How to Become a Computer Animator

Many people think a computer animator is the same as a cartoonist. However, while they might work on some cartoons, computer animators specifically work with 3D software to animate objects, people or images. They are normally employed within the gaming, film or television industries, often working with a team of other computer animators.

As any production creative work, computer animation allows a lot of creative freedom and allows those working in the field an extremely rewarding career, both financially and in terms of personal satisfaction. Imagine developing cool new characters, aiding in special effects, animating famous people or creating new video games.

This being said, it can also be extremely demanding in terms of time, especially when a deadline for a specific project approaches. It is also a relatively new and rapidly evolving industry. This means that professional computer animators have to keep on top of software and trend developments in order to stay relevant.

Does all this sound like your type of thing? Check out the infographic below to find out more:

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Jason Behr

Moonbot Studios

Quick Look Bio

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Understanding My Career Path

  • I had a passion ever since I was a youth for animation and film. In middle school, my friends and I would make short films. It was then that I was exposed to practical effects and really, how films were made.
  • I attended the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and studied media arts and animation in their bachelor’s degree program. I learned multiple 3D platforms, as well as other digital photo/video manipulation and compositing software. We were educated in the art of 2D and 3D animation, as well as acting and performance techniques. To graduate, every student is tasked with creating a digital demo. I chose to do an animated short film. The modeling, rigging, surfacing/texturing, lighting and animation all had to be done by me and it took my entire last year of college to complete it. In the end it was worth it; I won best digital portfolio at graduation for my short, which really gave me the confidence to go seek out my dream job.
  • In my last year, I attended SIGGRAPH, an annual conference on computer graphics where I learned the value of networking, as well as a ton about the industry by going to the presentations, exhibits and the film festival.
  • After college, my first job was creating architectural 3D renderings of high-end commercial and residential designs. While I was doing this, I kept animating on the side, maintaining my discipline.
  • Later, I moved to California, following the advice of my friends in the animation industry. I also began Animation Mentor, which is an online trade school just for animation. This allowed me to hone my skills while looking for jobs as well as get educated by industry professionals. Also, it’s an awesome school for networking.
  • My first industry job was with ImageMovers Digital. After my time at ImageMovers, I worked for Rhythm and Hues for a year as a Character Animator. When my contract ended with Rhythm and Hues, I got picked up at Sony Animation. I had the honor and privilege to work with the great Genndy Tartakovsky on Hotel Transylvania for over six months as a Character Animator.
  • Finally, I came to Moonbot two and a half years ago as an animator working on a variety of animated projects from games, apps and films in both 2D and 3D animation.

Recommended Organizations

Advice

On whether or not she recommends a formal education
Personally, I found college and Animation Mentor extremely helpful, and I would highly recommend both. For me, it’s crucial to understand your tools when it comes to any type of art; so, really understanding the software is important. It can be intimidating looking at Maya or Voodoo or Softimage if you’ve never looked at a 3D platform before.

With animation, having that one on one time with your teacher or mentor is valuable. There’s a big learning curve to understanding this craft, so having an experienced mentor there to answer any and all questions will only make the process easier.

Learn the software
It will only make your life/career easier and less stressful. Maya is the most commonly used program in the industry, so I’d recommend downloading their free student version and go to town on some animation tutorials.

Understand the 12 principles of animation
These are an essential set of principles outlined by old school Disney animators known as the nine old men. The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation written by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston is the best source for breaking down these 12 principles. They are the foundation to all styles of animation, and you will find yourself continually falling back on them throughout your career.

Animate and practice
The 11 second club hosts monthly animation contests, which is a great way to practice character animation and get feedback/critiques from other animation professionals. You can also do it yourself by creating acting tests with good dialogue from movies. Try a few different exercises including a pantomime shot, working with body mechanics like a dance or fight sequence and multi character dialogue sequence. Getting multiple pairs of eyes on your work will help you see things you’re not seeing. If you need a good animation rig, there are free ones online and I recommend the Malcolm rig.

Advice for getting your foot in the door
Network with other animation professionals. Be as likeable as possible. Don’t be a jerk, rude or cocky. Because the animation industry is tight knit, your reputation and working relationships are really important. There are internships, apprenticeships and talent development opportunities at studios, which would allow you to see how a studio works and meet people.

To get a good job, you need a great demo reel. Depending on the animation job you are going for, you should include character animation, body mechanics, two person dialog, interactions with objects/props and pantomime. Share your demo reel for feedback. Most recruiters will inspect your reel as a link on Vimeo or Youtube or you can create your own website.

Kris Castro

Animus Studios

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  • Kris Castro
  • Providence, RI
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Understanding My Career Path

  • While in college for film-making, I had a job in which (like many campus jobs) I frequently had to “appear busy”. It was in that scarcely visited computer lab that I was first introduced to motion graphics/visual effects and given the opportunity to explore them.
  • Senior year, I challenged myself to try out some more difficult graphics in my final film. After the film’s screening, I was approached by an alumni in the audience who hinted that if I kept improving my skill set, there might be a future opportunity for me at a marketing company he worked for.
  • After graduating, I continued watching online tutorials, focusing on my weaknesses and trying hard to get better. I took a few freelance video gigs for side money but was really determined to get an actual motion graphics/visual effects job. After about 8 somewhat discouraging months of sending out job applications all over the country, the same alumni who had spoken to me earlier finally followed up with a job offer.
  • That job was a great learning experience… quick turnarounds, challenging projects, and a great creative team. However, a few poisonous personalities made for a hostile work environment and caused many of our creative team to quit. Shortly after, we started our own company, which three years and a lot of hard work later, has turned into a dream career for all of us.

Recommended Organizations

  • JustinMcClure.com/feeds – It’s something I found fairly recently and just so happens to be a very well curated assortment of helpful information, all in one place. Whether its inspiration feeds, links to tutorial sites, industry news, or job boards… many of the sites I visit regularly can be linked to from here. In particular I’d recommend Video Co-pilot (where I first started learning), and subscribing to Stash Media.

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
I’m actually 50/50 on this one. In the formal education column you have the relationships you build with students and educators that often lead to future jobs; you have easier access to expensive tools and software; and you have the credibility of a degree. In the self-taught column there is money saved, the ability to create your own curriculum, and the potential to begin getting industry experience earlier on. There is an amazing amount of quality education available for free online; more than enough to teach you the skills you need. However, if you’re not self-motivated enough, not aggressive about making new contacts, and unwilling to swallow some of the costs associated with getting set-up on your own, it could be a much harder road to travel.

Never stop learning
It’s an industry where things are constantly changing, both in terms of trends and rapidly advancing software/technology. Keep learning new tricks, keep learning how to be faster, learn what inspires you, learn how to communicate your ideas, learn to take criticism and start from scratch if necessary, learn what you enjoy doing the most and try to get paid to do it.

Richard Shaw

Newton Animations & Video

Quick Look Bio

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Understanding My Career Path

  • I graduated college with a degree in accounting of all things. I wanted to be sure I could have a job, and it was considered a safe career. I also became a CPA and obtained a Master’s Degree in Taxation, eventually becoming the Vice President of Finance for a large biotechnology company.
  • One weekend in December 2011, my pre-teen daughter had a news and current events related homework assignment. My wife and I were quite taken aback about the lack of simple and commercial free news and current events websites for children. So, we decided to start Children’s News Network as a family. The objective is to provide families a completely commercial free news and current events related website for kids. We started out making some basic videos ourselves and purchased professional news and current event video content.
  • At the same time, my real employer’s industry was going through structural changes and I was scared to death about losing my job of 12+ years. So I decided going to master computer animation in spite of the many obstacles.
  • Every night after my kids went to sleep I started teaching myself computer animation using any and all free resources available on the internet. I purchased a commercial license to Cinema 4D using my 401(k) savings and opened a brick and mortar school to teach kids 3D animation. I have by now also built several hundred commercial quality 3D animation projects that I sell for a small fee to area businesses.
  • Like any business, at the onset I am lean and mean…no fancy commercial build out. I rent a small room above a beer hall two nights a week to teach my classes. It takes 3 trips from my car to bring in and set up my equipment. Now I have 10 students who love our material and just turned in my first operating profit in my third year as an animator.
  • I launched an online 3D animation service called NewsToons where parents can order cartoon news animations about their children with the news anchors from Children’s News Network to help pay for the commercial free news content we purchase from professional news organizations.

Recommended Organizations

  • Local chambers of commerce – because computer animation is still a relatively young industry, many local business leaders are unaware at how affordable quality and attention grabbing animation can be. Ask for work and referrals. Make an animation for their website for free.
  • GreyscaleGorilla – while not a trade group, I definitely suggest people who want to do animation sign up for their newsletter and watch their tutorials if using Cinema 4D.
  • GreatNonprofits – again I recommend computer animators to volunteer their time and expertise for the non-profit community. It is a great way to eventually get in front of decision makers with budgets. While not a trade group, GreatNonprofits has the most comprehensive list of non-profits by geography, and thus should be of great resource to folks looking to get into computer animation.

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
You learn nothing in animation of substance via higher education that you can’t learn on your own (look at me). Yet I highly recommend a formal education because it is very important you learn how to work and interact with other people. Also, speaking as a decision maker from the business world who has hired hundreds of people and vendors over 20+ years, the brutal truth is decision makers from the business world 100% of the time value someone who has a formal education considerably higher than someone who does not.

Practice, practice and more practice
No matter your background or circumstance, find the time to practice to master the fundamentals. The strategies to build effective and efficient animations are the same no matter the technology (whether Cinema 4D, Maya or Anime Studio Pro). Planning and executing a working animation is the same. Practice in front of other people as if pitching a prospect.

Volunteer for non-profits
I cannot stress this enough. Volunteering is a fantastic way to build networks and showcase your talents. I have billed thousands in fees from simple volunteer projects. Decision makers with budgets from all walks of life are likely to see the work and ask who built the video. It is also a great venue to make mistakes as you learn a complex trade.

Build a repository for your work
For most people this is a website and a few social networks. Don’t make it hip to the starving artist crowd. Make it appealing to decision makers with budgets from the business community. The first thing a person (whether a client prospect or potential employer) will ask for is an example of your work.

Tips on getting your foot in the door
Work hard. Volunteer your services to non-for profits. Ask people, firms and companies for work. If there are no other options ask, and perhaps plead if you have to, for an internship opportunity. Do not, however, offer your services through these online expert type websites (i.e. Odesk, Guru, etc.) unless absolutely necessary. There are smart, competent and motivated people in developing countries who will deliver quality work at less than $10/hour. Instead, build and polish your personal brand. If you say you are going to do something then do it…and NEVER MISS A DEADLINE.

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


It is true that the bottom line for all animators is having a great reel, or portfolio of their work. Without it, whether you have an education or not is irrelevant, since most companies and clients will hire you based on your work.

This being said, it seems that most experts do recommend getting a degree over being self-taught. There are a variety of reasons for this. First of all, computer animation is a very specialized field, and you need to put in a lot of hours before you get it right. College will force you to do this, while also creating a portfolio of your early work. Meanwhile, you will learn to work within a team and have the opportunity to network with other professionals in your field – an invaluable bonus. College also gives you the chance to make and correct your mistakes, take on internships and volunteer assignments, and research your own personal style.

Of course, you have the option of self-teaching as well. There are plenty of online tutorials, but you will need a strong ethic to put in the hours to get good at animating. Also, don’t forget the investment you will have to make when it comes to software and hardware suitable for practice.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME A COMPUTER ANIMATOR?

  • School of Visual Arts
    Blending a creative and technical approach, this NYC-based school offers students a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Computer Art through the department of Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects. The 4-year degree requires students to complete a final project. Full-time tuition here is $16,780 per semester.
  • Ringling College of Art and Design
    Located in Sarasota, Florida, Ringling College of Art and Design offers students a bachelor level degree in Computer Animation. Their program has been ranked the top Computer Animation program in the US by 3D World over the past two years. Students pay $18,440 per semester in tuition.
  • Full Sail University
    Another Florida school, located in Winter Park, Full Sail University focuses their Computer Animation program on gradual introduction to a variety of specialized techniques, while also teaching the artistic side of the field. The program is also available online. For those wishing to study on-site, tuition is $14,900 per semester, while online students pay $7,125.
  • California Institute of the Arts
    The School of Film and Video at CalArts offers two different programs for aspiring animators, one in Character Animation, focused on traditional computer-generated animation; as well as BFA and MFA level studies in Experimental Animation, teaching students to explore animation as an advanced art form. Tuition here is $43,400 per year.
  • Pratt Institute
    With campuses in New York City and Brooklyn, the Pratt Institute is a highly prestigious school when it comes to the arts. They offer a wide variety of degrees related to animation, on both bachelor and master levels. Specializations include 2-D Animation, 3-D Animation, Digital Arts and Animation, Motion Arts, Computer Animation and Video, Interactive Arts, among others. Average tuition is $42,866 per year.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Like most creative industries, getting your first gigs as a computer animator will depend on your portfolio, or what is called a Demo Reel. This has to be the collection of your best work in short clips, which you can share with companies, individual clients, and peers. Of course the demo reel will not get you jobs all on its own, but it is the most important first step.

So once you have one, you can start actually looking for work. Look for job postings online, for internships, maybe animate for a non-for-profit to get some professional work on your resume. If you are still in college, take an internship or an apprenticeship and get contacts within the industry. Another good idea is to go to industry conferences and meet people there.

Be prepared for competition and to start from the bottom, but if you are good at what you do, you can really grow within the industry, as well as earn a very respectable income.