5 Things I wish I’d Known Before I Decided to Be a Professional Animator

By training, I’m a 3D Animator. I graduated with a degree in Digital Animation six years ago. But, I had difficulty getting traction in the job market. Not only was that the dreaded year the bottom fell out of our economy, but I didn’t fully understand what I signed up for. I got discouraged and for five years I tried graphic, and even web design. I also occupied a few day jobs while trying to make it in these areas. I finally decided to return to animation when I was struggling as a receptionist. Let’s just say as a generally shy person, answering phones and collecting on unpaid invoices didn’t go so well.

Recently, I had one of the youth in our church pull me aside and state he was interested in becoming an animator. He asked if I had any pointers. I was on the spot, so I just gave him some practical advice. But there was so much more I wish I’d said. In fact, it’s far more than can be shared in passing in the church hallway. Here’s everything I wish I had said, not only to him, but to myself ten years ago when I decided I wanted to take this crazy road to an animation career.

Dynamic Figure Drawing is Immensely Important

Since most animation is done digitally, I figured the ability to draw wouldn’t be necessary. All I had to do was sit down and pose a digital figure, right? Kinda… While that is essentially what you do, it’s also important to understand body mechanics if you want your character to look like she’s moving in a realistic way.

Also, it’s not enough to just pose realistically, it has to be interesting. If your posing isn’t dynamic and interesting, your animation will just look flat, stiff, and boring. You have to take into account composition, balance, and staging while posing and keyframing. If you don’t, your animation won’t look nearly as appealing.

It’s Not Enough just to know the Tech

I’ve got a knack with technology. Give me five or ten minutes with a gadget, and I’ll have figured out how to operate it, and maybe a bit more. With this gifting, I figured learning Maya wouldn’t be terribly difficult, and I would have it made in the animation world. I was wrong again.

Maya was a beast I wasn’t ready for. It was far more complicated than I imagined, and while I was able to learn enough to muddle through, there were still a lot of facets of the program I had issues with. Also, it seems like every other week I discover a new quirk that is somehow solved by restarting the program. Technology is weird…

However, even with Maya figured out, for a long time I was still missing something. Yes, I knew how to move objects and rigs and set keyframes, but that didn’t cut it. I needed to know how to make my objects and characters move in a way that wasn’t rigid and robotic. You need to take what happens between keyframes into consideration, so it’s not just a mechanical key-to-key movement. Never underestimate the importance of arcs and timing.

Also, it doesn’t cut it just to make something move in a realistic way. An animator needs to be able embellish and exaggerate in a way that not only makes her shot more interesting, but doesn’t diminish the integrity of the movement. For example, once the character’s walk is animated, she must add subtle nuances to make it appealing, like head movement, or a swing in the arm. All the while receiving guidance from her animation supervisor.

A Degree Doesn’t Guarantee A Job

But... I have a degree!

All my high school career, I believed a college degree was a “Get into a Well-Paying Job Free” card. That may have been true twenty years ago, and a degree certainly helps, but it’s not that easy. Especially in art-related fields like animation.

Honestly, animation studios don’t care about degrees, they’ll be looking at your demo reel more than your diploma. I knew this, so I had my stuff from classes I could show, but I also had a degree. I figured I was all set. This wasn’t necessarily the case. You need more than class work to show for yourself. What I should have done was create things for my reel other than what I made in class. It would’ve given me more content as well as practice.

Another thing that would’ve helped me was going through a graduate program, or art school after college. Not only would it have looked better on paper, but it would’ve better equipped me. It took me until recently to realize this and take that step. I went through Animsquad, who I highly recommend. Animation Mentor is also good, and CGTarian.

It’s Very Competitive

As a result of the popularity of animated films such as How to Train Your Dragon(my personal favorite), Frozen, and The Lion King, animation is glamorized as an awesome career. Rightfully so. However, as a result, there are more animators than there are jobs. So, it’s not uncommon for even the best animators to struggle for a while before they find work.

Also, animation is one of those things that if it’s done badly, people notice and turn away. If it’s mediocre, no one takes a second look at it. The only real way it holds the attention of anyone older than six is if it’s done really well.

That’s why your work has to be better than top of the line to stand out to a studio and get a callback. Studios can’t afford to have anything less than the best. The only way they’ll want you to work for them is if they know you can deliver quality work.

It’s a Lot of Hard Worksayitloud.png


Say it again, louder for the people in the back: IT’S A LOT OF HARD WORK!!!

I can’t stress this one enough. Between producing decent work, practicing your skills, searching for work, making connections, and more than likely a day job, you have to work pretty hard to get anywhere as an animator. Not only do you need a superb demo reel, but it helps your chances if you have an online portfolio of other art such as traditional art and graphic design. In fact, one of the reasons I started blogging was to put an online portfolio out to show employers.

Also, you have to be diligent to pursue potential work. It’s not enough just to comb job ads, you have to find the studios you want to work for and send your resume and reel to them. In fact, many studios will have a spot to submit such things on their site even if they aren’t hiring. Once you have your name on their radar, it’s a good idea to like their page on Facebook and follow their blog. Once you have done that, like their stuff and make genuine comments. Find any way possible to engage them.

In Conclusion

So, there it is. 5 things I wish I’d known before I decided to become a professional animator. There aren’t as many illustrations with this one. It was hard to come up with an interesting visual for each point.

Would these factors have influenced my choice? Maybe. I still haven’t made my break in animation yet. As I mentioned before, I had all but given up for a while. I still wonder at times if it’s worth the pursuit. But as I’ve scoped my other career options and, as a Christian sought guidance through prayer and scripture, this is what I believe I have been called to do.

So, if you’re like me and animation is your calling, I urge you not to let the things I mentioned daunt you. But know the cost, and allow that to help you be wise in how you go about it.