How to Become a 3D Animator

What is a 3D Animator?
The goal of most 3D animators is to use computer software to transform that which is imaginary into a scene, or an entire movie, that is filled with characters and landscapes that seem absolutely organic and rich in realistic details, such as depth, light, texture, color and even sound.

The average duties a 3D animator may have include consulting with his or her clients in order to ascertain the preferred graphic elements and content needed for a project. This is often followed by the development, creation and actual execution of the content. Just like a film or commercial director, 3D animators create storyboards that are shown to clients prior to anything being animated in a computer program. It is not uncommon that you would record dialogue that accompanies your graphics. You also would likely work with the editors to be sure that the animation work has flawlessly and seamlessly come together.

One does not need look far to find some terrific examples of 3D animation. The best are found in just about every 3D animated movie since Toy Story hit the scene. Remember, those characters with whom we found ourselves falling in love are just computer data! To anyone who views these films, those characters might as well be living, thinking and feeling, beings. It will be your job as the animator to make the audience feel this way. You are a sort of puppet master; a digital Geppetto.

Most work in 3D animation is found in major cities. 3D animators will often find employment in the gaming industry, film and television, or within the advertising world. In order to be a part of film and television as a 3D animator, you are often required to put in long days on huge scale projects that require not only top-flight computer skills, but also excellent communication abilities, and the vision to see the big picture while being simultaneously submerged in the tiniest of programming details. Should you wish to pursue work in the gaming industry, you need to have comprehensive knowledge of a company’s existing games, since you will most likely get your start working entry-level positions on current game titles. Commercial producers will often hire 3D animators to create digital campaigns for clients that are often interactive ones.

What you might do on a day-to-day basis as a 3D animator will vary depending mostly on the industry where you become employed. As always, in any competitive profession it is highly advised to find a niche in which you excel and enjoy, and then to focus on perfecting your skills! Providing specialized skills that are perhaps hard to come by is a winning strategy for consistent employment.

This infographic shows the highlights of what the 3D Animation industry is like.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Alexis “Xuco” Xuconoxtli

Softway Solutions

Quick Look Bio

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  • Alexis Xuconoxtli
  • Houston, TX
  • 1
  • Softway Solutions
I graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design in 2011 with a BFA in Animation.My typical day really depends on the current workload and what kind of projects we’re handling. My “average day” today will probably be way different from my “average day” a few months from now. Lately, it has been pretty straight forward since I have a long list of shots to animate. I just come in in the morning and get right to work. Around midday we usually have a short discussion just to see how the project is going. Then we just keep on chugging. Oh, for lunch we do get to play video games in the break room, so that’s fun.

I definitely love the people I work with. My coworkers are all great people and they are a big part of why I love coming to work. The work itself is pretty good. Not every project is the most riveting, but many of them are. Again, it is my coworkers that make even the more dull projects interesting.

Advice

Recognize how hard breaking into 3D Animation is
One of the things I wish I had known is just how hard it can be to get into this business. Not that it’s a problem, but I think if I had known I might have pushed myself harder at first.

This is a career path that takes a lot of hard work to get into. It is truly something you have to love to do. For most it may take several years to get their skillset to a professional level. So keep working at it –and network. Other artists are perhaps one of the most valuable thing to your own growth, and when you least expect it, your friends may be the ones that help you land a job. Some people say it’s good to be a generalist. I mostly agree, but I would clarify that while it’s good to have a varied skill set, you still want to be really good at one thing. Know how to do the whole 3D pipeline (modeling texturing, animation, etc.), but be really good doing at least one of those. Don’t be mediocre at everything.

When pursuing a job…
The main thing when pursuing a job is to be persistent. Don’t give up; it’s rough getting in at first. Apply to everything you see including internships. If you get rejected, try asking what you can do to improve. The best way to know what employers want is to ask them! And again, I cannot stress enough the importance of networking. Keep in touch with your artist friends. Make new artist friends. Go to conventions; talk to people online;, do everything you can to stay in touch with people already in the industry. The important thing though, is to make genuine connections. Don’t just talk to people superficially and expect to get somewhere. Not everyone is gonna be your friend, but you can still make a genuine connection. You never know which of these connections may lead to something.

On education…
If you can afford to go to art school, do it. It is a great experience, and I highly recommend it. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of a school is that you can network with so many people, which as I said, is very important. However, the cost of school is getting out of control. If you can’t afford it out-of-pocket (or most of it, at least), I’m not sure it’s the best idea. To be frank, this is not a field you do thinking you’ll be making the big bucks. So the amount of loans you’d have to take out to pay for school could easily cripple you 30+ years down the line. Fortunately, there are other ways. There are lots of great free resources online. There’s also a growing amount of workshops such as AnimSchool and Animation Mentor where you can learn the necessary skills to become an animator. And that’s what’s gonna matter most –your skills and your portfolio to show them off. A degree is nice but ultimately not necessary.

Anthony Majewski

Paw City, LLC

Quick Look Bio

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  • Anthony Majewski
  • Sterling Heights, MI
  • 6
  • Paw City, LLC
  • @MaxandWrigley
My typical day begins early when I get up and help the wife ready our twin boys for their daycare. After that I will work at my full-time day job where I attempt to provide funding for our animated series. After 7pm I play with the boys after dinner and get them to bed. I will next check-in on the progress of Max & Wrigley™, often working on that until 1am.In my job I might work with the script writers, animation creative director, casting, or perhaps review models, environments, rigging, story boards and various phases of the production. I may talk with the director from time to time about dialogue or work with a licensing professional in charge of licensing all aspects of the show. Sometimes I work with attorneys. Every day is different.

I love learning and being in advertising; applying what I know as well as seeing how much work actually goes into film as well television. I also like having a great team that actually deserves most of the credit. Also, I am part of a dream of creating something that educates children and a business model where a portion of the proceeds from revenues of the series is donated to Western Michigan University. These proceeds are directed to be used for educational research to help with autism, special education, as well animals for the disabled.

What is challenging is that it takes a lot of money to create animation, especially when first starting. I feel like I work two jobs, as it is hard to get started on projects with no funding, and even finding funding is also a challenge where you may have to give up significant ownership of your project. I wish that I had the capital of Disney and Pixar. Sometimes the weekend work and long nights can be challenging due to time zone differences.

Advice

Figure out your animation niche
Determine what aspect of animation you are looking to pursue. Advertising/Commercials? Film? Gaming? Shorts? Television? That will be the first step.

Network
Next? Network, network, network. I spend a career in networking alone. If it was not for those that I networked, I would not be in the position I am today. Join LinkedIn and connect with industry professionals. Also use your social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to research, see current animation projects, as well connect with industry and talent in the field.

Intern
I suggest interning, if possible. Try and find places where you can learn the business. Even if the position is not paid, you may be associated with a project that can give you the recognition to gain employment in the future and give an employer an opportunity to see your skills. I can tell you that I had several students from Living Arts College who have been interns and worked on various projects from music to animation. Saying their work was on a Grammy nomination ballot, won a “Telly Award”, or was associated with dream team voiceover cast members can really give them an opportunity over others. Who knows, you may even get hired full-time with the company where you intern.

Follow your dreams and passions
Follow your dreams and passions. I found those in this industry who produce exceptional work are doing it not because of money, but because they love and have a passion for it. I also find they are more dedicated to their work and take ownership. This industry is small, so always do your best work.

On education…
There are several avenues to pursue. The first is being a Graphic Designer. I highly recommend you take this first. Also, I would see about learning how to do illustrations for 2D drawings. The reason for this is to help with modeling concepts, storyboarding, and other design aspects in animation. Now the fun part of animation: Learning how to use industry tools like Maya and all aspects of animation. You can find schools that specialize in the training of all the above such as Living Arts College in Raleigh, North Carolina or Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. The professors teaching these courses have industry experience and can provide the latest in technology and guidance. People like me also go to these same folks for recommendations on students to be a part of projects, to intern, etc.

Depending on the type of animation, I also suggest interior design courses. A lot of animation utilizes environment rooms and different features. You may even pursue fashion and merchandising classes. Having worked in the furniture industry, one of the tricks I teach the team is to go online to furniture sites to see the latest colors and styles of furnishings.

I would also suggest taking staging and acting classes. Why you ask? Well, when you’re a character in an animation, you are animated in delivering lines and emotions. You would need to know what the proper way to deliver those lines might be. Moonlight Stage Company in Raleigh, North Carolina would be a great example for the type of classes you could pursue.

You may also want to learn about sound design and mixing. Again, some of the schools mentioned above can provide you guidance. Even visit a recording studio to see what will happen when you have to hire a voiceover talent. I can tell you we have recorded in home-based studios and in the top voiceover studio in Hollywood, California. Equipment is different, so you want to make sure you know or have a member on your team who is familiar with different kinds.

Film editing would also be a great class to take so you can prepare demo reels and other samples of your work that could land you the next big project.

Last, start by researching online. Learn the different aspects of animation. If you feel you have a passion, take the risk and pursue it. Join industry associations and read industry magazines. Prepare a resume and portfolio of work samples you have done, if possible. Pick up your phone and call folks. Don’t rely on email. A personal approach is more likely to get a response.

If you are doing this for your own project like me, start laying out concepts, writing scripts, and a treatment of ideas. You then can pitch these to investors or broadcast stations and have your ideas brought to reality.

Darlena Kelly

Digital Kinematics 3D

Quick Look Bio

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  • Darlena Kelly
  • Dallas, TX
  • 15
  • Digital Kinematics 3D
  • darlena-kelly
I’ve always been an artist. Even as a child, I knew that I wanted a career in the art field. I began my career as a design drafter, working with architects and engineers. I soon realized that I wasn’t being challenged enough as a drafter, so I began to teach myself about computer animation. I knew that the field of computer animation was fairly new, but I had a feeling that in a couple of years the industry would take off. As I began reading more about 3D Animation, along with the release of several 3D animated movies, I knew that it was time for me to return to school in order to learn about this exciting field. I received a degree in Animation and Game Design from Virginia College of Birmingham. Due to my extensive experience with interpreting engineering documents, I landed my first job with a local engineering firm. I was tasked with the responsibility of bringing their designs to life by using 3D animation. During my employment at the local firm, I began picking up several freelance contracts. By 2011, I had landed enough freelance work that allowed me to quit my job and open my own company, Digital Kinematics 3D.Being a business owner, I wear many hats. I begin each day by writing a ‘To Do List’. Due to the fact that I’m creative, I have to follow a plan for the day. Otherwise, I would end up creating other things to do, and I won’t get anything done. I devote a scheduled amount of time to projects depending upon their urgency and level of importance. I am heavily involved in the creation and execution of the projects that my company is hired to complete. Therefore, I spend a lot of time making sure that the animations are meeting the goals that were set by the client.

My job allows me to have creative control. Oftentimes, the client will leave it up to us to make their animation as creative as possible in order to win over their audience. On the other hand, since I’m the owner of my own company and our services are so specialized, it’s up to me to properly close sales and keep the cash flow positive. Sales can be tough at times, so that is probably my least favorite thing about my job.

Advice

Know where the work is
I wish I would’ve known that 3D animation is more popular in certain parts of the country. I was lucky to land my first job right out of college. I was expecting to work for an animation studio, but there weren’t many studios to work for during that time.

Be ready to continue learning
3D animation is an exciting career! And be prepared to continue learning because this is an ever-changing industry. Don’t be afraid to broaden your skillset. There are several industries that need 3D animation such as the government, businesses, marketing agencies, game development companies, video production companies, biomedical industry and several others.

Take relevant courses
Be prepared to take courses that relate to the field of animation that you plan on studying. If you’re interested in the field of medical animation, be prepared to take courses in Human Anatomy, Biology and other medical related courses. Those extra courses will only strengthen your skills as an animator.

Keep an updated portfolio
Anyone who is interested in breaking into the field of 3D Animation should always keep an updated online portfolio and demo reel. Your demo reel and portfolio should show your range as a 3D animator. You should be competent in all areas of the 3D animation pipeline such as 3D modeling, animation, texturing, and lighting. Always be prepared to submit your demo reel to any potential employer.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a 3D Animator?


As an animator, you will never stop growing or learning new things. You should not just have a willingness to learn, but eagerness, and even a compulsion to delve into new areas. Don’t become complacent, and always discover new ways to enhance your skills. Take on the animation of something you’ve never attempted before, or try moving out of your comfort zone. A fighter may have a powerful right-handed jab, but he always works on his left hook too!

Though your ultimate goal may be to work at a big studio such as Pixar, Pacific Data Images (Dreamworks SKG), or Infinity Ward, that doesn’t mean you can’t get your feet wet elsewhere. Any studio that’s interested in you is one to be considered, as any professional experience you can get in the beginning is good experience. The more on-the-job experience you acquire, the more likely you would eventually be considered by one of the more renowned studios.

3D animators will often have earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science, design or animation, and will have racked up several certificates in the workings of important software tools for 3D animation. Design programs at the major schools usually help the students learn the overall knowledge of the design field and then allow them to specialize in animation, advertising or other areas of the profession.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME A 3D Animator?

As our interviewees all tend to agree, an education in animation and computer science is a good way to go for your development in this profession, but ultimately what you can do and what you have created will be the most important aspect of your background. School is often a place where you can begin to build your portfolio of work and to network and meet industry professionals. Recent graduates of schools must have acquired, over their time of learning, strong portfolios in order to be considered seriously for their first jobs. Generally, the last year of university is where the student focuses on making his or her portfolio that highlights the best quality and variety of your work. A good portfolio should show not just your creativity, but your technical ability to re-craft existing animated environments as well. (When starting out, an animator is often reworking existing environments by either enhancing or creating more 3D and multimedia elements.)

There are several excellent schools, and below are a few of the more notable ones.

  • California Institute of the Arts
    California Institute of Arts (more popularly known as CalArts) is now considered one of the top ten schools for 3D animators. With such amazing talent emerging from this school, people like Chris Buck, who won the Oscar in 2014 for his Best Animated Feature Frozen, and the legendary Tim Burton to name only two, CalArts is considered top-notch. The school has a myriad of animation program degrees and certificates offered, including a BFA in Character Animation, BFA and MFA degrees in Experimental Animation, and an MFA in Integrated Media in Experimental Animation.
  • Savannah College of Art & Design
    SCAD offers more degree programs and specializations than any other art and design university in the US and maybe the world. Established in 1978, SCAD has campuses in Savannah, Atlanta, and Hong Kong and a student body of more than 11,000 from all over the world. SCAD offers art and design degrees at all levels, as well as an enormous number of minors. Options for animation majors include a BFA, MA, MFA and Minor in Animation, a BA, BFA, MA, MFA and Minor in Illustration, and BFA, MA, MFA and Minor in Film and Television. The animation program has incredible access to ultramodern Mac and PC labs with such programs as Adobe Creative Suite, Maya, Motion Builder, Dragonframe, Houdini, NUKE, Massive, and others as well.
  • Vancouver Film School (VFS)
    One of the best with a reputation for educating many young Canadians who soon become quite successful in the industry, VFS offers a one year Foundation Visual Art & Design degree. One can transition from there into other programs specializing in Film Production (one year), Digital Design (one year), Game Design (one year), Classical Animation (one year), 3D Animation & VFX (one year), or Advanced Digital Character Animation (six months).
  • University of Southern California (USC)
    The University of Southern California (USC) houses the John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts (Hench DADA), which has on tap innovative and varietal courses taught by award-winning animators like Peter Chung (Animation for Concept and Layout Design). USC offers a BA, MFA, and Minor in Animation & Digital Arts, a Minor in 3D Animation, and a Minor in the recently created Science Visualization area. USC also offers a BFA in Film and TV Production and a PhD in Cinematic Arts (Media Arts and Practice).
  • University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA)
    Arch rival to the above entry, the University of California-Los Angeles was established long ago in 1919. Around the middle of the last century, the school introduced the now renowned UCLA Animation Workshop as a collection of animation classes. Its MFA program was created in 1971 and it has had many distinguished attendees including Neil Affleck and Scott Alberts of Simpsons fame, David Silverman who made the The Simpsons Movie, and Gil Kenan who was nominated for Best Animated Feature in 2007 for Monster House, to name only a few luminaries.
  • Rhode Island School of Design
    Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) has a great (in size and quality) Film, Animation & Video Department that has an impressive list of alums like Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden who were nominated for an Oscar for their animated short film Feral in 2014, and the legendary Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show) and many others. The department attracts talent from all over the world due to having one of the most competitive Film/Animation/Video programs in the U.S.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

What time and again holds up as a common theme in our research and interviews, with not just animators but artist professionals in general, is the following: Great schooling and networking, consistent and constant practice, mental perseverance, a great (electronic) portfolio and a positive attitude and singular persistence and devotion to the work will enable a 3D Animator to become successful. A great love and enthusiasm to pursue this career is a given. Animation must be that which drives and inspires you, not just at work, but anywhere.

Learn some of the myriad 3D programs out there and become an expert in one. Make content! Build up something to show off your unique talents. Study movement and anatomy, acting and fine art. Go for it, and should your desire to be an animator only increase after this, then a school such as those mentioned in this article may be the next logical step to further hone your skills and make connections.