Animators create hand-drawn, modelled or computer-generated images that give the illusion of motion when played rapidly in a sequence.
Animators use their creativity and technical skills to create images that appear to come to life on screen. They produce a large number of frames by recording individual images of each stage of a movement. When sequenced together rapidly, the images appear to move. Images can be made up of digital or hand-drawn pictures, models or puppets.
Animated work is found in all kinds of media: feature films (Disney cartoons or Wallace and Gromit for example), commercials, music videos, computer games, architectural visualisation, websites, etc. Animation also covers a great range of styles, from art house to Hollywood blockbusters.
Animators normally need both artistic skills (drawing, acting, writing, sound recording and film making) and IT skills. Most specialise in one of the following techniques:
- 2D animation
The characters and surroundings are created on a flat plane. The animator can use hand drawing or specialist software to represent one stage of a movement at a time. Every drawing shows a subtle change from the previous one. This traditional type of animation was used in Walt Disney’s early animated cartoons or in simple devices such as a flip book where images appear to move as you flip quickly through the pages of the book.
- Stop frame or stop motion animation
Stop frame animation can use clay models, cut-out figures, puppets or other objects. The animator physically manipulates objects and photographs them on one frame of film at a time, moving the figure slightly between frames.
- 3D animation
Moving pictures are created in a digital environment using computer-generated imagery (CGI). This technique is often used in feature films, websites and computer games. The animator first creates 3D objects within a scene using various techniques such as rigging and mathematical functions. He then manipulates the models within the 3D software and exports picture sequences. Toy Story (1995) was the first feature film to be created and rendered entirely using 3D animation.
Most animation companies concentrate on one discipline but some studios do all three.
Within a company, animators often work with established characters although they can also have the opportunity to create their own characters and stories.
For full-time employment, salaries start around £15,000 per year. Experienced animators can earn £23,000 to £26,000.
Some sectors such as the gaming industry offer higher salaries.
Freelance salaries vary a great deal according to experience and industry. BECTU, which represents freelance workers in media industries, suggests a minimum daily rate of £175 for 3D animators.
- Find new ideas for characters and narratives
- Produce storyboards
- Pitch ideas to clients
- Develop animations based on a client’s brief
- Design and build characters, models, backgrounds, sets, etc
- Use hand-drawing techniques for 2D animations
- Create models out of clay, plaster and other materials for stop frame animations
- Use specialist software, such as Flash, 3D Studio Max, Cinema 4D and Softimage to create 3D animations
- Work with production and editorial teams to produce the finished piece
- Use other techniques such as sound design and film making
- Respect production deadlines
- Apply for funding
- Submit work to festivals and competitions
Although it is not compulsory to hold a degree to become an animator, it is highly advisable to study on an undergraduate course in animation, graphic design, illustration, 3D design, film, multimedia or fine arts.
Skillset, the industry body that supports training for people in creative media industries, accredits 7 animation courses:
- BA (Hons) Animation Production at Arts University College (Bournemouth)
- BA (Hons) Computer Visualisation and Animation at Bournemouth University
- MA Directing Animation at the National Film and Television School
- BA (Hons) Animation at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication
- BA (Hons) Computer Animation at Teesside University
- BA Computer Animation / BA Animation at the University of Glamorgan - Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries
- BA (Hons) Animation at the University of Wales, Newport
It is essential for animators to keep up to date with new developments in the industry; many continuing professional development (CPD) courses are on offer.
- Creative and artistic skills
- Drawing, modelling and sculpting skills
- Scriptwriting skills
- Excellent IT skills
- Patience, attention to detail
- Good observation skills
- Problem-solving skills
- Excellent communication and organisational skills
- Ability to work both as a team and independently
- Positive attitude to criticism
- Work well under pressure and to strict deadlines
You will work regular office hours, but may need to do some extra time in the evenings and weekends when deadlines approach.
If you are a freelancer, you are likely to travel to meet clients and promote your work.
You will spend most of your time in the office. The work is very varied but challenging, as you often have to meet tight production deadlines. It can be physically hard as you may have to spend hours standing under hot studio lights while working on stop frame animation.
You might have unstable earnings, especially at the start of your career, as it is common to get part-time or temporary contracts.
Animation is a very competitive industry. You will need to show evidence of your talent with a sleek show reel. It is important to be versatile: if you can work in 2D, 3D and stop frame animation, you may find more options open to you.
You will enhance your chances of breaking through if you produce your own short film and win competitions or commissions from a TV channel or a music video company.
Applying for a short-term residency in institutions such as the Museum of the Moving Image can help build a portfolio, have access to the latest equipment facilities and make new contacts.
Networking is an integral part of your routine as jobs are not always advertised. You can find advice and calls for entries on the Skillset website. You can also get in touch with other industry organisations such as:
- BECTU: independent media and entertainment union
- Pact: trade association that promotes the commercial interests of independent feature film, television, animation and interactive media companies
- UK Screen Association: trade body representing the post-production and special effects sector
- British Council: the film department promotes UK film to audiences and collaborators abroad
- Animation East (for the East of England)
Most animators work as freelancers.
Short-term contracts are available in production and post-production studios, video game development companies and in advertising.
You may become lead animator, animation director, or move into a teaching or lecturing position.
With experience, you can choose to specialise in certain areas. You may need to move abroad where the need for a certain type of animation is greater. For example there is a growing demand for animators with skills in special effects and video games in the USA.
Ed Hartwell is a 30-year old animator working in London.How long have you been in this particular job?
Do you work in 2D, 3D or stop frame animation?
I work in 3D and 2D stop motion, 2D vector graphics and 2D motion graphics.
The other areas include 2D hand-drawn animation and 3D computer-generated animation. If I work with these, I bring in other animators who are experts in those fields.
What did you do before this job?
I was at university.
How did you end up doing this job?
I started by making interactive CD-ROMs with 2D animated content (which I learnt to do at university). I then moved to DVD authoring, then animated commercials and music videos. I now also do compositing and special effects as well as my own short and feature film projects.
Was it a childhood dream?
Animating, working with puppets and filmmaking is something I've always done, ever since my brother got a video camera when I was about 12. Before that, I used to make models and puppets and sets anyway, even though I had no camera.
What kind of training do you have?
A degree in Media Technology and Production.
What do you do in a typical working day?
2D and special effects work involve sitting at the computer for long periods of time. Stop motion involves spending a lot of time working with a camera, miniatures and puppets in a studio.
I produce and direct as well.What do you like about the job?
Watching the puppets and “toons” come to life.
What do you dislike about the job?
It’s not always about working on fun characters in a story. I recently animated text instructions to show users how to navigate a website.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
If you already animate as a hobby, make a show reel and start looking for work. If you don’t know how to animate or don’t have the equipment, go on a course and start building your show reel. You can also teach yourself; there are lots of animation apps and you can read books that teach the techniques. I once met an animator who started making claymations (clay animations) after reading Cracking Animation: The Aardman Book of 3D Animation by Peter Lord and Brian Sibley.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role?
Writing, directing and producing film and TV.
Do you mind us publishing your salary / rate per hour - this is very helpful for job seekers?
Each client will have a different budget, but a guide to rates can be found here on the BECTU website.