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Becoming a 3D Animator: What It Takes and How to Get There

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Updated 5/4/2020

Becoming a professional 3D animator, as with learning any profession, isn't something that's usually achieved in just a few weeks, months, or even years. It's a career path that takes a great deal of love and dedication to the art form, but if you love it then it's going to be completely worth it. 

You'll find out very quickly if character animation is something you want to pursue; it's at times frustrating, confusing and, above all, difficult. But it can also be the most rewarding art form, as you get to be the one to breathe life into your characters and make your ideas a reality for others to enjoy. If you have the passion for it, nothing can hold you back. 

This article will give you an understanding of how to become an animator, as well as the steps to get you there successfully.

The Job of a 3D Animator

A 3D animator's job is to bring inanimate objects to life through movement. It's up to you, as the animator, to make these objects feel like they are alive and breathing. 3D animators can be found in many different forms of media, including video games, movies, television, and commercials. If there are 3D elements, chances are there's a 3D animator there to bring them to life. 

Some great examples of 3D animation can be found in every 3D animated movie since Toy Story. Those characters are just computer data, but you wouldn't believe it when watching it would you? To anyone watching, those characters are alive and thinking. It's the animator's job to make the audience forget that these 3D objects aren't actually real. You can think of the 3D animator as the puppeteer pulling the strings on the puppet.

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The Characteristics of a 3D Animator

When learning how to become an animator, you will need to be patient. As mentioned earlier, animation isn't something learned overnight; it can take a year or even longer before you can really start getting the chops for it. So be patient with yourself and with the overall animation process. Animation takes a very long time to learn, and it also takes a very long time to do well. You may be working on a single ten-second long animation for weeks and weeks, but that's often what it takes to create great animation. It should never be rushed. 

Have you ever been outside and noticed someone walking in the most unique way? Sure, all people walk differently, but this person might have had a certain step to their walk that made it that much more interesting. Animators should always enjoy studying life and can use these observations when creating character animation. After all, animators must bring 3D objects to life, which includes giving them unique or interesting characteristics.

The best way to get inspiration is to study real life. Animators often see the world much differently than your average person. For instance, if an animator sees someone interesting waiting in line at the movies they might take mental notes on everything about them. They notice various expressions and body movements, from their posture to the way they talk. A person unfamiliar with animation is less likely to pay attention to these details. 

Animators are really still kids at heart. Whether they're animating a fight between two Transformers or the stunts of Spider-Man in the latest movie, the animators get to come up with these unique moves that they've probably had in their mind since they were young. While animation is difficult, it's extremely fun and often requires you to find your inner child again. If you've ever found yourself pretend sword fighting with your younger nephew and realized you're enjoying it more than he is, then you probably have what it takes to become an animator!

The Technical Skills of a 3D Animator

When it comes to 3D animation, it's important to have the technical skills. Of course, the computer doesn't create great animations automatically; the animator does. That being said, you're still going to be in a complex piece of animation software like Maya, so you'll need to spend the time to learn the software. Even though a 3D application is simply a tool for you to animate with, you still need to learn how to use that tool, because software like Maya is more complex than a pencil and paper. 

A great place to start is with introductory animation tutorials like Introduction to Animation in Maya or Introduction to Animation in 3ds Max. With these tutorials, you'll be able to get up and running and comfortable with the software so you can spend more time animating.

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Know Your Path

Knowing the path you want to take is very important when learning how to become an animator. Do you want to work on animated movies like the ones Pixar and DreamWorks produce? Do you want to work on movies like Transformers and Avengers? Or maybe you want to get into games? Whatever the case may be, you need to know your end goal. 

Each industry is typically looking for a different style of animation. That being said, you also don't want to start off only animating big fight scenes because you eventually want to work on Transformers. Instead, you should be learning the fundamentals of animation, and then you can cater your demo reel to these different types of jobs when your skills get up to that level. 


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Know Where to Start

Whether you want to work in movies or games, starting with the basics is the most important step. Get every book on animation you can find, such as The Illusion of Life, Timing for Animation, and  The Animator's Survival Kit. These are all books created for 2D animation, but they still apply to 3D animation. Each book teaches the core fundamentals of animation from the pioneers who refined it into an amazing art form. Study these over and over and most importantly learn the 12 principles of animation, which are the core techniques for creating great animations. 


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Know Where to Learn

If you're ready to take the next step to becoming a 3D Animator, you can start with the great tutorials below to propel you in the right direction. You can begin with the basics of understanding the software and move your way up to advanced animation courses with one of these pre-planned learning paths:

Another great way to enhance your skills is to find a community to share your work and find other animators like yourself. One of the best ways to learn is to get feedback on your work. It may be hard to get constructive criticism at first, but the more you do it the more you'll get used to it, and you'll quickly see how beneficial it is in pushing your skills further. 

A great place to do this is with an animation site like youanimator.com, which is a community-built website designed by animators for the sole purpose of giving constructive feedback. You can upload your animations to the site and other animators, like yourself, can give critiques on your shot by drawing directly on top of the video. The great thing about this site is you must also give critiques to other people’s work in order to receive feedback on your own work. This is beneficial because you'll start to grow an eye for spotting problem areas in your own work by giving feedback on other animator's shots. 

You can also post your animation work directly in the Digital-Tutors forums to get helpful feedback from other artists.

Learn to Act

Animators are essentially actors; it's up to you to create all the movements for the character. So learning to act is paramount. This doesn't mean you have to join acting classes. Of course, that would be beneficial, but you can study acting through books and movies. 

As an animator, you'll typically be given a simple line of dialogue, and you must create all the actions and movements the character is going to take. You have to come up with the acting, and your own emotions will show through the character. If you have bad acting skills, it'll translate into bad animation. 

You can check out this very useful Animating a Dialogue Scene in Maya tutorial to get an understanding of how acting influences your animation choices.

Learn Body Mechanics

Another important thing you'll need to master is body mechanics. In order to create believable animation, you need to understand how the human body moves, as well as how animals move. One of the best ways to do this is to go outside and shoot video footage that you can reference while working. How does a person swing their arms when they walk? When do the weight shifts occur in a run? Having an understanding of these real-world principles will ensure that your animations are believable. 

You should build up a whole library of animations you can reference when working on your next project. Here are some great in-depth tutorials that will teach you step-by-step how to animate a complex body mechanics shot so that you can learn how to apply these real-world principles into your own animations:

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Learn Good Communication Skills

As an animator, you're going to need good communication skills as you work with many different departments. Creating a film, commercial, or game is a very collaborative effort. You'll need to be able to communicate your concerns and ideas clearly to your peers. For instance, you might be working with a team of animators all tasked with the job of animating several sequences together. You'll need to communicate how each individual shot is going to translate to the next in order to make it come together and feel like it was an entire sequence animated by a single person. While creating animations is one animator's job, the production process is a team effort.

Practice, Practice, Practice

In order to become a successful animator, it really comes down to practice. As mentioned before, animation isn't something learned overnight. It's arguably one of the most difficult aspects within a 3D pipeline. It'll take lots of trial and error and most likely some frustration. You may have heard before that it takes a thousand bad drawings to get to those good drawings. The same goes for animation. The best thing you can do is just practice. Practice implementing the animation principles over and over and always find ways to push yourself further.

Push Yourself

As an animator, you should have a willingness to learn and be eager for more knowledge as well. Animation is never something that's truly mastered; there are always new things to discover. It's never good to become complacent or assume you have learned all the skills you will need for a satisfying career. Find new ways to enhance your skills, whether it's animating a type of creature you've never tried before or taking on a more subtle acting shot you're not used to. 


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Get Experience

Your dream job or goal may be to work at a studio like Pixar or Infinity Ward, but that doesn't mean you should hold out until you get there. Just because a studio that's interested in you isn't Pixar doesn't mean you shouldn't work there. Any experience you can get is valuable and will help you build an impressive portfolio while further developing your skills, even if it’s not your dream job. The more on-the-job experience you get under your belt, the more appealing you will be to the bigger studios.

Level Your Expectations and Exceed Everyone Else's

It's important to keep in mind that you might not get the most amazing shots at your first job. You'll likely need to prove yourself. Be willing to take on any shot no matter how small it may be. The animation supervisors will want to see how you handle yourself and how well you do on these simpler shots before giving you more complex ones. 

For example, your first animation at a studio may be a quick little 24 frame clip of something like a hand opening a door or a character turning to look at something else. They might not be the animations the audience will gawk over, like a shot where you need to animate fighting robots, but you need to approach every shot you do like it is.

Don’t look at your first assignments as boring or assume they are the shots the experienced animators give to the new guys so they don’t have to do them. Approach it like it's the most important shot in the film. For each shot you do, the supervisors will see your eagerness and skill. Eventually more complex and exciting shots will be sent your way, but most likely not right off the bat. 

You also need to remember that when you start animating professionally you're not animating for yourself anymore. When you were learning, you were animating your own shots, your own ideas. As you begin working at a studio, especially in movies, you're animating for the director now. You're bringing their project to life and it's up to you to make their idea and vision a reality. That's not to say you shouldn't bring your own ideas to the table, because you will be, but you need to be able to take feedback and criticism well. If the director doesn't like one of your choices and tells you to go in a different direction, chances are you will need to. 

How Much Does an Animator Make?

The amount you make as an animator will depend on what type of animation work you do, how much experience you have acquired, special skills, and your level of education. The salary ranges in many other careers work the same way.

Animation work can include both individual and team projects, as well as freelance work and employment with a corporation. Also, the fact that you work for an advertising company, a software design firm, or a movie studio may influence the amount on your paycheck. If you wonder if your salary is fair, keep in mind that extra hours may be required to meet deadlines. How much will you really make per hour if you’re working more than 40 hours per week?

As mentioned previously, gaining experience is another great way to earn a higher salary. How much does an animator make at different points in a career? Entry-level animation jobs range from approximately $30,000 to $72,000. Mid-level jobs are a little higher, reaching up to about $88,000. Careers for animators with a lot of experience or specialized skill set may go as high as $107,000. (Salary estimates are from March 2018).

Continuous learning and advanced education can also help you to earn a higher salary. There are various paths you can take, including associate and bachelor’s degree programs, as well as certifications. While certifications sometimes focus on specific skills, degree programs cover more material and move from beginner to expert level skills. The best option for you will depend on your personal goals, but it is always wise to keep learning, develop your skills with hands-on work, and seek out experienced teachers.

Animation is an extremely fun and challenging path to take. Now that you have an understanding of what it takes to become a successful 3D animator, it's up to you to take the next step. Join a community to share your work with other animators and start learning with the many 3D animation tutorials available, including Maya animation tutorials, 3ds Max animation tutorials and CINEMA 4D animation tutorials. If you have any questions or need some more advice, share in the comments below.