If you want to try your hand at animation but don’t want to spend the hundreds of dollars required for a professional program, you still have options. There is quite a selection of cheap or free animation software that can give you a decent grounding in animation or the chance to see if it’s a hobby worth investing in or not.
I have scoured the internet to find the best cheap or free animation software available and this is what I found. All but one of these animation programs are free. The one that isn’t, Toon Boom Harmony, is so good that it deserve an exception. It also offers a free trial, which is why it is here.
Pencil 2D  came highly recommended as a free and open source animation program. The UI may look minimal but the program is feature-rich. It allows you to create 2D animations using simple tools to create effective mini movies. It runs on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, is a small download and will have you creating in minutes.
As the name suggests, Pencil 2D is about drawing animation. It features pencils, brushes, layers, timelines, keyframes, onion skinning and lots more besides. It will play nicely with bitmap and vectors and is a great introduction into animation.
Aside from a very cool name, Creatoon  is a very good program. If you want to keep cut-out animation alive or learn more about animation then this is a good program with which to do it. It’s free, open source and works on most computers.
I would suggest Creatoon for complete beginners as it teaches you the very basics of animation and how to put a storyline together. If you’re already familiar with how it all works, you may find it a little simplistic. Cut-out animation is rare to see nowadays but that doesn’t mean this program is out of date, far from it.
OpenToonz  is another free animation program worth checking out. It specializes in 2D and the premium version is the power behind Futurama, Anastasia, Asterix in America and other animated productions. This free version isn’t quite as powerful but offers a good quality grounding in animation.
The website and documentation have been translated into English but is still easily understandable. The UI is straightforward and the tools and features easy to find. It’s much more in depth than Creatoon but there are some very good manuals available from the website.
Synfig Studio  is a free and open source 2D animation program that isn’t for beginners. While it does have good documentation, it is capable of a lot of advanced animation so has quite the learning curve. It is fully featured though and has the usual layers, vector manipulation, bitmap and vector support and a very cool bones system which can simulate how a real body would move within an animation.
The documentation is good and there is a lot of community support. There is a bit of learning to do though. The UI is easy to navigate and find the various tools. It will take a while to master but it is capable of creating some seriously good cartoons!
If you’re more interested in 3D animation then Blender  is the program for you. It is free and open source and very, very powerful. I would suggest that Blender not be your first animation program but rather something you graduate to. The learning curve is steep and getting to grips with it could may leave you more confused than creative. If you’re looking to expand your skills though you cannot get better than this program for the price.
Blender offers a ton of tools including lighting effects, modeling, animation, post-production editing, sculpting and a whole lot more. It works on Linux, Mac OS X and Windows too.
Daz3D  is another fully featured 3D animation program. It has contributed to the production of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, it is that good. It is also another animation program that needs time and practice to master. It isn’t really suitable for beginners even though the UI is very easy to use.
Daz3D is free but you do have to register. Given what this program is capable of, that’s a small price to pay. The list of tools and features is huge and I don’t understand half of them. If it was used in some of our favorite movies, that should be recommendation enough!
Clara.io  is a little different. It’s still free and does 3D animation but does it in the cloud. This web-based tool lets you create 3D models and animate them within your browser. It is not as powerful as Blender or Daz3D but has a shallower learning curve. It still creates credible animations though.
Clara.io has lots of features and modeling tools and can render lighting, materials and models in the cloud. This means it also works on any computer with a new browser. It also supports scripts, APIs and other neat stuff to widen its featureset. It needs registration but is completely free to use.
Toon Boom Harmony
Toon Boom Harmony  has a cool name and also two Emmy awards. This is the only program in the list that isn’t completely free but it does offer a free trial. If you have a digital pencil, this is well worth trying out as it can generate some seriously impressive animations given enough time.
There is a lot to get to grips with in Toon Boom Harmony. There are lots of tools and the UI seems less intuitive than the others in this list. Despite that, the list of features and tools is immense and the end product can be seriously impressive. Another program not ideal for the beginner but definitely worth exploring once you’re up and running.
I think this list of the best cheap or free animation software covers most areas of the genre. Some are ideal for beginners or those new to animation while some are more suitable for veterans or those experienced in creating animations. Either way, they all deliver the features, power and flexibility you look for in your creativity programs!