Written by 4:32 pm Animation

How to become an animator (written by a film animator)

how to become an animator

Once upon a time it was me who was thinking “how do I become an animator??”, so I thought I’d write to you about how I did it. I’ll be explaining the different ways I and some of my colleagues became animators through this article. For those of you that don’t already know, I’ll also explain what us animators actually do. I’m also going to tell you some other things like how to become an animator without college, what animators earn and how much it costs to become an animator… and of course what education is needed to become an animator.

There’s a lot to cover on the different things that in my opinion lead one to becoming an animator, so let’s get to it. Below, I’ve prepared a table of contents incase you want to skip through the article to something specific. This is a long post and I’ve tried to cover everything that I think it’s important for you to know.

πŸš€ To read the article more quickly, you can focus on the things I wrote in orange boxes, like this one.

Table of contents

  1. My background to becoming an animator.
  2. What do animators do?
  3. What do animators use to animate?
  4. What do animators need to know? (12 principles of animation)
  5. What do animators earn?
  6. How to become an animator
    1. How long does it take to become an animator?
    2. How competitive is it to become an animator?
    3. How do you stand out?
  7. What education is needed to become an animator?
    1. How to become an animator without college
    2. What it’s like to study at an online animation school
    3. How much does it cost to become an animator?
  8. How to get a job as an animator
    1. Where do animators work?
    2. What do animators do between projects?
  9. The pros and cons of being an animator
  10. Summary and steps to becoming an animator.

My background to becoming an animator

David Talloy Thomas - Animator

I originally started thinking of how to become an animator in around 2009, while I was still at University studying illustration and graphics. As I’m writing this, it’s been 12 years since then and now five films and one television series into my career, it’s easy for me to forget that once upon a time I wasn’t an animator.

David Talloy Thomas - Animator

Quicker intro: I’m David Thomas – a Welsh (British) Feature Film Animator working in France. Studios I’ve worked at include Illumination Mac Guff, Mac Guff Ligne, Mikros and Fortiche. This is my IMDb 🎬 and you can find my showreel here.

I’ll be your guide for this article and will be relating to both my own career and those of some of my friends in the industry.

I didn’t actually go to college to become an animator and I’ll get to that a bit further down. It took me quite a while to figure out how to get a job as an animator but when I finally did, it was SO worth all the effort and time I put in.

The initial error I made in my early years of trying to figure out how to become an animator is that I wasn’t specific enough about what I wanted to do. I thought… “maybe I’ll do 2D, maybe I’ll do a bit of 3D, games… motion graphics”. Thinking that I wanted to be an animator wasn’t enough, I had to narrow it down. Eventually I started thinking about how to become a 3D Animator and that’s when I was finally able to plan something out. From deciding I wanted to be a 3D Animator, I narrowed down my goal to character animation in feature film and television.

What films etc have I worked on and at which studios

At the time of writing (2021), I’m a mid-level animator with a few films under my belt. Just to give you some context and background to my career, these are some of the projects I worked on so far. Some were directly on the films, others were for marketing and short films (indicated):

  • 2015/2016 – The Secret Life Of Pets – Crowds – (Illumination Mac Guff)
  • 2016 – Sing – Marketing & Short films – not film (Illumination Mac Guff)
  • 2017 – Despicable Me 3 – Marketing – not film (Illumination Mac Guff)
  • 2017/2018 Sherlock Gnomes – Main – (Mikros Image France)
  • 2018/2019 Spycies – Main – (Jungler)
  • 2018/2019 Sam Sam – Main – (Mac Guff Ligne)
  • 2020/2021 Arcane – Main – (Fortiche Productions)

πŸ‘†It’s possible I’ll forget to update this list in the future, if I do πŸ‘‰ my IMDb profile is here.

In the credits of films etc, you’ll usually see me as either “David Talloy” or “David Talloy Thomas”. Thomas is my real surname, Talloy is something I use so people can find me on the internet more easily. Why do that? Well I like my real name… but there are millions of people called David Thomas, it’s a very common name.

Welsh Animator in France
Fun Fact: After I drew this, my French wife said “Nooo don’t make the sheep sad!” πŸ‘ – She didn’t get the joke and I didn’t explain it to her… it’s better that way.

✈️ Like me, you may have to move country in order to become an animator, particularly if you want to work on feature films. I’m Welsh and grew up in the UK. I lived for a brief time in both England and Germany but have spent my entire Animation career in France (where I now live permanently).

I know and work with a lot of other feature film animators who have worked at places such as Framestore, Locksmith, Sony Pictures, Disney as well as others. Through my own experiences and those described to me by many of my colleagues, I have a pretty good understanding of the industry.

So… what do animators do?

This is how we all wish it worked (featuring the character design of TOTS – an iAnimate 3D rig I used to use).

Basic start… but this is necessary! If you already know what animators do, you can skip to the section on how to become one by clicking here. However if you’re thinking that you want to become an animator, it’s probably a good idea that you understand what that actually means.

πŸš€ Quicker Explanation: Character animators like me are responsible for representing movement and emotions in Animated Films, TV Shows, Ads and Games. We do this by animating puppets (digital or physical) or by drawing sequences of images. We don’t model or rig the characters, we are usually only in charge of creating movement.

When I talk about what animators do, I’m referring to Character Animators. Character Animators like me are the ones who move characters around in the films and television programs you watch*. Animators use progressive still images and poses to give the illusion of movement. Indeed there is a famous book that the Walt Disney company created called ‘The Illusion of Life’. The Illusion of Life is an excellent way to describe what animators do. Our job is to make you believe for a moment that the thing you are watching on screen is alive.

Animators like me use 3D software and models built by other artists. We take the models that our colleagues in other departments make and we move them around. Usually in film and television, we work at 24 frames per second. That means for every second on the screen that you watch, we created 24 images. We usually work out these 24 images gradually in blocks, so we don’t make them all at once to begin with (I’ll explain more further down).

3D Character models usually have hundreds of controllers. As character animators, it’s our job to use those controls to breath life into the character. Each controller we use can have up to nine or more different attributes, so the amount of data that 3D Animators like me work with is gigantic. Our 3D software helps us make sense of the hundreds, thousands of different values and variables that are driving our character’s movements.

* I am a film and television animator. Character animation can also refer to those who work on games, the cinematic scenes within games, as well as those who animate characters for advertisements.

What animators do on a daily basis

Being an animator can mean different things depending on what department you’re in and which kind of project. The following things are what feature film animators are doing day-to-day.

  • Record themselves acting out scenes so that they can use the footage as a reference while animating.
  • Pose characters.
  • Make animation cycles that can be reused by other animators.
  • Move their characters around.
  • If they’re 3D Animators they might draw sometimes to help them “figure out a pose”. If they’re 2D Animators, they’ll be drawing constantly.
  • Have meetings with their supervisors / directors.
  • Drink an obscene amount of coffee.

What animators DON’T usually do

Character animators like me are usually specialists. We usually only focus on character movement and acting, not on character creation. There are smaller studios where you’d be able to be a generalist… but that isn’t how it works at large studios. This is a short list of what animators don’t usually do.

  • Design characters.
  • Model and rig characters.
  • Draw storyboards.
  • Do voice acting.
  • Code tools for their studio.*
  • Direct the movie.*
  • Dislike coffee.**

It’s always good to have a general understanding of this stuff but understand that if you’re figuring out how to become an animator, that should be your one goal. Spending too much time on these other things will take precious time away from your education in animation.

* There are animators who code their own tools and direct movies but this is the exception rather than the norm. Animators who code their own tools aren’t unheard of (I make some tools for myself… but it isn’t very common for animators to code tools that everybody uses). Usually a different specialist does that. All that said, I do know a few animators who have coded tools that the entire team used.

** There are some animators I know who dislike coffee. Approach these people with caution… we don’t fully understand them yet.

How a 3D animation begins and ends

how a 3d animation begins and ends

I already told you that most animators create 24 images per second of animation. It isn’t quite as simple as that though. We start much smaller.

πŸš€ Quicker explanation: 3D Animators often go through the following stages from start to finish while animating a shot.

  • Preparation / planning (can include drawing and filming reference footage).
  • Blocking – Most important poses of characters through shot.
  • Splining – Adding the extra images to make motion fluid.
  • Polish – Final corrections and retakes.

Stage 1 – Reference footage / thumbnailing

The first thing most of us usually do is record video footage of ourselves acting out the scene. We use this video footage as a reference for what we animate (we don’t literally copy it though). Reference footage is especially useful if our director needs to see the idea in advance and also if we need to animate in a realistic style.

Some animators prefer to thumbnail drawings instead. I sometimes do this if my project is very cartoony and doesn’t require a lot of realistic subtlety. Occasionally I also use thumbnails as a preliminary stage to taking reference footage.

We’re not talking about mo-cap in this article – but some animators have to use that first too.

Stage 2 – Golden poses / Blocking

After we have recorded ourselves performing whatever action we want our character to or have thumbnail out the shot, we create ‘golden poses’. Golden poses are the essential story-telling poses of our scene. So if I have 24 images in a one second clip, I might only actually make 2 images to begin with. These two images are the most important images in my animation and I will usually spend the longest on those particular frames of the video.

Some animators don’t do golden poses and go straight into blocking. Blocking is essentially the same, except there is less emphasis on story telling poses. With blocking, we might simply be creating images of the most important stages of a movement. So golden poses = story telling poses. Blocking = essential poses in a movement. Many animators refer to both stages as “blocking”.

Stage 3 – Spline

Stage 1 and 2 are usually the fun parts of doing any animation. ‘Spline’ can be fun too but in that stage most animators will be beginning to problem solve a lot and figuring out how to make technical movements work.

After the director has approved our ‘blocking’, us animators then create all of the other images that will fill in our one second video so that when you watch it, the motion flows together organically, as if real.

The 3D Animation software that computer animators use can interpolate between our posed images and we use motion graphs to control some of that. Motion graphs work with numeric values and literally look like graphs. Each direction a controller moves (usually 3) and each 3 axis of rotation and scale is controlled by a separate set of numerical values that change over time. Even though we use motion graphs, most often we still control and craft the majority of the 24 images you see in one second of animation. It takes a long time.

Stage 4 – Polish and approval

In school, we call stage 4 ‘polish’ because ideally, that’s all you want to be doing in this final stage. In reality, this stage is often intermixed with retakes, changes in direction and backtracking to previous stages. Sometimes, I like to call it “retake hell”. Even in school, it would be a far cry to call ‘polish’ a fun stage. Often the changes that are made in polish are very necessary but they also feel painful to do, particularly if the animation process has already been very long.

Sometimes retake hell doesn’t last long and on rare instances, we might actually not have any retakes at all and can just polish to our little heart’s content. Those are the good days.


As any animator reading this will know, there is a HUGE amount of work that goes into all of what I just described and there are some things I have left out for the sake of simplicity. Understanding what I just told you should give you a good idea of how a 3D animation begins and ends though.

how an animation begins and ends

How long does it take to make an animation?

After your time as a student, when you’re getting started as a professional animator, you will quickly realise that shots take more work to finish in a professional setting. As a student it is usually you or at least a limited number of people who are in charge of making decisions about your project. In a real animation studio there are lots of different people in the approval process, which can often result in more effort and work on your shots.

πŸš€ Quicker explanation: Film, TV and Advertisement typically have different quotas (seconds per week) for animation.

The lower the quota, the higher the quality. That’s why films have such low quota. However the overall amount of work on film projects can still be higher.


Film quotas: Can be 3.6 – 10 seconds per week.

Television & Ad quotas: 10 – 60 seconds per week.

Each individual project and studio will have their own quotas for animation. I’ve worked on shows that required 3.5 seconds per week, 1 second per day and also one where I had to do 3.5 seconds per day. Feature films usually have the most generous quotas. In television studios, sometimes animators can have as much as 12 seconds per day to finish. I’m a feature animator though so I’m not going to reflect too much on television.

While it may seem surprising that us feature film animators get so long to make our animation, this isn’t actually much time for all the work we do. Many animators like me have to do overtime occasionally because of the huge amount of work it is to make a feature quality animation. Depending on the intended quality, the amount of time an animator has to work will increase or decrease.

I actually prefer a quota that’s somewhere between 1 – 2 seconds per day. If I have too long to work on an animation, I can become bored and restless towards the end, whereas if I don’t have enough time to finish the animation as I like, that can be frustrating too! It’s a difficult balance and each animator will have his or her own preferred speed of working. I prefer being able to work quickly but still to a very decent and polished level. Ultimately though, all of us have to adapt to each project we work on.

How long would it take to animate a feature film alone?

Someone who has never worked as an animator before might not be able to imagine how long it takes to make a feature quality animation. Each film studio has their own quota but as a fun (and ridiculous) example, I am going to imagine how long it would take for one person to make one of the films I have worked on.

At a famous studio I worked at, the quota for animation was around 3.6 seconds per week. One of the most successful animated movies they made was 86 minutes long. So let’s do some math.

86 minutes in seconds is 5160.
Without holidays we’d do 5160 seconds in about 1433 weeks.
There are about 52 weeks in a year so that means it’d take us 27 and a half years.

πŸš€ Quicker Explanation: It would take one animator at least 27 years just to animate the main characters for the highest quality feature film. In reality… I think most people will agree it’s impossible.

27 and a half years to make 86 minutes of animation. This is discounting the fact that we’d need a lot of experience before starting, we’d have to never tire and have to not go crazy. This isn’t including the amount of time it would take to animate the characters in crowds behind the main characters either.

If a studio wanted to animate a film like the one I’m describing in one year, they’d need at least 28 animators just in the main characters department. The reality is that they’d need more than that at certain stages of the project, because animation isn’t a clean, one way street. Sequences get trashed, parts of the story sometimes have to be rewritten, one animation might mean another has to change. A studio needs enough animators to be flexible without making the film too late. If we count the crowd and technical animation departments, the real number of animators is much higher. Some animators also work in the layout department before getting into animation specific roles.

What do animators use to animate?

what animators use to animate

I work in 3D Character Animation, so I’m going to go through some of the software and tools we use to animate first. If you want to learn how to become a 3D animator, you’re going to need to become proficient in at least some of this stuff. Being an animator means more than just the software and tools that you know how to learn though. The most important thing is your knowledge and skill level in the principles of animation and acting.

My illustration above is very simplified but it shows some of the things animators use. I’ll go into a little bit more explanation for some things in case that interests you…

Of the essential things

Cameras – It is advisable that all animators use video footage of one kind or another to reference while they animate their characters. Occasionally animators also use photos or drawings do reference poses in their animation.

Mirrors – Animators sometimes use mirrors to figure out facial poses while they work. For example if we want to work on a specific smile and we’re struggling to get a nice pose, we might take our mirror and look at ourselves with the facial expression we’re trying to achieve. Some animators also use mirrors to ‘flip’ images of their pose horizontally quickly. It’s a method many artists use to see their work with fresh eyes. Not all animators use mirrors often but in my opinion, they are underrated tools.

Headphones – When animators have shots with dialogue, they have to listen to that dialogue repeatedly and even play it in slow motion as they check the individual frames of their animation. In a studio environment, if all animators played audio through speakers it would be a mess. If I didn’t use headphones at home, my wife would probably end up killing me.

The things that some animators use

There are many things that vary between project, animator, studio, yet these things can be used no matter what form of animation one works on.

Graphics tablets and Cintiques – The majority of 3D Animators I work with use graphics tablets. I myself use one and the reason is to avoid tendonitis. I also draw on my screen sometimes while figuring out poses and spacing, for that a graphics tablet is very useful. 2D animators are obviously among those for whom graphics tablets and even cyntiques (graphics tablets with screens) are even more essential.

Pencils / pens – I could have included ‘sketchbook or notepad’ along with this. Whenever I start at a new animation studio, a pen and pad of paper are usually among the first things I ask for. I use notepads to draw the poses I want to create for my animation and I also use them to write down a lot of notes given to me by supervisors and directors. Again, for 2D animators physical tools like this can be even more essential.

Mac – I use Apple computers a lot at home because I prefer them. They aren’t the best to run 3D software like Autodesk Maya on however and I’ve had more problems using Maya with Apple computers than with any other operating system. 2D Animators and Stop Motion Animators may use Apple computers more than professional 3D Animators do.

Windows – Along with Linux, Windows is one of the most common operating systems I see used at animation studios. I actually keep an old Windows computer at home just for when I need to work remotely, because often even the remote software that such studios use is specific to Windows.

Linux – As I already mentioned, Linux is another common operating system I see used at animation studios. It’s usually the bigger studios that use Linux because it means that they also need a very good IT department to support it. I tried installing Linux on my home computer once to see if I could get a ‘studio setup’ at home. It was a huge failure because Linux as an operating system requires a lot of technical knowledge that most of us just don’t have. In animation studios though… it usually works great.

The more specific tools

3D software is sometimes used by 2D Animators, stop motion animators and there are other specific tools that crossover occasionally. I’ve separated them into categories according to to whom the tools are most often assigned.

Software that professional 3D Animators usually use

Autodesk Maya is by far the most widely used piece of animation software for professional character animation. I’ve used it in every single film and television job I’ve ever worked. Autodesk Maya is so widely used that this is what all good character animation schools will train you in.

Blender is another piece of animation software I have heard some of my colleagues work with on some projects. Blender is open source, meaning it is free but it doesn’t quite have the toolset or massive amount of plugins that Maya has. It’s becoming more and more popular though, so I think it will one day be important for 3D Animators to know how to use it.

Cinema 4D is actually the first animation software I used to work professionally. I was working as a graphic designer at the time and they asked me to create an animation with it. I have a friend who has also used Cinema 4D to create some advertisements, so although it’s less used than others, professional animators still use it.

Autodesk 3DS Max is another very popular 3D animation software. This one is more used for games. I actually used it a little bit as a student.

What do animators use to draw?

Every studio I have worked at has used both Wacom Intuos tablets and Wacom Cintiques. I actually have a Wacom Intuos at home too because it’s so essential to how I work as an animator. Both 3D Animators and traditional animators use graphics tablets to draw on the computer. 3D Animators don’t draw as much as traditional animators do but many of us still use graphics tablets to avoid getting sore wrists. I have tendonitis for example, so I have to use a graphics tablet.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: Most animators I know use Wacom tablets and Cintiques.

There are a lot of other brands like Huion and XP-Pen but if you want to use the same stuff that professional animators do… get a Wacom. I’ve tried one or two other brands before and they’re never as good.

For this website I also sometimes use an iPad to draw the cartoons. There is animation software you can get for the iPad to create your own drawn animations. For example, Callipeg is a really nice one I’ve been having fun with recently. I’m probably going to use my iPad to plan some shots out in the future.

If you’re wondering what traditional pencils animators use… we just use normal graphite pencils like any other artist would. Traditional animators tend to have more specific brands they go to and they often use blue pencils when mapping out their drawings too.

Traditional, casual and stop motion tools

Animation can be made with something as simple as a stack of paper and a pen. Stop motion animators will use clay models and armatures (I worked with Animas Film in Berlin as an intern for example and watched the huge amount of work that goes into making stop motion puppets). Traditional animators will use traditional tools like paper, animation pegs and pens/pencils, however a lot of traditional animators now use software too.

If you’re wondering how to become an animator in 2D or stop motion, then you should definitely search out some articles written by professionals that specialise in those industries. I’m still going to give you a very brief overview of some of the things that animators like that use.

Stop motion software:

Stop motion animators often use cameras, backgrounds, special wire armatures (that they sometimes make themselves) and they use image capture software to record each frame of their animation. These are some examples of the software they use.

iStopMotion (Mac OS) is a piece of software I used to use as a student when I experimented with stop motion animation. It can be used professionally and if you want to mess around with stop motion on a Mac then I highly recommend it.

Dragonframe (Win, Mac, Linux) is a professional stop motion software and while I haven’t used it myself, it seems to be a top choice among professional stop motion animators.

There are other software people use too. There are also casual applications you can use on mobile phones, for example I’ve been having some fun recently with an application called Stop Motion Studio Pro (by Cateater) on my iPhone.

Traditional animation software

When I say traditional animation software, I mean software where it’s possible to draw directly into the program to animate.

Studio Paint is a popular hand drawn animation application. I’ve used it myself a little bit while in University actually and it’s really nice. This is the one you’d want if you were going for a really traditional style 2D Animation.

Toon Boom is another very popular option, though it’s more for a modern style 2D Animation than a very traditional one (though you can use it for that too).

Adobe Animate is a slightly newer option and I’ve heard good things about that. I’ve been a big fan of Adobe products for decades (which makes me feel old right about now…).

Moho Animation is another professional one that I’ve seen a lot of people talking about using. It seems like a really nice option and while I haven’t used it myself yet, I might try to test it out one day because it looks great.

Flipbook is another 2D software I’ve used, though honestly I don’t like it, for me it seems way too basic. I have used it for planning out my 3D shots occasionally though. Jason Ryan from iAnimate uses it a lot for planning animations too.

What do animators need to know and what are the 12 principles of animation?

12 principles of animation

Becoming an animator isn’t simply the accumulation of knowledge. Learning the essential concepts of animation is easy, it’s the application of that knowledge that takes much longer to master. Nevertheless, I think it’s useful if I briefly touch on some essential concepts that all animators need to know.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: At minimum, animators need to know the 12 principles of animation, basic acting concepts, technical things like software and also some understanding of how a pipeline at a studio works. It’s not just about knowing, it’s about being able to apply that knowledge – which takes much longer to master than many students and juniors think.

The 12 principles of animation are classical categories of knowledge and practice that all animators need to learn. In my opinion we also need to add “acting” to that essential list, which is why I have listed 13 things below instead of 12. Animators don’t need to learn to become professional actors but we do need to learn about acting more now than we would have had to in the past. The reason that the 12 principles of animation are still so famous and talked about is that two of the most respected Disney Animators from the golden age of animation created them. The 12 principles are tried-and-tested. People have been becoming animators with these for longer than most of us have been alive.

The 12 principles of animation are:

  1. Squash and stretch.
  2. Anticipation.
  3. Staging.
  4. Straight ahead vs pose to pose.
  5. Follow through / overlap.
  6. Ease-in and ease-out.
  7. Arcs.
  8. Secondary action.
  9. Timing.
  10. Exaggeration.
  11. Solid posing (previously known as solid drawing).
  12. Appeal.
  13. Acting (bonus category).

All good animators know what each one of those things mean and also know how to use them to their advantage. I’m not going to explain them all in this article because that’s getting more into specifics. I will talk about the 12 – 13 principles in a future article.

Just know that these 13 principles aren’t the only things that you need to know as a professional character animator. There are many more rules and specific things you need to know. Each of the 13 principles is broken down into further smaller pieces and entire books have been dedicated to many. For example, you need to know what a reversal is, a flat vs curve and you need to know what it means to avoid tangents. There is a huge amount of knowledge and practice that is behind becoming an animator, so if you like learning things… you’re in luck.

These essential principles can take an extremely long time to master. I repeat this only because I didn’t personally understand that when I started out in animation. I thought I could learn all the 12 principles and master them within a couple of years. This attitude I had as a student is hilarious to me now, because most animators will be chasing mastery in these 12 – 13 animation skills for their entire lives.

What do animators earn?

Becoming an animator should be about your passion and drive for this industry rather than the money behind it. However I understand that it’s still useful to have some kind of idea about it. Instead of actual monetary values, I will be giving you percentages based on the national minimum wage of France. This is for two reasons… one is that this is only to give you an idea and secondly, not all of you will have the same currency as me.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: 3D Animators aren’t especially rich people but we live comfortably enough.

You can earn between 25 – 60% above the national minimum wage (in France). It depends on your experience, position and ability. You start at the lower end and with supervisory roles can earn the higher amount (or sometimes even more).

Your salary as an animator will really vary depending on where you are from and what kind of role and animation you’re in. In Paris (France), I and most of the other feature film animators I know got started on a salary 25 – 30% above the national minimum wage. After one or two years, most of us were at about 40% above the minimum wage. By the time I got to +40%, it became easier to afford rent etc, however when I first started out at +25% the salary felt a little low compared to the living costs.

In other areas of France (outside the capital), the salary often drops, because salaries are to some extent determined by living costs. Living in Paris is expensive, so don’t assume that moving there equals more money in your pocket. It’s the same thing with London or LA. Capital city = expensive rent, expensive bars and expensive food. Always check living costs before interviews in a new city/country, because some salary negotiators can take advantage of your ignorance. If you earn 20% more in a capital city but it costs 30% more to live there for example… maybe you’re going to need to think on it.

πŸ’° Bonuses – Not many places give bonuses here in France. Sometimes studios have bonuses that are relational to the box office success of the film you worked on. If you go to work at a studio that does bonuses, always make sure you still have a decent salary without the bonus, because box office success is not always guaranteed.

Obviously I’m not comfortable just blurting out my current salary to everyone on the internet. Just know that as you get more experience and as your showreel grows, your salary also increases. Your salary can increase from one project to the next but moving studio often helps too. If you stay at the same studio, you usually have to wait until the end of projects to ask for raises or at least wait 18 months. As you become a mid-level and senior animator, your raises in salary can slow down and occasionally stop.


How to become an animator

Alright so now that you know what an animator does, what an animator uses and what kinds of things we do to make our animations. If you read the previous section you also know how long we work on our animations for and roughly how much we earn. So do you still want to become an animator? Good! Let’s continue.

How long does it take to become an animator?

2 years to become an animator

Getting started as an animator for me was a long process that took two years and lots of effort to achieve but I’m so glad I put all that time in. It takes some people three years because of different course structures. Some people who didn’t take a specialised enough course (or those who need more education time after University) can require even more years than that. But for me personally, it took me 2 years to become an animator.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: Most people I know (including myself) needed at least 2 years before we got our first job. It’s not just about the amount of hours you put in, it’s also about the focus you have on animation and the quality of the mentorship you have.

Keep in mind I had also spent one year at art college, three years at a University that taught illustration and I had also worked in graphic / web design for 2 years. By the time I started properly studying animation, I had already been studying and practicing art for 6 years.

How competitive it is to become an animator

In order to be an animator, you need to be really good at animating. That should be obvious but I think you need to understand how competitive it really is to become an animator. I mean… you need to be really REALLY good. Getting started in animation will take you a lot of work and there are lots of people trying to get into the same small job market as you.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: If you want to be a feature film animator, it will feel very competitive because there are far more animators who want to get in than there is space available. For TV, Games and advertisements it can be less competitive but you still need to be very good. There are lots of animators in the World!

Animation is a job that thousands of people want and you have to compete with animators from all over the World because we travel A LOT for work. I’m originally from the UK but I moved to France because that’s where the work I wanted to do was. Now that I’m here, I’m around all sorts of nationalities. French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Polish, American, Canadian… the list goes on.

Animation studios won’t just hire you because you happen to be in the same city as them. They want the BEST animators… and only the best animators. If the studio nearest you thinks that someone in this country or that country is a kick-ass animator, they’ll likely hire them. Taxes, visas etc are of course a concern but just know… animation studios don’t really care where the talent comes from, they just want the best.

Do you know how many students go through animation schools every year? THOUSANDS. There are hundreds of people taking courses right now at the school I went to for example (iAnimate). Only a small selection of the animators studying right now will become professional animators and only a small proportion of those lucky ones will ever work on films. That’s how competitive animation is.

Becoming an animator is certainly possible for you but just know… you have to work for it!

So how do you stand out from the all the other animators?

When I studied animation from 2012 to 2014, I worked like crazy. Sometimes I did 90 hour weeks. Seriously, I would often work on my animation assignments from the moment I woke up for over 12 hours, until the moment where I was so tired that I couldn’t keep going. I worked at it obsessively and it actually cost me relationships. I don’t recommend doing 90 hours per week because to be honest, I burnt out a bit occasionally – and it’s counterproductive to spend time burning out.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: You have to put more focus, dedication and effort in than the average student would. However unfair it seems, there is very little room for average in this industry. You need good education and mentorship (more on education below).

I’m not telling you that you should sacrifice your relationships but you SHOULD be prepared to make some sacrifices to your personal and social time. Learning how to animate is a huge undertaking and the only way that you’re going to get good at it in a short amount of time is by putting the hours in. There is no magic wand or mystical solution. The amount of hours, focus and dedication you put into your animation will determine how successful you are.

When you’re thinking about how hard it is to become an animator, keep my story in mind because it isn’t unique to me alone. Every feature film animator I know has worked their butt off to be where they are. All of them have put a huge amount of time into honing their craft.

But can I still have a job while learning animation?

It’s better for you and your future animation career if you can afford to not work while you learn animation. For most of the two years I spent learning animation, I had a part time job as a graphic designer. I also worked full time for about half a year. It is extremely difficult to both go to work and learn animation at the same time. My mood swung back and forth while I was trying to balance it all because it was so exhausting.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: Yes you can have a job while studying but it will likely mean it takes you longer to get your first animation job and it will be hard for you to put the hours into your animation that you need. If you can afford to just study then do that.

During the final 6 months of my animation course, I didn’t work on anything else. I was working on my animation assignments full time. There was a definite increase in the quality of my student work during that time and my animations were better than they would have been had I been balancing a part time job.

So that’s my answer… if you can afford to not work while learning animation, then take that option.

What education is needed to become an animator?

The obvious next thing that makes an animator stand out is the quality of education where he or she studied.

What degree do you need to be an animator?

What degree you obtained to become an animator doesn’t really matter. Some animation schools are more well known than others but you can’t rely on your degree to become an animator. Studios don’t care about your degree, they only care about your showreel and past experience. If you never went to college or university but you have an amazing showreel, you will get hired. Getting started as an animator isn’t as simple as just magically summoning a good showreel though, you need great education.

You can become an animator without college but make no mistake, you will still need some good quality education. What education is needed to become an animator is less important than what education will result in you producing an amazing showreel.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: Some universities and colleges hold esteem but in the end it is mainly your showreel that will get you a job. If you don’t have a decent showreel, it will be difficult to get a job.

Can you use Skillshare / YouTube tutorials alone to become a feature film animator?

nope

Becoming an animator is easy if you only want to dabble in it and mess around. However if you want to get a job as an animator on Feature Films then it’s going to take quite a lot more focussed and dedicated effort. I’m not saying that it’s impossible… it’s just unlikely.

Taking a few courses at Skillshare and following Youtube tutorials won’t cut it for the biggest studios. Those things can get you started in the basics but to reach to the highest levels, you need professionals to help you. Even if you don’t go to either college or university, you’ll need help from a professional animator. More on that later.

I’m sure there’s someone somewhere who managed to get a feature film job by learning independently but those people must be rare nowadays. In all my years working in feature films, I have never met an animator who didn’t have some kind of professional mentorship.

How to choose a good college to study animation?

France is one of the best places in Europe for an animator to study in my opinion. French animators are known for being really good. I know a lot of people who studied at the French school Goeblins for instance and their level is usually pretty high for students. There are other French schools that notably good to, for example MoPa and Rubika are two I hear of a lot.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: If you want to be an animator, you need your course to almost only focus on animation and you need teachers that have a proven track record as animators in the industry. Eg – if you want to be a feature film animator, you need feature film animators to both teach and mentor you.

Elsewhere in the World, The Animation Workshop (Denmark), Vancouver Film School (Canada), Sheridan (Canada) and CalArts (USA) are known as very good ones. There are a few places in the UK but to be honest, most foreigners I talk to don’t really rate them very highly. That’s not to slander those schools of course, it’s just an observation I’ve had of animator’s attitudes outside of the UK.

Things to look for in a 3D animation course

If you already know that you want to specialise in 3D character animation, you would be mostly wasting your time if you had to learn too much about related crafts. The most important thing if you’re thinking of becoming an animator is specialist skill. You need to find a course that specialises in teaching character animation.

Other things to look for when choosing a 3D animation course

  • Make sure the teachers either work or have worked on professional animation projects that you aspire to work on. Don’t rely on their past workplaces alone because they may have been juniors or in irrelevant departments. Ideally, you should be able to see their showreels and see what projects/shots they actually animated on. A teacher’s showreel will tell you almost everything you need to know.
  • If you can, watch the teacher speak or meet them yourself. Their attitude needs to speak to you. They don’t need to be smiling all the time but you do need to be inspired by them.
  • Make sure your school can give you access to a licence for Autodesk Maya.
  • Your school should be able to give you a selection of different feature quality character rigs for you to work with.
  • Your work should be reviewed individually at least once or twice per week.
  • You should be given lectures on animation at least once per week.
  • If you’re at an online school, the organisation should have some system for students to communicate and support one another.
  • Again, to become an animator you need a course that specialises in animation. If the course you look at has long modules in compositing, character modelling etc… that’s a waste of time in your journey to becoming an animator.

How to become an animator without college?

As promised, I’m going to explain a little about how you can become an animator without going to college or university. I didn’t go to either University or College for animation courses. I did do a degree in illustration and graphic design, however that didn’t teach me to be an animator. It was actually after University that I decided to focus on character animation. You don’t need a degree to become an animator but you do still need some decent education or at least mentorship from a professional.

After you’ve decided “I want to be an animator!”, I suggest you start checking the online animation schools just to make sure whether they will appeal to you. When considering what education is required to become an animator, don’t discount learning online because animation isn’t a very formal industry that needs lots of specific qualifications. You need a good showreel… and these online schools can help you achieve that end faster than some physical schools can.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: You don’t need university or college but you’ll still need to study at one of the big online animation schools. The only exception is if you know a professional animator who can train you privately.

Quite simply, if you want to become an animator without college, pick one of the following online schools:

I myself studied for two years on the feature film program of iAnimate. Many other people I have worked with studied at Animation Mentor. I recommend those two online schools the highest but especially iAnimate because I personally had a really great experience with them. Their selection of rigs is great and the teachers are the best I’ve had (many worked at studios like Blue Sky, Sony, Dreamworks and Disney).

I also have a colleague who took Animsquad from start to finish and he landed a job at Illumination Mac Guff. Me and a few other people I know have taken refresher courses at Animsquad too (to top up our existing skills). My own experience with Animsquad was positive, though I have to say, my best experience out of everywhere I studied was at iAnimate.

One big advantage iAnimate has over other schools (besides the stuff I already mentioned) is Jason Ryan. Jason does live animation demos every week and has a long work history in both 2D and 3D animation. His attitude is super positive and let’s be honest… who doesn’t like an Irish accent?! Seriously though, I learned so much by watching that guy work and having such a huge back catalogue of demos and lessons by him is an enormous feather in the cap of iAnimate.

Side courses in animation (not schools)

Besides the four animation schools I listed above, there are several tutors from those courses that sell courses on their own individual websites. These are courses without feedback, however they’ve at least been made by feature film animators. The two I’m mentioning are tutors from iAnimate.

Jason Ryan – I’ve already mentioned Jason. He’s animated a lot of feature films, worked at Dreamworks and several other big studios. He’s the main animation guru at iAnimate. Before he run iAnimate, he sold courses from his website. They’re still good courses and are still available on his website.

Ken Fontain – Ken was one of my tutors at iAnimate. Like Ryan, he’s worked at Dreamworks and several other feature film studios. His courses are meant for animation students with a bit of knowledge already. There are some demos of his courses on his website.

But what is it like to study at an online animation school?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that studying at an online animation school would somehow make you a less attractive animator but it simply isn’t the case. All four of the online animation courses I listed above are well known in the animation industry for producing excellent animators.

There are some downsides to studying at an online animation school though. The most difficult aspect of studying at an online school is loneliness. I got really lonely during my animation courses and most of the other people I’ve talked to have said the same. Studying animation at home means that you will be spending hours and hours of time on your own at your computer. The only time you usually get to interact with your teacher is once or twice a week during reviews and lectures. So be aware that you may feel lonely while studying animation online.

The other downsides to studying animation online are:

  • You don’t create as many strong personal relationships and therefore the possibility of being remembered for a job is lower than if you were studying in real life with people.
  • You have to buy ALL of your own equipment, so that means computer, graphics tablet etc.
  • If you don’t exercise, you’re gonna get fat. Joking of course… no fat shame! But seriously, you’re going to need to exercise while studying at home or your body is going to become weak and unhealthy.

The positives to studying animation at home are:

  • If you live in a country where there aren’t any good animation schools, you can still be taught by the best animation teachers in the World. I know that sounds like hype but it’s true… the animation teachers at online schools are working right now on feature films in some of the biggest studios in the World. Not many other schools can compete with that.
  • You’ll get feature quality character rigs. For example iAnimate, where I studied, has a lot of amazing character rigs.
  • It costs less to study at an online school. It still costs a lot, for example I think by the time I finished my 2 years at iAnimate I probably spent at least Β£9000 ($12700 / €10570). That’s still far less than what you’d pay at a physical school though, where the cost per year can be more than that… and most university courses are 3 years.
  • The student work is of really high quality and animation studios are aware of that. If you look at the showreels these schools produce every year, you’ll notice how good some of the student work is. They only show the best students of course… but they’re still the school’s students.

Beware of bad online animation courses

I only recommend the four online animation schools and courses I listed in the previous section. There are now all kinds of other πŸ’© websites out there set up by people very good at search engine marketing. Do not get tricked into buying a bad course and wasting your money.

None of the four online schools I listed in the previous section pay me or know that I’m writing this. As a professional feature film animator, I can tell you that those four are pretty much the only online animation schools that matter. They are your safe choices. Unless you know feature film animators in real life, it is unlikely that you will find reliable other options. Going with different schools and buying random courses risks you wasting both your money and time.

⚠️ In my research for this article, I’ve seen course websites run by animators basic skill levels and little experience. These questionable websites weren’t around back when I was studying and while I’m sure most of you know a bad course when you see one, I feel the need to highlight the warning signs of a bad course and things you should always check:

  1. Have the tutors worked on actual feature films or very high level TV shows? I don’t mean personal short films but actual professional, high level work. If they haven’t, it’s not worth your time (particularly if that’s the high level you are aiming for).
  2. Do the teachers have no LinkedIn, IMDb or showreels? If they don’t, it’s a bad course.
  3. Are there no names behind the course? If you’re not being told the names of the animators who teach the course, it’s probably a bad course.
  4. Does the animation they have on their website look basic, flawed or ugly? Bad course.
  5. Are there no previews of the course and no student demo reels? Red flag but some courses are new. You’ll need to check the other things in this list.
  6. Do they seem to have copied a lot of content from other sources? Bad course.
  7. Do their courses come with regular feedback sessions? If not, it’s not a course, it’s a glorified tutorial.
  8. Is the teacher’s work as good as what you see in films? If you want to work in films, you need someone with film quality work and abilities to teach you. If the teacher demonstrates a skill level below what you see in movies you like, it’s possible they aren’t good enough to teach you to the level you want to get to.

How much does it cost to become an animator?

As you’ve seen from my above information on education, you can either go to college/University or to an online school.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: Studying animation at University / College will cost about the same as studying most other creative professions. Fees depend partly on the country and prestige of the physical school. At a physical school you will pay much more than this but for two years at an online school it could cost as little as $11886 (Β£8510 / €10000) to become an animator.

At physical animation schools, the price varies significantly. At UK schools you’d pay at least Β£9500 ($13268 / €11164) per year at the moment, so for a 3 year course it would cost at least Β£28500 ($13268 / €33492). And that’s if you can live with your parents while you study. If you have to rent an apartment you will probably require a student living loan, which can easily cost you as much as the course itself. So in the end your debt could be as high as Β£50000 or more ($69835 / €58758). That is an obscene amount of money and if you already know you want to become an animator… I don’t suggest you take on that amount of debt.

In other countries like the USA and Canada, the student loans can be even higher than the UK. In Europe, there are some schools that charge a bit less. Goeblins (France) is about the same cost as everywhere else and another very good one I have colleagues from, The Animation Workshop (Denmark) costs a bit less than the others.

Physical schools cost more than the online schools.

If you study at an online animation school, the cost is significantly lower. For example to take all seven workshops at iAnimate as I did, it costs this much at the time of writing: $11886 (Β£8510 / €10000).

The great thing about online animation schools is that you can start and stop too. For example at iAnimate, there are seven workshops and each lasts 11 weeks. You only need to pay for one workshop at a time so if you want to stop at any point or change schools, you can. You don’t have that option with most brick and mortar animation schools.

So that’s my answer really… if you want to become an animator, the lowest and most realistic price you can keep in mind is around $11886 (Β£8510 / €10000). Each of iAnimate’s seven workshops cost $1,698 (Β£8510 / €1428), so you’d only have to spend that much for every workshop.

By the way, this isn’t an advertisement for iAnimate at all. They don’t know I’m writing this article and I’m only using them as an example because that’s where I studied. Animation Mentor, AnimSquad and AnimSchool are all viable options for online animation schools.

Can you learn to be an animator for nothing?

There will always be exceptions in life but I can’t in all good faith tell you that following some Youtube tutorials and reading books will make you a good animator. In case you missed what I wrote earlier, Animation is a really competitive industry. It’s pretty hard to become an animator (a professional one I mean). When you get your foot in the door, it’s great… but it’s difficult to make that first step for some people. You need to work really hard and your level needs to be VERY high before most feature studios will take you on.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: It’ll only cost you nothing if you know a professional animator in real life who has the desire, time and energy to train you for free.

Once upon a time, it was probably possible for Johhny Be Good to pick up his pencil and end up working at Disney. Those times have passed in my opinion. There are thousands and thousands of animators in the World and more still who want to become animators. In my opinion, the only way you will become a good animator is by taking one or more really good courses like the ones I mentioned above.

The only free way to become an animator

If you know a professional animator in real life, then you are amazingly lucky. For example, I have a friend who is married to a professional animator and she picked up animation by learning from her own husband (hello David and Joana πŸ˜‰). If you know an animator in real life and they have the time and motivation to mentor you, then take that option, because that’s the only way that you are going to learn animation for free in my opinion.a

How to get a job as an animator

how to get a job as an animator

Alright, so you know what an animator is, you’ve learned animation and you’re really good at it… now what? Now you need a job!

So how do you get a job? Well you’ll need just ONE thing first…

YOUR SHOWREEL.

Getting started as an animator can seem daunting, going from education to professional animation is a big step for most people. Just know that almost nothing matters except the quality and “wow” factor of your showreel. If you studied hard and you believe you’re a good animator… yet you have no showreel, you won’t get hired. You need that showreel. Nothing is more important than you having an amazing showreel.

What do you do after you have an amazing animation showreel?

The next thing you have to do is start reaching out to studios. Send them prospective applications with a nicely formatted CV / resume and your amazing showreel. Most people send their showreel by using Vimeo links but I’ve heard of some sending YouTube links too.

Most job ads for animation are hidden

You should know that most animation studios I know of don’t advertise that they need animators directly. Usually they keep all of their animation department recruitment under wraps because they get WAY too many applications when they actually put out job ads for animation.

Someone I used to work with at a popular animation studio in France told me that she received hundreds of animation applications every day. The recruiters are the first people to filter this massive influx of applications and they base that partly on past experience and education. Animation recruiters also know good animation when they see it though, so they also judge your animation showreel.

What happens after the animation recruiters get your job application?

animation recruiter inbox
Definitely don’t do a Jim.

As I already mentioned, recruiters in feature film animation get hundreds of job applications every day. If they think you’re not good enough, they may or may not reply to you with a polite decline. Don’t take it personally if no recruiter gets back to you. These people have thousands of emails in their inbox and it is a miracle that they manage to stay on top of all the communications as it is, without worrying about sending polite emails of decline to everyone.

If the recruiter liked your showreel…

Usually, if the recruiter liked your showreel and thinks you stand a chance they will usually send your showreel and application to the animation supervisors of the project (the leaders of teams of animators) or they might also send it directly to the animation directors (the big bosses of the animation department).

I’ve watched my own animation supervisors look at job applicant’s animations occasionally. Know that their eyes are sharp and their opinions are even sharper. I have literally seen supervisors with their hands on their chin in consideration while shaking their head “no…”. If there are too many flaws in your animation, these are the people that will notice.

If the animation supervisor / director liked your showreel

Animation supervisors are sometimes a filter before your showreel reachers the animation director of the project. If your showreel was seen by a supervisor, they’ll usually have to send it for the final approval to the animation director.

If the animation supervisors / directors like your showreel, you will likely be called for an interview. When they don’t like your showreel, they’ll send the recruiter a message saying that you’re not ready yet and you may or may not hear back from the recruiter… again, keep in mind that those people have a stupid amount of emails that they’re dealing with.

Getting jobs in animation gets easier as you gain more experience

My little description of what goes on behind the scenes may seem discouraging to prospective animators who have never gotten a job before. Fear not! It does get better.

After you enter the industry, you start making contacts and so long as you’re good, jobs can sometimes appear before you as if from thin air. Ever since I landed my first job at Illuminaton Mac Guff for example, it has been rare for me to send actual job applications. Usually what happens is that one of my past colleagues will send their director or supervisor a recommendation for me. Understand that this isn’t something that can usually happen for newcomers to animation. I’m just trying to tell you… if you’re good and you have experience, your name will be passed around by people who worked with you.

Where do Animators work?

Depending on what kind of animator you want to become will determine to some extent where you will end up working. For example to work as an animator in advertisement, you’ll find small studios all around the World to work at. There are also a lot of game studios and you’ll find one in most countries (some are smaller studios than others of course. For television, the net gets slightly tighter but for most major countries you will find various opportunities to work as an animator in the capital city. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to work at other major cities within your country too.

For feature film animation, which is the discipline I am in, you’re selection of places to work is much smaller than with the areas of work I mentioned above. There are film animation studios both big and small but if we’re talking about blockbuster films, your selection is quite small indeed.

Countries and places where you can work as a feature film animator

The following list of places where you can get started as an animator on feature films is non-exhaustive and is based entirely on my own understanding of the industry. Both the countries and cities within those countries that I’m mentioning are simply the places I know about. There are no doubt smaller countries that make feature films sometimes… but these are the big ones everyone knows about.

  • USA (Los Angeles, New York, Connecticut)
    • Disney
    • Blue Sky
    • Industrial Light & Magic
  • Canada (Vancouver, Toronto)
    • Sony
    • Mikros
    • L’Atelier
  • England (London)
    • Framestore
    • Mikros
    • Locksmith
    • MPC
    • Double Negative
  • France (Paris)
    • Illumination Mac Guff
    • Mac Guff Ligne
    • Jungler
    • Fortiche
    • Mikros
  • Australia (Sidney)
    • Animal Logic
  • New Zealand
    • Weta
  • Spain (Madrid)
    • Ilion
  • Germany (Stuttgart, Frankfurt)*
    • Pixomondo
  • Belgium (Brussels)**
  • Japan (Tokyo)***
    • Studio Ghibli

There are some studios I’ve left out (like Dreamworks and Pixar) because they’ve been bought up by other companies like Disney. If there are any companies / places you think I’m forgetting, please let me know and I’ll add them above. This is just a casual list meant to help people researching how to become an animator and I’m mainly interested in listing places that are known for doing feature films… and mainly character animated films rather than visual effects movies.

* I only know of a limited amount of feature animated films that were made in Germany, however it does happen sometimes.

** I’ve had several feature film colleagues who worked as animators in Belgium. The industry there isn’t as huge as some of the other places but it still happens there.

*** For Japan I’m thinking mostly of 2D studios like Studio Ghibli but there are no doubt other places that do 3D there too.

Freelance and remote work in animation

Covid-19 changed the industry for a lot of us animators. For most of 2020 and 2021 I worked remotely for a studio in France that I had previously been going to physically everyday. An amazing result of this is that studios are now more open to remote work than they were before. There is still a preference for animators to come into the studios though and I believe most of the people working from home are those that had previously worked at studios physically.

Even when I have worked remotely in animation I have been on a project contract, meaning that I’m operating as an employee and not a freelance business. I prefer working in this way but I have a few animator friends who work remotely in freelance positions. It is possible to work remotely but to work on larger films remotely, you’ll need more experience.

Keep in mind that when you work freelance, you will usually have more social contributions and taxes to pay. Make this part of your calculation when you accept salaries for freelance positions. You should always be paid more for freelance work than you would if you were employed.

What hours do animators work?

At most studios I have worked in, my ‘official hours’ were 40 hours per week. That’s 9 hours per day with a one hour lunch deducted. Usually it takes me at least 1 hour to travel to and from work when I work physically at a studio, meaning the actual time I dedicate to work is a minimum of 55 hours per week. These hours can be less if I work remotely however I often find that either with breaks or overtime, my hours are usually about the same.

In all of the animation jobs in France I’ve had, my official hours are 10am to 7pm (10 – 19h). I’ve seen some people with children who work with more flexible hours but it’s basically the same hours for everyone.

Crunch time

On most animation projects, there will be a ‘crunch time’. Crunch time is a particularly difficult and stressful period of a project where extra hours are often demanded by the studio. Often, crunch time has meant that for one or more months towards the end of a project, I work 6 day weeks (usually Saturday is the sixth day). Most studios prefer animators to work on Saturdays rather than do extra hours, because coming in for a full day of work after sleeping allows more productivity than someone staying late every night. The reality is, animators often do both Saturdays AND stay late at the studio several nights in the week during crunch time.

Crunch time can be light or hard depending on the project, studio and luck. There has only ever been one project where I didn’t have a crunch time. It is very common to have this difficult time at the end of a project so if you become an animator, you and your family needs to be ready for it.

Keep your initial expectations for your first animation job in check

If you’re wondering how to become an animator at Disney straight away, or one of the other big animation studios for that matter… do try to calm yourself. Even most of us already working on animated films dream of one day working for Disney.

I think I’ve worked with only three animators so far who worked at Disney. All of them are very high level animators and worked extremely hard to get to where they are. You can’t just expect a job at Disney from creating some nice animations. You need to be among the best. Disney has an animation internship program and if you’re an advanced student of animation, it’s possible you could get your foot in the door that way. To actually get a job working on their films, you’re going to need to be really good though.

What about Illumination Mac Guff? The studio I started at? Illumination Mac Guff also makes huge feature film animations such as Despicable Me, The Secret Life of Pets etc. I feel VERY fortunate to have been able to work at that studio. I was in the right place at the right time and I had enough skill for one of their lower departments.

So… while you should always send out job applications, think less about how to become an animator at Disney and more about how to get your foot in the door of the industry in the first place! You should of course dream big but make sure you keep your feet on the ground.

A lot of people I worked with didn’t get to start straight away at a film studio. Many animators I work with first worked on small television shows and advertisements. Some of those animators I’m mentioning do the television and advertisement work for several years before getting into films. Even when they get into films, they still sometimes had to start in the crowd animation department… and the crowd animation department is what I’m talking about next.

What about if I’m only offered a fix or crowd animation job?

If you are offered a job at a film studio after you study, it can often be in the crowd department. This was the case for me and I know first hand how that can seem kind of disappointing when we’ve spent so long becoming an animator. To accept that we’ll only be animating the background crowd in a movie can seem a bit trivial. The truth is, you need to get over that and just do it.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: Crowd animation can be a good foot into the industry, particularly with films. That’s how I and many of my friends in the industry started out. I started out in crowds on the Secret Life of Pets (2015) and two years later I was working in main at a different studio, so it doesn’t take too long to progress. The people who I know that came from the fix and layout departments took longer to progress than those who came from crowds.

If you’ve been offered a crowd animation job then it is usually because the animation supervisors/directors have looked at your work and decided that you can’t yet handle animating main characters. It doesn’t meant that you’re not capable of animating main characters… but it does mean that you probably can’t do it under the time constraints and pressure that they’ll need. Being offered an animation job in crowd can also mean that the supervisors/directors can see posing problems, acting problems etc in your current work and they need you to work on that before you can progress.

To be completely honest, I almost refused my first job when I was offered a crowd position. I found it uncomfortable to accept the job and I didn’t enjoy it very much if I’m honest either. However now that I have the experience to look back and reflect, that first job in the crowd department was essential to my career. It’s very possible that I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this to you today if I hadn’t taken that first crowd job.

The truth is, back when I got my first crowd job I wasn’t good enough for main characters. I found that difficult to accept at the time and my ego got in the way a bit. Don’t make that same mistake. If a respected studio is offering you crowd, either take it and accept that you’ll be doing less glamorous work for a few years… or refuse it and go and work at a smaller studio.

Don’t get stuck in the crowd animation department though

On your journey to becoming an animator, you avoid getting stuck. I’m treading cautiously while I write this, however it is in my opinion difficult to find really good and experienced crowd animators.

There is an incentive for production to keep you animating crowds for a bit longer than you need to. For example, if you were a producer recruiting people for your animation teams which would you prefer… a fresh animation student with no experience in your crowd team… or an animator who already animated crowds in a film or two? The choice is easy, you’re going to take the second option.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: Usually your studio will put you into the main department when you’re ready to move from crowds. However sometimes it makes sense to move to a different studio in order to progress faster, particularly if you end up working in crowds for 2 years or more.

Don’t be confused about what I’m saying though. It isn’t necessarily that you’re good enough for main characters yet your pesky producer is keeping you under their thumb. What is more likely the case is that you’re in the twighlight zone of animation skill. This is a frustrating career moment for any animator and everyone who is trying to reach from crowd to main characters usually struggles with it.

In the twighlight zone of animation skill, you may be good enough for a base level (very junior) position in main characters… but you’re not good enough to be an indispensable member of the main character’s department yet. That’s the crucial difference. Your producer might know that you could potentially go to main characters but they also know that you’re still more valuable to the project as a crowd animator.

So what do you do if you’ve been in crowd animation too long?

You quit or move to a different department like marketing! It’s that simple. If you’re in the twighlight zone of animation skill then you will sometimes be better off applying to other studios in order to climb ranks faster. I personally moved from the crowd department of Illumination Mac Guff to marketing, where I was able to get some main characters in my showreel (albeit for advertisements). After I had some experience there, I was able to apply to a different studio (Mikros) and gain a position animating main characters.

What about fix animation?

I never worked in fix animation but know several people who did. Some liked it and some hated it. In my opinion, it is more difficult to escape fix animation than crowd animation because in the fix department, you’re almost never working on your own animations. To progress from fix animation takes more effort but it does happen. I know one fix animator who later became an animator who works right now at the same studio as me.

What do you do when you work on main characters but your shots suck?

angry animator

When you finally make it into a feature film and you’re working on main characters… you can pat yourself on the back and be happy that you are one of the VERY few animators who got this far. I know though that you may still get frustrated because it is possible that you will work on simple or short shots for several years. It can seem endless.

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: Your shots will stay basic for as long as you’re not ready for bigger ones yet. If you feel like a challenge, talk to your supervisor but don’t push it – they know best.

When you’re still getting simple shots, there are two possible things going on. Either you’re the victim of some unfair conspiracy or you’re not good enough yet. Give yourself a reality check and accept that it’s probably the latter rather than the former. Yes there are politics in animation and yes, some animators play football with the directors and get nicer shots… but you need to keep in mind that these animators that you’re sometimes jealous of aren’t just faking it. They’ve become really good animators and they’re simply being recognised for that before you. It’s also possible that you’re not as good as you think.

Most of the time, the awesomeness of your shot is related directly to your own awesomeness as an animator. If you’re wondering how to get good at animation, keep animating… your education and your need for practice will never end. If you’ve already gotten this far, just keep going and eventually you’ll get better shots. Be patient, animate well and don’t be a d*ckhead. Nobody likes a d*ckhead.

What do animators do between projects?

In an ideal world, us professional animators would be going from one project to the other without too much time between projects. For example a lot of animators I know will have been sending out job applications towards the end of their projects. Occasionally the studio that we work for itself will want to keep us for their upcoming projects and so will ask us to make ourselves available. Occasionally that can mean waiting one or more months before the project get starts (the longest I’ve ever waited was 6 months).

πŸš€ Quick Explanation: Here in France we tend to take a month or so off after each project to recover from crunch time and the intensity of the overall project. What animators do with their free time varies as much as with anybody else. However unless we’re doing a course or working on a personal project like a short film – we’re usually having a break from animation.

The reality is that the ending stages of a movie (also known as crunch-time) can be very intense. It isn’t unusual for animators to put much longer hours in towards the end of a project and many studios I worked at asked us to work Saturdays for weeks at a time towards the end. The reasons for this huge rush are a topic for a future article but the result is… us animators get REALLY tired towards the end of projects. By the time I finish working on a show, I’ll usually be both physically and mentally exhausted. For that reason, if we can afford to, us animators will spend a month or more not working after our projects end.

In France we are lucky at the moment because there is special help for animators who take time-off between projects (we also pay a lot of taxes for that privilege, it’s worth adding). Therefore animators in France can sometimes afford to take a month or so off without worrying too much. Towards the end of a movie, the massive amount of overtime ideally means that we were paid more too, so that can help between projects.

What us animators do between projects is very varied though. I’ve personally done animation courses between projects, worked on personal projects and also just taken a long break to recover. This website is actually a project that I started between two projects. As I’m writing this, I’m preparing to go back to work on a show.

Other animators I know do all sorts of things. Some have taken acting lessons, drawing lessons, learned film making, made comic books, travelled the World. There are as many possibilities as there are animators.

Animators never stop learning and practicing

As the last section suggested, one of the most important things for you to know is that many of us professional animators still take refresher courses from time to time and we also take courses in kinds of animation that we’ve never done before. Sometimes we do courses for the sheer pleasure of being able to control the direction of our own acting and shots, because in movies it is rarely us making the fun decisions.

It isn’t only about what education is needed to become an animator… it is also about what education is required to sustain you as an animator when you become professional. If you want to know how to become a good animator, it’s to never stop practicing and never get too complacent. This industry can be tough sometimes and I’ve certainly had moments where it seemed more struggle than enjoyment. I’ve always carried on going though and always kept learning. I’ll never stop learning and neither will you if you want to become a good animator.

Pros and Cons of being an animator

An animator attacking a minion.

So now you know how hard it is to become an animator and you know a lot about what it involves. Next I’ll do my best to summarise some of the highs and lows of being an animator. If your question is about whether it’s worth becoming an animator or if you should go for it, only you can really answer. For me, becoming an animator was totally worth it. I love being an animator. Sometimes I want to do other things like illustration, writing etc but I don’t have any regrets about becoming an animator. Nevertheless… keep these things in mind.

Pros of becoming an animator

  • You get the thrill of taking something inanimate and breathing life into it. There’s nothing quite like looking back at your work and seeing it come to life.
  • Working on a story and knowing hundreds, thousands or millions of people enjoyed watching it is a wonderful thing (even if you were only a small cog in the wheel of the project).
  • You will learn about human behaviour, emotion and how to communicate with large audiences.
  • Animators are fun people, so usually you’ll be in good company.
  • There are many different areas of work and specialities within animation. Fix, layout, crowd, technical, main character department, mo-cap, TV, games, film, advertisements are just a few I have been talking about in this article.
  • You get to study and practice acting, drawing, timing and film theory. So if you enjoy that kind of arty stuff, you’ll probably like animation.
  • The pay isn’t too bad.
  • You might get to work on famous films, games and TV shows.

Cons of becoming an animator

You will see more cons here than there are pros but don’t assume that means that it’s not worth becoming an animator. The reason I’m putting more disadvantages / pitfalls to becoming an animator here is because I want you to understand the things you have to sacrifice and deal with.

  • It’s hard to become a good animator and takes years of constant dedication and effort.
  • You’ll probably suffer from self doubt. A lot of us have imposter’s syndrome and criticise our own work very harshly… even after we’ve worked on several famous projects.
  • Crunch time (the end of a project) can involve working weekends and doing 10 – 12 hour shifts. It’s hard for both you and your family.
  • You might not get to make as many fun, creative decisions as you hoped. Working on professional animation projects often means interpreting a character’s acting and movement according to someone else’s desires.
  • You will be at higher risk of getting tendonitis.
  • You’ll spend a huge amount of time sitting down so you need to be careful about your body’s health.
  • Your eyes might become strained because of constant computer use and that can lead to quicker deterioration in your eyesight than you’d get in other jobs. I don’t know anyone who’s become blind or anything from being an animator though.
  • You might not work on famous projects.

Steps to become an animator

Time to wrap this article up. It’s been a long one! If you have any questions on how to become an animator or anything else I’ve mentioned in this article, write me a comment down below or send me a message via the contact form. Or you know… tell me how god damned amazing I am for sharing all of this with you. Do you know how many HOURS I’ve been writing now? My fingers hurt. You wanna say thank you? Ideally I’d like a beer but otherwise, emoticons will do.

So to finish all off this article on how to become an animator, here are my 10 steps to becoming an animator:

  1. Make sure you can handle the life pressure and time commitments.
  2. Get a good computer and any of the other software / equipment you need.
  3. Buy some good books like Drawn to Life and Timing for Animation.
  4. Find a good school (either typical college or an online animation school).
  5. Spend about 2 years working your ass off on animation assignments.
  6. Try to apply for some jobs and take some more animation courses if you need it.
  7. Possibly work your way through the fix or crowd animation departments.
  8. Get into main character animation as a junior.
  9. Become good enough as a main character animator to get good shots.
  10. Become a supervisor, become a director, take over the World.
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Last modified: August 20, 2021

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