What is 3D animation?

An animator uses motion to bring characters, vehicles, props, and more to life within tv shows, films, and games. They are often involved in different steps of the VFX pipeline that come before animation in order to ensure the are delivered an animation-ready model. For example, in order to give a character the right personality traits and movements, the animator needs to make sure that whoever is rigging the model is doing it with those things in mind. During the rigging process, the character is given bones, skin weights, and constraints that allow it to move in specific ways. If this is not done with the animator’s needs in mind, the animator will have to send the model back.

Animators are responsible for giving objects weight and timing that result in the object feeling like it truly exists in the world we see it in. A great example of this would be Baby Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2. Though this movie takes place in a fantasy world, Baby Groot’s body movements and facial expressions are so fluid and realistic, they cause viewers to laugh and feel sentimental. He truly fits seamlessly into the world around him. Animation is a huge part of bringing characters to this point.

A day in the life of a 3D animator

The daily responsibilities of an animator can vary depending on the type of job you are working on. As with every other step in the pipeline, once you receive your assignment, research is key. For example, Disney animators who were working on the film Zootopia spent time at animal wildlife reserves studying the behavior and movements of the animals in person. Following research, an animator will then decide what techniques they would like to use and start blocking out the main poses of the object they are animating. Techniques would include things like placing keyframes and choosing between IK and FK, which are different ways to have the bones move when animating. Main poses will include the starting pose, ending pose, and some poses in between. Once these poses are in place, the animator can get feedback from a supervisor and then move forward with perfecting the movements of their model.

An animator’s responsibilities will also vary due to company size. Smaller companies may be more likely to hire an animator that also has the ability to rig models. This results in the company saving time and money by having one person do both tasks. A larger company may hire specialized artists who focus on one specific task so that when more high profile projects come through, they are handled as efficiently as possible.  

Zootopia Progression Reel from Shaofu Zhang on Vimeo.

How to become a 3D animator

Practice makes perfect. When you are first learning animation, it takes some time to get your animations as smooth and precise as you would like. Repetition will eventually make the tedious aspects of animation quick and natural, which will then let you focus on the more in-depth nuances and personality of your animations. Download some free rigged models and practice animating characters, vehicles, and moving props. This will give you a reference as to how to animate soft vs hard objects as well.

As mentioned before, research is key. In order to prep yourself for a career in animation, make sure you spend time gaining:

  • Knowledge in the motion of humans, bipedal creatures, quadruped creatures and animals.
  • Knowledge in facial movement and portraying different moods.
  • Knowledge of mechanical design.
  • Knowledge of mechanical operations.
  • Knowledge of weight and physics.

As technology improves, animators are expected to understand how motion capture works. Once the motion capture data is imported, animators will often have to tweak the keyframes to perfect the facial and body movements of the character. For reference, one recent example of a successful use of motion capture tools is War of the Planet of the Apes. The actors who played the apes wore motion-capture suits, which were filmed by a series of cameras. The data was then sent to animators who made creative choices to enhance the personalities of the 3D modeled apes that would replace the actors. This process is becoming more commonplace by the day in both the film and games industries.

vfx pipeline animation image 02

Tips to break into the industry

Spend as much time as you can on your best pieces of work. Pick a few and perfect them the best you can for your 3D animation portfolio. Make sure there is some versatility in the types of animations you complete. Show that you are able to portray true emotions through facial animation and can accurately emulate weight and physics.

Use the networking opportunities available to animation artists to build up your contacts. This can be one of the best ways to get a job. Searching online, you can find many industry meetups and events, which often include guest speakers like professional artists and software creators. The knowledge gained by listening to these types of guest speakers talk about their personal experiences is irreplaceable.

What should my salary expectations be?

Glassdoor is currently reporting the average 3D animator salary to be about $59,920/yr. Other sources are reporting that 3D animators can make anywhere from $33,000/yr. to $95,000/yr. depending on experience, location, and industry. Senior animators and technical animators may be able to exceed the top of that range with their years of experience and knowledge.

As more and more digital characters and other objects are needed for film, games, and even VR, the need for talented animators will continue to grow. At CG Spectrum, you can learn all the necessary skills an animator needs along with industry tips and tricks from seasoned mentors in our Intro to 3D Animation and Advanced 3D Animation courses. Learn 3d modeling with our experienced team. 



Ryan Fitzgerald

Author Ryan Fitzgerald

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