How to Start a Career in Animation – A Guide

Maybe the first time you dreamt of becoming an animator was when you saw your very first Ghibli or Disney movie.

Whatever your moment of reckoning was, or whenever it occurred, you figured out that you wanted to get into animation.

Now, you’re probably wondering where to start. This post will guide you on how to start a career in animation.

Being an animator allows you to step into different fields and work on a variety of different projects.

You’ll have the opportunity to explore your creative potential. Your venture as an animator may land you a job in the corporate sector as an in-house animator or take you in other directions, such as gaming, film, television, etc.

So, here’s what you need to know to get started on your journey to becoming an animator.


How to start a career in animation

Practice the fundamentals

Every artist starts on paper. If you’re interested in becoming an animator, chances are you also like to draw and do so as a hobby.

Practice the fundamentals and learn basics such as perspective, still-life drawing, composition, and explore character design as well.

The more you practice, the better you’ll get. With a solid grip on the fundamentals, you’ll be able to transfer those skills to the digital space and animation as well.


Animation styles to choose from

There are various animation styles out there, mainly there’s 2D and 3D. People start out with 2D and then move on to 3D as they progress.

Regardless of the direction you end up taking, you should practice drawing on Photoshop. Most digital artists recommend a Wacom tablet. The Intuous 5 is a solid bet.

Read more: The Best Animated Video Types for Your Business


Explore animation courses or pursue a degree program

For a lot of people, getting a formal education and enrolling at university is the first step to pursuing a career of their choice.

Although you are not bound to choose this traditional route, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics states that animator and multimedia artist positions typically prefer to hire people with a bachelor’s degree in the relevant field.

Of course, this entirely depends on your current experience level, career goals, and previous academic career. If you’re interested in going the traditional route, you may want to look into the following schools that have a great reputation.


Top animation schools in the US


1. California Institute of the Arts

California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) comes in as one of the most popular institutes that offer graduate and undergraduate degrees in visual and performing arts.

Roy and Walt Disney established the school in 1961 once a merger between the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and the Chouinard Art Institute was finalized. CalArts offers more than 70 programs across six schools.


2. Rhode Island School of Design

Are you a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender and/or Invader Zim? Well, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko of the respective shows studied at the Film Animation Video College of Rhode Island School of Design.

Impressive… considering they both went on to create impactful shows with unique animation styles.


3. DePaul University

DePaul offers aspiring animators a bachelor’s degree in animation. The program starts with familiarizing students with the history of animation.

It then moves on to modern animation where students can pick from several concentrations, such as storyboarding, character design, 3D animation, motion graphics, cinema animation, and game art.

If getting a proper degree isn’t what you’re looking for, then there are a ton of online sources you can take advantage of and learn what you need or expand your skillset.

To browse top schools in Europe and Oceania and more, check out our other post.


Animation courses that will help you start your career in animation



Udemy is an online academy that offers various courses. You can browse what you need to learn and whatever fits your budget to get started.


School of Motion

School of Motion offers a variety of courses for people with different skill levels and goals. You can download plenty of resources and leave questions for the teacher.

It is an interactive experience and much more valuable than simply watching a video where the instructor wouldn’t respond.


Motion Design School

Another great online school for people who want to learn animation. Browse what they have available and find what suits you best.

While most of the intermediate or advanced level courses on the sites mentioned above are paid, you will still be able to find some free ones that are for beginners.

If you don’t want to commit to an online course at the moment either, you could check out some channels on YouTube that teach animation.


Tutorials on YouTube

Keith Lango is an award-winning animator. His tutorials weren’t always public. He made them all public this year, in 2019, and made the announcement on Twitter as well.

His fans were stoked at the announcement. Visit his YouTube channel linked here and check out the playlist titled VTS Animation Tutorials. It consists of 65 videos that will prove to be a valuable resource.

Focus on skill development

Binge-watching tutorials on ‘how to animate’ in great, and so is signing up for online courses, but in order to polish your skills and steadily improve, you’ll need to remain dedicated to your craft.

Put in the hours, be consistent, and practice frequently.

With the right amount of dedication and grit, your career in animation will seem like an achievable dream. Keep working on your foundational skills; stay updated on software and practice your animation and editing techniques.

Apart from building your foundational skills, you’ll have to develop your observational and acting skills, too. Both of these will help you craft your character’s body movements and facial expressions in a nuanced way.

Share your work with online communities and encourage feedback and critique. You’ll learn from others and improve as you go.

Read more: Tips on becoming better at storytelling


Software to choose from

For this, we’ll take a look at 2D and 3D separately.


Software for 2D animation

After Effects: If you’re into making infographic-style animations, similar to Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell, then After Effects is great for that. You get compatibility with other Adobe programs, powerful tools, and the ability to experiment with kinetic typography as well.

Animate CC (Flash): Animate will cost you $19 a month. For those of you starting out in your career in animation, this is a decent choice. Animate is popular amongst YouTubers and 2D animation hobbyists. The learning curve is manageable.

Toon Boom Harmony: Toon Boom Harmony makes anything in the 2D animation realm possible. The software is dependable and will get you highly professional results.

TVPaint: If Ghibli movies and Disney animated movies from the golden age have inspired you to go down the hand-drawn animation route, then TVPaint will get you the results you’re hoping for. This is a professional animation software that delivers impressive results.


Software for 3D animation

Autodesk Maya: Heated debates go on around CG programs but, generally, Autodesk Maya is the best place to start.

Since you’re looking to start a career in animation, you should pick a professional software like this one. It is perfect for modeling, simulation and, of course, 3D animation.

Use it to build environments, create characters, virtual reality, motion graphics and so much more. This software gives you all you need to get started and move forward.

Cinema 4D: If you’re looking for something cheaper, Cinema 4D is an option as well. It’s mostly used for motion graphics animation but you can experiment with other animation styles, too.

Blender: If your budget is really tight, then Blender is a great open-source free software that provides a range of features you can work with, such as modeling, lighting, video post-processing, texturing, and animation.


Essential hardware

Hardware - Career in animation


Hardware for 2D animation

Computer: As you embark on your journey to start a career in animation, you’ll most likely move to 2D animation before moving on to 3D.

The great thing about 2D animation is that you don’t need a fancy machine with massive processing power to run the relevant programs. Your regular everyday computer will do just fine.

Processor: i5 (i3 may send you into a blind rage every time you try to preview or render the animation)

GPU: A built-it 2GB graphic card works fine.

RAM: 8GB minimum

Hard Drive: Preferably 1TB HDD. If you can get a 128GB SSD, it’ll help your OS run smoothly.

Tablet: Since you’re moving into the realm of digital art, investing in a basic but sturdy tablet would be a smart move.

The Wacom Intuous 5 is a great option for beginners. Drawing with a tablet is much more efficient than drawing with a mouse. As you progress in your career, you can move on to the fancier display tablets.


Hardware for 3D animation

Computer: Rendering in 3D requires serious processing power. For that, you’ll need a beefed-up workstation. It could cost you upwards of $2,000. But for beginners, the specs mentioned for the processor, GPU, RAM, hard drive in the 2D hardware section will suffice for 3D as well.

Tablet: Animating with a tablet is a lot better than animating with a mouse. You’ll get your work done much faster and more efficiently.

You don’t need to get an expensive tablet though. Get one that has the functions and buttons you need. Something that’s reliable and sturdy.

Books that will help you build your career in animation

Reading books is a great way of developing a well-rounded understanding of the field you’re in.

There are loads of interesting ones out there but below we’ve listed a few of the most popular and highly recommended ones that will help you along your journey to becoming an animator.


career in animation - book



The Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams: Hailed as the animator’s bible, the Animator’s Survival Kit doesn’t just teach you everything you’ll need to know about 2D animation but helps lay down a solid foundation for you to develop your skills in 3D animation as well. The book covers basics such as spacing, walks, timing, animal animation, running sequences, dialogue and more.

A DVD set for the Animator’s Survival Kit is also available. You can check that out here.


career in animation - book



Cartoon Animation by Preston Blair: Cartoon Animation AKA “The Preston Blair Book” made its debut in 1994. If you’re into learning cartoon-style animation, you’ll find this book very useful. It’ll teach you how to develop a cartoon character, animate dialogue with action, and design fluid movements.


career in animation - book



The Illusions of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston:  The authors of this book are two of Disney’s famed team of animators known as the Nine Old Men. The Illusions of Life was meant to be an animation guide but it turned into a thorough progression of animation.

The book became a staple within Disney Studios and also gained recognition in the world of animation at large. This book will help you figure out the best methods of animation.

You’ll find the above-mentioned books useful whether your goal is to learn 2D or 3D animation.

If you’re looking for something specifically for 3D animation though, then you might find How to Cheat in Maya useful.


Honorable mention


career in animation

Starting Point, 1979-1996 by Hayao Miyazaki


Ghibli movies have stood the test of time. The beautiful animation and storytelling Hayao Miyazaki uses to bring his tales to life are what inspire people to step into the world of animation.

This book is a great read for animators who look up to Miyazaki. It chronicles the man’s early career and is a semi-memoir. Starting Point offers a peek into Miyazaki’s childhood.

It includes interviews and you’ll also find out about the various influences that brought classics movies, such as My Neighbor Totoro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, to life.

While the other books mentioned in this list will teach you the techniques and skills animation experts use, this one will give you a glimpse of how one man, with his creative and visionary mind, managed to find professional fulfillment.


Build your portfolio and demo reel

Now that you’ve equipped yourself with a skill set and have started doing some animation work, it’s time to start compiling it.

If you want to make it as an animator professionally, a standout portfolio is how you’ll get your foot in the door.

Look for inspiration online and get a friend, preferably someone already in the field, to review your portfolio. An online one is the best way to go.

Have sections where you can feature a demo reel and another area where you can display projects that are more detailed. Everything you include should briefly describe the project goals and the work you did to achieve them.

As you move forward and become more skilled, don’t forget to update your portfolio with stronger and more recent work samples. Include a contact section on your site and your resume as well.

Pro tip: create the sort of work you want to get hired for.


Get lots of varied work experience

The best way to explore your field is to work on interesting and challenging freelance projects. Try out new things and get lots of varied experience under your belt.

You’ll become a more versatile animator that way and you’ll pick up new skills along as you venture out into new territories.

Look for internships as well. Those can also teach you a lot about working professionally as an animator. You will also meet people relevant to your field and build a professional network.

Look for a mentor that can guide you as well. If time and money aren’t too much of a concern, internships are a great option.

Follow online forums and communities for animators, such as r/Animators or r/FramebyFrame on Reddit.

You’ll be able to share your work, receive feedback; critique and learn tips and tricks along the way. Eventually, you’ll find your niche and discover a unique style of animation that resonates with you.

As you gain new skills and work on more projects, you’ll steadily improve. And hey, you may even win an Oscar someday like Domee Shi did for Bao. You can check out our post on that here.

Are you an animator yourself? How did you start out?

Do you have any tips that you think could help aspiring animators to start a career in animation?

If yes, please share some of your wisdom in the comments!

Posted by Maria Saif

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