Computer animation has cemented its place in film and television, leaving behind traditional hand-drawn animation. Yet, despite the evolution from painted cels to software, the techniques and principles of animation remain largely unchanged. Animators work like actors or puppeteers to manipulate the models created in the digital environment, to create movement, interaction, and expressions of emotion through the characters.
Animators do not draw or paint characters and objects, but work behind the modelers and layout artists to manipulate the existing characters in a digital environment. When the animators begin the process of hand keying movement (manually initiating movement by changing the numeric values of triggers that control all flexible points on the model) the dialogue and background sound have already been completed. The artists match animated action to the script and audio provided, based on the guidance of the supervising animator and the production’s director. Depending on the complexity and scope of the production, animators will be assigned to specific characters or scenes and asked to concentrate only on that portion of the project. The animations are tested, revised, and refined to perfect the fluidity of motion and best approximate natural interaction and expression.
Animators rely on reference sources to simulate life in the natural world, observing animals or objects in their natural environment, and frequently work in small teams to physically act out scenes to provide a basis for blocking. In some cases, animators may tape or observe the voice-over actors during the recording of dialogue, in order to mimic the actor’s facial expressions and gestures in the character. When this portion of the production process is complete, the animated scenes are sent to the lighting and shading artists to implement finer touches (approximating the lighting in a live action production); then texture artists add depth and the realistic qualities of hair, skin, and other surface textures. When all visual elements are complete, all of the data is ported to networked computers (the render farm) to be rendered into frames of film. The rendering process fills in the minute movements between animations—called “in-betweens”—and adds motion blur, which simulates the effect of movement in live action film or tape.
Skills & Education
Though computer animation may require very little—if any—actual drawing, employers prefer to hire artists with a solid foundation in traditional art. A college degree in computer animation or fine art is highly recommended, and in some cases may be a requirement. Courses in art history, drawing, painting, and acting are encouraged. Education in anatomy and physiology is especially helpful in understanding and mimicking human and animal forms, and physics will give realistic underpinnings to animated motion. Animators must have a keen attention to detail and be capable of thinking conceptually. The work calls for someone who can patiently toil away over the minutiae, as the process of animation is inherently slow and painstaking.
What to Expect
Those with a solid education and exceptional artistic talent can find entry-level work as a junior or assistant animator, typically tasked with working on background objects or characters or working under supervision to complete short segments of animation on a particular character. Additionally, any entry-level role in a production art department is a great first step toward eventual work as an animator, as it gets your foot in the door and allows you access to the veteran professionals who can mentor you in your career. If there’s a particular studio you’re interested in working for, do your research and find out if the studio offers internships or an apprentice program, and familiarize yourself with the senior art and animation staff. When submitting your portfolio, keep your reel short (usually no more than 10 minutes) and provide only your best work, the stuff that best adheres to the specifications given in the job description. Your reel should be a sample of your abilities, not a comprehensive display of your entire life’s work.
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