3D Animation

What Is a 3d Animator?

The field of 3D animation is extensive.  Also known as 3D CGI or visual storytelling, it is both exciting and new for both the creator as well as the audience.  In recent years as the popularity of 3D animated movies and television shows has grown, so has the industry.  Movies like “The Croods” and “Cars”, or “Ice Age” and “The Incredibles” are all examples of 3D animation. 

In the world of animation, there are two types of animators, 2D and 3D.  Essentially, they do the same job.  Both suggest new ideas, usually to a team, complete a certain amount of research to ensure their ideas are original and engaging, then render them on paper, or with the use of computer software.  But, that’s where the similarities end.  In simplest terms, 2D animators create flat images, which have width and height but no depth. 3D animation is more realistic because of the addition of depth.  Adding depth creates more life-like characters, and it is much easier for 3D animators to make changes to a scene because they can move or transfer an object more easily, whereas, in 2D animation, the animator must draw the scene all over again if any changes are necessary.

People who work in the field of three-dimensional (3D) animation create visual effects and animated characters for television, video games, and other electronic media.  Many animators work in the movie and film industry.  3D animators create moving images using digital models and add details to the pictures, such as landscapes, skin color, or clothing. 

About half are self-employed, and many choose to specialize. To create 3D animation, they create drawings or take photographs of an actress or actor’s movements and then use computer software like Maya, MotionBuilder, Mudbox, FBX, and more, to convert them into cartoon characters. Some 3D animators choose to specialize in scenery or background development in the movie and television industry, while others decide to become video game designers who are responsible for creating the entire look, feel, and functionality of a game, in addition to creating the 3D animation.

What Does a 3D Animator Do?

Someone who works as a 3D animation artist may also have the job title of multimedia artist. In a typical day, they take on a variety of responsibilities for the purpose of planning and crafting their art form.  Some of the specific job duties of a 3D animator may include:

  • Creating animation and graphics with the aid of computer illustrations and software programs.
  • Spending time researching the project to get ideas for animation.
  • Creating a working model of scenes to be animated in movies, television, or video games. This process is called storyboarding.
  • Receiving feedback from clients and the rest of the design staff and incorporating the responses into project edits. 

Animators can be self-employed and will meet with clients to plan the scope of the work, or they will work with a team of other animators and creative professionals. If traditionally employed, 3D animators meet with actresses and actors, directors, game designers, and other animators to decide on specific job functions and establish deadlines for each part of the project. 

In addition to strong artistic, visual imaging, and computer skills, it is essential for 3D animators to possess the skills to work as part of a team. Even working with a client directly requires accepting input from someone else about the creative process, which often makes it necessary to compromise for the greater good of the project.  3D animators also need strong organizational skills, attention to even the smallest details (like wind blowing leaves on a tree or a character winking). They need strong design and art skills, good communication and observational skills, and must possess artistic talent, along with proficiency in animation technology.  Knowledge in the use of a digital camera, digital paper and pen (such as Solidtek Acecad or Wacom Bamboo), and video compression encoding processes is also essential to compete and succeed in this competitive field. 

In addition, 3D animators must have a feel for timing and movement, know when to edit, how men and women move differently, what backgrounds work best for a particular scene, etc.  Following the lead of a director or animation director, they will refer to existing layouts, models, designs, and characters when creating the illusion of movement that will appear on the screen.

How to Become a 3d Animator

Multimedia animation is a competitive field that requires strong educational credentials, a professional portfolio, and experience via an internship, volunteer work, or part-time job. People with certain personal characteristics do well in this field, such as those who are highly creative and possess strong design skills. 


An entry-level position in 3D animation requires successful completion of at least a bachelor’s degree in computer graphics, graphic design, fine art, or animation. Students should look for programs that focus on art and computer courses. Some of the specific courses that students working towards a bachelor’s degree may complete include:

  • 2D and 3D Animation
  • Character Development
  • Digital Imaging
  • Drawing
  • History of Animation
  • Scriptin
  • Storyboarding

It is essential to take the time while in school to build a professional portfolio. This should contain up to 30 pieces that display the student’s creative and artistic skills, as well as mastery of computer software programs. Due to the nature of the work, most schools require students to build and manage their portfolio online. Some specific items to include in a portfolio include:

Life Drawings: These can be quick sketches of sustained and gesture drawings of humans or animals in various positions. Life drawings should demonstrate realistic proportions in a variety of angles and poses.

Original Character Designs: This category should show a variety of animated characters highlighting different expressions and poses. Students may also wish to include illustrations, model sheets, and turnarounds.

Other Original Work: This should include computer graphic, design, drawing, painting, or sculpture that demonstrates a wide range of the student’s talents. It should be obvious to the viewer what the student’s personal interests are and who has influenced his or her work the most. 3D images, computer animation, motion graphics, photography, website design, and fine art are all good things to include here.

Prop and Location Designs: This portion of the portfolio should include drawings of locations, scenery, and objects that demonstrate a thorough understanding of line, shadow, light, perspective, design techniques, and color. 

Practical Experience, Internships & Volunteering

The best way to stand out to a potential employer in this competitive field is to complete one or more internships while earning a bachelor’s degree. Whether a student obtains their degree online or at a traditional college, he or she should have access to an advisor who can help to locate possible internships. When deciding on 3D animation schools, students should choose one that has a strong internship support program. 

A typical internship lasts for at least a semester and gives the student the opportunity to learn more about the field by working closely with a mentor. The internship should provide the chance to complete actual tasks that a 3D animator would do each day and not merely administrative tasks. This will typically include writing papers outlining what they have learned or performed while interning, as well as interviews with various people in the organization. 

In addition to full-time formal internships, it’s also a good idea for students in this degree field to volunteer their services at local companies or for people in their social circle who need the help of an animator. However, it does take persistence to find these opportunities. 3D animation students should contact television stations, producers, website designers, and related types of businesses and offer their services at no charge or for a small fee. The goal is to have more content to add to their portfolio and references who can vouch for the student’s quality of work when it comes time to apply and interview for a full-time job in the field. 

Continuing Education – Advance Your Career

Master’s degree programs in 3D animation are not common. However, students who are interested in furthering their education can enroll in a Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) program and then choose 3D animation as their specialty. Courses at this advanced level focus on perfecting artistic and computer software skills that students learned while completing an undergraduate degree. Specifically, master’s degree programs are more in-depth and explore algorithms used to design animated characters and models. Students will also study the concepts of weight and physics as they relate to animated creations. 

A master’s degree program typically requires two years of full-time study after obtaining a bachelor’s degree. MFA candidates can expect to spend significant time in the computer lab learning about the technology that makes 3D animation possible. At the end of the MFA program, students will submit a thesis paper on an animation topic of their choice. In lieu of a thesis, some professors may ask for a more developed portfolio or completion of a group project. 

To gain a competitive advantage, some people who have completed a bachelor’s or master’s degree in 3D animation choose to earn certification in a specialized area, which may include movie special effects, video game development, or cartooning. A number of online programs exist that enable students to gain this credential.

Where Do 3d Animators Work?

Most people with jobs in 3D animation work in offices. 3D character animators may also work in film and video production studios, public relations offices, advertising agencies, for software publishers, graphic design firms, computer systems design firms, web design firms, and teach at colleges and universities. 

They typically have a workstation with a large drawing board, a computer, and numerous software programs that enable them to complete their work. Some may work out of their own home or rent office space if they are self-employed. People in this profession usually work full-time during typical office hours, but need to remain flexible to work in the evening or on weekends when deadlines are approaching. 

In 2014, animators held just over 64,000 jobs, and a little more than half were self-employed.

What Is the Average Salary of a 3d Animator?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that people working under the general classification of Multimedia Artists and Animators earned a median annual salary of $63,970 in 2015 for full-time work. This salary represents the average for people with all levels of experience. The lowest 10 percent earned $36,930 while those at the 90th percentile earned $113,600.  Of course, salary will depend on location, industry, years of experience and education level attained. According to the BLS, people working as animators earned approximately $20,000 per year more than those in general art and design occupations. Learn more about Multimedia Design Careers.

What Is the Job Outlook for 3d Animators?

From now until 2024, the demand for multimedia animators is expected to grow by six percent each year which is only slightly less growth than for all occupations. In addition to a higher salary, those with animation training are expected to be in much higher demand than general artists and designers. An increased demand for visual effects in video games, television, and movies, as well as in graphic design and animation is the reason the demand for these jobs is expected to grow. 

As consumer demands for more realistic 3D movie and television programs, as well as video games, continues to increase, the need for more sophisticated equipment to enable this will also increase. Consumers will also purchase newer hardware, which adds to the overall complexity of video games. Studios that create and distribute video games will require more 3D animators to meet the growing expectations of their customers. 

In a society that has become increasingly mobile, people expect realistic computer graphics on their smartphones and computers as well. This leaves many openings for people who are skilled at creating 3D animated games and graphics that work well on mobile devices. Companies that have an online presence but are not mobile-responsive will suffer in search engine rankings as Google, and the other search engines penalize those who have not made their websites and games available to mobile users as they have to those who use laptops and traditional computers.

Related Art Careers & Occupations

People who work as 3D animators may eventually progress to the position of art director. Responsibilities for this position include directing and supervising the work of a team of artists, as well as determining the budget and progression of a project. Working in the television or movie industry would be a good fit for a 3D animator who wants to advance his or her career. 

Graphic or web design are two similar occupations that might interest those with animation training and experience. Graphic designers primarily create visual concepts, either manually or with the aid of a computer program. The purpose of their work is to inspire interest in potential customers or clients through advertisements, magazines, reports, websites, and other types of electronic and non-electronic media. Graphic designers create the overall layout of a job and coordinate the production design with others on the creative team. 

Web developers are responsible for designing and testing new websites before they are made available to the public. Their work defines the look and function of a site more than anyone else who contributes to its development. Web developers may also produce content for the site. Their work also has a highly technical aspect as they constantly assess traffic patterns to ensure that the website can perform up to capacity regardless of the number of people who access it.

Helpful Resources

3D Animation Jobs