Disney Animation Career: How to Work at Disney (2023 Guide)

by | Last updated Jan 13, 2023

Have you always dreamt of having an animation career at Disney? 

Landing a job at Disney is competitive, but not impossible. So, today, you’ll learn how to build a Disney animation career from scratch. 

Want to learn more? Read on!

 

What is it like to work at Walt Disney Animation Studios? 

I regularly see these types of posts online:

And I get it. Disney is an incredibly attractive employer in the industry. After all, it’s one of the biggest animation studios in the world and home to some of the most beloved animated movies ever. 

Walt Disney Company was founded in 1923 by Walt Disney, and today, 223,000 people work at the company in different functions (as animators, amusement park employees, and so on). 

In other words? 

Walt Disney Animation Studios, with locations in Burbank, California, and Vancouver, Canada, is a powerhouse for animation, with many distinct styles that animators have used to build characters and worlds for movies. Disney movies are famous for their unique animation styles, depth of character, and storylines. They’ve been a childhood staple for people all over the world. 

So, you may be thinking, “Okay, great. Disney is huge. But what are the actual benefits of working there?” Let’s take a look.

Benefits of working at Disney 

I personally worked for Disney as part of Blue Sky Studios. As a 3D lighting artist, I worked on movies like Ice Age and Rio. (You can read my full story here.) 

And I can tell you: Working on animated feature films is fun. I have tons of anecdotes from my time as a 3D lighting artist. One day, we’d cuddle with kangaroos in the studios and the next, we’d be standing next to Beyoncé at a movie premiere. 

Image of work at animation studio

(Granted, every day wasn’t as glamorous.)

What’s one of the biggest benefits of working as a Disney animator? The top-notch products the studio produces. Disney continues to be synonymous with amazing animation, making it a great place to build an animation career and acquire valuable experience for your reels and resume.

You also get to work in an extremely creative environment doing things you love. Of course, like in any job, there are downsides (for example, most jobs are in “studio hubs” such as Los Angeles and NYC), but animation is a great option for a diverse and creative career.

Animators are well paid, and having a career at Disney means they’re able to develop and grow professionally in one of the most innovative animation studios in the world. 

Plus, as an animator at Disney, you get to work on new and exciting projects that have the potential for global impact. All of these elements combined make Walt Disney Animation Studios an incredibly in-demand employer. 

So, how much do animators make at Disney? Let’s find out. 

How much money do Disney animators make? 

The average salary for an animation career at Disney starts at $80,000. But it can go up to six figures – and beyond.

Keep in mind, though, that salaries can also vary based on the location and the level of experience needed for the role. So, be sure to check the salary offered for the specific job you’re applying for. 

How hard is it to get a job at Walt Disney Animation Studios? 

I’ll be honest: Getting a job at Walt Disney Animation Studios is a competitive process. But is it possible? Absolutely. 

With that said, here’s my first piece of advice: Don’t get stuck on Disney animation careers specifically. There are plenty of good alternative career routes out there, so keep an open mind as you apply for jobs. That way, you won’t get too focused on a single option. 

Remember, there’s more than just one way to build a career in this industry. 

But, there are a few things you can do to stand out to recruiters and increase your chances of landing your dream job. 

One of them is your demo reel. 

The key is to create a demo reel that sets your animation skills apart and encapsulates what you’re capable of creating. Being able to demonstrate how you apply your skills in your demo reel is crucial. 

Why? 

Because it’ll help differentiate you from other applicants who are also applying for animation roles at Disney.

If you’re just starting out in your career, applying for Disney’s internship program is also a great way to get your foot in the door. I talk more about the program further down below, so sit tight. 

But first, what skills do you need to build an animation career at Disney? You’re about to find out.

What skills do you need to become an animator at Disney? 

One of the most important things to have when considering a career in animation is a specialization. That’s because any major studio like Disney will want you to focus on one area and master it. 

We’ll go through the different areas of specialization below, but keep in mind that the skills you’ll need will depend on your area of specialization.

But, there are skills you’ll need to master regardless of your role in the animation process, including an ability to take feedback and collaborate.

In most animation careers, you also need an understanding of animation programs and how the industry uses them. Mastering popular programs such as Maya will be crucial.

And, as we already briefly talked about, you’ll need a demo reel to showcase your skills. A demo reel is typically around 15 seconds and serves as a highlight of your best work. 

Companies like Disney use your demo reel to understand your skill level and what they can expect from you in terms of capabilities and knowledge.

But how do you learn career-specific skills? You have a few options: 

  • Get a college degree 
  • Sign up for an online course taught by industry professionals 
  • Learn on your own 

I wouldn’t recommend the third option – there’s just too much that goes into any career in animation. Instead, look at degrees or an online course.

A degree will take longer to complete (anywhere between 2-4 years), and it can cost between $4,000-$10,000+ per year.  

On the other hand, shorter certification programs are also an option. They can take between 6-12 months, and the cost can range from $3,000-$5,000+. (That’s more of an estimate, so research your options.)

Then there are self-guided online animation courses. These vary in cost and length depending on the specific area of animation you’re interested in. 

Either way, the best courses are taught by industry professionals. They show you the skills you need to learn and also how to get a job.

For example, our own program, the Lighting for Animation Bundle, teaches you how to become a lighting artist. All of our courses are taught by professionals, and we also show you how to land a job in the industry. 

Okay, now let’s move on to the different animation career options at Disney Animation Studios. 

What types of Disney animation careers are there? 

With major studios like Disney, there are many types of animation careers you can pursue. So, the first step is to narrow down what area of animation you’re most interested in. You can do that by researching the different options available.

For example, read blogs or watch Youtube videos made by industry experts to learn more about what different roles entail. 

Below, we’ll look at the different roles at Walt Disney Animation Studios and what the positions require. This can help you narrow down the best Disney animation career for you. 

Curious to see the whole process from start to finish? Check out this video (produced by DreamWorks, not Disney): 

Ready? Let’s jump into the specific roles

Lighting artist

Lighting artists focus on creating emotion and adding depth to a scene. (Essentially, they’re the people who put the touches that make a scene feel something and who “beautify” it.) 

As a lighting artist, your role is to effectively light the scene for animation based on the mood, story, narrative, and other factors. You’re also responsible for creating the look and feel of a scene with lighting, drawing attention to particular parts of the scene, or detracting attention from other parts. 

If you’re interested in exploring more about being a lighting artist, resources such as the Academy of Animated Art Youtube channel could be helpful in your research. It’s always a plus to learn more about the animation industry from animation professionals themselves. 

We do a lot of lighting critiques that’ll give you an idea of what it’s like to work as a lighting artist: 

Character animator

Character animation is a complex process. And, depending on the role, you’ll often need to demonstrate niche skills to have a thriving animation career. Character animation is all about bringing together different elements to create digital characters that audiences will fall in love with. 

So, as part of the role, a character animator must understand concepts of anatomy, weight, locomotion, and appeal to create unforgettable animated characters.

Note, though, that this is one of the hardest roles to get into because it’s so popular. 

Crowds animators

A crowd artist is more of a niche role. As a crowd artist, you’ll balance both the creative side and the technical skills you’ll need to populate animation projects with crowds. A crowd artist handles crowd creation animation, starting from asset creation to mapping out and developing crowd behavior all the way to early shot layout. 

Effects animation

Animations are incomplete on their own. So, if the right effects aren’t there, the animation falls flat and won’t have any kind of emotional impact or resonate with the audience. 

As an effects artist at Disney, your job would be to bring that level of depth to animations by combining art and storytelling using technology to create visuals. Effects artists are charged with creating all kinds of effects in animation, from hyper-realistic imagery to more fantastical world-building that fits with the overall creative vision of the movie. 

Modeling artist

A modeling artist builds complex 3D models to bring concepts into dimensionality. Modelers work with teams of artists to use their knowledge of anatomy, digital tools, and traditional 3D sculpting to build and refine models that work for the story and the technical needs of the production. 

Essentially, a modeling artist creates the shapes of the different parts (characters, environments, and props) so that they can be shaded and animated. Modelers first work in a sculpting program and then work in Maya. Their jobs are creative, too, because they take concept artists’ designs and translate them into 3D models. 

Look development artist

A look development artist (or shading and texturing artist) creates the color, textures, and materials for the final rendered images. This is a highly artistic field for those who are good at painting or at using tools like Photoshop. For example, you might apply makeup to a character, make sure their skin has pores, or make sure their eyes look alive.

Rigging artist

A rigging artist, or a Character Technical Director, is usually responsible for specific aspects of the animated film, such as simulation setup and rigging. It’s a balance between understanding the technical aspects of the role and bringing artistic sensibilities to create a balanced finished product. Character Technical Directors must demonstrate a deep understanding of animation principles such as anatomy, tailoring, cloth in motion, hair in motion, simulation, and/or rigging to succeed in the role. 

Storyboard artist

As a storyboard artist or story artist, you would be working very closely with writers and editors at studios like Disney to develop and shape the narrative from a visual perspective. 

Storyboarding is the process of working with the rest of the team to bring the vision to life and put together the characters, the world, and the story itself. Storyboard artists will also consider the emotion, expression, timing, staging, and framing that go into each scene to shape the overall direction. 

Note that storyboarding, along with character design, is one of the hardest jobs to land in animation. It’s an extremely popular field. 

Layout artist

A layout artist is someone who takes the storyboard and blocks it out in 3D. It’s “rough” animation without coding to ensure that everything will work well in 3D. If it doesn’t, layout artists work to fit the story to 3D. 

CG Animator

If you’re interested in careers at Disney, a role you should consider is becoming a CG animator. CG animators need to be experienced in key animation principles such as timing, clear staging, squash and stretch, anticipation, follow-through, and secondary action. These are key components of being a CG animator and the types of skills you’ll need to have for the role. As a CG animator, you’d be part of the overall creative process to bring cartoons and characters to life. 

Character Pipeline TD

A character pipeline technical director at Disney wears a few different hats. They’re responsible for maintaining software tools, working with artists, and providing general troubleshooting throughout the CG pipeline for movies. A large part of the role is helping artists be more efficient with the tools and software available. So, having an understanding of animation helps drive that efficiency. 

Visual Development Artist

Visual development artists play a pivotal role in film animation. Why? Because they’re the ones responsible for crafting characters and worlds. So, visual development artists must have a strong grasp of appeal, color, design, and composition to thrive in the role. They’re the ones who establish the look and feel of the movie. 

Visual development artists will use different techniques and styles, including paint, ink, clay, and more to develop the right theme for the movie and define the visual look for the characters and the world. 

Talent Development CG Animator

If you’re in the early stages of your career, a role like Talent Development CG Animator might be the right fit for starting an animation career at Disney. 

These types of roles are specially designed for early-stage career animators. The goal is to help them develop their skills for CG animation while getting guidance and support along the way. 

So, the role includes mentorship, seminars, and other initiatives to help early-stage animators feel more confident about navigating the world of animation before diving into complex projects.

Okay, now you know the different roles you can pursue. But how do you get to the first step – landing an internship at Disney? Let’s take a look. 

How do you get an internship at Disney Animation Studios? 

Internships can be a strong foundation for your animation career and help you gain valuable skills. Now, do you need an internship at Disney to get an animation role at the studio? No. But having that prior experience can help set you apart from other applicants. 

And that’s valuable.

A Disney animation internship could be your first step towards a fulfilling dream role in the industry and help you gain experience that could shape your animation career moving forward.  

How do you land one of these internships, though? 

First, take a look at animators and artists online and study their work. Remember: Don’t compare your demo reel to other students’ work but to existing artists. (That’s not to say you need to be at the same level as them, but eventually, these are the demo reels you’ll be competing against.)

If you apply two or more times, make sure you also show the recruiters that you’re improving.

Second, be active on platforms like LinkedIn and share your work. Sure, you might not land an internship specifically at Disney this way. But you might land a different internship that could eventually help you land the role you’re looking for.  

Also, build relationships with the recruiters at the department you’re interested in. Be it on LinkedIn, at career fairs, or through your network, reach out to them and start building that rapport. 

At the same time, don’t forget to network with other recruiters, too. (Or the industry in general.) Join organizations, meetup groups, and get to know animators who work in the industry. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the program, take a look at Disney’s internship page. See all open positions here

Over to you!

Disney offers many excellent roles from a technical and artistic perspective. So, to find the best role for you, the first step is to figure out what aspect of animation you’re most passionate about. 

Ultimately, since Disney is one of the world’s top animation studios, landing an animation job there is a fantastic opportunity for professional growth and creativity. If you’re ready to build your Disney animation career, there are plenty of roles and career paths available. 

At the Academy of Animated art, we have the courses and tools you need to get a competitive edge and land your dream job. Check out our courses here to get started.

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