Whether you’re making a hilarious cartoon for Youtube, the opening cutscene of a video game, or an artistic training video for a professional business, 2D animation can be a laborious process. Everything from tweening to layering can take up a frustrating amount of time. On top of that, animation software can be expensive, and it’s hard to tell if it’s what you were looking for until you’ve tried it.
For beginners who have an interest in animation, but aren’t quite sure how to get started, this can become a huge roadblock. These are problems faced by all animators eventually. Gone are the days of Flash animation, you need new software that’s as good for professionals as it is for novices.
In this article, we’ll cover how Synfig Studio might just be the software you’ve been looking for. It can be an animator’s secret weapon, helping you with your creations while cutting down on the processes that cost you time and money.
What is Synfig Studio?
Synfig is an animation software designed to create film-quality animations using fewer people and resources. Perfect for independent animators, but versatile enough to be used by career professionals as well. The software uses both vector and bitmap artwork, which is impressive as most animation software only uses vectors.
Created in 2005 by Robert Quattlebaum and Adrian Bentley, originally as software for the now-defunct Varia project. It was given open-source status, and since then has been noticed and improved upon by a growing number of fans and developers in the community for its reliable tweening technology. To date, it is widely considered the best tweening software.
In 2020, it was finally given a stable release. It’s software that’s beginning to build a reputation among animators as a fast and reliable tool. In addition, it’s open-source and free to use. You won’t be paying a high upfront cost to use the software you may not like, and there are plenty of mods and help available from the Synfig Studio community.
Essentially, it has everything you need to help you create professional 2D animations. Now let’s go over some of the features.
Applying shading to every single frame of animation is tedious work, but Synfig studio can do the work for you. It uses a system for soft shading using curved gradients within a given area. This lets you apply shading to a layer once at the beginning of a gradient, and then again at the end, letting you easily change the shading between frames without having to do each one individually.
It may not be the flashiest sounding feature, but it will definitely be one you can come to rely on.
In animation terms, bones are a way of selecting what pieces of an animation movie, and how they move. Synfig Studios has an advanced system for creating bones and adding them to cutouts.
If you’re unfamiliar, then as an example in Synfig Studio if you were animating a moving leg, you would have the leg split into different cutouts on your bitmap.
Let’s say you want to animate the foot, lower leg, and upper leg to animate a walk cycle. Each of those would be a different part, and you would attach them together with bones, and then add joints to the bones to allow certain parts of the leg to move in specific ways. Those are the basics of bones in animation.
It’s a method broadly used for animating characters, and the Synfig Studio system is more than capable of using it. There’s even a skeletal distortion layer included if you want to make fancy distortions of the bones you have. All in all, a great feature of the system.
Layers and Filters
Layers allow you to blend multiple levels of animation into a single scene. Complex animations will have a ton of layers doing things at once.
Moving eyebrows, furrowing brows, eye movement, lip movement, a nose twitch, and the background image could all be different layers on a detailed animated face. Using layers you can create new animations for your keyframes, or even add animation on top of an existing one without removing it.
So what makes Synfig Studios special when it comes to layers? To start, it allows you to have over fifty active layers at the same time. There are also a number of different types to choose from, fractals, distortions, gradients, geometric, and transformations to name a few. Essentially, using the layers in Synfig Studios, a 2D animation of any complexity is possible.
One of the best features of Synfig Studios is its vector tweening capabilities. Tweening, short for “inbetweening”, is the process of generating images between keyframes.
When animating a simple movement, you may want to get from point A to point B, but if you have to draw out every single frame of animation by hand, it’s going to take a long time. The vector tweening software in Synfig Studios, as well as other modern animation software, allows you to avoid this by filling in the gaps of animation movement between two set points.
In other words, if you want an eyeball to move from left to right, you don’t need to draw the same eye over twenty times. Instead, you use the tweening system to tell the eye where you want it to start moving, and where you want it to go, and the system will automatically fill in those frames of animation for you. That’s the general concept of tweening.
Synfig Studios, despite having been around since 2005, currently has the most powerful and fastest tweening system in the world. But what Synfig Studios does that other systems cannot give you the ability to transform one vector shape into another.
Setting the key positions will calculate the frames automatically, so you only have to draw a few keyframes to give the program a sense of the motion you’re looking for. It will fill in the rest. This way you can do even more complex movements with the tweening system, and save yourself a lot of time and energy while still having fluid and complex animations. No manual tweening necessary.
Through a process called linking, you can reuse bits of data, as well as functions associated with them. That means you can take a working piece of animation, and reuse it, or its basic structure later. This can be a huge time saver when working on large productions.
The Synfig Studios website features a video course on the software. This course serves to teach you how to be comfortable with the nuances of the software and has a font of information on the basics of animation. It is a paid course, but they allow you to pay whatever you like, starting from as low as one dollar.
It’s definitely worth it if you’re new to animation software or unfamiliar with Synfig. The course covers all about making your first animation, rendering, walk cycles, linking files, creating a moving background, face and skeleton animation, and more.
How to Set up Synfig Studios
To get started with Synfig Studios, you’ll first have to download and install it. Don’t worry about the price selection screen, Synfig is free and open-sourced, but you can volunteer to contribute a little money to the development team if you so choose.
It should also be noted, there are two different available downloads. One is the stable version, and the other is a development version.
The development version features some attempted bug fixes, as well as some experimental, untested features that the stable version lacks, but it is less predictable and not recommended for commercial use at this time. Click the stable version, and it will bring you to a second page where you can click download.
As a quick note, clicking download will then bring up a small window asking for your email address and whether you would like to be updated through email about any changes, however, if you don’t wish to be, there’s a download anonymously button beneath the download button.
After hitting download, select the version that will work on your operating system. Currently, Synfig works for Windows, Windows Portable, Linux, and OSX, with 64 or 32-bit options. Pick the selection that best applies to you, and begin the installation as you would for any other program.
Using Synfig For Animation
Learning to use Synfig Studios can take a little bit of time, as the software was never fully completed before it was given a stable release. The best ways to learn how to animate with Synfig are the video course provided on the website, support from the community forums, or simply by playing around with it yourself.
If you want to try out the latter, here’s a quick explanation to help you get started.
Once you’ve got the program running, in the upper left corner you should see your toolbar. This should be fairly straightforward if you’re at all familiar with any artist software.
The top of the toolbar is filled with file options for creating a new project, saving your current project, etc. Underneath that, you will see a button for settings. This is useful when starting a new project. You can tweak features such as how many frames per second you intend to animate, gamma, resolutions, what sort of render engine you wish to use, etc.
Beneath that are a few of the basic tools at your disposal.
Brush Tool: Allows you to draw freehand over Raster Images.
Circle Tool: Allows you to create circular layers.
Draw Tool: A basic drawing tool, allows you to draw images on the Canvas Window.
Cutout Tool: Select a piece of the composition by adding a mask, separating it from the background.
Eyedrop Tool: Allows you to select colors.
Fill Tool: Changes the color of a geometry layer, filling it in completely.
For more information on tools, see Synfig Studios Documentation on Synfig.org.
This large window should be the first thing you notice. This is the Canvas Window and is the area where you will do most of the drawing and animating work. There is a button in the bottom right that will turn on animate mode. The animate mode will test run through your animation and indicates to the program that what you are working on is going to move.
Some features in the other panels, such as creating keyframes, will only work in this mode. In the upper left corner of the canvas, there is a canvas setting button. Click on this, and go to import if there are any images you would like to start animating.
If you are just starting out, it’s a great idea to upload your own image to test out how the canvas window and animate mode affect it. You can also change the properties of your image size from the settings.
In the upper right corner is the canvas browser. This small window shows you a zoomed-out version of the canvas window. The canvas window is pretty large. This essentially gives you a faster way to find the parts you’re looking for without having to scroll.
On the bottom left, you’ll see the Layer Panel. This helps you to keep track of all of your layers and to group certain layers together. As your animation becomes more complex, many of these will be filled with different assets at once. In Synfig, you can have over fifty layers at once. This panel will help you manage them.
Shows a list of your most recent actions, and allows you to undo or redo them. Useful for when something went wrong seven steps ago instead of two; you can still correct the mistake while keeping the things that work. You can even switch between several canvas panels through here. A very convenient tool.
Finally, there is the time tracker below the Canvas Window. This tracker will help you monitor the time and frames you are at during your animation.
When you begin to animate you’ll be able to see how long it takes to transition from point A to point B, and how it looks in each individual moment. You can also use this area to create and manage your keyframes, an incredibly important part of the animation process, as Keyframes indicate the beginning and end of a movement.
Those are the basics of what you’ll see when you open up Synfig Studios for the first time. It won’t be enough information to become an expert, but it should be enough to give you an idea of what is possible, and what the various panels are for. Play around with it for a bit and you’ll never get lost in a maze of windows and layers again.
When it comes to 2D animation, Synfig Studios is a great choice that can save you a lot of time and work, and you’ll never have to pay a cent for it. Despite it never being officially completed, artists around the world have come to rely on it. A community of animators, developers, and fans have been improving it constantly over the years, bringing this project back from the dead.
Animation software comes and goes, yet this one has continued to thrive and develop even further for years. And there’s a reason. Synfig Studios is a versatile animation software that is easy to use once you’ve played with it a bit and is the best in the world at what it does the best tweening.
So don’t underestimate this humble little animation program. It can be just the secret weapon you need to bring your creations to life.