School of Motion

The Best Animation and Motion Graphics Software to Learn

  • By Caleb Ward
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Confused about the right animation software to learn? Here’s the best programs to learn as an aspiring Motion Graphic Artist. 

If you’re new to the world of Motion Graphics you might be overwhelmed with the amount of animation softwares to learn. It seems like every month there is a new software that comes onto the scene and promises to revolutionize the way in which Motion Graphic designers do their work.

The fact is, it takes months if not years to learn an animation software so if you pick the wrong one you could literally be wasting significant chunks of your life trying to learn a sub-par software. 


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So to help you along your Motion Graphic journey we’ve put together a handy guide of important Motion Graphic softwares to learn. These are, of course, not every software in the Motion Graphic industry, but they do represent essential software that you should know in order to prepare yourself for whatever Motion Graphic project a client may throw your way. 

Download the Guide

If you want to download a guide with all of the information outlined in this post feel free to do so by clicking the download link below. The PDF download is just an organized version of the information presented in this article so you can reference it in the future without having to find this post online. 

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Download the Motion Graphic software PDF guide.

Download the Guide


The Essentials

Photoshop

  • Price: Part of the Creative Cloud ($50 a month)
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If something is ‘Photoshopped’ it is understood that an image has been retouched or altered in some way. This however only scratches the surface of what is possible when using Photoshop. Photoshop is about as versatile as a creative software can be, and for a Motion Graphic designer a working knowledge of Photoshop and it’s features is key. In practical day-to-day use a Motion Designer can use Photoshop to:

  • Create Matte Paintings
  • Edit Textures
  • Design Boards
  • Stitch Images Together
  • Create a GIF
  • Layout Cel Animations
  • Rotoscope

This list could easily be over 100 examples long…

As a Motion Graphic artist the biggest value of using Photoshop over other photo-editing software is the fact that it integrates so well with the rest of the Adobe Creative Cloud. You can very easily import Photoshop documents into After Effects and vice-versa. The good news is Photoshop is incredibly easy to start using. Just start with a few basic tutorials and move-on from there. Once you have a good handle on the basics you can take your design skills to the next level with Design Bootcamp. 

Illustrator

  • Price: Part of the Creative Cloud ($50 a month)
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Adobe Illustrator is similar, yet entirely different in function to Photoshop. While Photoshop deals with bitmap (pixel-based) editing, Illustrator is a vector editing software. If you’re not already familiar with the term, a vector image is simply a file that can be infinitely scaled up without pixelating. This is, of course, very important when designing logos, shape objects, and vector background that will be used in your Motion Graphics workflow.

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Awesome Adobe Illustrator work from Fraser Davidson.

Similar to Photoshop, Illustrator files can very easily be imported into After Effects for animation. If you decide you want to change the look of a logo you can save the file in Illustrator and it will automatically update in AE. 

After Effects

  • Price: Part of the Creative Cloud ($50 a month)
After Effects Logo Icon.jpg

Let’s not beat around the bush here, the most important software to master as a Motion Graphic artist is Adobe After Effects. While you can certainly create motion design projects in other softwares, there is no single program more versatile and essential to a modern Motion Graphics workflow than After Effects. 

After Effects is a 2.5D animation software. This means you can do virtually any animation you want as long as it doesn’t involve 3D modeling (although there are some exceptions to this rule). In general After Effects is the primary software used to animate and composite all of your Motion Graphic work together once you’ve designed the storyboards and elements in Photoshop and Illustrator. 

The following video created for our Explainer Camp was animated in After Effects by Bee Grandinetti.

There are literally hundreds of features that make After Effects the perfect software for MoGraph artists, but the most important would have to be: The Effects Browser, Timeline, and Composition Panel.

The Effects Browser is a panel featuring hundreds of effects and presets that you can easily drag-and-drop onto layers (shapes, images, video, etc.) in your timeline. These effects can do a lot of different things, from color grading your video to creating particle emitters. Effects are incredibly fun to mess around with in After Effects. Nothing beats simply importing a video in After Effects and dropping effects on it to see what each one does. 

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The Timeline in After Effects isn’t like a normal timeline that you may have used in a video editing software. The After Effects timeline is the place where all of your elements will be organized. After Effects uses a layer based system where the layers on top are above the layers below. Think of a stack of papers. The timeline in After Effects is where you will set keyframes and time your animations. Most of your time as a Motion Graphic Artist will be spent perfecting your animation in the After Effects timeline. 

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The Composition Panel is what makes After Effects so special and user-friendly. The Composition Panel gives you the ability to see your video in real-time. A project in After Effects feels like an artist’s canvas because of the composition panel.
It would be folly to try to create a comprehensive list of all of the potential uses for After Effects, but so you get an idea for what is possible we’ve put together a super short list of creative possibilities:
Character Animation

  • Logo Reveals
  • Title Animation
  • 3D Compositing
  • Motion Tracking
  • Object Removal
  • Simulation Effects
  • Template Creation
  • Slideshow Design
  • UX/UI Design Mockups
  • Web Design Mockups
  • Explainer Videos
  • Kinetic Typography
  • VFX

Once you’re done animating your project in After Effects you can export a finished video and send it to a video editing software to add it to the rest of your project. 

Premiere Pro

  • Price: Part of the Creative Cloud ($50 a month)
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Premiere Pro, like all of the other softwares up to this point, is included in the Creative Cloud. For a while there was a lot of debate in the Motion Design industry about which software was the best for compiling all of your work together. Softwares like Final Cut Pro, Sony Vegas, and Avid Media Composer can all be used to create a finished video once you’re don using After Effects. However, in recent years Adobe has made great strides to integrate After Effects and Premiere together making Premiere more essential for Motion Designers and Video Editors alike. 

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Premiere Pro has tons of advanced color tools and scopes for professional video editing work.

Premiere Pro is simply a video editing software. It’s functionality and utility extend far beyond the scope of Motion Design, but practically speaking a Motion Designer will use Premiere Pro to edit their video together and add sound effects and music to their video. Premiere is probably not very different from other video editing softwares you might have used in the past, but the number of features included in Premiere far exceeds any entry-level video editing software on the market. 

This tutorial shows you how to use the Essential Graphics Panel in Adobe Premiere Pro to edit after Effects Templates.

Premiere is almost twice as popular as it’s closest competitor and used in Motion Design studios around the world. A lot of people argue about video editing software, so save yourself the headache and just start learning Premiere. You’ll thank me in 5 years when Apple discontinues Final Cut Pro. 

Intermediate

Cinema 4D

  • Price: $3,495 (yeah... you read that right)
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Once you’ve got your toes wet with After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator, and Premiere, it’s time to jump into the world of 3D. For most Motion Graphic artists the software of choice is Cinema 4D. Compared to other 3D modeling software (Maya, 3DS Max, Blender, etc.) Cinema 4D is very user friendly. It’s not inconceivable for you to be able to sit down right now, watch a tutorial, and create something in Cinema 4D. 

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Cinema 4D is used extensively in the Motion Graphics world for modeling, animation, and simulation effects. It’s important to stress the word ‘Motion Graphics’ here. While you certainly will find studios all over Hollywood using C4D, it’s far more common for major studios to use applications like Maya for professional-level VFX work.

Cinema 4D is also compatible with a few different GPU accelerated render engines that allow you to render out higher-quality 3D models faster on your computer. The most popular render engine in Cinema 4D is Octane. Octane is a third-party engine, which means you will need to purchase it separately from the built-in engines inside of C4D.

Mocha AE

  • Price: Part of the Creative Cloud ($50 a month)
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Another fantastic tool to get accustomed to is Mocha AE. Mocha is a planar based tracking system, which basically means it tracks motion beyond simply tracking a cluster of pixels. This makes Mocha extremely powerful for Motion Artists who are interested in performing screen replacements, object removals, or rotoscoping. Mocha can be a bit tricky to master at first, but once you get used to it’s spline-based workflow you’ll be able to track virtually any movement with ease. 

Mocha AE is built into After Effects, meaning you can very easily hop from After Effects to track a shot in Mocha, then hop back into After Effects with the tracked camera data. This application will become more useful as you begin to work on commercial work.

The Trapcode Suite

  • Price: $999 (Better empty that piggy bank…)
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I almost didn’t include the Trapcode Suite on this list because it’s technically not an application. Rather the Trapcode Suite is a collection of plugins that can be used inside of After Effects to give users functionality that would otherwise be impossible inside of After Effects. The Suite consists of:

  • Trapcode Particular: The industry standard particle generation tool. Seriously, if you’re creating particles you need to use this plugin. 
  • Trapcode Form: Builds grids around 3D objects. Think of a holographic display. The application is pretty diverse.
  • Trapcode Tao: Creates abstract 3D geometry shapes. Great for adding in extra design elements into your scene. 
  • Trapcode Mir: Fantastic for simulating environments and terrains in After Effects. 
  • Trapcode Shine: Creates 3D light ray effects that are much more complex than the ones built into After Effects. 
  • Trapcode Lux: Creates 3D lights. 
  • Trapcode 3D Stroke: Creates shapes and strokes from masks in After Effects. 
  • Trapcode Echospace: offsets and clones animated layers. 
  • Trapcode Horizon: Create 3D backgrounds. 

All of these plugins are cool in their own way, but if you had to pick a few Trapcode Particular, Form and Mir are all highly recommended. 

Cel Animation Tools - Adobe Animate and Moho

Price:  Animate - $50 a Month (Included with a Creative Cloud Subscription)

Moho - $399

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For many of us Cel Animation work (frame-by-frame drawings) are what inspired us to get into the Motion Design industry in the first place. However, in the digital age you don’t necessarily have to buy an animator’s desk and celluloid film to create incredible hand-drawn animation work. 

There are quite a few tools out there that can help you with the process but our two favorites are Adobe Animate (previously called Flash) and Moho. Both softwares have been developed with character animation in-mind. Tools found in both software include:

  • Brush Tools
  • Rigging Systems
  • Keyframing Tools
  • Photoshop Integrations

We’re only scratching the surface of what these applications can do. if you’ve ever dreamed of going down that road you should definitely check them out. And if you really love Character Animation, be sure to check our our Character Animation Bootcamp here on School of Motion. 

Advanced Software

Nuke

Price: $4,324 

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If the price-tag hasn’t already hinted at it, Nuke is a professional software used at the highest levels of Motion Design work. Nuke is a node-based compositing software that is used to composite 3D elements and video together. 

Nuke uses a node system that is very different from what you might have been used to in After Effects. This system makes it very powerful when working on large collaborative projects. Nuke and After Effects can easily be used on similar compositing projects, but Nuke has been specifically designed with a professional users in-mind. 

Houdini

  • Price: $199 a year for indie studios
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Houdini is the Ferrari of the 3D simulation world. Houdini is the perfect software if you want to create:

  • Realistic Fire
  • Explosions
  • Ocean Dynamics
  • Cloth
  • Smoke
  • Destruction
  • Fur
  • Crowds

This is the tool that the big-boys (and girls) in Hollywood use to create VFX work for blockbusters and commercial videos alike. Houdini is not for the faint of heart. You could very-well spend your entire career focusing exclusively on Houdini. 

There is actually a free version of Houdini that you can download from the SideFx website.

Maya

  • Price: $1,470 a year
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Maya is a very popular 3D modeling and animation software used all over the industry. This is mainly due to the fact that Maya allows users to write scripts that expand the functionality of Maya beyond what would be possible with just the built-in tools alone. Maya is the tool that all of the major studios use for modeling and animating, so it’s no surprise that the learning curve is quite steep. You could very-well spend your entire career in Cinema 4D without ever opening up Maya and be very successful, but if you want to potentially work in Hollywood it might be worth at familiarizing yourself with Maya. 

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Some examples of the complex modeling capabilities in Maya.

If Maya's not your cup of tea a lot of Motion Designers enjoy using Modo from the Foundry to model their 3D work. Again, the learning curve on this one can be quite steep, but it’s a great software for professional work. You can download a free trial of Modo over on the Foundry's website.  

Syntheyes

  • Price: $299 for Intro License
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Syntheyes is the best Match Moving/Tracking software in the world. If you want to composite your Motion Design elements into your scene with perfection and control there is nothing better. Syntheyes is a powerful third-party application that can be used to fix shaky footage, track virtual sets, smooth 360 footage, create architectural previews and more. 

Hopefully you’ve found this article to be helpful. Of course if you're ready to learn more about Motion Graphics or Animation we highly recommend checking out the tutorials, articles, and courses here on School of Motion.

So now that you know the right programs to learn what are you waiting for? Stop reading this and get to work!

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