What Does a Career in Animation Look Like?

Published: Feb 27, 2018

 Job Search       Technology       
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Animators are artists who design the moving characters that appear in movies, videos, television shows, commercials, and other digital media such as web sites and video games. Animators are also known as digital animators and motion cartoonists. Currently, there are more than 31,000 multimedia artists and animators employed in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Salaries for animators can reach well over $100,000 per year. So what does a career in animation look like? Here's a quick look at this exciting career.

The job

Making a big budget animated film, such as Coco, WALL-ERatatouille, or Shrek, requires a team of many creative people, including a large team of animators. Each animator on the team works on one small part of the film. On a small production, animators may be involved in many different aspects of the project’s development.

In the past, the most common form of animation was cel animation, in which animators drew the artwork on cels and then prepared the finished film frame by frame, or cel by cel. Today, most animators forego creating on cels (except in planning stages) and instead use computer software to draw directly into a computer system. Computer programs can create effects like shadows, reflections, distortions, and dissolves. Animators rely heavily on computers in various areas of production. Computers are used to color animation art, whereas formerly, every frame was painted by hand. Computers also help animators create special effects and even entire films. (One animation software program, Adobe Flash, has given rise to an entire Internet cartoon subculture.)

Stop-motion animation is a traditional animation form that is still popular today. In stop-motion animation, an object, such as a doll, is photographed, moved slightly, and photographed again. The process is repeated hundreds of thousands of times to make a film. Movies such as Chicken Run were animated this way. Claymation is one of the most common forms of stop-motion animation and was popularized by the Gumby animated series, which appeared on television from 1957 to 1968. Using this approach, the objects being photographed are made of clay. Wallace & Gromit films are recent examples of the animation of clay characters.

Work environment

Most animators work in big cities where movie and television studios, animation studios, software developers, and video game design firms are located. Staff animators work a regular 40-hour workweek but may occasionally be expected to work evenings and weekends to meet deadlines. Freelance animators have erratic schedules, and the number of hours they work may depend on how much money they want to earn or how much work they can find. They often work evenings and weekends but are not required to be at work during regular office hours. Many freelance animators spend a lot of time working alone at home, but animators have more opportunities to interact with other people than do most working artists.

Educational requirements

Many colleges now offer classes and degrees in computer animation, digital art, computer and video game design, and related fields. However, some of today’s top computer animators are self-taught or have learned their skills on the job. But as competition for jobs increases, it's a good idea to earn a degree in animation, computer and video game design, digital art, digital media, or a related field. In addition to formal training, you should learn as many software programs as possible such as Flash, Maya, Photoshop, Final Cut, Premiere, Anime Studio, and After Effects.

Experience, skills, and personality traits

Animators must be creative. In addition to having artistic talent, they must generate ideas, although it is not unusual for animators to collaborate with writers for ideas. They must have a good sense of humor (or a good dramatic sense) and an observant eye to detect people’s distinguishing characteristics and society’s interesting attributes or incongruities. Animators also need to be flexible. Because their art is often commercial, they must be willing to accommodate their employers’ desires if they are to build a broad clientele and earn a decent living. And they must be able to take suggestions and rejections gracefully.

Starting out

Larger employers such as Pixar offer apprenticeships or internships. To enter these programs, applicants must be attending a college animation program. Interns at Pixar must be currently enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program, or have graduated during the year the internship begins. Program participants might work as camera and staging artist interns, who “create sequences of shots that convey the story through the application of traditional filmmaking principles in a 3D computer graphics environment.” Other internship options at Pixar are available in story, art, technical direction, production management, marketing, engineering, research, media systems, financial, and editorial. Internships last 12 weeks or 6 months during the summer, fall, and winter school terms.

Volunteering with a local animation or film production company is the next best thing to landing an internship. This experience will give you a great introduction to the field and help you to make valuable contacts in the field. And one new way up-and-coming animators have made themselves known to the animating community is by attracting an audience on the Web. A portfolio of well-executed Web ‘toons can help an animator build his reputation and get jobs.

Career outlook

Interactive computer games, animated films (which are not just for children anymore), network and cable television, and the Internet are among the many employment sources for talented animators. The growing trend of sophisticated special effects in motion pictures has created opportunities at industry effects houses such as Sony Pictures Imageworks, DreamQuest Software, Industrial Light & Magic, and DreamWorks Animation SKG. Employment will also be good in the computer and video game industry, because the demand for games continues to grow steadily and technologies make new kinds of games possible. Competition for jobs should be strong since many creative and technically savvy people want to be part of this business. Demand is also increasing as animation is increasingly used in mobile technologies and in non-entertainment-based fields such as scientific research or design services.

The post was excerpted from the Vault Guide to Animation Jobs.