Exploring this Job

Ask your high school art or computer science teacher to arrange a presentation by an animator, or if you live near an animation studio, try to arrange a tour of a production facility. Sketch as much as you possibly can. Carry a sketchpad around in order to quickly capture images and gestures that seem interesting to you. There are many computer animation software programs available that teach basic principles and techniques. Experiment with these programs to create basic animation. Some video cameras have stop-motion buttons that allow you to take a series of still shots. You can use this feature to experiment with claymation and other stop-motion techniques.

The Job

Animators design the moving characters that appear in films and television shows. They create the visual effects for many films, television shows, and commercials. They also create animations that are viewed on the Internet and mobile devices such as smartphones and iPads.

Making a big budget animated film, such as Finding DoryRatatouille, or WALL-E, requires a team of many creative people. 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.

An animated film begins with a script. Screenwriters plan the story line, or plot, and write it with dialogue and narration. Designers read the script and decide how the film should look—should it be realistic, futuristic, or humorous? They then draw some of the characters and backgrounds. These designs are then passed on to a storyboard artist who illustrates the whole film in a series of frames, similar to a very long comic strip. Based on this storyboard, an artist can then create a detailed layout.

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 The Boxtrolls 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.

Computer and video game animators use their computer skills as well as their artistic abilities to produce computer and video games that may entertain, test, and even teach players. Game animators work as part of a team that develops a concept for a game, the game rules, the various levels of play, and the game story from beginning to end. Animators are responsible for giving movement to the game’s characters. They must have an understanding of human anatomy and often model game characters’ movements on actual human or animal movement. After all, even if the character is a green, three-eyed alien with wings, it still needs to move smoothly and believably through a scene. In one method of animation, the artist builds a model or sculpture of a character, scans it into the computer, and then uses software to animate the character in the computer. In another method, which is typically used with sports games to create the realistic movements of athletes, actual people are used as models. In this method, called “motion capture,” a person wearing body sensors goes through whatever motions the game character will be doing—jumping, throwing a football, running, dribbling a basketball, and so on. The motion sensors send information to a computer and the computer creates a “skeleton” of the person in motion. The animator then builds on this skeleton, adding skin, clothing, and other details.

Animators are also responsible for getting characters’ personalities to show through. They must use their artistic skills to convey feelings, such as anger, fear, and happiness, through a character’s facial expressions and body language. Animators may work closely with the character artists and the game designers to get an understanding of each character’s personality and goals. That way animators can determine, for example, if a character’s smile should be wide and friendly, small and meek, or more like a sneer than a real smile.