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How to Learn Animation

How to Learn Animation

Animation is a everywhere.  From the commercials you skip over on streaming services to the blockbuster movies you see every summer.  You play video games that run on quality 2D and 3D animation, as well as see it in places you don’t usually equate with animation at all. If you want to know how to learn animation, read on.

So, you’ve seen it everywhere and think you want to learn animation, but don’t know how, or where to begin?  This article will give you the ins and outs of studying animation, including but not limited to what it is, all the different applications of it (this will really open your eyes), the best learning paths for the best outcomes based on your personal learning styles, and much more.  Read on and get the information you need to learn animation, or know enough to coach your child toward or away from the career.

Why Learn Animation in the First Place?

You’re reading this article and are probably thinking, duh…  I know why I want to learn it….  But do you?  I ask this because it will take a very large time commitment on your part of the part of a loved one.  You should be prepared for long and sometimes frustrating study.  Be prepared for long nights, long days, and skipped meals.  Still sound fun?  Good, because it’s one of the most rewarding careers I’ve ever had.

Now, back to the question…

Discovering what you want to do with animation will DRASTICALLY cut your learning time and give you laser focus.  You’ll achieve your goals faster than most, and will most likely land the job you want in a shorter time-frame, and you might even save yourself a whole lot of money in the process.

What do I mean by this?  Read on…

Animation has MANY disciplines and applications.

Knowing where you want to go when you begin learning animation is paramount to your success or failure.  Knowing how to learn animation should begin with some end in mind.  This is true for many disciplines but very important for animation.  There is so much to learn and knowing where you want to go before you begin will really help you.

For example, do you want to be a character animator, effects animator, work in 2D or 3D animation, visual effects, video games, architecture, medical, industrial, engineering support, litigation, augmented reality, virtual reality, education, etc…  Do you want to be a generalist or a specialist?  Do you want to move to Vancouver BC (now Montreal), Los Angeles, London, New York, or stay in Fargo?  Do you want to constantly move around the world working on film as Hollywood chases the latest film subsidy, or do you want to live somewhere less expensive but work on less sexy stuff?  See where I’m going here?  Knowing where you want to end up will sculpt your decisions early on or even before you begin investing time and possibly money.

Types of Animation

Here is a comprehensive list of where you can work as an animator.  Keep in mind, some places like generalists (can do it all) vs. specialists (rock stars of their craft).  Some industries are more specialist oriented, while others are less so.  Knowing these will give you insight in how to learn animation and which paths interest you.

Feature Film

This is the sexiest and most sought after field of both 2D and 3D animation.  This is the “names in the credits” and IMDB bragging rights section.  This includes both feature animation and blockbuster visual effects.  While sexy, it’s also one of the most segmented areas of animation.  This is the land of the specialist, like character animators, character effects artists (fire, scales, smoke, clothing, feathers, etc…), riggers (they set up the models to be animated), lighters, modelers, environmental fx, roto and paint, shader writers, pipeline technical directors (computer science grads who write tools for the artists), texture artists, and a host of others.

Each discipline requires you to be one of the best in the industry, unless there is a crazy crunch going on around certain films, then you might get in with slightly less skill.

Broadcast and Streaming Television

This is very similar to film but with much shorter turn around times.  In addition, you could get by being a generalist here as sometimes the schedules are so short that you can end up doing everything on your shots. (depe

Like film, there are both 2D and 3D applications.  Animated shows like Family Guy rely on 2D flat techniques and are produced as episodes whereas visual effects can create anything from painting out wires and coffee cups left on tables in shots, to entire monsters.  There is a whole spread of choices and applications for animators and artists here, and many career paths within those applications.nding on 2D vs. 3D.)  This is a sexy place as well, with bragging rights.  The other benefit of TV is that you can do more work in a shorter time and have a show reel much quicker than in feature films, where the turn-around time is longer.

Video Games

In the last 30 or so years, video games have gotten HUGE.  In some respects, it’s every bit as sexy as feature film and TV.  Like film, the turn-around time on games is longer, and in many cases, longer than film as lots of artists might get to work early in the game as opposed to crunch “post” time.

This industry is also segmented like Feature Film.  There are teams of artists including modelers, texture artists, character and prop animators, lighters, fx artists, riggers, and a host of support staff.  There’s a good intro course from CalArts here.

Commercial Advertising

This industry, arguably, has the shortest turn-around time of any application of animation, and is often a pressure cooker.  Ad agencies live on pressure and often like to exert it on anyone within range.

That said, you can do some real cutting edge work and have a show reel really quickly in this industry.  It’s worth playing in that arena for a little while to get really, really good, really really fast.  Of course, not every ad agency is neurotic, and you have some good ones, but know that it’s a pressure cooker going in.

Oftentimes, the ad agencies outsource the work to the same visual effects facilities that produce vfx for film and TV.  They often have separate departments for film, TV, and commercial work.  You can do 2D, 3D, hybrid, and play to many specialties, although turnaround time and the size of the facility may have you wearing many hats.  Being a STRONG generalist may have its advantages here.

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

AR and VR are a new field.  Much of this falls under the video game model at the moment, with many generalists working in the field.  It helps to know game engines like Unity or Unreal, and a bit of scripting like C# as well.  You can be purely artistic in this field, but being so new and tech driven, it helps to know your math or coding a bit as well.

Architecture

This field is in flux and suffered a bit when the great recession hit.  Housing and development took a nose dive, and architecture with it.  That said, it’s made a comeback, and there is work.  It helps to know how to read blueprints and create assets to scale.  It’s a bit less technical than AR and VR, but the you’ll most likely be a generalist unless you land at one of the larger visualization agencies.

The work here can be steady or not depending on the residential and commercial real estate markets.

Medical and Scientific

This is an emerging field and can be very lucrative.  New medicine, treatments, scientific discoveries, and breakthroughs all need to be explained.  You can be a generalist in this field, and it’s not as regimented as other fields.  It’s certainly not as sexy as film, but you could actually help save lives here, and that can be worth more than an ego trip.

Legal

There is a growing need for animation in accident reconstruction and general litigation.  You can be a generalist in this field, and if you’re good at networking, can even form your own freelance business here.  It’s not as large as the others, but there is a need, and you might not ever even need to wear a suit, maybe.

Industrial

This is a hidden gem.  Aerospace is huge here.  Some of the largest defense contractors have animation in house.  Someone needs to animate fighter jets and weapons systems, and defend the “free world.”  This industry also has a hard time getting artists to work there due to the perception of their “right wing” political stance.  This is largely a mis-perception as these companies employ very diverse work forces, especially lately.  They deadlines are more relaxed here as well, and the hours are good for family life.

Teaching

Teaching is its own reward.  Once you get a degree and some experience, you can often find work teaching.  Most of this is part-time lately, as far too many professors are not getting tenure positions, and some are freeway fliers working at multiple campuses to make ends meet.

Internet and Your Own Content

This is one of the best opportunities for anyone in the field.  Creating and owning your own content is way better long-term than working for anyone else.  Especially with global wage pressure pushing animation salaries down, this is a great way to not only support yourself, but leave behind a legacy.  It’s also the hardest of them all to pull off.  Look at Lucas the Spider.

Paths to Learn Animation

Now that you may have an idea of all of the different areas of animation that can exist, you’ll want to know where to begin.  This is the crucial and often most stressed question I ever get when people ask how to learn animation.  “Do I go to school or learn on my own?”  I’ll go into the pros and cons of each below.

Self-Taught vs. School for Animation

I am largely self-taught (some classes sprinkled in, nothing formal in this field. I have a Masters Degree in an unrelated field.)  I’m also one of the few that I work with who went that route, and it’s been a long one.  That said, it’s been rewarding, as I take pride in the discipline that learning animation on my own has taught me.

If you go the self-taught route, there are now so many different learning tools available, from Youtube on the free side to Pluralsight, Lynda, and Gnomon Workshop on the paid side.  There are also numerous books and websites available to help you on your journey.

The pros of this route are that you can save a whole lot of money as animation schools can be VERY expensive and the earnings you get may take you a while to pay off the loan.  The self-learner route will leave you without the mountain of debt that you’d acquire in school.  You can also get around having to spend time on core courses that will get in your way and impede your progress.

You will also learn to laser focus while learning (if you can do that,) and will be able to cut out a reel much quicker than 2 or 4 years spent in school learning this stuff.  That can fast-track your way into animation for yourself or opening your own business doing it.  You will be able to spend time getting clients over worrying about homework while wracking up an insane debt load.

Conversely, the school route can really teach you in an environment where you have access to instructors and other students.  These are people who can open doors for you and get you into studios that you’d have a hard time even getting a call back from if you send out your own resumes and reels.  This is where school can pay off.  The best schools often have placement and can get you interviews.

One personal example is when I interviewed with Blizzard and their “World of Warcraft” team.  I’d taken a one week class at Gnomon in Hollywood and they had gotten me an interview with Blizzard.  That’s the power of school.

Both ways have advantages and disadvantages, and can be a tough decision.  I often tell people that animation is a life-long learning field.  Technology drives it (even in 2D and stop motion,) and even if you go to school for it right now, you’ll most likely need to continue your education as tools and tech changes.  It won’t be formal school, but you’ll always feel the pressure to “keep up.”

Ultimately, the decision is on you and your personal situation.  If you can afford to go to school, or don’t mind taking out massive loans for the average $60K to $150K (experience and technical ability) range annual salaries in high cost of living cities (where most of the studios are,) than by all means, get into a good school and learn all you can while networking.

If, on the other hand, you want to form your own studio or learn so that you can create your own shows online, like on Youtube, you might do better with the solo self-learner track.  Keep in mind that you can also use social media to network.  If you have skills in this area, you won’t need formal school for this at all.

ONE CAVEAT

While at the time of this writing, you don’t need a degree to work in this field (especially if you have experience and a solid show reel, in many places, that is changing.  As more and more small studios are acquired by larger corporate studios, HR requirements are asking for degrees more and more.  It may get to the point where you will need a degree to even be considered for an interview.  This appears to be the way things are moving, so just be aware of that in making any decision.

How to Learn Animation Regardless of Your Path

One thing that will speed your progress above all else is practice.  Whether you go to the best school or are alone on your computer late at night, you’ll only get good if you practice what you learn.  Take your time and allow your mind to build the necessary pathways as you practice your craft.  This is true for any discipline you choose.

Start small and give yourself some goals.  Begin with creating simple projects.  As you go through creating these simple projects, you’ll begin to compile a wealth of knowledge to draw from for more complex tasks.  There is nothing too small, and even the most complex shots can be broken down into small, simple tasks.

Choose Your Animation Tools Wisely

2D Animation Tools

Assuming that you can draw, most of the industry used ToonBoom at the time of this writing.  ToonBoom is a pretty extensive platform that works well in studios with multiple artists working on shows.  Harmony is the version of the software that has a pretty large install base.  It would be good to learn this software if you want to go into 2D animation at the moment.

Other 2D tools you might want to learn are Adobe After Effects and Animate.  These tools are ubiquitous and part of the Adobe Creative Cloud.  Learning to use these tools will really help your workflow and chances of landing a job in animation.

3D Animation Tools

The big dog on the block is Autodesk Maya.  This application is the tool that’s used most in the field.  From animation to visual effects, most studios have this installed.  You’ll want to learn it if you want to animate characters or do most vfx work.

For games, Autodesk 3D Studio Max is still a must know.  This software has been used on more games than I can count.  Most schools teach it, and you should learn it if you want to work in games.

SideFX Houdini is a software that has been around for a very, very long time, and is gaining popularity.  This is the software you want to learn if you want to work in visual effects work.  When you see huge destruction shots in movies, Houdini is most likely behind it.  If you want to learn it, here’s an excellent course that I actually bought with my own money and went through.  

Houdini is probably the most pliable and amazing piece of software ever created for content creation, and arguably one of the most difficult to learn.   If you can learn it and create really solid work with it, you can do very, very well for yourself.  It’s a niche software, but can do anything you can imagine visually.

Maxon Cinema 4D is a popular piece of software for creating motion graphics for commercials and broadcast.  With a pretty wide user base, it’s relatively easy to find tutorials and learning paths for it.  If you want to work in commercials or broadcast motion graphics, it’s worth learning.

Newtek Lightwave3D is another piece of software that has amazing history with broadcast.  Shows like Star Trek Voyager and Enterprise had many shots created with it at Foundation Imaging, Digital Muse, and Eden Effects.  It’s also used at NASA, and other industrial animation sites, in addition to many small boutique shops.

Blender is beginning to make inroads at many more studios.  The impending release of 2.8 and Eevee real-time rendering solution is gaining a whole lot of attention.  It’s a software that makes content creation easy and can handle a whole lot of different types of content creation.  While it has been thought of as a free hobbyist tool for years, look at the work done by Barnstorm VFX on “Man in the High Castle” to see how far Blender has come.  It’s making it’s way in, and is not a simple hobbyist tool anymore.  This site has lots of tutorials for Blender, as it’s a free gateway into animation for many.

Pixologic ZBrush, while not an animation software, is one of the most used tools in 3D animation.  The digital sculpting, painting, and mesh resolution tools alone make it worth learning.  It’s not for everyone, and as a character animator, you’ll probably never touch it, but it’s good to know of it’s capabilities and how artists use it.

(Adobe) Substance is a procedural texturing tool that is almost everywhere now.  Time will tell what Adobe will now do with it.  For texture artists, it’s a wonderful tool that has a large install base.  It’s worth learning if you want to be in look development.

The Foundry NUKE is one of the most used compositing platforms in the industry.  This is the software that can take all the renders from 3D applications and composite them together into final frames.  It also has some amazing 3D tools as well, and can re-light shots.  If you want to go into compositing, this is the software to learn.

Autodesk Flame is the big dog in finishing visual effects shots.  It’s very niche and pricey, and there are not a whole lot of schools that teach it, but if you want to work on the extreme high end and be close to the glory, this is the platform to learn.  This is a real-time visual effects tool that you can use with a client sitting over your shoulder in an edit suite.  As of the time of this writing, this is the high-end and the big money.  It’s also one of the most exclusive spots to sit in all of visual effects.

Foundry Katana is good to learn if you want to be a lighting artist or work in look development.  This is a pretty high-end piece of software and is pretty niche.  It has a mild learning curve and you can find tutorials online to get you up to speed pretty quickly.

These are the main platforms to learn.  You don’t need to learn all of this to work in the industry of course, but depending on what you want to go into, these are the main pieces of software at the time of this writing to learn, or keep your eyes on.

How to Become a Character Animator

Maybe this is why you clicked on this article in the first place?  This is the rock-star of animation.  This is where you get your name in the credits.  It’s also incredibly difficult to break into, but if you become really good, your competition falls dramatically.

The best and fastest way to learn is probably to enroll in Animation Mentor.  I have no affiliate relationship with them, but it’s a solid program.  I’ve known many who have gone through it and come out with amazingly solid skill in a pretty short time.

If you don’t want to go that route, you can begin with a free program like Blender and either learn Grease Pencil or download a working rig from blendswap, find a video like this one, and practice practice practice.

Don’t become bogged down with all the cool stuff the software can do.  If you want to be a character animator, ONLY FOCUS IN BRINGING A CHARACTER TO LIFE in a believable way.  Learn the 12 principles of animation:

How to Become a VFX Artist

Visual Effects seem to be one of the sexiest parts of movies.  From aliens blowing up the planet and earthquakes bringing down cities, to giant robots fighting things out in space, visual effects (vfx) fill theater seats.  This is the “name in the credits” role, and the one with the most bragging rights outside of being a director or producer.

That said, there are many disciplines in this industry.  You could be a generalist, texture artist, lighting artist, technical director, compositor (one of the most common disciplines), rigger, environmental artist, modeler, character animator, fx animator, character effects artist, rotoscope artist, matchmover, etc…

Below are some of the more common disciplines spelled out in this industry. For this type of work, learning Houdini on the 3D side and Nuke on the 2D side would be wise.

How to Become a Compositor

Compositing, or comp, is a cornerstone of visual effects work.  Since so much of the work is centered on integrating live action “plates” with cgi, the compositors job is essential to the integration of all the elements that make a well executed visual effects shot.  This is often the last stop before the frames are passed on to the vfx editor for finaling.

Good compositing is a skill learned in the trenches.  If you want to go this route, you can begin learning with software like Digital Fusion or Blender, or go the more common paid route with After Effects or Nuke (very expensive for a beginner, but used almost everywhere.)  More important than software though, is a keen eye for lighting and photography.

You need to know how to integrate cgi into real photography, so understanding the latter can really help.  Things in photography like exposure, depth of field, motion blur, grain, lighting, and a hot of other things can help you be the best compositor you can be.

You’ll most likely start off in rotoscoping.  This is a good place to learn the workflow as you’ll be separating images and cutting out parts to hand off to the compositors.  Things like cutting out people, wires, coffee cups left on set, mics, etc…

A great place to start is a program like Photoshop.  Try matching two different images together and make it seamless.  This will teach you a whole world of things that will strengthen your portfolio and skill set.  Cut out part of one image and do everything you can to make it match inside another image.  You’ll learn what can and can’t be combined convincingly.

How to Become a CG Generalist

If you want to become a cg generalist, you need to get pretty darn good at lots of things.  This is a very exciting job as you’ll be doing everything, but it’s also very demanding, and plays better to small studios.  Large studios mostly hire specialists who are the best at their given discipline.

A good place to start with becoming a cg generalist is to get good at 2D and move into 3D.  Get as good as you can in programs like Photoshop and develop your eye.  Then move into the 3rd dimension in a program like Blender.  There are lots of Blender generalist tutorials on this site and on the blenderbinge channel on Youtube, in addition to many others.

Give yourself a whole lot of time.  This is a lifelong learning study.  Start simple and move on from there, and keep a level head about it.  You are trying to learn everything and get to a point where your work is stellar.  This is a difficult task.  Don’t beat yourself up.

How to Become an FX Technical Director (TD)

Being a TD can be a very fun and financially rewarding career.  This is the  job where you bring down cities and do the large destruction shots.  It’s also where you can do small scale effects like fire and smoke, and couch hits, splatters, squibs, etc…

This is a demanding job and you should probably begin learning Houdini.  It also helps to really brush up on your math skills like linear algebra and trigonometry.  While I’ve seen TDs who say they don’t use math, it certainly helps as FX can be very technical in nature, especially because you’re dealing with physics, even if they are calculated by the computer.

The cool thing with this job is that you can deal with fire, smoke, cloth, rigid and soft-body dynamics, feathers, crowds, lightning, sand, and water.  It can be the money shot type stuff, and the more technical and artistic you are, the more you can do, and the better you can become.  You’ll DEFINITELY want to learn Houdini for this type of work going forward.

How to Become a Texture Artist

Texturing is a very artistic discipline where you are painting and applying texture maps and procedural images to models.  It helps to be really good with Photoshop and Substance, and have a keen eye for detail.  You’ll need to understand the technical side of UV mapping and unwrapping geometry as well.  Lately, having a good grasp of procedural texture generation is very helpful.

Being a very artistic discipline, having a strong artistic background can really help.  Learn painting and get good.  While you don’t have to be Picasso, the better you are at creating different styles of 2D art, the better you’ll be at applying that art to 3D models in a believable way.

In addition to this, understanding PBR (physically based rendering) shading will help tremendously, as will understanding the basics of physically based rendering in general.  A good place to learn this is using Cycles and EEVEE in Blender for free.  This will translate directly to learning other renderers like VRay, Arnold, Mantra, Redshift, Octane, and even possibly Hyperion (Disney Feature Animation’s in-house renderer.)

How to Become an Envorinment Artist

Building environments can be very rewarding.  You can work in animation as a layout artist, in video games as a level artist, or use your skills to build virtual worlds for VR and AR.

You’ll want a good skill set that includes painting or photography.  Additionally, you’ll want to be a strong modeler and sculptor, so focus your energy there.  Getting traditional skills really helps at every level, even if you’ve been in the industry a while.

You can learn the craft from many places, but if you want to fast track your skills, I wrote an article here that you might get something out of.  I go over what you need to do for 3D environment creation and recommend a great paid resource that I own and love personally.

Conclusion

Whichever path you choose, you should now have a decent understanding of what it takes go go into the modern animation field.  Whether you want to be a 2D animator or a 3D Generalist, a Compositor or a FX TD, you should understand the very basics of how this industry is organized.  This page and site will grow over time as I add more and more information, so it would benefit you to bookmark it and return from time to time.

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