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Learn the Basics of Computer Animation

Computer animation has grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades. You only have to look as far back as 1995 – when Toy Story revolutionized both the movie and computer animation industries as the first feature-length movie that was entirely computer animated  – to see how recent the modern computer animation industry is. 

In the years since Toy Story was released as a major box office success, the quality and technical capabilities of computer animation has grown by leaps and bounds. Best of all, the industry continues to see growth and is projected to thrive for years to come, which means those who are talented and passionate about the field will find job security and ample opportunities to grow and excel. 

Computer animators are responsible for taking an idea and making it come to life. A computer animator’s role will vary depending on the type of animation they are creating, however, 3D animation (which has largely become the industry standard) involves the creation of 3D models, which are adjusted slightly for each proceeding frame in the animation or film. 

Computer animators have a relatively unique skillset. In addition to a creative eye, computer animators must be well-versed in the technical aspects of computer animation. They should know what computer animation software can do, but also know how to push the boundaries of that software to create innovative new techniques and outcomes. 

Of course, having a passion for the field is essential, since computer animation can require long hours, tight deadlines, and last-minute revisions. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for multimedia artists and animators (which includes computer animators) are projected to grow six percent between 2014 and 2024, which is as fast as average for all career fields.  Demand is driven by the increased interest in visual effects and animation in video games, television, and movies. The median annual salary in 2015 was just over $63,000.

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Learn Formal Concepts, Methods, Theory & Technique

Earning a bachelor’s degree in computer animation is the best way to learn the skills needed to succeed this profession. However, a degree in graphic arts or fine arts can be useful as well.  That said, most employers require animators to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer animation, although some animators hold only an associate degree or certificate.  Upon graduation, students may find work with video production companies or within the motion picture industry, advertising firms, and with software designers.  With continued education, animators might also find work in a number of related fields, including graphic design, web design, computer game programming, or as cartoonists and sketch artists. 

Computer animators must have a strong grasp of animation technology and computer software. Examples include motion graphics software like After Effects, Flash, and Maya. Audio editing programs like Audacity and Adobe Audition. For those who are creating animations for video games, Unreal, Unity, and Game Maker are essential tools most computer animators will learn, and if you are creating animations for the Internet, an understanding of Dreamweaver is essential as well.  However, some of what you need to be a success in this field goes beyond computer software and hardware, and includes knowledge in storytelling, storyboarding, character design and development, camera and lighting techniques and drawing for animation. 

In order to efficiently create motion, computer animation utilizes a number of techniques. Two of the most popular methods are motion capture and keyframing. Motion capture employs live actors, usually wearing a special motion capture suit, which can then be transferred into a digital 3D model. Keyframing uses an animated “skeleton” to create motion without the need to manually animate each individual frame. Computer animators should be very comfortable and familiar with both of these techniques. 

Computer animators must understand compression and encoding standards and processes, as well as a reasonably strong understanding of computers and the various operating systems and platforms they’ll use throughout their career. 

Because the industry is growing at such a rapid pace, computer animators must keep up with the latest developments in the industry, as well as relevant technologies as they evolve. A computer animator’s education is never done, and keeping up with new technology is key to long-term success.

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Build A Strong Portfolio & Industry Connections

Building a strong portfolio – also referred to as demo reels – as a computer animator may be more difficult than for many other art or design fields. This is particularly the case for aspiring computer animators who are still relatively inexperienced.  Computer animations take time to create and building an online portfolio that covers a wide range of computer animation elements can be a long and laborious process. For individuals earning a bachelor’s degree in computer animation, creating your best possible work in every class is essential since those projects can form the basis of a strong portfolio early in your career. 

Your portfolio allows prospective employers to easily view your knowledge, skills, and experience in the field of computer animation and should include a wide range of work that may include camera moves that have been rendered, a walk cycle, or space scene.  To enhance your job prospects further, you may want to create a personal website. Websites are relatively inexpensive and allow you to market your creativity and your skills. But, they should only include your very best work rather than anything and everything you’ve ever done. 

Even though the industry is growing, it can still be challenging to find a job in the computer animation field, especially if you are just starting out. Networking can be a powerful way to find job opportunities you might otherwise miss, and there are several excellent organizations you can join in order to network and become more involved in the industry. The Computer Graphics Society (CG Society) is one example of a great industry networking and education organization. Internships and volunteering are also great ways to gain experience and further your knowledge.

Get to Know Our Experts

Jason Behr

  • Title:
    Senior Animator
  • Company:
    Moonbot Studios
  • Where:
    Shreveport, LA
  • Experience:
    6 years in the industry
  • 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.

    Kris Castro

  • Title:
    Director
  • Company:
    Animus Studios
  • Where:
    Providence, RI
  • Experience:
    6 years in the industry
  • 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

  • Title:
    Executive Director
  • Company:
    Newton Animations & Video
  • Where:
    Newton, MA
  • Experience:
    3 years in the industry
  • 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.

    Computer Animator Infographic