By Robert Appleton, Faculty, 3-D Animation Program, New York Film Academy
Unquestionably, a career in animation sounds like fun – and it is. But are there enough jobs in it, and what does one study to become an animator?
As animation and special visual effects in television, video games, in films and on the Internet become increasingly sophisticated, demand for the artists who can create them has increased. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that about 66,500 people in America work in jobs involving multimedia art and animation. About 5,500 new jobs are added annually, a growth rate of about 8 percent. One has to acknowledge that a lot of animation jobs are offshored (made in other countries where labor costs are less), but that does not work for all productions. Many jobs need to be done with good physical and cultural proximity between animators and employers.
The median pay nationwide is $58,510 and the jobs largely fall between the motion picture and video industries, as well as independent contracting to those in non-entertainment enterprises. For businesses, computer animation is valuable in marketing for several reasons: Animation can provide neat, visual summaries that easily grab attention. Some things, such as anatomical workings inside the body or mechanical devices that cannot be photographed or are not yet built, can be seen by way of animation. Companies that use animation – as well as political organizations, which used animation more in the 2012 election cycle than ever before – can be perceived as more technologically sophisticated as well.
A bachelor’s degree is advantageous for entry-level candidates in the industry, according to the BLS, however companies hire according to abilities and a good reel. Degrees can come from the larger animation schools in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – I teach at the New York Film Academy, which has animation school programs on its LA and NYC campuses – or a number of colleges or vocational arts training programs offered around the country and online.
Before acquiring a degree in animation, however, there should be a disposition toward the art form. A native and developed skill, at the high school level, in drawing and illustration is highly recommended, in order to gain work in specific areas of the industry. That said, not all areas require a highly developed artistic level. Technical expertise in other areas of the animation pipeline is equally well-received.
A natural aptitude for art and illustration certainly is an advantage for illustrators. But technical proficiency in other aspects of animation are marketable skills in the industry also.
This sampling of what an animator learns in the NYFA eight-semester bachelor’s degree program illustrates how the animator develops into a valuable professional:
Fundamental knowledge of computer graphics (using Maya, a world class, industry-standard interface)
- Understanding computer-generated 2-D and 3-D applications
- Computing and film art
- Creation of digital anatomically correct characters and the creation of plausible fantasy anatomy
- Construction of a traditional maquette (a type of scale model)
- Development of analytical skills in critical thinking and critical film studies
- 3-D comprehension
- Set up character rigs for animation.
- Lighting, shaders and rendering in animations, and for the integration of CG characters in live-action.
- Development of original characters in a process of character design and creation
- Critical film studies
- Psychology of performance
- Proficiency in Python programming languages and MEL (Maya embedded language)
- Compositing of 3-D with live action film
- Creation and control of natural and fantastical dynamic FX (e.g., smoke, fire, dust and volumetric fluid dynamics)
- Standards and business practices of the business of animation
Character with binoculars
With CG 3-D technologies, realistic features such as sunglass reflections need not completely obscure the eyes behind them, just it happens with real people. Students learning animation today have many more tools available to them than in the past – with industry expectations to match.
Animation studies are complemented with coursework in English composition, public speaking, social and behavioral studies, college math, environmental biology, dramatic literature, comparative literature, and art, culture and society. Of note, the New York Film Academy introduces freshmen to physical and mental wellness in a class dedicated the topic. We believe that personal health fosters both productive learning and a creative atmosphere to the benefit of the student, the professional animator and their product.
Some will debate whether or not it is necessary to incorporate liberal arts studies into the development of animators. I would suggest the difference is between the animator who has a broader understanding of the role of animation in the marketplace and in society versus those who might digitally draw well but may be less of a storyteller. Animation can be used for all kinds of purposes, and it is up to the animator to create the characters, landscape and mood required. The most effective animation, the kind that suspends disbelief on the part of the viewer and which transcends digital imagery and the software used to create it, comes from a place where only an aware and educated animator can be.
Robert Appleton is a faculty member of the 3-D animation program at the New York Film Academy. Appleton studied at the Camberwell School of Art, where he received his BFA, and subsequently earned his MFA in Animation and VFX at the Academy of Art University.