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The Ultimate Guide to Animation for Beginners

by | Jan 25, 2021

Your Online Guide for Learning How to Animate

A step-by-step guide for a career in animation, or just for fun!

Dramatic shot by António Vieira

Dramatic shot by António Vieira

Considering a Career in the Animation Industry?

This guide will show you what professional animators do and share how to get started on your own animation career. It will outline the skills and education you need, as well as key steps to getting a job as a professional animator.

Animation Studios & The Animation Pipeline

Animation is a broad discipline with many facets and specialties. Before we jump in, let’s look at some of the behind-the-scenes steps that studios go through to make your favorite animated films.

First, imagine that an animation studio is a machine made up of many moving parts. In this case the parts are departments, people, and projects and together they build visual stories. You can break down the assembly line of this machine, let’s call it the Film Production Pipeline, into three large groups:

  • Pre-production is the earliest stage of the film, and involves things like script writing, storyboarding, visual development, and others. It’s where a lot of the story’s building blocks are created.
  • Production is the middle stage and includes pieces like character modeling, rigging, and animation. This is where much of the building happens, using those initial blocks to shape the story.
  • Post-production is the final stage, including compositing, VFX, and color correction. This last step is about the details, polishing the story and getting it ready for the audience.

The studio is a collaborative environment so while people and departments have their specific areas, a decision in one area can affect all of the following teams down the line.

In this article we’re mainly focusing on the Animation part of the Film Production Pipeline, but we encourage you to dig into the other elements as well.

To learn more about the animation production process, check out this 3D Animation Pipeline Guide by Dream Farm Studios.

What Animators Do

Animators are artists, but instead of tools like paint brushes they use the characters we see on screen to tell a visual story. It’s the animator’s job to take the script and the director’s vision and bring characters to life. If they do it well, the audience may forget that they’re watching what is essentially a digital puppet and not a living, breathing person.

Animators can be acrobats, comedians, and actors, sometimes all in the same scene! Their job is to create dynamic and interesting character performances for movies, TV shows,  games, and advertising.

Colorful walk cycle by Hector Gil

Colorful walk cycle by Hector Gil

Animators generally fall into two main categories:

2D Animators use traditional, hand-drawn techniques or modern, digital tools to tell stories. They use the core principles of timing, spacing, and appeal to bring characters to life on screen.

3D Animators use 3D software to accomplish many of the same things 2D animators do. In addition to the fundamental principles of animation, 3D animators use the advantages of modern software to push their artform to new levels. These artists are responsible for animating everything from spaceships, to dragons, to lead characters.

At their cores, 2D and 3D animators use the same principles, but different tools. Let’s look at 3D animators a little more closely:

3D Character Animators bring characters to life on screen. There are many different careers they can focus on, but here are the most highly sought-after roles:

  • Feature Film Animators work on movies and TV shows to create appealing and entertaining performances. These animators are responsible for the memorable character performances in movies like Frozen, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and How to Train Your Dragon.
  • Game Animators typically focus on body mechanics and physical performances, with an emphasis on weight and impact. They create dynamic animation that makes both the gameplay and storytelling immersive.
  • VFX Animators use varying levels of exaggeration and subtlety to animate digital characters alongside their live-action counterparts.They frequently bring superheroes, giant robots, and fantastical creatures to life.

Different Types of Jobs in the Animation Industry

Earlier in this article we outlined the Film Production Pipeline and the three phases of production: Pre-Production, Production, and Post-Production. We’re huge fans of animation, but animators will be the first to tell you that their art is collaborative and that it takes many talented people working together to bring movies, video games, and other projects to life.

Shot by Silvia Panicali

Shot by Silvia Panicali

Below is a brief list of some specific job titles you might also encounter in a typical production environment in the animation world.

Pre-Production Job Titles

  • Art Director
  • Background Artist
  • Character Designer
  • Concept Artist
  • Effects Designer
  • Environment Designer
  • Previs Artist
  • Story Artist
  • Visual Development Artist

Production Job Titles

  • 3D Modeler
  • Animator
  • CG Artist
  • CG Supervisor
  • Character Animator
  • Cloth Simulation Artist
  • Groom Artist
  • Layout Artist
  • Layout Technical Director (TD)
  • Lighting Artist
  • Lighting Supervisor
  • Matte Painter
  • Modeling Supervisor
  • Modeling TD
  • Rigging Artist
  • Rigging Supervisor
  • Rigging TD
  • Shading TD
  • Shading/Texture Supervisor
  • Texture Artist

Post-Production Job Titles:

  • 3D Rendering
  • Compositor
  • Editor
  • Motion Graphics Artist
  • Roto Artist
  • Sounds Effects Artist
  • VFX Artist
  • Visual Effects Supervisor

The best way to get information about specific skills and requirements for various types of animation jobs is to keep an eye on job listings. Most spell out the requirements in great detail along with any specialized training or experience that might be necessary.

You can find job listings a number of places, including Animation World Network’s job section, the Animation Guild, individual studio websites, LinkedIn, and various other job seeking sites.

Is 3D animation a good career choice?

We think so, but it’s important to make sure it’s a good fit for you! Check out this page for more info about salaries and industry growth. We also took an in-depth look at the animation jobs some of our students and mentors are doing, including reasons why they love their work.

Exciting chase by Ximo Ferrer

Exciting chase by Ximo Ferrer

Do you need a degree to get an animation job?

No! The good news is that you do not need a college or university degree to get a job as a professional animator. Feature film and game studios don’t really care about degrees, they care about your skill set.

Do you have good body mechanics? Can you act a range of emotions and scenes? You highlight your skills by putting together a demo reel to show future employers. A demo reel is a series of short clips, usually 15-30 seconds, that showcase your absolute best animated work. For more specific information about what recruiters look for in a demo reel, please see tips from Animation Mentor Co-Founder Shawn Kelly, along with many other blog articles and videos on the subject.

Take a look at Animation Mentor’s Student Showcase, which is essentially a school demo reel. The Showcase highlights the best work from our students, many of whom started our program with zero animation experience.

Still from a shot by Madison Erwin

Still from a shot by Madison Erwin

What’s next? Learning to animate.

How to start learning animation with Animation Mentor

Animation Mentor offers a 6-course animation training series for people who are new to animation and want to learn how to become professional animators. The courses build upon the 12 principles of animation so that as you progress through the curriculum you create more complex and dynamic assignments.

Like every pro animator in history, you’ll start by mastering the fundamentals. Learn to animate a basic walk cycle and then move on to create more complex movements like jumping, climbing, and dancing. By the third course, Advanced Body Mechanics, you’ll use animation reference to create an exciting action sequence.

The rest of the Core Animation Courses focus on creating outstanding animated performances. From perfecting the art of facial animation, to creating engaging dialogue scenes, you’ll learn to animate Oscar-worthy performances the pros would be proud of.

Once you’ve mastered the skills you need to succeed, you’ll get advice from the best mentors in the industry on what studios look for in an animator and how to create the perfect animation demo reel.

All of our courses are taught by industry pros—from studios like Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and Sony—who will give you feedback on your animation and mentor you to be successful.  You’ll join a caring, online community of like-minded peers who share assignments, feedback and support, and build life-long friendships and connections.You will also have access to professional rigs that you can use on assignments and your demo reel, with ongoing access after you graduate.

In total, the series takes 18 months to complete.

Once you’ve completed the 6 Core Animation Courses, you can also sign up for the many workshops that teach other specialized skills.

Animation is an art that takes passion, patience, and practice. You can’t fake passion, you either have it or you don’t, but the rest is just hard work. The true secret to an animator’s success is this: The more time you spend on animation, the better you will become.

How to Animate for Beginners

Shot of our Quinn rig by Ryan Pfeifenroth

Shot of our Quinn rig by Ryan Pfeifenroth

Unlike traditional 2D animators, 3D animators use computers and technically don’t need to know how to draw to do their work. Learning basic drawing skills, however, can help you sketch and plan your ideas before taking them to the computer, which saves time in the long run.

Because animators have to make their characters move, act, and react, it is helpful to understand the basics of human anatomy and movement. There are a bunch of great books we recommend, which include exercises and lessons to help you start learning right away.

Free 3D Animation Video Tutorial For Beginners

If you want to learn 3D animation for beginners, check out our free video tutorial series taught by one of our Co-Founders, Bobby Beck. Not only did he help create a school to train future generations of animators, he was also one of the lead animators on Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo!

Bobby will walk you through downloading a free Maya rig and show you how to get access to a student version of Autodesk Maya’s software so you can work through the exercises and create a simple animation.

This exercise will help animation beginners get comfortable with the Maya software and familiarize you with animation techniques like:

  1. Timing
  2. Spacing
  3. Weight
  4. Arcs
  5. Squash & stretch
  6. Appeal (and more!)

After you’ve set up Maya and followed the tutorial to animate our Squirrels rig, you can try another of the best exercises for beginner 3D animators—learning to animate a bouncing ball.
When you’ve mastered the bouncing ball, feel free to dive deeper into some of our other 3D animation projects for beginners, like learning to animate a character holding a prop. This exercise will help you understand the interaction between a character and their environment, but it’s a little trickier than it sounds. Luckily, Animation Mentor Co-Founder and Lead ILM Animator Shawn Kelly wrote a great article that will help you avoid some beginner mistakes.

You can also check out the Animation Mentor Blog to find tons of free articles written by our mentors and alumni—they’re full of animation tips and tricks!

Whimsical squirrel house from Maya student Ximo Ferrer

Whimsical squirrel house from Maya student Ximo Ferrer

Animation Software for Beginners

Animators use many different tools to animate and while there’s no way to list every one of them here, we’d like to outline the most popular ones for you (they’re used by animation studios worldwide).

3D Animation Software Tools

  • Autodesk Maya – If there’s a gold standard for 3D animation software it’s Maya. This is the go-to tool for professional animators and studios, and it’s crucial that new animators learn to use it. Although licenses can be expensive, Autodesk offers a free educational version.
  • Blender – Blender is gaining popularity as a high-quality but still free 3D animation tool. This software has grown in recent years to include better usability and exciting features. If the price of Maya is too much for you this is your next choice.
  • Houdini – Houdini is famous for giving artists the ability to create stunning visual effects. Like Maya it’s a bit harder to learn, but there is a free version available for students.
  • Cinema 4D – Marketed as one of the easiest tools for 3D modeling and visual effects, Houdini is good for anyone interested in enhancing live action movies with realistic effects.
  • Autodesk 3DS Max – 3DS Max is another Autodesk software that covers several animation pipeline steps. It’s best known for game animation and modeling.

2D Animation Software Tools

  • Toon Boom Harmony – Harmony by Toon Boom is an animation tool that can be used by both pros and new animators. We recommend it for our 2D Animation for Beginners Workshop.
  • Adobe Animate CC – Adobe created this software so it’s easy for beginners to understand, but also complex enough for professionals to enjoy.
  • Adobe Character Animator – This software’s main goal is to make facial animation as easy as possible. It does that by connecting to your webcam and animating a 2D character according to your facial expressions. While this is a great tool for beginners, we still recommend learning facial animation on its own.
  • Adobe After Effects – This software is used in the industry for character animation and character rigging.

Best Animation Hardware

  • Drawing Tablet – A drawing tablet is a tool used to create digital sketches. This is must if you want to become a concept artist or simply want to draw out a scene for a storyboard. Wacom makes some of the better known products in this area.
  • A Good Computer – Animating scenes with complex rigs, atmospheric lighting, and multiple moving objects takes a lot of processing power. You’ll need fast memory and a good graphics card. If you are not sure exactly what to buy, high or mid-range gaming PCs should have what you need. This website has several good articles about the best computers for animation.

Animation Resources

Cherise Higashi's shot of our hungry Aia rig

Cherise Higashi’s shot of our hungry Aia rig

A great starting place is the Resources section of our website, with links to free e-books, tips and tricks, and webinars for those exploring a future career in animation.

Some other great sites include:

Animation Books for Beginners and Experts Alike

Learn from the legends of animation with these books by famous animators along with books by our mentors and school founders.

Animation Career Resources
Animation Tips and Tricks Volume I and Volume II by Shawn Kelly and Animation Mentors Carlos Baena, Keith Sintay, Aaron Gilman and Wayne Gilbert
Cracking Animation: The Aardman Book of 3D Animation by Peter Lord and Brian Sibley
How to Get a Job in Computer Animation by Ed Harriss

General Animation
Animation: From Script to Screen by Shamus Culhane*
Cartoon Animation (The Collector’s Series) by Preston Blair*
Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes, Volumes I and II: The Walt Stanchfield Lectures by Walt Stanchfield
The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston*

Anatomy and Drawing
Atlas of Human Anatomy of the Artist by Stephen Rogers Peck
Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior by Desmond Morris *
Simplified Drawing for Planning Animation by Wayne Gilbert*

Animals in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge*
Facial Expressions: A Visual Reference for Artists by Mark Simon*
Heads by Alex Kayser*
The Human Figure in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge

Performance and Acting
Acting for Animators: A Complete Guide to Performance Animation by Ed Hooks*
A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeleine Olnek, Robert Previtio, Nathanial Pollack, Scott Zigler and David Mamet

Staging, Lighting, Rendering and Composition
Digital Lighting & Rendering by Jeremy Birn
Digital Texturing and Painting by Owen Demers
Film Lighting: Talks with Hollywood’s Cinematographers and Gaffers by Kris Malkiewicz
The Art and Science of Digital Compositing, Second Edition by Ron Brinkmann

Animation Mentor Blog

Here you will find a wealth of information about the animation industry, working in animation studios and working on games and movies written by professional animators.

You’ll also find in-depth articles about the importance of demo reels; and webinars for how to animate specific challenges like realistic creatures or believable fight scenes; or our series on how to animate the 6 Basic Emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise and disgust, to name a just a few of the amazing articles you’ll find.

Are you ready to be mentored by professional animators?

Start your animation journey today by learning from pros at studios like Pixar, Blue Sky, and ILM! Get more information about Animation Mentor’s Character Animation Program.

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