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Career in Animation: The Ultimate Guide (2024)

by | Last updated Jan 31, 2024

Want to know how to build a career in animation? 

An animation career can be incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, with the opportunity to work on exciting projects. 

This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about a 3D animation career, including different roles in 3D animation and some of the key skills you will need.

Want to learn more? Read on!

What is 3D animation?

3D animation is a graphic technique for digitally creating moving, three-dimensional images. Animators are the ones who create these images and add movement, shadows, and other elements to bring them to life. 

Animation is a growing field – not just in feature films, but also television, gaming, advertising, and marketing. What’s more, an increasing number of industries, such as architecture, use animation. 

Animation is broad and there are plenty of ways to specialize as an animator. We’ll look more at different types of animation below. 

But first, let’s take a look at what it means to work in animation.

Working in animation 

Animation, as a creative field, is a great choice for you if you are a creative who enjoys working with digital tools. It’s a multi disciplined and flexible field. 

But are 3D animators sought after? Here’s what you need to know.

Are 3D animation jobs in demand?

Yes, 3D animators are in demand, with many industries looking for talented animators. Animation jobs are expected to grow by 5% every year until 2031. 

Many job opportunities are in the entertainment industry, but there are also plenty of jobs in corporate fields. 

For instance, I built my career as a 3D lighting artist in the entertainment industry, working on movies like Rio and Ice Age. Today, I work at a Fortune 100 as a Creative Leader. In other words, there are plenty of ways in which your career can evolve. 

Do 3D animators get paid well?

3D animation, overall, can be a lucrative career path, especially as you gain more experience. The median animation salary is $78,790 per year, but salaries depend on experience, background, and location. For instance, animators in Northeastern and Western states tend to have higher salaries. 

Plus, salaries depend on the type of animation role. Here’s what you need to know about them. 

What are the different types of roles in the animation industry?

One of the many benefits of a 3D animation career is that there are many roles within 3D animation to explore and build your skill set, depending on your interest. Some of the different types of roles in the animation industry include: 

Storyboard Artist

A storyboard artist is responsible for bringing to life the narrative through visuals. The storyboard takes the form of a series of panels with images that show the types of shots and the overall visual look and establishes continuity. This storyboard will serve as the foundation of the animation moving forward. As a storyboard artist, you will work with the director to develop a vision of the animation using the script. 

3D animator

3D animation is the next role after the storyboard artist following the production journey. As a 3D animator, you take the static visuals from the storyboard and add motion and sound to make the visuals three-dimensional. Again, there are a variety of techniques and programs that can be used to bring the animation to life from the storyboard. 

Lighting artist

Lighting artists play an instrumental role in the animation process. As a lighting artist, you focus on a specific part of the animation process through different lighting techniques. As part of the animation, lighting artists will use light to create the mood, atmosphere, tone, and depth in each animation scene. In addition, lighting artists use the script and story as their guide and add light as needed to create the desired effect for the overall narrative. 

To learn more, take a look at my guide on how to become a 3D lighting artist.

Lighting example

Image Credit to Jordan Osborne

Lighting example in ACES workflow

See the difference between these two images? Lighting can completely change the mood of an image.

Visual Development

3D animation needs the right visuals in order to bring the story to life and fit the narrative with the visuals. Roles in visual development for 3D animation focus on creating cinematic atmospheres and bringing depth to the animation. Visual development will involve establishing the animation’s tone, mood, and color palettes, and working with other 3D animation roles, such as lighting artists, to integrate the overall vision into each scene. 

FX Artist

FX artists are responsible for creating 3D effects and simulations based on the animation. FX artists will usually be experienced in realistic and stylized effects depending on the type of animation and can include different elements such as particles, fluid collisions, and other dynamic effects. 

Game designer

A game designer is a unique career path for 3D animators, as it requires much of the same skills and technique but in a different setting. Game designers are responsible for creating rules, characters, settings, and narratives for games and testing early versions of the game. Some game designers may also have programming experience and write the code for the game, but others may choose to focus on the 3D aspect of the game and its design rather than programming it. 

Stop motion animator

Stop motion is a specialized animation technique that works like a flip book in some ways. The animation technique involved photographing and physically manipulating objects into the frame, like a flipbook, and each frame is filmed in sequence. The resulting effect is that it looks like the object is moving on its own. 

Compositing artist

Compositing artists are needed for the final image of the frame, VFX sequence, or shot. Compositing artists are responsible for combining all of the computer-generated images and any other footage to create a final, cohesive image.

Environment Artist

Environment artists create a digital 3D environment using concept art, real word references, and other materials. They essentially create the world for a film or video game, using various references to create an immersive environment. 

Background artist

Background artists use their animation and creative skills to create the backgrounds for animations and films. Animation backgrounds focus solely on the background (as opposed to creating the overall environment and the visual storytelling) and creating a thorough and complete animation shot with the right background elements. 

Other roles within the animation and game industry include:

  • Character animator
  • Clean-up artist
  • Digital ink and paint artist
  • Image Editor
  • Keyframe animator
  • Layout artist
  • Rendering artist
  • Rigging artist
  • Storyboard artist
  • Texture artist
  • Art director

So, now you know what different roles are available. But how do you start a career in animation? Let’s take a look. 

How do you become a 3D artist?

How do you ultimately start your career in animation? Here below, you’ll learn what it takes to build a 3D animation career

How hard is it to get a job in animation/games?

Breaking into animation can seem challenging, but there are certain things you can do to set yourself apart. By focusing on a strong demo reel, you’ll showcase your talent and skills and have tangible examples of what you can create. 

Additionally, depending on where animation studios are located, you may need to potentially relocate to another country or city for a position and/or require a working visa depending on the location. This may only sometimes be the case, but preparing beforehand and looking at different locations can help you identify the best career pathway for you. 

Do you need a 3D animation degree? 

An animation degree can be helpful, but it is optional for a 3D animation career. 3D animation degrees can take a long time and can be very costly in the long run. An animation degree can cost between $15,000 to $50,000 per year.

Another option is to opt for 3D animation certifications. However, 3D animation certifications can take between one to two years and be very expensive. The average cost for a 3D animation certificate can range in the thousands and may not be the most affordable option comparatively. 

Alternatively, online, self-guided programs such as our lighting courses at the Academy of Animated Art are a great option for building a 3D animation career. These courses allow you to learn at your own pace and develop the most relevant skill sets for an animation career. 

Additionally, 3D animation programs like the ones offered by the Academy of Animated Art are led by industry experts, giving you valuable insight into the animation world while also building your technical knowledge. 

For instance, we regularly do community lighting critiques, like this one: 

You can also find us on Discord

What are the 3D animator job requirements?

When it comes to 3D animation job requirements, there are a few different things to consider. There are many different roles within the field, so you’ll need to narrow down what you are interested in. 

The best way to identify the requirements you need to fulfill is to look at the 3D animator job description and get the right training and build a demo reel that fits the role. For instance, learning to use Maya is a prerequisite for 3D lighting artists, so look into specialized training and build a demo reel with your new skills. (Our own “Intro to Maya” is a good starting point.)

You might need to learn some of the following, depending on the career you opt for: 

  • Blender: Blender is a free, open-source 3D software used for animation and includes features such as motion graphics, models, and visual effects.
  • Game Development Fundamentals: Demonstrating an understanding of the foundational principles of designing and developing a game
  • Animation: Your demo reel should be able to demonstrate your experience in animating graphics
  • 3D Rendering: Mastering the process of creating photorealistic 2D images from 3D models.
  • Unreal Engine: You’ll need to show mastery over 3D creation programs such as Unreal Engine
  • 3D Rigging: You may need to show your rigging skills, i.e.,  skeleton animation, and whether you can add motion and action to your 3D characters. 
  • Motion Graphics: You might be asked about your general knowledge of adding motion to graphics
  • Character Modeling: An essential requirement for 3D animation jobs is to show how you transform a character concept into an animation

What 3D animator skills do you need? 

The best way to navigate the growing world of 3D animation is first to identify what career in the animation industry is the best fit for you. You can narrow your options by exploring categories such as modeling, lighting, shading, and animation. If your interest lies more on the development side, roles like technical development (“TD”) could be the right fit. 

You’ll find these categories across gaming and animation, but the titles may vary depending on the industry. Narrowing it down can help you identify the best programs and specific skills to learn for your 3D career path. 

On a broader level, having an eye for detail is crucial. Additional skills include demonstrating an understanding and importance of core principles in art, such as color theory and painting can be helpful in this field. But ultimately, 3D animation skills are about matching your creative flair with technical expertise to create truly unique animations. 

If you’re not sure where to learn more about 3D animator skills, the best way to get started is to look at the industry. Research people currently working in the types of jobs you’re interested in and their demo reels. This gives you an idea of what recruiters and studios are looking for and what other people have done to get to that position. 

Think of it as the baseline you’ll need to get hired and the education programs you will need to master. 

That way, you’ll get the most out of the techniques being taught, and you’ll be able to work with your mentor and learn more about the industry. 

Build and improve your resume as you develop the necessary skills and expertise. Your demo reel is a large part of the evaluation process, so work towards including your best work. Adding soft skill training and interview practice will help you easily get through the 3D job application process. 

Over to you!

There you have it! Now you know what it takes to start a career in animation.  

You have plenty of options to choose from when deciding on what type of animation career you want to build. Understand your strengths, goals, and what you want out of your next role to choose the best 3D animation career for you. 


Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

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