The creation of a single minute of footage for an animated TV show or movie can take weeks or even months of collaborative work by artists, directors, producers and technicians.
Animation requires patience, and anyone who intends to join the field should consider whether they would enjoy the process of making animation “so that they don’t get bored with it or they don’t get disenchanted with it, but they really love that process,” says Maija Burnett, director of the character animation program at the California Institute of the Arts and assistant dean of its film and video school.
Here is a guide on what it means to be an animator and how to enter the animation field.
What Is an Animator?
The term animator could arguably apply to anyone who is involved with creating the imagery in a cartoon-based motion picture, and it is often used that way.
However, at major animation studios, people with animator job titles are usually responsible for deciding how cartoon characters move and what facial expressions they make. These animators work alongside storyboard artists, character designers and background artists.
What You Need to Enter the Animation Field
Animated feature films can take years to make — often longer than live-action movies. Diligence is a requirement for the animation industry, experts say, and so is the ability to compromise and accept criticism, since solo projects are rare in the field.
“When you work in animation, you get a ton of notes,” says Jeanette Moreno King, president of the Animation Guild Local 839 union and supervising director of “Little Demon,” an animated TV series for adults. “Everybody gets notes — even, the upper executives making decisions are getting notes, down to the PA (i.e. production assistant). So you can’t get too personally attached to anything that you’re working on, because your heart will get broken.”
A detail-oriented disposition is a must for a future animator, experts say. Timothy G. Jones, director of the Academic Media Center at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania — where he is also an assistant professor of media studies — says one exciting aspect of making an animated video is that a filmmaker can exert “granular and detailed control” over what happens in each frame of the video.
“That may appeal to students who may not be able to be as assertive or exercise that control on a film set with a large number of people,” Jones says.
Drawing ability and visual observation skills are crucial qualities to cultivate if you intend to become an animator, experts say.
Burnett says aspiring animators should devote significant time to drawing accurate and interesting pictures based on the movements of real-life models.
“It’s kind of like if you’re a piano player, and you’re playing the scales every day and arpeggios just to get your fingers really in shape,” Burnett explains, noting that animation requires similar hand-eye coordination.
Animation Education and Training
It is possible to get a job within the animation industry without having a degree in animation or a related field if you have an impressive collection of projects, experts say.
“I personally have a master’s degree, but no one cares,” says Jasmine Katatikarn, the CEO and founder of the Academy of Animated Art, a virtual school that offers nondegree programs for aspiring lighting artists in the animation industry. “No one even asks me if I graduated from high school. … Your portfolio speaks for itself.”
A primary benefit of attending an exceptional animation school, experts say, is the opportunity to learn from creative classmates and talented faculty. Strong animation programs usually require students to complete and refine multiple animated videos, which can later be presented to hiring managers at animation studios.
Animation degree programs sometimes focus on a particular type of animation, such as the traditional two-dimensional, hand-drawn type or the computer-enhanced three-dimensional variety. Within the world of computer-generated imagery, or CGI, animation, there are multiple specialties, including 3D modeling, rigging and lighting.
Community college or vocational school animation programs may concentrate on the techniques necessary to do a particular job within the animation industry. Such hyper-focused programs tend to be less expensive and shorter than a more general animation education.
In contrast, degree-granting animation schools tend to offer a wide-ranging curriculum that covers key principles of storytelling within animated videos and also addresses design considerations such as the use of color. These schools usually offer classes on animation software programs and require students to participate in group projects with classmates.
The most common degrees for aspiring animators are Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts degrees. Some animation schools offer Bachelor of Science or Master of Science degrees that focus on the technical side of animation.
Prospective animation students generally need to submit samples of their artwork when they apply, and the quality of that work is a key consideration in the admissions process. Some animation programs routinely reject the majority of applicants. For instance, the Brigham Young University Center For Animation in Utah states on its website that the center typically receives 60 to 75 applications a year and usually accepts 20 to 25 of those applicants.
Here are a few examples of reputable schools that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees in animation and whose alumni often work for major animation studios, including those operated by DreamWorks Animation, the Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros.
— California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts, was founded by the Disney family. Some of the school’s most notable animation degree recipients have received Academy and Emmy Awards, and alumni have frequently been nominated for such prizes.
— Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida has trained more than 15 people who have earned Student Academy Awards, according to its website.
— Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia graduates students who are often invited to present their movies at major film festivals and get high-profile jobs at major TV channels like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, according to the school.
An Overview of Animation Jobs
Animation differs from other creative professions where jobs are scarce and salaries tend to be modest, according to people who have spent decades in the animation industry. Animation is a growing occupation with some lucrative employment options, a powerful labor union that lobbies for high wages and good working conditions, and influential talent agents.
The median salary reported by U.S. special effects artists and animators in May 2021 was $78,790, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which predicts that the number of jobs in this field will be 16% higher in 2030 than it was in 2020 — a growth rate that is double the average among all occupations.
Because animation is often used in advertisements, digital games, educational materials, journalism and medical imagery, demand for animators extends beyond television and movie studios, experts say.
According to Jones, many animators work as freelancers, and they often work remotely from places outside of major metropolitan areas. King notes that animators working on film and television projects are often expected to produce art extremely quickly and sometimes cope with significant stress.
For some people, the fantasy of working in animation is enticing, but the actual experience of an animation job is unsatisfying, King says. “It does take a lot of focus and attention, and it’s really slow-moving, it’s true, and it takes a lot of people to do it. Even people that create shows can’t completely claim their show because it takes so many people to move it.”
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A Guide to Animation Schools and How to Become an Animator originally appeared on usnews.com