What is the Difference Between VFX and Animation? [2023 Guide]

by | Apr 28, 2023

What is the difference between VFX and animation? 

That’s what we’ll look at today. You’ll learn what the difference is between VFX and animation, how to learn VFX and animation, and examples of how they’re used. 

Want to learn more? Read on!

You’ll learn: 

What is 3D animation?

What is VFX?

Is VFX different from animation?

Career opportunities in VFX and animation

The most common VFX and animation jobs

How to learn VFX and animation

What is 3D animation?

Animation is the process of manipulating still images to appear as moving images – today, mostly with computer-generated imagery. 3D animation, or Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI), refers to the creation of 3D models. This process is done frame-by-frame by creating models, rigging them, and animating them.  

In comparison, 2D animation uses vectors, which are pathways with start and end points connected by lines. 

3D animation is used in various industries, from commercials to social media, movies, and gaming. 

What is VFX?

Visual effects or VFX refers to creating computer-generated visual effects. The imagery is manipulated after a scene has been shot in the post-production stage. 

Just like with 3D animation, the difference between 2D VFX and 3D VFX is that 2D animation is vector-based and the animation is created in a two-dimensional space. The vector pathways have start and end points connected by lines. 3D animation is three-dimensional and uses pixels instead of vectors. 

VFX can be used in movies, games, commercials – when there’s a need to create characters or environments that don’t exist or special effects that are difficult or impossible to shoot as live-action footage. In movies, VFX often requires the integration of live-action footage with 3D animation or CGI. 

Now you know what 3D animation and VFX are. But how do they differ from each other? Let’s find out.

Is VFX different from animation?

VFX and 3D animation are included in the same industry. And their pipelines often overlap.

Ultimately, both animation and VFX are about working with media. However, the type of media differs.

Animation focuses on computer animated movies/film or games. VFX uses software and specific techniques to create visual effects. 

To learn VFX, you need to master painting, rotoscoping, and principles of compositing. And to learn animation, you’ll focus on computer animation, traditional animation, or 3D character animation. 

The main difference between VFX and animation is that animation is the actual foundation of a scene. VFX adds that extra layer to the scene. 

For instance, a person who runs is created with animation, while an explosion in the background is enhanced with VFX. 

What are the top career opportunities in VFX and animation? Here’s what you need to know. 

Career opportunities in VFX and animation

The VFX and 3D animation industry are growing fast, and there’s a lot of opportunity for new artists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, special effects artists and animators earn, on average, $78,790 per year. That’s the average, though, and your as your career progresses, so will your salary. 

With more and more industries adopting 3D and VFX, the job growth is healthy, too. By 2031, the job market will grow by 5%. 

It’s also a fulfilling career, especially if you’re a creative who likes diverse work settings. Depending on your work, you might be able to work remotely. Alternatively, you can build that flexibility by going freelance. 

I’ve personally worked for years as a 3D lighting artist at major animation studios, with a focus on  Today, I work as a Creative Leader at a Fortune 100. I’ve also worked in VFX roles, which goes to show just how diverse your career can be.

But what types of jobs can you land? That’s what we’ll look at next. 

Person working on animation

The most common VFX and animation jobs

Typical VFX and animation jobs include: 


3D animators add movement to the storyboard or concept art. They manipulate digital machines, props, and characters to move through and interact with their environment. 3D animators are the ones who create motion, gesture, and expressions and make animations come to life. 

The way 3D animators work is by inputting mathematical equations into relevant software to create movements and trajectories. The equations are rendered via a graphics processing unit into playblasts. 3D animation requires both creative and technical skills. 


Compositors integrate CG assets, matte paintings, and live-action footage to create a moving image (shot). They match the layers with light and shadow, color and grading, perspective, and depth. Ultimately, they create a seamless experience as the last step in the VFX pipeline. 

For instance, compositors might be responsible for making actors appear younger or adding effects like motion blur or dust particles. Compositors work with software like Maya and Nuke. 


A rigger builds skeletons that operate as characters. They create the structural frameworks and controls of a 3D model and define how an animator will be able to manipulate it. Riggers create believable movements based on anatomy and physics in a virtual environment. 

The role is divided into two parts – rigging (generates the bones and controls of a 3D model) and deformation (makes the points of the model so they follow the rig in a smooth manner). 

A few tools riggers work with include Maya and MotionBuilder. 

Character Modeling

3D character modelers or character artists create digital 3D models of characters based on illustrations by concept artists. In film, 3d characters are often integrated into live-action, so character modeling typically happens in the pre-production stages. In games, character artists also work with interactive characters. 

A few tools character artists use include Maya and Blender. 

Environment Art  

An environment artist focuses on atmospheres and environments where characters live and move around based on the script. Environmental artist is often a specialized 3D modeling role. 

In films, actors are often filmed against a green screen and the environment artist then creates the surroundings, if the scene can’t be filmed in real life. In gaming, environmental artists create interactive surroundings that react to the player’s choices. 

A few software tools used by environment artists include Blender, Maya, and Substance Painter. 

FX Art

An FX (visual effects) artist adds visual effects to the animation with FX software, like SideFX’s Houdini. The scope of the role depends on the size of the company; at bigger companies, a FX artist might only work with a part of the process like building simulations. At smaller companies, they might also set up a render. 

FX artists need to understand lighting and how objects and different states of matter move and interact.


3D lighting artists use lighting to add depth and realism to a scene. 3D lighting artists can work directly with 3D animation or VFX. The role varies depending on the size of the team. In smaller teams, VFX artists must have both technical and artistic skills, whereas in other teams, lighting artists work together with a lighting technical director. 

Lighting artists use software like Maya, Arnold, and Redshift to create the right lighting. 

Shading/Look dev

Look dev artists (or surfacing artists) apply their skills both in the pre-production and post-production processes. In pre-production, look dev artists focus on the overall look of the artwork and develop the aesthetics. In post-production, they work on the final finishes on the game’s textures.  

Now, let’s take a look at how you can learn VFX and 3D animation. 

How to learn VFX and animation

The first step to becoming an animator or a VFX artist is to learn the skills you need in the industry, including software and different techniques. You have a few options.

Option 1: Get a degree 

You can enroll in a four-year full-time college degree (or a longer part-time degree). However, this option takes a lot of time – and it’s expensive. Animation degrees cost between $15,000 to $50,000. 

Ultimately, you don’t need a college education to work in the industry. What matters far more than your education is the quality of your work. 

Option 2: Sign up for an online course 

A better option is to take 3D animation and VFX courses and, that way, learn the skills you need. Courses are a more flexible and less costly way to build your skills. While you pay tens of thousands for a degree, courses can cost between a few hundred dollars to under ten thousand dollars. 

Look out for online courses that: 

  • Are established and reputable 
  • Are taught by industry experts 
  • Help you learn the skills you need depending on the career path you want to pursue 
  • Include advice on how to land a job in the industry 
  • Include an active community 

For instance, our own courses are taught by people with years of experience in the industry. Our flagship course, the Lighting Bundle (which teaches you how to become a 3D lighting artist and land a job in the industry), includes all of the above. 

Student testimonial

Here’s one of our students who landed a 3D lighting job.

You learn all the software you need to successfully build your career and you’ll get coached by mentors. You also get to practice your skills in our community where we host regular lighting challenges. 

Here are a few examples of our students’ work:


We also offer software-specific courses that dive into software like Maya, Unreal Engine, and more. 

You’ll find our other courses here. 

Over to you!

There you have it! That’s the difference between VFX and animation.

While animation is about creating three-dimensional models, VFX is all about creating computer-generated visual effects. 

If you’re curious to learn more, read our other content on animation and VFX: 

The 10 Best Visual Effects Courses 

How to Become a VFX Lighting Artist 

Types of 3D Animation and 3D Animation Techniques 


About Jasmine Katatikarn

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 about Jasmine here.

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