If you are interested in character animation but aren't really sure where to begin, this comprehensive introduction offers answers to common questions as well as setting out a clear path to help you get started in the best way possible.
Since this introduction is designed to answer as many common questions as possible, you may wish to jump ahead to relevant sections using the links below.
Animation comes in a wide range of different forms, but the unifying feature is an illusion of movement created from a sequence of still images.
At the simplest level, a flipbook, created by drawing a sequence of images in the corner of the pages of a book is animation.
As we flip the pages of the book, our brain blends the images together and the drawings appear to move smoothly.
The beautifully hand drawn characters of a traditional Disney movie simply take that same flipbook process and elevate it to a high level of artistry.
Whilst the 3D computer animation of a modern Disney or Pixar film requires far more technology, the end result is identical, a sequence of still images is created and then played back quickly enough that our brains perceive smooth motion.
Animation is often broadly categorised as being either 2D or 3D.
As we've already mentioned, the end result, regardless or the method of creation, is always a series of 2D images played back in sequence.
The terms 2D or 3D animation, instead refer to the method or creating those images.
2D animation generally refers to traditional, hand drawn animation, more modern digitally drawn animation, and as well as cut out styles of animation. Of course, much time and effort are often put into creating an illusion of 3D depth within these images, but they still originate from a flat 2D plane.
3D animation refers to either 3D computer animation (also known as CG or CGI) or stop motion puppet animation. In these cases, 2D images are created from a digital or physical 3D source.
The other way that the term 3D is often used is for stereoscopic images, those which can be viewed with 3D glasses. Since a stereoscopic image can be created from either a 2D or 3D animation, it can add an extra layer of confusion to the terminology.
Regardless of the medium, animation is used in a wide range of different areas offering multiple possible career paths.
These are fully animated films of the type created by studios such as Disney or Pixar which are created for cinema or streaming release.
Visual Effects (VFX) Animation
Animation for Visual Effects typically involves animating creatures or characters in a highly realistic style which can fit seamlessly alongside real actors.
Television offers opportunities for both fully animated series work and VFX for live action series. The work and process is very similar to Feature Animation or VFX but with smaller budgets and therefore tighter deadlines.
Commercials are typically produced by smaller studios. These studios can have more opportunities for generalists although character animation is often still done by specialists. Projects can be very creative but they are typically short with tight deadlines.
Animation is required for most PC, console and mobile games. The visual styles and complexity can vary widely and there is a need for both cut-scene and in game animation.
There are ever increasing opportunities to create animation exclusively for online delivery. This might be for YouTube or Social Media channels.
There is also a need for animation in various other areas such as virtual reality, museums, theme parks and attractions, corporate videos, medical simulation or explainer videos.
Motion Graphics is an area of non-narrative animation and can be seen as animated Graphic Design. Motion Graphics is used to varying extents across all of the previously mentioned areas.
Unless you are working on your own, independent, projects, it is more common for an animator to work as part of a team. This is especially true within a professional, studio, environment.
Since 3D animation is a complex artform, people tend to specialise within one part of the production process. This might well be as a character animator but there are many other specialisms available within an animation studio.
The following is a list of some of the common creative roles but, the larger the studio, the more likely it is that they will have additional, unique, specialisms.
Visual Development Artist
Vis Dev Artists are some of the first people involved in a production and, working with drawings and paintings, they help to design the look and feel of the characters and world.
Story artists are the other key people involved at the start of the process. They will typically translate a script into a visual form through storyboard drawings. Whilst it is common to start with a script, this is not always the case and, depending upon the studio, story artists may instead be building the story through drawings without an initial script to work from.
Storyboards are then edited together to form a rough, timed out version of the story with temporary dialogue, music and sound effects added. This is known as an Animatic and it is crucial for helping to visualise a story and ensure it is working before moving into the slower and more costly 3D part of the process.
A character modeller will take the designs from the Visual Development Artists and translate them into 3D. Often, this process will start with 3D sculpting. This allows for rapid iteration whilst the design is finalised before the sculpt goes through a process called retopology to make it ready for the rest of the animation production process.
Whilst some modellers will specialise in characters, others will tackle the props and environments which form the world of the story.
Look Development Artist
Look Dev Artists will take the 3D models and create the surface shaders which define how the models will appear on screen. They might be creating a look which closely mimics the real world to give a photorealistic result or they might be crafting something more stylised, depending upon the needs of the production.
Once a character has been modelled it needs a set of controls in order to be able to animate it. A character rigger will create a skeleton for the character and bind it to the model in a way which deforms convincingly when the controls are moved.
Whilst characters some of the most complex things which need to be animated, any prop or environment element which needs to move will need its own set of controls.
A layout artist is responsible for translating the 2D storyboards into the 3D world. They will place environments, characters, and props, alongside 3D cameras. They will also often add some simple movement to characters and props to ensure that everything will work from the defined camera angles.
Once the layout is complete, it is handed over to the Character Animators. It is their job to add the believable performance which brings the characters to life.
Often, on larger productions, there will be a dedicated team for adding background characters to scenes. This will often involve creating looping animation cycles which can be applied to multiple characters as well as adding more specific animation to background characters.
Effects animators are responsible for the animation of elements such as fire, smoke, water, or explosions. These elements are often highly complex in nature and difficult to animate manually. There will often be a large amount of computer assisted simulation involved but it still needs to be choreographed and stylised to fit with the needs of the story and the look of the production.
Character Effects Artist
A Character Effects Artist also known as a Technical Animator adds an additional layer of detail over the top of an animated character. Typically, this can involve hair, cloth, or muscle simulation. These are all elements which are too complex or time consuming to animate manually but add an extra layer of believability to the end result. As with effects animation, any computer simulation used here will often need to be adjusted and stylised to create the desired result.
Once the animation is complete, it needs lights to be added. This is where the final image starts to take shape. Lighting is not simply about ensuring that everything can be seen clearly. Instead, it is used as a story telling tool, to help direct the eye of the audience and set the mood of a scene. Often, lighting artists will work with colour keys, paintings created by the Visual Development Artists, which define the look of the lighting throughout the story.
Once the lighting is complete, the scene can be rendered. This is the part of the process where the computer applies all the surface detail and lighting information to create a final sequence of high-resolution images.
In order to increase efficiency, it is common for different elements within a scene to be rendered individually. It is then during the compositing process that all of these elements are brought back together and fine-tuned in order to create the final image.
Not only will there often be separate renders (known as passes) for the characters, props, and environment, there will likely be additional passes which only contain certain lighting information such as the shadows.
It is far easier to fine-tune the look of the final image in compositing, where each of the render passes can be adjusted individually, than within the 3D scene. It is also in compositing that additional 2D effects might be added to enhance the result.
Whilst the editor has been listed towards the end here, in truth, they will be part of the process from beginning to end and they have an essential role in helping to shape the story.
The editor will assemble the first Animatic and will then piece together the final production by continually updating the edit with work in progress shots and fine-tuning and finessing things all the way to the end.
The Director is the person who steers the creative side of the production. Sometimes the story will be written by the Director but, even if it is not, it is their vision of the story that the rest of team will aim to bring to life.
Whilst it is not a hard and fast rule, in animation, it is common for a Director to have worked as either an animator or a story artist before making the move to directing.
In many studios it is common to find roles called Technical Director or TD for short. These might be Lighting TD’s, Rigging TD’s or Effects TD’s, for example. The Director part of the job title does not, in this case, signify a more senior position.
The term Technical Director is used to denote some of the more technical roles in the production process and TD’s will commonly have a mix of both artistic and technical skills. In some studios the title might be interchangeable with Artist whilst other studios might have TD’s working alongside Artists in the same department.
Whilst larger studios will typically only employ specialists in each of the various disciplines, it is not uncommon for small studios to have roles for Generalists. These are people who have some level of knowledge across the entire production process. Even with generalist roles, it is still quite common for individuals to have one or two disciplines in which they excel, whist maintaining enough knowledge of others to be able to turn their hand to whatever the studio might need help with.
There are a number of different 3D applications which have the ability to be used for character animation but there are only two main applications which I would recommend.
Maya is the industry standard application for 3D animation. It is not used in every studio but it is so widely used that you will almost certainly find yourself using it during your career.
If you already have access to it, and intend to work professionally in a studio, then it is the most sensible choice.
The main reason that I don’t recommend it exclusively, and don’t use it for Into Animation classes, is the cost. It is extremely expensive.
Blender is a powerful 3D application which is more than capable of producing high quality results. It has everything that you need to start learning animation and the best part of all is that it’s free.
If you are learning animation to create personal projects then there is no reason to consider any other software. For anyone learning animation with the hope of working in a studio, this is still my number one recommendation to get started.
I explain more about my recommendations in the article “Which software should you learn for 3D animation?”.
When you are just getting started in 3D animation, my recommendation would be to simply use whatever computer you have available.
By the time you know whether animation is something you would like to pursue seriously, you will already have a good idea about the strengths or weaknesses of your existing hardware.
Blender, the main animation software that I recommended, has the benefit of being cross-platform, working on PC, Mac, or Linux. It will also work perfectly well for animation on very modest hardware.
The current hardware recommendations from Blender’s website are:
64-bit quad core CPU with SSE2 support
8 GB RAM
Full HD display
Mouse, trackpad or pen+tablet
Graphics card with 2 GB RAM, OpenGL 4.3
Less than 10 year old
64-bit eight core CPU
32 GB RAM
Three button mouse or pen+tablet
Graphics card with 8 GB RAM
Beyond this, the only additional recommendations I would give are to use a keyboard with a numpad and a three button mouse. Whilst these are technically not essential, they will make using Blender much easier.
Once you’ve decided that you’d like to learn 3D Character Animation, the next question is how should you go about it?
The answer will depend upon a number of factors including the time you have available, your budget, and whether your aim is to make animation your career or your hobby.
There are three main possible routes that you could take.
A degree is often the path that people will choose when they have decided to make animation their career.
The important thing to note is that an animation degree is not a requirement to work in the industry and many degrees do not sufficiently prepare students to work in the industry. Often students will need to budget for additional training after graduating to become industry ready.
Studying for a degree not only requires a big time commitment (typically 3 or 4 years) but, depending upon where you live in the world, a degree can be extremely expensive. The tuition fees for CalArts, one of the top American animation schools, are currently $52,850 per year.
One benefit of a degree course is that you will have time to explore all of the different roles within an animation production, perhaps discovering that your interests lie somewhere different to where you first thought. You will typically spend time working on short films. This experience can be invaluable to give you a more rounded filmmaking knowledge which may help in your career.
There are various pros and cons when it comes to studying for a degree which are explored more in the article "Do you need a degree for animation?".
For those who are committed to making animation their career, there are a number of online schools offering mentored animation courses. These animation programmes typically last around 18 months and provide mentorship from animators who work at some of the top studios in the industry.
These courses are highly focussed on getting you industry ready. You’ll learn to animate really well but will not get the breadth of animation knowledge that you might from a degree course.
Mentored Online Schools are often chosen by those who have already taken a degree in animation and have found that they do not yet have the skill level required to break into the industry.
Depending upon where you live, Mentored Online Schools might be more or less expensive than a Degree but typically cost around $13,000-$15,000 for 18 months.
For those who do not have the budget for the previous options, or maybe have specific goals in mind, self directed learning becomes the obvious path.
This might include reading animation books, searching for free tutorials, or taking self paced animation courses.
This approach provides the flexibility to build your own, bespoke, curriculum, tailored to your specific goals. There are also no term start dates or fixed deadlines, so you are free to study at your own pace. You could learn full time, or fit it in around a full time job.
Self directed learning also works well as a complement to a degree where it can help to round out your skills or knowledge in areas that the degree course might be lacking.
Obviously this path is not for everyone, the lack of structure can make it hard to focus or know how best to spend your time. It can be hard to find reliable sources of information and self directed learning often lacks the direct support you might get from a degree course or a mentor.
Into Animation was built to help address these issues and provide a viable alternative to expensive degrees and mentored courses.
When embarking on a self directed approach to learning animation, the first problem is understanding what you need to learn and in what order you should learn it.
The Into Animation Curriculum has been designed to provide a simple core pathway formed of three sections, Foundations, Mechanics, and Performance, where each class builds upon the last.
In addition, Elective classes can be taken, at any stage, to supplement your knowledge.
You’ll start out by learning the software essentials you’ll need as a base for the rest of your study.
Once you’ve learnt the software, you’ll move on to study the core animation principles that form the foundation of everything else you’ll learn.
The next crucial stage of learning animation is focussing on body mechanics. This is where you’ll learn to pose characters, walk, run, jump, push, pull, and lift heavy objects.
Whilst we’ll start to layer in personality and performance to these exercises, the main objective is to understand and become proficient at moving characters around in a believable way.
Performance is where the magic really happens.
Once you have a solid grounding in the principles of animation and body mechanics, you can start to layer a performance on top. This is where we really start to create believable and engaging characters.
This is where we create the illusion of life.
Elective classes have been designed to round out your animation knowledge.
The Into the Ocean series of classes can be taken at any time and will give you an insight into the full animation production process. You’ll learn how to design, model, rig, animate, light, and render your own characters.
If your aim is to work as a character animator in a studio, having some knowledge of the full production process can be really useful.
Future elective classes will cover career related topics such as building a showreel and applying to animation studios.
When it comes to learning animation, there are two books which I would recommend above all others.
The Illusion of Life
by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston
This book by two legends of Disney animation is where the 12 Principles of Animation were first, formally, written down and made available outside of the Disney studio.
Beyond that the book is a treasure trove of both animation history and knowledge that you can keep coming back to throughout your career.
The Animator’s Survival Kit
by Richard Williams
This is an excellent guide to learning the mechanics of animation and can be found on the desks of many animators working in the industry.
You can read more about why I recommend this book in the article "Learning the mechanics of animation".
If you’re ready to learn the art of 3D Character Animation, get started with your first class today!Choose a class