For character animation, in my opinion the most widely used animation software in the industry is Adobe Flash (for 2D animation) and Autodesk Maya (for 3D animation). Flash is used primarily for animated TV series, games/game apps, and commercials/ads. But Maya is used in every aspect of the animation industry – TV series, feature film, commercial/vfx. A good majority of animation you see in the media is created with one of these software packages.
There are many other packages which are also widely used in the industry. On the 2D animation side we have Toonboom Harmony, Toonboom Studio, and even After Effects (which is primarily a composting software) but has the capacity for 2D animation. For 3D animation other popular packages include Autodesk 3D Studio Max (more often used in games), and Houdini owned by Side Effects Software .
All these packages have their pros and cons but as I’ve mentioned before, if you’re serious about getting work as a character animator (or any kind of animator), you really should have some high quality 2D and 3D on your demo reel to show you have a diverse skill set.
My Personal Experience…
I was trained in 2D Classical animation (on a light table) and 3D Maya in a 3-year combined program. I started out in the industry as a 3d Maya animator. A couple years into my career I upgraded my skills to learn Flash for the TV show “Calliou”, and soon after needed to learn Toonboom Harmony to work on Nickelodeons “Grossology” and other projects.
Once I knew Flash, it was very easy to pick up Toonboom software because it is somewhat similar.
With both my Flash and Harmony upgrades I was lucky enough to be trained by a studio. I am very grateful for the training! In today’s current industry, I would advise not to rely on any studio to train you because it is rare (at least at the time of this post), but I can’t see a future where corporations and businesses suddenly become more generous. Budgets are tight and training time is not usually slotted into the schedule.
I have conducted interviews and sometimes just sat in on interviews where the young animator in the room was expecting to be trained in the software that we were using for the project/TV show. Some people that we interviewed were shocked when they were told that we could only hire experienced Flash animators or Maya animators. The studio I was working for at the time needed people to come in, sit down at a work station and just start cranking out shots.
A studio will usually only train people if they can’t find experienced animators who already know the software (demonstrated on their reel) and the scheduled animation start date for the project is fast approaching. This may cause studio managers/owners pressure to get staff in place quickly, and there might be other circumstances that could afford them to take time with a trainee but you would need to demonstrate that you have a solid understanding of animation fundamentals via your demo reel.
Some studios don’t hire anyone who doesn’t pass an animation test which they provide. You will be required to animate in the software they are using for the project you’re being considered to work on.
So you could set out to find work as a 2D Flash animator or a 3D Maya animator. But if your in school and your learning Maya you should really take the time to try and pick up Flash and get some good Flash animation on that demo (along with your 3d stuff) before you graduate while you still have the time!
The biggest reason why Flash is the most popular 2D animation software is the price of the product license. It’s currently the least expensive 2D animation software package. The second most popular 2D animation software is Toonboom Harmony at a much higher cost, but in my opinion is a more flexible program but more difficult to learn if just starting out in 2D.
So it’s pretty obvious why Flash has prevailed so far as the popular choice – it’s inexpensive! And studios can be up and running with a Flash production with less overhead costs, but it is still good animation software. I started with Flash first and found that it’s a good place to start if your learning digital 2D animation.
Flash was originally designed as a web tool to create flash web animation, splash pages, intros, ads, and motion graphics. Somewhere along the line someone decided to use it for character animation and then series animation + the lower price = the most widely used digital 2D animation software. But with any other software package it really boils down to what you become accustom to.
This is my favorite 3D software to animate in, probably because I’ve been using it since 1998 when it was only on Version 2 and it was owned by Alias. I’ve used 3D Studio Max and Houdini and find Maya is the most organic and intuitive software for artists.
Autodesk Maya has emerged as the worlds most popular professional 3D application for animation, modelling/rigging and rendering, however Z-Brush has become very popular for modelling as well. The popularity of Maya is generally based on the fact that it’s user/artist friendly and gives animators the greatest amount of flexibility. And it’s fairly easy to learn the tools (with instruction).
For these reasons most animation schools teach Maya as opposed to other software packages and it has a really solid user base in all areas of the animation industry – animated feature films, series, gaming, ads, visual effects for live action…
Of course there are hundreds of animation software packages out there to consider, and I could give you another “top 20” list but you can find that anywhere. Adobe Flash and Autodesk Maya are still at the top when considering which software to learn for a career in animation. I suggest you learn these first, then if you wish to learn other software later they will come much easier.