Disclaimer: This article is directed towards aspiring animators that need a little direction in choosing the best learning path for them. I’ll discuss my experiences with different learning resources and the methods that helped me become an expert animator.

Taking the Leap

3D animation is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, which means that there is a tidal wave of aspiring animators entering the field. Malcolm Gladwell’s theory around becoming an expert in practically any field, suggests that spending 10,000 hours of practice will guarantee that achievement. What if we could cut those hours down to 8,000? Or at least ensure that we’re not spending 12,000? Choosing a new career path is a monumental step, but knowing which hills are worth climbing makes all the difference when mapping out your future in animation. 

Animation is an industry that is rapidly evolving, which demands a constant thirst for knowledge and a willingness to adapt to change. This makes it more difficult to become an expert, since all of the experts are learning new techniques with cutting-edge software on a regular basis. This is why the majority of 3D animators and digital artists specialize in one category. You can spend a lifetime learning everything there is to know about animation, but at some point you’ll realize what’s most fulfilling and lucrative for you. 

For myself, I knew that co-founding Fog Coast Productions required me to be a 3D generalist. Someone who can handle all aspects of the animation pipeline (modeling, rigging, animation, rendering, etc.). I’ve chosen to spread myself “thin” across each field. However, I can use what I know to deliver a pretty solid asset from concept to 3D render that no specialized artist could produce on their own. Some artists prefer to work for a big studio, which means most of the artists have one, maybe two roles that they’re hired to do for several months. It’s important to figure out where you want to be in 3-5 years, so that you can plan your learning path accordingly. 

Having goals and a direction is great, but your path to becoming an expert in 3D animation will inevitably be an unpredictable one. Technology will change, your interests will evolve and the knowledge you gain will sharpen your focus from what you thought you’d become, to what you’re meant to be. Regardless of your chosen field, whether it’s character animation, environment art, UI design or 3D generalist; these methods for learning animation will propel you towards your aspirations of breaking into the industry. My hope is that choosing these learning paths will cut down on those 10,000 hours and inspire you to hit the ground running on your journey to becoming an expert animator. 

Method #1 – Schools/Programs

The best way for anyone that’s new to animation to learn more efficiently is through schooling or paid programs. The first time that I opened Autodesk Maya I was so intimidated that I felt paralyzed looking through all of the panels and buttons, afraid to touch anything! With direct guidance, novice artists can overcome those fears on the first day of opening complex software. 

It’s important to make it clear that not all schools/programs are equally beneficial. This is why having a general understanding of your end goal is so important. If you have absolutely no idea what you want to do and have a lot of cash to spend on schooling, the Art Institutes might be an ok fit for you. However, if you’re like me and know that you’re interested in character animation, a school like Animation Mentor (my alma-mater) would be a great choice. I recommend researching programs that specialize in animation because they usually are more focused and affordable than college programs can be. Some other programs that you should look into are Gnomon Workshop, CG Spectrum, Ringling College and AnimSchool. Some programs are more expensive than others, but a lot of them offer student loans and dynamic payment plans. If the goal is to cut down on the amount of time to become an expert in animation, then paying for the RIGHT education is the best route.

Another avenue is an even more focused approach: online tutorial platforms. I’ll talk more about free tutorials in method #4, but there are some great websites where you can pay an extremely low rate to get pre-recorded tutorial sessions from industry professionals. These are useful for obtaining a specific skill or learning a particular software. I’ve been using Udemy.com to learn Houdini, which is the most challenging piece of software that I’ve encountered. Some other great places to find tutorials online are: Linkedin Learning, Gumroad, EnvatoTuts+, and Skill Share.

Method #2 – Experience

One of the most valuable assets you can have when trying to get hired or start a business is experience. You might be thinking “How can I get experience if I’ve never been hired?” The answer is: passion projects. You may not make any money from working on your own short film or walk cycle, but you sure as heck will gain experience. The beauty of the animation industry is that you don’t need to spend $100K on education to produce great animation. If you have an amazing animation reel, my company and most others, don’t care where you went to school. The downside is that most studios can tell within seconds whether you’ve put in the time and effort to become a solid animator. 

Experienced animators, especially generalists, usually share a particular skill that is extremely helpful to a studio or small animation company: problem solving. With the complexity of the software and demands on your cpu/gpu, we inevitably run into technical problems. A director always appreciates the person who can accurately diagnose an issue and fix it before it becomes a financial nightmare for the company. Every project that you work on, big or small, can introduce problems that you learn to identify and overcome. 

Also, passion projects are great because they’re yours. You get to choose who the characters are, the style of the environment and the message you want to put out in the world. This keeps your momentum high and burnout potential low. The worst case scenario is that you never finish, but at least you’ve gained experience. 

Method #3 – Mentorship

Mentors are fantastic because they act as bumper guards that keep you from rolling into potential gutters. These gutters may consist of bad design tendencies, habits that lead to burnout or choices they made that damaged their careers. They’ll point out where your art is lacking, what’s working well, and how you can level up. One of the most important practices that studios and animators utilize is a second/third/fourth eye. I’m referring to an independent observer(s) examination of your work to point out anything that doesn’t look or feel right. 

This practice is crucial to achieve both believable and appealing animation, but what’s equally as important is your ability to handle constructive criticism. Being on an animation team will test your humility and patience. Nobody enjoys hearing that their work is bad, especially in front of a group of their peers. However, it’s imperative that you avoid feeling offended in order to achieve quality animation. Everyone’s eyes are different, especially from the ones (yours) that have been looking at the same shot a thousand times for the last week. Understand that everyone wants the best results, so pulling back on your pride and listening to your mentors will turn you into a valuable asset to the team.

Method #4 – Tutorial Videos

One of the most common features in the life of a digital artist is the use of tutorial videos. The first job that I landed as a 3D generalist was at a small AI company. There were PHD’s in computer science and me. No mentors or senior animators, just me and the google machine. Free, online tutorial videos saved me from having to admit that I had no business claiming to be the entire animation department. Everything that I didn’t know, I searched for and usually found on YouTube or Vimeo.

This isn’t recommended for folks that are just starting out because usually the lessons assume an intermediate level of knowledge about the software. If I had the time or the funds to pay for rigging, modeling or rendering courses, it would have made my life a lot less stressful. However, I’m constantly using tutorials to expedite my process, learn new techniques and save my butt when I have no idea how to pull something off!

I went into more detail about this in my other blog post: 19 Best Tutorial YouTube Channels For Animation, Visual Effects And Motion Graphics. I included links to a bunch of YouTube channels that have really helped me over the years, so check them out!

Bonus Tip: Observe Everything, Be Physically Active

Humans are visual creatures by nature, which is why the average joe can watch a film with no animation experience and point out when something doesn’t look or feel right. They may not be able to explain why, but they know that it looks off. Your job is to be able to identify why that walk cycle isn’t working or diagnose incorrect deformations of the face. In order to do that, we have to become observers of the world around us. Watching the way people run, studying the way the face deforms differently for each emotion, or how the anticipation of the body moves before throwing a football. 

My first animation reel, like most animators’, was terrible. I brought it to a studio where professional animators looked it over and were not impressed. However, they asked me about one of my clips: a baseball swing. One of them said with confidence, “You played baseball, didn’t you.” I replied, “Yes, I played in college.” Another animator said, “We can tell because that’s the most physically accurate animation piece on your reel.” 

We’re often better at what we know and the fact that I’d taken millions of swings with a bat throughout my life meant that I could feel the inertia of the batter as I was animating him and pinpoint issues with the movement on the fly. I realized that having a deep understanding of physicality is largely dependent on our life experiences, which translate to a deeper, more accurate perception of motion.

Final Thoughts

Whatever you take from this article, I think it’s important to understand when you pursue a career in animation, you’re committing to a lifetime of discovery. It’s an exciting road to travel, but has many obstacles along the way. There really isn’t a final destination. If anything, it’s the acceptance of a lifestyle that demands creativity, adaptation and grit. I wish you luck on your journey and hope that this chops off some hours in the pursuit of becoming a true expert in animation.

Written By: Steve Cook – Creative Director, Fog Coast Productions