Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Animation Software Works

Common Features of Animation Software

Most animation software applications have similar features, although the specific tools that are available and their locations in the menus, toolbars and palettes will vary from app to app. They are similar in layout to a lot of Windows or Mac apps, but with lots of tools specific to creating graphics and animation. There may be tools to draw freeform (pen, pencil and paintbrush tools), erase things, fill areas with color and quickly create specific geometric shapes (flat or three-dimensional, depending upon whether you are working in 2-D or 3-D animation software). Often you need only consult the help menu, a manual or the Internet to find what you are looking for. The names for the items may vary just enough to elude you for a while, so walkthrough tutorials for the specific software you're using are also advisable.

In animation software, there's generally a timeline across your application window, usually by frame number, that allows you to time what happens and when. If you have your frame rate set to 24 frames per second (fps), frames 1 through 24 will represent the first second of the animation, 25 through 48 will be the next second, and so on. You can divide the frame number by the frame rate to see approximately how many seconds that frame is into the animation, or divide the number of frames that make up a particular segment of the animation by frame rate to find the length of the segment.

The concept of the key frame has been carried over from traditional animation into animation software. You generally insert key frames anytime there's a change, such as an object appearing or a motion beginning or ending, but you can insert as many key frames as you want. If you want to hand draw every frame, all the frames can be key frames.

Scrolling across the timeline (usually by clicking and dragging with the mouse or other input device) is called scrubbing. In most software packages, you can scrub across the timeline to see your animation in motion, or you can click on individual frames in the timeline to view what's in that frame. This is very handy for testing as you go.

You build your animation in an empty area in the animation software window sometimes, but not always, referred to as the stage. Anything put there will show up in your animation. There also might be an empty space around the stage where you can put elements that won't appear on screen until you move them into the main area.

The concept of layers has also carried over from old school animation. You can create virtual layers containing different elements that can be moved to the background or different foreground layers. This makes it easy to place objects or characters in front of or behind other things, helps you keep your objects and characters separate from one another, and, like in the old days, lets you set a background to run for a number of frames while you make changes only in the foreground layers.