Author Topic: Talk to me about computer animation  (Read 3687 times)


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Talk to me about computer animation
« on: November 26, 2016, 08:17:37 AM »
My 17yo son has dabbled a bit in computer graphics; from doing some CAD for his robotics team, he moved on to Blender and now has built a very simple computer game in Unity.  He's thinking he might want to do computer animation for a living.  My husband and I know nothing about this field. Can you help us give him advice?

First, my husband's biggest concern: is animation a solid career path? Our son is a serious-minded kid; he has been brought up with frugal habits, and would love to earn enough to have a family while young and retire early. So on the one hand, he doesn't want to go into a field of only starter jobs, as it were.  Nor does he want a field like professional sports where only a tiny fraction of the best earn a living at it.

Second, we've read wildly divergent advice on the internet about how to get into the field.  Some places make it sound like Julliard--if you don't have a serious portfolio with which to apply to college, you're too late to the game already.  Others make it sound like all you have to do is create animations for fun on your own and you'll be able to get a job.  If anyone here actually knows people who work as animators and how they got there, I'd love to hear about it!

Thirdly, is it a field where freelance work/running your own business is common?  That is one path our son thinks he'd like to pursue.

Thanks, all!


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Re: Talk to me about computer animation
« Reply #1 on: November 26, 2016, 09:52:41 AM »
My brother is an animator. He did freelance/online work for very low pay for 5 years after high school, and just recently landed a full time contract for a small studio at ~$48,000/yr. It has not exactly been a solid path for him, though I hope he is on a good track now. He was not interested in college, and he is working alongside new graduates. I think the divergence of advice you are seeing is between going to university-level art school (which is where most animation programs are housed) and actually getting a job in the industry. They are different things!

Freelance work is very common, from what I understand. It is also incredibly underpaid per hour of actual work it takes, and it can be difficult to find clients starting from scratch. My brother did not make enough to move out of our parents' house--and he is incredibly frugal (like, his shoes fell apart before he bought more). Hope this info is helpful!


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Re: Talk to me about computer animation
« Reply #2 on: November 26, 2016, 10:54:40 AM »
Thank you, that is helpful.  My son is not very interested in college, either; your brother's experience suggests that independent work can substitute for formal education.  A few years of living at home is less costly than a few years of tuition!


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Re: Talk to me about computer animation
« Reply #3 on: November 27, 2016, 01:03:05 AM »
Be wary of the private school animation colleges.  The ones here have a low student hire rate and are very specialized to a specific program or two, and very expensive.

Some people graduate to find that only one major employer out of 5 actually use or want training on the platforms that they have learned.  Also, that the animations that are shown as student work when researching the college are actually a compilation of previous work a student has done that was polished at the school.  Kids just starting out look no where near the same quality.

Two friends of mine have worked for Electronic Arts for many years.  They got in through their personal art.  as in paintings and drawing skills as a hobby since high school.  One has a science degree and manages a team now, and I am not sure about the other's background, but likely a communication degree, at least.  Neither had specific animation skills or training, but the company needed art designers for the games at the time of hire.

I think the Disney animation studio here looks for specific software training and talent when hiring.


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Re: Talk to me about computer animation
« Reply #4 on: November 27, 2016, 09:33:31 AM »
If he's actually programming the games himself, I would suggest letting him continue to experiment. It really doesn't matter how ludicrous the field is - he's 17 years old! He'll change his mind about what he wants a dozen times over in the next decade. What matters is he'll build up his programming chops and discover on his own how much more money there is in that. And he'll have the benefit of breaking in by doing something he enjoys - an opportunity not everyone gets.

Prairie Gal

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Re: Talk to me about computer animation
« Reply #5 on: November 27, 2016, 10:12:23 AM »
My son does motion graphics, so I am not sure if it is exactly the same as what your son is interested in. He is mostly self-taught. He has worked both freelance and for companies. He likes the freedom and creativity of freelance, but the steady paycheque of a job. He is currently working for an advertising agency and has also worked in television. He doesn't make huge amounts of money, but is naturally frugal and does very well for himself.

To me, at 17, when you have your whole life ahead of you, it is more important to go into a career that you love than to focus on retiring early.


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Re: Talk to me about computer animation
« Reply #6 on: November 27, 2016, 10:44:35 AM »
I have a friend who went to DigiPen for game design. He's always been able to find a job, but after working for small developers for $50-$60k for several years, he finally took a project management job making six figures at Microsoft. It's not "the dream," but he wants kids and a house and all that. The thing about this industry is that you're going to work long hours for the big guys or make not a ton of money for the little guys and hope one of their games blows up. It's one of those industries where you need a lot of passion and patience to survive.

Papa Mustache

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Re: Talk to me about computer animation
« Reply #7 on: November 28, 2016, 02:28:25 PM »
Tell your son to keep polishing his skills. Self-teaching himself Blender and other open-source software builds skills that he can then build upon to learn the proprietary brands of software that he might find in a school somewhere.

Meanwhile play, learn, experiment, self-study. Then try out a college program. Would be good to speak one on one with people in the business that aren't trying to sell him a program. Speak to the people doing the work, not the people selling classroom seats.

I'm very impressed with what is possible with free open-source software these days. I am a big user of Mint Linux KDE among others and have installed it well over 100 times for different people wanting to get started with it and expand their computer skills.


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Re: Talk to me about computer animation
« Reply #8 on: November 28, 2016, 07:08:23 PM »
I took some animation courses at BYU in Provo, UT (which actually has quite a good program that covers traditional and computer animation in a true-to-life studio environment, but there are very real cultural downsides to attending that school) and my ex-spouse earned a degree in animation and motion graphics, specializing in 2D computer animation (Toonboom, etc), although they did not seek work as an animator, but rather do freelance illustration.  I also know one person from high school working in the animation industry in LA although her path is a bit unique; she works for a nonprofit studio that trains and employs autistic individuals so her role is more teaching than directly animation per se.  All of us are 25-30 years old.

The main thing I gathered about animation, particularly if you want to work for a studio at all, is that it basically becomes your life.  Animation folks pay their dues with extremely competitive, low-paying positions (30-40k) and networking is everything.  The work hours can be extreme when you're starting out - or even while you're in school.  40 hour work weeks are not something you can rely on; 50-60 seems more standard from word of mouth.

Art portfolios and demo reels do matter.  In a studio environment, you'll have to produce work that matches whatever the show's style is.  Proving that you have a versatile range, and can do everything from characters to backgrounds to buildings/vehicles/etc is going to be useful.  Continuing to experiment with Blender, Unity, and possibly moving into Maya (if you can get ahold of it without paying an arm and a leg) would be good for 3D animation.  Adobe After Effects would be a good program for motion graphics and more special effects animation.  He could also look into teaming up with someone interested in making videos and adding animation, like Deerstalker Pictures does to build their freelance videography brand:

Also researching successful animators and their paths (Aimee Major is one I know, although she supplements with illustration and costuming: is a pretty good bet for figuring out not only what the best way to approach education vs experience may be, but also to solidify what part of animation he's interested in.  Only game design?  Working for a studio?  Developing his own game?  There are definitely options, especially if he's bound and determined to make it happen.  And if he's interested in the studio path, I think quite a few of them do offer internships, so that may also be something to explore.

Another hurdle may be that the animation industry tends to be extremely concentrated into just a few places, and most of them have pretty high COL.  Less important if you're able to telework, but I am not sure how common that actually is in animation.  Much more so if you are a freelancer, I would guess, but you would still need to have built up your network sufficiently to get those jobs.


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Re: Talk to me about computer animation
« Reply #9 on: November 28, 2016, 08:34:16 PM »
I've worked in the field of computer animation for over 20 years, getting my first Hollywood feature film visual effects job in 1996.  I've worked at some of the highest-end Los-Angeles visual effects shops in supervisory roles and also in hiring manager roles.  I've worked in feature film visual effects for 17 years and in the computer game industry for the last three.  It's been a lot of fun but it can also be hard work.  Here are some quick thoughts:

*I'd recommend avoiding pricey schools. There are people in this industry who have no formal education and others who have spent a ton of money.  Certification means very little in this industry: it's chiefly all about your demo reel: can you animate/texture/light/rig/comp?  That's what we care about, not where you went to school.  There are plenty of self-taught people out there and the software and hardware is fairly cheap.  I'd recommend getting student/demo cuts of software and teaching yourself at home to see if you enjoy it and are good at it.  I know guys who spent tons of money and are still paying off their student loans in their 40's. Don't be that guy.  That guy is sitting right next to some other guy who didn't spend much at all.

*The most successful people in this field are both artistic and technical.  Makes sense since you're creating art on a computer.  You don't have to be a genius at both but you have to be some sort of artistic problem solver. People who are pure artists tend to run into mental roadblocks when they need to debug a render that's not working and purely technical people aren't going to be able to create art. That's not to say that there's no place for these types of people: pure artists tend to do things more like concept painting while purely technical people do more of the programming, but if you want to be an animator, lighter, texture painter, fx artist, or rigger, you're planted firmly in the artistic/technical divide.

*Most of the feature film visual effects industry has undergone a pretty big upheaval in recent years, with much of it moving out of the country to follow tax incentives.  Digital Domain and Rhythm and Hues declared bankruptcy in 2013, Dreamworks had markedly decreased its staff, and Sony Imageworks has moved most of its people to Vancouver.  Quite a lot of the feature film visual effects industry is in Vancouver now.  Pixar, Disney, and Industrial Light and Magic have so far been pretty stable, though ILM also has a satellite facility in Vancouver now.

*Most feature film visual effects work these days is freelance, and this is doubly so for entry level people.  A typical first few years (or more) in the visual effects industry is spent hopping around from shop to shop as you start and complete projects.  When you're young and unattached this can be fun: work in Vancouver at Sony Imageworks for one show, work in London at MPC or Double Negative for the next, then jet down to Wellington New Zealand to work at Weta for another show. 

*You won't have much job security of you define job security as working at a single place of employment or in a single geography.  Visual effects is a commodity industry, margins are low, and many are run by non-business people. Shops go bust with alarming frequency and even if they don't, as a project hire you're probably going to have to look for new work the end of the project.  That said, people with good skills seem to always have work, though they may have to move around to stay employed.  If you're the type who wants to buy a house and settle down, this probably isn't the field for you, though as you gain more experience you might be able to land a staff job somewhere.

*The game industry at a top tier place (Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Take Two Interactive, Riot) seems to be more stable than feature film visual effects and that's where I am now.  Successful game companies own their own content and can charge a premium for it (i.e. they are NOT a commodity industry), leading to healthier profit margins and balance sheets. That's not to say problems can't occur.  All of these mega-successful companies are hit-driven, where the lion's share of the revenue is made by one or two games.  When that game fall out of popularity, something better be in the wings to take its place.

*Hours can be tough.  80+ hour weeks can be common.  During a push to get a film trailer out or to deliver a show 100+ hour weeks can happen.  This didn't bother me when I was younger because I loved what I did and I was surrounded by a bunch of other people who loved what they did and were super passionate about it.  It can be harder when you're older though and you have a family or hobbies you want to get back to.  The long hours are more prevalent in visual effects than at game companies but it can happen in game companies too.  Generally (though not always) the bigger game companies seem to have more normal hours since they're able to hire more infrastructure. I have it lucky now working at a successful game company and the hours are great, more around 40-50 hours a week.  When working on movies, CG features tended to be more sane than visual effects shows since you can mass produce more easily on a CG animation show: each shot is much more like the surrounding shots than with a visual effects show, where more stuff has to be hand-crafted per shot.


« Last Edit: November 28, 2016, 08:38:55 PM by mjs111 »


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Re: Talk to me about computer animation
« Reply #10 on: November 28, 2016, 09:47:30 PM »
Wow, thank you for all the perspectives!  Especially for the realism about how tough the working conditions may be.

Also thanks for the tip to look into art departments; we'd been looking at CS mainly and not finding much. My son has discovered that the university where my husband teaches (and where son can therefore get free tuition) offers an art major with a concentration in digital media.  He's now leaning towards that combined with some kind of business major.

My son I'm sure would especially say thanks for the advice to keep playing/working at animating on his own.  He'd much rather do that than his schoolwork!


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Re: Talk to me about computer animation
« Reply #11 on: December 04, 2016, 02:59:00 AM »
My son I'm sure would especially say thanks for the advice to keep playing/working at animating on his own.  He'd much rather do that than his schoolwork!

Buddy of mine was doing level design using a map editor for one of his favorite games in high school.  Went to a graphics design school for an associates' (two year) degree, then used that + his personal portfolio he had developed on his own to land his dream job at Blizzard designing worlds for their World of Warcraft game; been working there like 5 or 6 years now, and loves it, AFAIK.

Self-developed skills, a little education, and passion.  Awesome mix for success.
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