Motion Graphics: Make the Best of Every Dimension

Just as choosing the right CMS for your new site or the right hashtags for next year’s social calendar can fundamentally shape your brand’s digital experience, the question of whether your next motion graphics spot should be developed in a 2D or 3D style is one of the most important parts of successfully communicating your message. It’s all just a matter of perspective.

2D & 3D

In 2D motion graphics and animation, the content’s entire universe is a flat plane. Length (X-axis) and width (Y-axis). While artistic properties such as scale, foreshortening, and having elements pass in front of or behind other elements can create an illusion of depth and space, we’re always talking about a flat canvas. By contrast, 3D motion graphics brings the flexibility of true depth (Z-axis) and real-world camera configurations to your content’s otherwise flat universe.

2D work tends to look more illustrative and is a great complement to modern design trends that favor simpler, cleaner aesthetics. In addition, while it can take a designer as long (or longer) to produce killer 2D motion graphics as it would take to create the same project in 3D, it’s generally much faster on the back end, with fewer workflow phases to jump through. That means more nimble pivoting around internal and client feedback, and more or less WYSIWYG results at every stage of development.

A 3D workflow gives us the option to produce photorealistic lighting, modeling, and movement, which could be just what the doctor ordered if, for example, you need to artfully showcase a physical product. It’s also often the way to go if you plan to track and composite computer-generated graphics into live-action footage.

Well-executed 3D motion graphics can carry an intrinsic “high-end” appeal, with its immersive sense of space and cinematic look. But those qualities come at a price: depending on the art direction of the project, 3D workflows can require many hours of resource-intensive render times. Sometimes, a single frame of animation could take several minutes (or even hours!) to calculate. For that reason, strict milestones (e.g. storyboards and animatics) and levels of approval are worked into a 3D project’s schedule to effectively manage everyone’s expectations.


But hey, why lock yourself into a strictly 2D or 3D workflow? Maybe your project demands the slick, crisp illustrative look of a 2D piece, but the depth and complexity that 3D brings to the table. Through a process called toon shading or cel shading, 3D animation can be treated to look like 2D animation. Alternatively, rough 3D animation could be used as a reference for rotoscoping (stay tuned for more on that!) to achieve the same effect. Using 3D assets to build out a 2D look is called 3D-for-2D, and is a widely-used technique in motion graphics, video games, and film.


You may have heard of this neat thing some websites do: Parallax. The parallax effect is at the heart of what sets 2.5D motion apart from regular old 2D: when a piece of motion graphics appears to have depth, but all its component parts are inherently flat, that’s the 2.5D effect.

The 2.5D perspective technique is far from new. You’ve see it used in documentaries, animated films, motion comics, and even 2D side-scrolling video games since forever. In fact, the technique dates back as early as 1926, and gained mass appeal in 1937, when the Walt Disney Company released Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs. Snow White was animated using a custom-built, seven-layer, two-storey tall multiplane camera, which took a whole crew of technicians to run. Thankfully, today it just takes an understanding of dimensions and some mastery of Photoshop’s Pen Tool to get rolling on wicked sweet 2.5D scenes.


What if 2.5D doesn’t pack enough punch? What if your screen is the side of the Sydney Opera House? In our next installment, we dive into the similarities, differences, and off-the-wall uses of “camera projection” and “projection mapping.”


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