Three insider secrets to a lighting portfolio that lands your dream job.


Three Insider Secrets to a stand-out portfolio


The 10 Best CGI Animation Courses (2024)

by | Last updated Jan 23, 2024

Those cool visual effects you see in movies? Those were made using CGI! 

In the last few decades, CGI has been used from dramas to summer blockbusters. Even movies that you don’t expect to have CGI, like dramas and comedies, were made using this technique. 

CGI is a pretty controversial movie effect, and if you’ve often wondered what CGI is, what it consists of, how it is used to tell a story, and what CGI animation courses are available for budding CGI artists, check out this guide!


What is CGI?

At the most basic level, CGI or computer-generated imagery is the process of creating animated or still visual content using a computer. The computer content could be anything from characters to objects, scenes to special effects used in films, televisions, and games. 

One might think that CGI is used primarily in movies and games, but the technology is also used in engineering, advertising, VR, and architecture. Taking CGI animation courses helps hone and refine your skills, train your artistic eye, and understand the many programs used to create entire 3D worlds and characters.

The history of CGI

CGI started in the 1950s, and the first film that used CGI was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Back then, mechanical computers were repurposed to generate patterns onto animation cells for a feature film. Futureworld (1976) showed the potential of CGI. The amazing visual effects earned an Oscar for Scientific & Engineering a decade later. 

It took several decades to develop technologies that fully harness the power of CGI, allowing eye-popping visuals to breathe life to characters in films. 

In the 80s, Light & Magic developed incredible imagery that ushered in the CGI era, titled:  The Trench Run Briefing in Star Wars: A New Hope. The video showed a wireframe rendering of the Death Star, designed to provide last-minute training to the Rebel Alliance. This iconic piece of cinematic history revolutionized CGI technology. 

In the 90s, CGI continued to push the boundaries of computer power, mixing art with technology. While CGI technology made great strides throughout the 90s, it wasn’t until the 00s when studios were breaking boundaries. By then, movies were made using a combination of CGI and performance captures to achieve the highest level of CGI, bringing to life photo-realistic 3D characters. 

CGI today

Today, CGI is a critical part of all films. Even movies that you don’t expect to have special effects are created using CGI. And then there are movies that were made almost entirely of CGI. Superhero films, like Transformers or Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, rely heavily on CGI, with the latter consisting of 90% CGI. 

It’s tricky to make a computer-generated character or visual effect look realistic especially if the concept is too out there, like aliens, superheroes, monsters, etc. That’s why different CGI effects are applied to make the scene look as convincing as possible. One of these special effects includes lighting.

The emotion that a scene elicits is directly proportional to the amount of time the audience spends analyzing it. To catch the audience’s eye long enough to make a connection, you’ll need stunning yet accurate visual effects. 

Because lighting affects the overall mood and tone of a film, it adds believability to the scene. When the lighting of a scene looks convincing, the movie elicits the right emotions among viewers. 

How do you become a 3D animator?

If you have a passion for the arts and your dream job is to work in the movie industry, you should definitely study CGI. That said, if you want to start a career as a CGI artist, know that while it’s easy to get into, specializing in a specific area of study is time-consuming and expensive.

You can become a self-taught CGI artist by watching free tutorials and downloading open-source animation software programs like Blender. Still, the knowledge you’ll get from these sources is quite basic. Also, it’ll be easy to get lost if you don’t know the correct terms, techniques, and processes used in animation and CGI. 

If you want to master the skills, you’ll have to invest in your study. That means taking up formal training, signing up for CGI animation courses, and honing your technical skills.

Process of Lighting in CGI

  • Assembling the scene
  • Framing the scene
  • Lighting the scene
  • Creating the material 
  • Rendering

You’ll need to know how to create materials, light a scene, and apply special effects to your models. Lighting a scene, for example, will require a deep understanding of the many ways that light reflects off of objects and how different types of light travel through specific materials. You’ll also need to learn how light bounces around from direct rays, as it reflects off other objects, or how ambient light behaves in nature.

Eventually, you’ll need to learn how to render the scene, a process that’s complex yet indispensable to achieve photo-realistic results. Rendering is fairly time-intensive, so you’ll need to know all the settings and tricks to speed things up without sacrificing the quality of your work.

Career Paths for a 3D Artist

Requirement: A bachelor’s degree in art, computer graphics, animation, and computer science, or professional experience with technical proficiency. 

Entry-level positions require up to 1 year of professional experience, while mid-level positions require at least two years of experience. You should have a keen eye for design, creativity, professional expertise, and mastery of graphics and video editing software like Maya, Studio Max, Photoshop, Premier, Illustrator, Flash, After Effects, Final Cut Pro, etc. Also, you should know how to use a digital pen, digital paper, and digital camera to apply for the job. 

  • 3D animators
  • Animators
  • Gameplay animators
  • Level designers
  • Motion designers
  • Motion graphics animators
  • Motion graphics designers
  • Multimedia artists
  • Special effects artists
  • VFX artists

Being a CGI artist is a lucrative career. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2019, the annual salary for CGI artists and animators is $75,270 per year.

What does it take to become a CGI artist? A creative eye is essential because part of the job is creating eye-popping visuals like alien worlds, unique creatures, characters, etc. The position requires keen technical experience in software programs used by top studios. And because CGI artists do much of the work on their own, they should meet strict deadlines and have excellent time-management skills. 

You can earn a bachelor’s degree to become a CGI artist, but it will be much cheaper and faster if you study online. And if you think learning online won’t get you very far, here are what our students have to say after completing our CGI online courses:

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The 10 best CGI courses online

Next, let’s take a look at the top courses out there. These courses will help you start building your career. 

Here are the best 3D animation courses for beginners. 

Ultimate Lighting for Animation Bundle + by The Academy of Animated Art

cgi animation

We are starting off our list of the best CGI animation courses with AAA’s latest and greatest online course, the Ultimate Lighting for Animation Bundle +! 

Unlike most CGI animation courses that focus too much on the technology, our Lighting for Animation Course bundle will train your creative eye while honing your technical skills. The goal is to fine-tune your lighting skills to elevate every scene you’re working on while preparing you to become a competent CGI artist – for as little as $199!

At the heart of the Lighting for Animation bundle is our proven system that will train you to become a lighting artist even if you don’t have experience or background in animation. It’s one of the best CGI animation courses to take to master various 3D animation software programs while developing a keen artistic eye. The entire bundle consists of 7 animation courses, 6 technical courses, free student licenses to industry-leading software programs, and free assets and scenes!


Power of Light course

Course #1: The Power Of Light
Course #2: Character Lighting For Animated Films
Course #3: Environment Lighting For Animated Films
Course #4: Materials & Shaders For The Lighting Artist
Course #5: Compositing For The Lighting Artist
Course #6: Lighting An Animated Film
Course #7: Succeeding As A Lighter

3D Software Programs

Maya: Free Student License
Arnold: Free Student License
Redshift: Free download version
Octane: Free download version
Unreal Engine: Free Student License
Katana: Free 90-day trial keys + discounted educational license

6 AAA Technical Courses

A 6-course bundle that’ll help you master all the industry-standard software programs used by top studios. The course will give you the confidence to learn essential tools and techniques used by master lighting artists to elevate your work. Taught from the point of view of an artist, the technical course bundle provides a toolbelt of resources when working on ANY project.

Intro to Maya: Conducted by Mike Tanzillo, Co-founder, Academy of Animated Art & Senior Lighting Artist

Redshift workshop: Conducted by Shane Sternstein, Lighting Artist, Dreamworks Animation

Octane workshop: Conducted by Matt Wilson, Lead Lighting Artist, Blue Sky Studios

Arnold for Maya workshop: Conducted by Mike Tanzillo, Co-founder, Academy of Animated Art & Senior Lighting Artist

Katana workshop: Conducted by Abel Vargas, Lighting Artist and Katana Software Pioneer

Introduction to the UnReal Engine workshop: Conducted by Jordan Jenkins, Lighting Artist

lighting assets

Free Assets

Practice your lighting skills and make your demo reel stand out! This course comes with free access to our Asset Library. You’ll get FREE characters and scenes to light, which you can also add to your demo reel. Each month, we will introduce new assets to practice on!

The Ultimate Lighting for Animation Bundle + is one of the most comprehensive CGI animation courses you will ever find online. For as little as $199, you get all the essential tools and training you need to build a solid career in 3D animation. Learn more about our Lighting For Animation Course Bundle +.

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Creature Modeling and Sculpting by Gnomon 

Gnomon is a renowned art school and has helped thousands of professionals and students build a career in the entertainment industry. The school offers face-to-face and online learning. The curriculum specializes in distinct disciplines within 3D production. 

The Creature Modeling and Sculpting course will help you learn to create believable and finely detailed 3D creatures using Pixologic’s ZBrush. By the end of the course, you’ll conceptualize, sculpt, and render the 3D character. 

The workshop focuses on “design, research, and creating appealing forms” for the entertainment industry. The Creature Modeling and Sculpting course also feature a host of real-world demonstrations, lectures, and critiques on pipeline and design processes. 

Price: $1,323.00


  • Digital Sculpting
  • Software / Technique
  • Pixologic ZBrush
  • Adobe Photoshop

Sign up for the online course here

Note: This online course is only available to residents of California and those residing outside of the United States.

Asset Creation program by Think Tank Training Centre

Think Tank Training Centre is a premier animation school that specializes in 3D animation, visual effects training, and video game design. The school also offers mentorship programs by industry professionals. While the campus is based in Vancouver, Canada, the Think Tank training centre provides a host of online-based courses.

The Asset Creation Program is a complete, 4-term course consisting of:

  • Props & Environments for Film 
  • Characters & Creatures for Film
  • Environments for Games 
  • Characters & Creatures for Games 

Each of the terms above is required to complete the course. After completing the first term, you can choose what area of the study to specialize in. Apart from getting proper training, you can also connect with fellow students and mentors to ask questions, share portfolios, and receive professional art direction and feedback online. The course could be paid per term or all at once. 

Price: $2829.16


  • Windows desktop computer
  • A tablet
  • A webcam
  • A headset 

Sign up for the online course here

Advanced CGI / VFX Compositing Mini Masterclass by UDemy

The Advanced CGI/VFX compositing masterclass covers 7 sections of techniques and best practices for creating photorealistic CGI shots. This comprehensive workshop will help you gain a deep understanding of how to create a CGI shot from start to finish. This in-depth training series features fundamental VFX techniques and utilizes powerful animation and special effects tools such as After Effects, Element 3D, and Blender.

Price: $84.99


  • After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator, Element 3D, and Blender (free)
  • Nvidia GTX 1060 or newer graphic card

Sign up for the online course here

3D Modeling Course by CG Spectrum

CG Spectrum’s 3D modeling course enables you to learn 3D modeling and digital sculpting, allowing you to create realistic props, creatures, and environments using Maya, ZBrush, and Substance Painter. Conducted by industry pros, this online course offers highly personalized training using top studios’ latest techniques and tools. 

By the end of this online course, you will know how to create assets from scratch, understand professional workflows, and navigate different CGI and animation software tools. Online classes are held weekly, along with support and feedback. 


$1,185 per month
$3,199 per term


  • Computer with minimum specs for VFX and animation
  • ZBrush
  • Maya
  • Substance Painter

Sign up for the online course here.

Background Fundamentals 2020 by FXPHD

FXPHD is a monthly subscription-based learning platform that offers training programs for  vfx, post-production, and motion graphics. Apart from providing instructional videos for online learning, FXPHD also offers an online discussion forum and digital products. 

Background Fundamentals 2020 by FXPHD is a comprehensive online course that provides information and insights on various topics related to CGI, rendering, and virtual production. This course is designed for intermediate artists and VFX professionals. 

The course consists of three primary topics over 5 videos:  on-set LED virtual production, AI machine learning, and digital humans, both traditional CGI, and neural rendering. It covers different aspects of avatar creation, digital human animation, neural rendering, and a look at the stages of producing high-end digital human from scanning to the final render.


$55 per month (standard membership
$69 (premium membership)

Sign up for the online course here

Character Creation for Film/Cinematics by CG Master Academy

This is a 10-week online course that’ll train you to create highly polished characters featuring clean, efficient modeling for cinematics in film and games. Each week, the lessons will focus on different areas of character construction while exploring the many technical ways of assembling the final character. 

By the end of the course, you’ll know how to create exciting and believable characters from scratch and determine their ultimate purpose in a composition or narrative. This online course is suitable for advanced-level designers. Prerequisites include intermediate knowledge of Zbrush, Maya, or Max and familiarity with Anatomy for Production, Character Texturing for Games in Substance, and Hair Creation for Games.


  • Computer with minimum specs for VFX and animation
  • Maya (or equivalent)
  • Mudbox (or equivalent)
  • Arnold (or equivalent)
  • ZBrush
  • Marvelous Designer
  • Substance Painter

Price: $998 per term

Sign up for the online course here

3D Animation Foundation by the Academy of Interactive Entertainment

The Academy of Interactive Entertainment is an Australian-based school that offers CGI animation courses online. The 3D Animation foundations course is suitable for beginners, students with no direct entry course and no portfolio. By signing up for this online course, you’ll gain a deep understanding of the creative potential of 3D animation software programs used in movies, series, games, and visual effects. It covers different aspects of 3D animation and CGI: 

  • 3D modeling
  • Texturing
  • Animation
  • Lighting
  • Rendering
  • Character design
  • Environment design
  • Short movie production

By the end of this course, you will create a short animated film with a 3D character. You’ll learn how to turn ideas into concept art and storyboards. You will learn how to model and animate characters, objects, and scenes. Most importantly, you’ll learn how the 3D animation film industry works. This course will require a Higher School Certificate or Year 12 Certificate.

Price: $2990

Sign up for the online course here

Destruction Compositing Techniques in NUKEX by PluralSight

An expanded online tutorial that’ll have you create a post-apocalyptic scene using 3D space and projection techniques in NUKEX. The course covers different composite elements such as fire and smoke, making each element look as close to real as possible and then creating an entire environment within a scene. The camera is then exported to Maya to set up the scene and add the effects. You will also learn new techniques so you can work faster without sacrificing quality. The Destruction Compositing course is best for advanced level designers. 


  • Computer with minimum specs for VFX and animation
  • NUKEX 6.3v2
  • Maya 2011
  • V-Ray 2.0.

Price: PluralSight offers a 10-day trial, which includes access to their asset library. 

Sign up for the online course here

Creating a Short Film: 09 VFX Environments by LinkedIn Learning

Lesson 9 of a 13-part CGI animation course, Creating a Short Film shows you what it takes to create a short film. It starts from the brainstorming phase up to the opening night. The lesson focuses on visual effects and using CGI programs like After Effects to create a visually stunning world for the movie. It also covers the basics of compositing and keying.  

The course is conducted by Award-winning filmmaker, VFX artist, and professional worker in the film, video, and gaming industries Chad Perkins. He’ll demonstrate how to create a CG scene from scratch, remove objects with Mocha Pro and After Effects, create aerial shots, rotoscope the characters, and more. This online course is suitable for intermediate to advanced level designers. 

Sign up for the online course here.

Over to you!

So many online art schools offer CGI animation courses, so it’s hard to pick just one. While some of the schools featured on this list have a physical campus, the classes are designed for online learning – perfect for artists who want to learn about 3D animation and CGI at their own pace. 

Our advice is to choose a course that matches your skill level and the area of the study that you want to specialize in. It’s equally important to check the minimum skill and tool requirements as well as prerequisites before signing up for any of these CGI animation courses.  Our list features lessons for beginners to advanced-level CGI artists. 


Click here to browse all of the Academy of Animated Art course offerings.


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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