The value of drawing for 3D animation

Is it important to be able to draw as a 3D character animator?

One question which comes up time and time again amongst those who are thinking of learning animation is “Do I need to be able to draw?”.

Obviously, if your aim is to produce traditional, hand drawn animation, the answer would undoubtably be yes! If, however, you are learning 3D character animation, the answer is a little more nuanced.

My early experience

I had been a keen artist when I was younger and was even interested in hand drawn animation at one point. That was until I discovered just what was involved!

The thought of having to draw 12-24 drawings for each second of animation, each subtly different to the last, all whilst maintaining a solid and consistently drawn character, was just too daunting.

With practice and encouragement, I’m sure I would have been able to do it but, I quickly gave up on the idea, spent less time drawing and, for many years, thought no more about a career in animation.

It wasn’t until a few years after the release of Toy Story, which catapulted 3D animation into the mainstream, that I started to reconsider animation as something I wanted to pursue.

The 3D advantage

Being able to take a character, in 3D, and bring them to life without worrying about keeping my drawings consistent was the real game changer for me. I was hooked and set about learning everything I could.

The problem was, wherever I turned, there were people talking about the importance of having good drawing skills for 3D animation. Indeed, at the time, many studios wanted to see sketchbooks and life drawing portfolios as part of the application process.

When I saw examples of these portfolios, my heart sank. There was no way I could draw that well.

The problem was, many 3D animators had started out as 2D animators. Drawing was still how they planned out their shots and communicated ideas with a director.

I knew that my 3D skills were good but I really needed to brush up on my very rusty drawing skills. I took every opportunity I could to improve but I knew I was still far short of the Disney standard that I aspired to.

Then it came time to find a job, and it was only once I entered the industry that I was able to assess just how important those drawing skills were.

Why you don’t need to be able to draw to animate

The truth is, drawing skills are not the essential for animation that they once were.

The industry has changed over time and there are now many highly skilled animators whose drawing skills are rudimentary at best. Life drawing portfolios are no longer a requirement and hiring decisions are based upon your animation showreel instead.

Whilst drawing used to be the main tool for planning animation prior to jumping into 3D, these days it is just as common for animators to plan their shots by filming live action reference instead.

So, if drawing skills are no longer a requirement, why might you still want to spend time learning to draw?

The benefits of drawing for 3D animation

Whilst you don’t need to be great at drawing, it is still one of the fastest ways to communicate an idea. Since animation is a visual medium, it is often far quicker to make a sketch of something than to describe it with words.

When posing a character in 3D, it is very easy to end up with a weak result since the computer gives us so much for free. When we draw a pose, we get nothing for free and we are forced to make far more conscious decisions, leading to a stronger result.

Connected to this, one of the downsides of relying upon live action reference is that it doesn’t encourage exaggeration. Even when live action is used as a starting point for a performance, drawing can be used as a tool to experiment with exaggerated versions of poses to push your ideas and stylise the end result.

Then, of course, there is the issue that not everything can be planned using live action reference. You might be animating a dinosaur, a dragon, or a character with multiple limbs. Having the ability to make simple drawings can really help to plan your animation in these cases.

Finally, if you ever want to animate characters of your own, having the ability to draw will help you to create designs which are unique and original.

So, is it essential to be able to draw as a 3D character animator? No, not at all, but it certainly doesn’t hurt!

Inbetweens by Into Animation

Other articles you might enjoy: