I want to work in computer animation, but the industry is so new that it would be easy to
invest a lot of money and time -- and wind up with the wrong skills or not enough of them.
There seems to be a pretty clear path for a regular
graphics career but, how do I prepare for a career in computer animation? Is self-study a
viable way to go? What do I need to know about the industry? Finally, what do employers
look for in a resume?
Insider Advice from
The Computer Graphics industry is hot. Every year the
biggest movies tend to have the biggest effects. Movies that are fully computer animated,
once a far-off dream, are now playing at your local movie house. Television commercials
use more Hollywood effects than ever before, and the gaming industry is bursting with
computer graphically created products. Colleges and universities are offering degrees in
computer graphics, also often called computer animation, and are turning out tens of
thousands of graduates eager to work on the next major blockbuster.
CG Is More Than You
When most people think of computer graphics they think of Terminator 2, or Jurassic
Park. Perhaps they have even heard of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and Pixar. But
film effects are only a part of the computer graphics industry. Computer Graphics (CG) is
used in broadcast graphics, games, theme parks, industrial animation, virtual reality, and
scientific and medical research. For this Industry Insider I will be
focusing more on the animation side of the industry, but its important to note that
there is very heavy use of CG in the design community too (automotive design, consumer
products, industrial design and interactive design).
When someone is thinking about getting into the CG field
they need to understand that there are many kinds of jobs working in many different
industries. To say that you want to be a 3D animator is like saying you want to be a
musician. You need to make choices. Certainly there is an overall level of understanding
(like music theory), but beyond that you need to choose your instrument and your style.
Lots of Job Choices
For instance, you could be a modeler, an animator, a character animator, a
lighting specialist, a compositor, a texture artist, a CG programmer, a technical director
or an art director. Each of these jobs is different. You may be interested in all of them
and your school may be teaching the basics, but the earlier you can focus on an area that
you are particularly good at, the better off you will be once you get out in the working
Inside The Computer Graphics
Lets look at a few realities of the industry.
CG is big business. Like any other
business, CG companies need to be profitable. Its a common misunderstanding that the
companies that do effects make a lot of money. But, many film effect houses have closed in
the past few years because they have not been able to produce a steady profit. Many of
them have turned to doing commercials to make money, and they do film effects to build
The CG industry is project-oriented.
When a project is completed, there are often layoffs. So, being a CG animator is not all
that secure of a job.
The CG business is centered in a few
major metropolitan areas including Los Angeles and New York. This means you will probably
have to move to one of these cities if you want a CG career. There are jobs elsewhere, but
comparatively few. (Remember, we are talking about the animation side of the business. If
you are interested in computer graphics in general, you are not so locked into Hollywood.)
The people in CG are not your normal bunch.
You need to keep in mind that youre essentially working in the entertainment
industry, which means you will be working with quite a lot of odd, quirky, egotistical,
competitive and often unpleasant people. You will also work with a lot of really great
people, too. But, sometimes its hard to tell the difference.
What You Need To Get In
Okay. Now that I've given you a few warnings, we can talk about what it takes to prepare
for a job and a career in CG. There are some obvious things that you need to get started.
You need to have skill, talent and a portfolio or demo reel.
The skills require a significant investment in time and
study. How much money you invest depends on how you approach your education. You can
acquire the necessary skills at school or through diligent study at home with some good
software and time. [Don't forget to check schools that offer a computer science degree
online. Online degrees give you the flexibility to gain the right skills and work experience.
-Ed.] Talent comes with practice and experience. And jobs come from having a
good portfolio and demo reel that show an employer what you can do.
The Academic Approach
When evaluating schools there are some key criteria I suggest you keep in mind.
What will you learn?
Is the school going to teach you how to be an animator or a computer operator? Some
schools teach just the technical skills. While that might qualify you to be a computer
operator, its a sad experience to graduate and realize you dont have the
design and conceptual skills necessary to be an animator.
So, take a careful look at that school before you enroll.
Will it teach you concrete design and conceptual thinking? Will it teach you how to draw
and how to tell a story? These are critical skills for an animator. If the school is
focused just on computers and technology, your career will be limited. Dont let the
school make your choice for you. Before you select a school, decide what your career goal
is and make sure the schools offerings fit your needs.
How good are the teachers?
This matters as much as the schools specialization. Look beyond the course catalog
and find out if the teachers really know the material. What are their credentials? Have
they actually worked in industry? What are their own accomplishments in the field? (What
do they have in their portfolios?) Talk to students who are already enrolled. How
do they like the program? What are their complaints?
How good are the graduates?
Look at students who are graduating and examine the level of their work. Talk
with graduates who are working in the CG industry. Do they have good jobs? Are they
satisfied with their education? Talk with the companies that employ these grads are
they happy with the skills of their new workers? Checking a schools references takes
time and effort, but its critical. If you select an inadequate school, your career
Is there depth in the course offerings?
What non-computer graphic courses are offered? Youre going to need some depth in
your training, and that depth lies beyond computer technology. Does the school provide
traditional animation courses? Are there courses in photography and film? Courses in
design, drawing, scriptwriting and acting will be important in your training and in your
career. These are the skills that can make you stand out as a great job candidate. [For
more about traditional design training, see Eric Szantais Industry Insider:
Graphic Design: Getting An Education.]
How good is the lab?
Finally, how complete and how large is the CG lab? A good school will provide you with the
newest computers, software and graphic technologies available something you may not
be able to afford if you attempt to learn CG purely through self-study. So, ask to see the
lab before you sign up. Find out how accessible the lab is. Is it open evenings and
weekends? Is it well-maintained? Are there enough systems and printers to accommodate all
the students? A great lab is no good to you if you always have to wait to use it.
The Self-Study Approach
If you have lots of time, lots of money, and want to develop expertise without attending
school, you can set yourself up with a system and learn to use computer animation tools on
your own. Some of the books and software that you'll need are listed below.
The problem with this approach is that you will learn the
tools, but you probably will not acquire the skills that make a great employee (e.g.,
interpersonal skills, like the ability to communicate well). You will also miss out on the
opportunity to learn one-on-one from expert teachers.
No matter how you acquire your expertise, dont
expect to become proficient at animation overnight. It will take you two to four years to
build a good, solid foundation of knowledge. Then it will take additional time to hone
your particular talents. If you can afford to go to school and you have a system
at home, then you are in great shape.
Most of the older professionals working in the field
today had to learn on their own because there were no schools for computer graphics. Today
there are a lot of great schools, but you still need to augment your courses with
additional self-study if you want to excel. Practice at home all you can, and start a
personal library. Acquire additional books about the software your school uses, and
subscribe to publications that influence the animation industry.
The Basic CG Library
Here a few books that I believe are important to anyone starting out in the animation
The Software Tools
Any training (or self-study) for a job in CG should include training in how to use the
four main software packages that are used in the industry.
These packages are:
- Alias PowerAnimator/Maya
- Kinetix 3D Studio Max
(With Alias Maya I include PowerAnimator, a heavily used
software package that is being superceded by Maya, but which is still very much in use.)
All these tools are available for the PC; some also have
Unix versions. At this time Lightwave is the only one available for the Mac, and Im
sorry to say it is not used very much for animation. Many animation companies use these
tools along with their own proprietary software. Pixar is a great example of a company
that develops its own software to solve problems they encounter during the creation of a
"Job": An Internship
Okay, now youve completed your studies and you are getting ready to graduate,
whether from a school or from your own "basement lab". Youve developed
your particular skills and talents in computer graphics and you are going to hit the job
market. Or, perhaps you are a year off from graduating and you are starting to think about
where you want to work. Its time to get some practical experience in the industry.
The best way you can do this is by getting an internship.
An internship is essentially a low-paying job (sometimes,
theres no pay at all) where you do all the grunt work in exchange for valuable
experience. Many schools have internship programs already running so you could start
there. You may have to take an internship in a company that is only indirectly related to
the CG industry.
What matters is the experience youre going to gain.
Consider it "paying your dues" or "doing an apprenticeship". Either
way, it can be important to your success. Theres no academic education or self-study
that will teach you how to actually do the work you need to learn from others in a
production environment. Make sure your apprenticeship (or first job) is relevant to your
career goal. You could work for a video company, a
television station, a theatrical agency, a photographer or even a printer. All of
these jobs can give you valuable production experience.
The Demo Reel &
A critical part of winning a job is having a good portfolio and a demo reel; these feature
samples of your work.
A basic portfolio will include character sketches,
sortboards, paintings, illustrations, figure drawings and motion studies that you have
done. It could also feature other work you have done in photography or design, if it
showcases your talents well.
A demo reel is a video tape that shows off your best
work. The key here is your best work not all your work. Even if you have
only a few projects under your belt, its still critical that you carefully select
what you are going to put on your reel. Remember: an employer is expecting to see your
best. If you "throw it all in", you wont come across well.
Your school may have courses on how to put together your
portfolio. This is a good start, and looking at other peoples work is a great
indicator of what recruiters are looking for. But, you need to keep in mind that there are
thousands of other job hunters out there taking the same courses and often producing
portfolios that look pretty much alike. Your goal is to stand out never forget
that. In the end, the best way to create a great portfolio and demo reel is to follow your
own judgment and emphasize the areas in which you really shine.
The Demo Reel Is Your
A typical demo reel includes:
- opening title
- 2D pencil tests
- a walk cycle
- a decently rendered scene with a camera move
- a space scene
- a scene that's "just not done yet because I didn't
have time to get it to tape and the equipment was down . . ."
- closing title
This is a typical reel. But, "typical" is not
what you want because it is what everyone is showing. This industry is competitive and if
you show a demo reel that is like the one listed above then you will not look any
different than anyone else.
So, what should you do to stand apart from your
competition? What is it that the industry is looking for?
The Ask The Headhunter
We all know that you are hard-working and interested in the industry; that you are a quick
learner; and that you probably have a system at home with software that you grabbed off
the Internet. That describes your competition, too. To go the extra mile, ask yourself two
- Why should a company hire you?
- Why should they pay you good money to work for them?
These are not easy questions they are the kinds of
questions The Headhunter discusses in The Basics and in
his books. Every employer needs something different. Its up
to you to find out what. No school can tell you that; you must do research on the
company to find out for yourself. To make yourself stand out, you need to know what you
can bring to a specific company to help it be more successful. Once you figure that out,
you can produce a resume and demo reel that will make the
company stand up and take notice of you.
In other words, a great demo reel shows off skills and
abilities that are most relevant to a particular emloyer.
You do not need to have a lot in your reel. Just
something that is good that reflects your interests and talents and will clearly state why
you would be a useful addition to a creative staff. Are you particularly good at modeling
or at setting up a composition? Do you have a talent for creating dynamically lit scenes?
Are you really good at animating characters with lip-synch? If so, prove it. The best demo
reel is the one that leverages your strengths; so, build yours that way.
Join The CG Community
Remember that you will most likely be working as part of a creative team, so being a team
player is very important. Having great ideas counts, but its just as important to be
able to work as part of a team that works together to produce great content. So, be
positive and confident, but not egotistical or overly-opinionated. Project a team-oriented
Finally, you need to become a part of the CG community.
You need to be actively involved. It is critical that you learn to network
and meet people. You can join user groups, Internet communities, go to conferences
(Siggraph in particular) and other animation or design clubs. The best way to locate
computer graphic clubs, animation or film clubs is through the Internet. Some important
When you participate in the CG community always be
friendly and remember that you are representing not only yourself (and your employer, if
youre working), but also others in your industry. Dont just take; give
something back. Participate actively. Thats what will increase your own value when
it comes time to seek a job.
So, get to work! Spend some time reflecting on who you
are and what you do well, and put something together that will impress. This is an
exciting and satisfying industry to work in. Position yourself to be an exciting animator
and a "satisfying employee", and youll be on your way to a successful CG
is a computer graphic artist specializing in modeling for design and animation. He has worked as a Senior Art Director for a
design agency, and as a designer for a broadcast effects company. An
occasional lecturer and instructor on computer graphics and graphic design, Michael now runs his own firm, Klouda Studios, providing services including web design, multimedia and 3D
NOTE: The advice provided above is an opinion, not
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responsible for its accuracy, use or mis-use.
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