animation. However, some of its trickier mechanics are better suited for 2D animators with a bit of experience already. 

7. Cartoon Animator 4 From Reallusion

  • Cost: $99 to $109 for Pro and $199 to $209 for Pipeline
  • Ideal for: Beginners to Professionals
  • Compatibility: macOS and Windows

To close up our thorough investigation of the best animation software available, we have Cartoon Animator 4, formerly known as CrazyTalk Animator, from Reallusion.

CA4’s big selling point is its emphasis on a user-friendly interface and quick workflow features, making it a favorite in the media, educational, and marketing industries. 

Bring your animation to life in a flash with one of their many motion templates like Elastic Motion, and capture real-time facial expressions you can impose on your character. 

facial expressions animating on Animator 4 2D animation software

It also offers a selection of 2D character templates you can choose from and add your finishing touches to, to make it your own. Motion libraries, lip-syncing tools, and facial puppets give creators unlimited potential when controlling and designing characters. 

Its large variety of templates and ready-to-use bases make it an impeccable premium 2D animation software for beginners, but also brings lighting fast development to professionals looking to create and publish almost instantly.

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