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. 


Get to Know Our Experts

Alexis “Xuco” Xuconoxtli

  • Title:
  • Company:
    Softway Solutions
  • Where:
    Houston, TX
  • Experience:
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.


    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 skill set to a professional level. So keep working at it –and network. Other artists are perhaps one of the most valuable things 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

  • Title:
    Executive Producer
  • Company:
    Paw City, LLC
  • Where:
    Sterling Heights, MI
  • Experience:
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.


    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.


    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.


    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

  • Title:
  • Company:
    Digital Kinematics 3D
  • Where:
  • Experience:
    9 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.


    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.