How to Become a 3D Animator


Learn the Basics of 3D Animation

3D animators work with computer software to create images and manipulate their movements in 3D space. The work requires a high level of attention to detail, the ability to creatively problem solve, an intuitive mind, and cutting edge software.

Animators use digital models that are often completely developed from scratch. Think of a movie like James Cameron's, Avatar — every blade of grass, swaying tree, and gigantic alien creature had first to be designed in 3D, and then animated with specialized software. Unlike 2D animation, 3D animation requires the creation of believable objects in three-dimensional space. Some animators focus on specific elements like animals, while others make their living crafting a wide array of objects. 

To succeed in the field of 3D animation, professionals must be up-to-date on the various software considered to be 'industry standard.' Right now, 3D animators make extensive use of programs like AutoDesk Maya, ZBrush, and Photoshop. While these are the staples of an animator’s toolbox, they are far from the only software used by animators. With technology always evolving, and studios always advancing their needs, professional animators must continually study new and varied software. A successful animator will always maintain a well-rounded knowledge of the current industry standard programs. 

The film industry is the most common industry where most 3D animators work. From complete character models to minuscule blades of grass, 3D animators are relied upon to help create a living and breathing world for the audience to consume. Animators are even asked to recreate entire living and breathing cities from the streets to the buildings and the people within them. However, the film industry isn't the only industry that is currently hiring animators. Many professional animators are using their talents to produce video games in studios located across the globe, with notable studios based in Vancouver, Tokyo, and Los Angeles.


Learn Core Animation Methods and Concepts

The path to a 3D animation job is just as windy and twisty as most any other job in the arts. To find a job with a studio, you will likely earn a degree in visual effects, 3D animation, or computer animation.  An associate or bachelor’s degree is best, but an artist with a great portfolio and no formal training can still obtain a position as a 3D animator. 

When attending college, prospective 3D animators should build a strong foundation of knowledge in lighting, texturing, modeling, and 3D movement. It is also beneficial to consider minoring or taking classes in other areas of the art world, like script design, art direction, filmmaking or even video game design. Animators won’t often work with the sum of a product; they collaborate with the 'whole, ' and it pays to be well-rounded. 

The primary task an animator performs is the actual movement of the model they are assigned. While many 3D animators dream of working on the next Gollum (Lord of the Rings) or Kaiju (Pacific Rim) they will more likely spend time rigging up smaller, less famous 3D models. (Rigging is the act of fixing a 3D model to a skeleton so that the model can move). A 3D animator should be as prepared to rig up the movements of a piece of grass, as that of a monster's tail or a creature's fingers. 

To become a proficient and competitive employee in the workforce, a 3D animator must also know several integral pieces of technology. Some of the most common 3D modeling software include AutoDesk Maya, Adobe Photoshop, and Apple Final Cut Pro. A keen mind for learning new digital software is a requirement, as the field is constantly evolving and programs are consistently going out of date. In other words, 3D animators must be ready to learn and relearn, sometimes monthly, everything about the movie- or video game-making process. They must be able to understand the concepts within a design, how they will be implemented into the project, and what it will take to make their superiors and co-workers thrilled with the final product. 

Although a skilled 3D animator can work anywhere, the most common locations to find work in the United States are in Los Angeles and New York City. 3D animators can earn a degree from schools all over the country, but it is important to look for an art school that specializes in churning out working professionals. Once a student graduates from a reputable college or university, he or she can earn around $70,000 per year at the entry level.


Build a Strong Portfolio and Professional Network

The path to success in the art world is notoriously rocky and infinitely harder to traverse than in many other career fields. So, how does a burgeoning 3D animator make it to that next level? In the creative world, it is more important than ever to have a public presence, an affinity for networking, and the fortitude to follow up on relationships you've established.

The fastest way to gain industry connections is by networking with students at school, because the students that attend class with you today are the professionals that may hire you tomorrow or recommend you to an employer. Pay close attention to those students with high aspirations, those who work hard, and those who seem committed to helping one another. 

Another option for a 3D animator newly out of school is to pursue an apprenticeship or internship. Apprenticeships are common in the art world and a great way for entry level artists to pursue their dream career. Look for an apprenticeship at both little or big studios or companies, but understand that even these positions will be hard to get, and you'll probably start at the bottom. However, apprenticeships will allow you to showcase your efforts and your high quality of work in exchange for a full-time job in the future. 

Finally, all 3D animators should be proficient in web design. This ability is key. Showcasing an industry-level website that showcases your portfolio is the #1 way to get hired for a project. Constantly update your portfolio while working hand-in-hand with marketing experts to ensure that your name is consistently getting churned out to the public. Having a web presence in today's day and age is the easiest way to get hired, so don't slack on it and put your best foot forward. 


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