1. Design & Illustration
  2. Careers

So You Want to Be an Animator?

This post is part of a series called Careers in Design & Illustration.
So You Want to Be an Art Director?
So You Want to Be a Freelance Graphic Designer?
Artwork by Erika Worthylake
Artwork by Erika Worthylake.

Artists within animation have a variety of roles. Often when we think of the art team assembled for an animated show or feature, we focus solely on the animators themselves; often only those doing character animation. While I will cover that role, I'll also consider background animators, clean-up artists, storyboarders, art directors, character designers, and more.

Some productions have multiple people for each of these roles, while others ask their artists to wear many hats in order to successfully complete a project. I interviewed an assortment of artists currently working in animation to get an idea of what their work life entails. Consider this your guide on the role of artists within the animation industry.

What Does an Animator Do?

Artists in animation have a variety of roles within a production. Whether they keep that role for years or switch around to bring a project to completion, the roles remain as interesting and unique as the artists themselves. Let's break down some of the roles below.

  • Animator: This is the role you think of most within animation: artists who draw frame after frame of movement of a character or within a scene. There's also a hierarchy of animators, from the Animation Staff to the Key Animators to the Senior and Supervising Animators and finally to the Art Directors. Each role involves a mix of animation and progressively greater responsibility for managing those below their position.
  • Character Animator: I'm pointing out this role specifically because character animators work on a specific character during production, or are a part of the team that tackles the animation of characters within a scene. There are a lot of animated pieces within an animated film or short; the Character Animators would be mostly, if not only, responsible for the story's characters versus the elements around them. Imagine comparing animating Mickey Mouse to the tree blowing in the wind behind him. Different artists would take on such roles.
  • Character and Prop Design: These artists design the characters, objects, and scene components within an animated production. Sometimes this is a concept art position, and sometimes it requires creating more refined drawings and designs to hand off to animators. These designers work with other team members to keep designs consistent in style and tone for the production.
  • Clean-up Artist: This is an artist that takes the rough animation of an animator above them and cleans up the line work so that it's ready for colorists and the other artists along the production line. Additionally, clean-up artists may have to create turn-around sheets and additional artwork to fill in the gaps in supplemental designs for the animators. Sometimes this role is all an artist will do within a project, whereas other times it's one held by interns or one of the many hats that an artist wears during production.
  • Inbetweeners: These animators draw all of the frames in between the frames a Key Animator creates. In order to keep things moving within a production, Key Animators, being more senior in position, need to move on in creating a scene rather than meeting the correct frame rate from movement to movement. Inbetweeners are there to make sure each movement flows into the next key frame.
  • Modelers and Riggers: These artists, and those in related positions, prepare character designs and concepts for the animation process. 3D Modelers use animation software to translate a design into a digital sculpture. Riggers apply a digital skeleton to that model and assorted points of articulation so animators can move said model in order to animate it. Builds Team artists also fall into this section of creating artwork in preparation for animation.
  • Storyboarders: These artists quite literally set the scene. Working from the script, a storyboarder will map out the scene's designs, giving everyone else—especially animators—direction in translating the script to a visual media. It's noteworthy that such a job title also exists in live-action productions and the advertisement industry. If you're keen on a job as a storyboarder, you can move between many industries.
  • Background Artist: Sometimes known as a Color Key Artist or a Matte Painter, the background artist works to develop the overall color scheme within a scene or project. They focus more on fine art, often painting backgrounds or rendering still backgrounds for the animated characters to occupy.
  • Art Director/Director: These are the most senior of the animation staff. Depending on the production, there may be producers and directors above the art director, but anyone with such a title will have to manage all of the artists below them and organize their roles, deadlines and more within a project. We're going to mostly focus on the roles below directors for this article, but knowing where the ladder can go is awfully useful information.

Depending on the production type, many of these roles may have different or additional responsibilities expected of each artist. Whether it's a traditional, a digital or a 3D animation project, however, most of these roles will be occupied in some way. Additionally, there are so many more that I haven't covered above (lighting, textures, editing, etc.). 

Animation productions are all about teamwork. Regardless of the size of the team, everyone works together in some manner toward the common goal of completing the project. When you watch an animated production, check out how long the credits are and what each job title is to get an idea of what all of those people did in bringing great stories to life.

storyboard by jason dwyer
Storyboard by artist Jason Dwyer.
"I am a storyboard artist. This means that I'm creating the drawings that make up a rough draft of what an episode of animation will look like." — Jason Dwyer, Storyboard Artist at Age of Learning, Inc.

What Training Do Animators Need?

To get into any job within the animation industry, like most art careers, you need to be able to display your skills in the form of a portfolio. Typically, animators will have a portfolio that covers many of the job titles discussed above. As much as someone may want to only work in one role, they have to understand the roles of those around them as they may need to perform them as well, or they may want to move on to another job title after some time.

Not all animators acquire a degree in order to work within the industry. Of the artists I interviewed, most did have some sort of formal training, but it varied from four-year degrees to two-year certificates where that artist worked up their technical skill set. Additionally, some found it incredibly valuable to continue education in the form of online courses and seminars. It depends on what a studio or Art Director is looking for in a potential hire if a degree would be required or not.

With such a competitive field and a lot of skills that need to be learned and mastered, formal training and being able to work up a portfolio in a setting where you'll not only have feedback from professors and fellow students, but be pushed to your limits, can edge out competition that may not have had that experience. That said, costs may be prohibitive, preventing some artists from affording a degree even if they want one.

However a portfolio is worked up, it needs to be able to compete with fellow applicants and display technical skill in drawing, animation, storyboarding, backgrounds, character design, and more. 

Katie Elles character design work
Katie Elle's character design work for her graduate film "Glitter Warriors".
"I studied Design for a year at the University of Canberra and then switched over to Animation at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. I completed my Bachelor of Design (Animation) after 3 years [...]. My focus was in 2D animation and concept art [...]. This enabled me to learn 2D animation, storyboarding, character design, prop design, and layout work through the school as well as personal studies of all in my own time." — Katie Elle, currently a Background Artist on a Nickelodeon short.

How Do Animators Get Hired?

This answer will vary from job to job, but as I asked the question to those I interviewed, I wanted to share some of their experiences in getting into the industry.

Kina forneys character sketches
Character sketches by Kina Forney.
"Upon approval of my portfolio [...] they scheduled me for a drawing test. The drawing test was two hours on location using a Cintiq. I was asked to draw different things, such as an in-between frame for a series of motion drawings. Then I was tested on my ability to clean up sketches and create polished line art and some anatomy drawing tests. I was also told this test changes every so often but the basic fundamentals remain the same." — Kina Forney, Character Builds Artist at Mercury Filmworks in Ottawa, Canada.
character designs from erika worthylake
Fun character design of Erika Worthylake's daughter at the zoo.
"This was a word of mouth, recommendation type job. My very first job was probably given to me because of the incentive for companies to hire new grads. I had some drawings and probably a minute of animation. From there, it's been mostly word of mouth and having someone on the inside vouch for me! I think my body of work is impressive enough to garner consideration, but who you are as a person is also important, and having someone put in a good word can make a difference." — Erika Worthylake, Character Designer at Wild Kratts and Mercury Filmworks.

As an additional note, job postings and internships are also routes to get hired by a studio or company in need of animators. Most often internships are open to students in their junior or senior years when working on a bachelor's degree, but programs do vary from place to place.

If there's anything to take away from the experiences of the animators I spoke to, it's the importance of networking with friends, colleagues, classmates and acquaintances in addition to preparing their work for evaluation, regardless of how they got their foot in the door.

Where Do Animators Work?

We all know the heavy hitters of the industry: Disney, DreamWorks, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, etc. Of course, depending on what country you live in and whether you're working locally, nationally, or internationally, you may have additional big names to add to the list of animation houses.

The industry is ever changing, however, and while many of the big wigs we've all grown up with still exist, various studios have shut down over the years (especially traditional animation studios). Independent studios have cropped up, catering to small productions, television, and internet productions. Larger studios or networks hire smaller studios or work together in creating content for television and various web platforms. As an example, consider Frederator Studios' relationship with Nickelodeon in The Nicktoons Film Festival, which was created and is produced by Frederator, but whose winners are run on Nickelodeon.

Colorful character design by Christina Halstead
Colorful character design by Christina Halstead.
"Right now I'm working freelance at an ad house (Laundry Design, LLC.) in L.A. They got the project from a well known corporation, who asked for a series of related animated 2D online ads." — Christina Halstead, animator at Laundry Design, LLC.

This also brings us to animators within non-animated movies. There are special effects teams with many animators employed either through film studios or VFX studios, which are also hired out by a production team for a movie or television project.

Not all animators work in film and television, however. Many work in video games, advertisement, and various interactive media. Some animators work in creative teams within a larger company whose product, goals, or job is not animation. It's quite similar to the creative team a graphic designer may work for within a larger company.

Finally, and quite importantly, with so many animation and visual effects studios closing in recent years and the industry changing overall, animators may be freelance or contract workers. They may either be hired on a short-term basis within a studio, or for a production team assembled to create artwork, animation and effects for a project. This is especially common in the movie industry, where freelancers, studios, and in-house production teams collaborate remotely to bring design concepts to life.

Design work for Capcom Mobile by Amanda Martin
Design work for Capcom Mobile by Amanda Martin.
"Currently I work for Guru Studio in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, working on an Animated TV show aimed at girls. Previously I have done Prop Design for DHX Media and have also worked in the Mobile Gaming industry for Capcom Mobile." — Amanda Martin, Character Clean-Up Artist at Guru Studio.

What Media Do Animators Use?

Programs used vary from production to production. As such, I'll defer to the programs and tools listed by the animators I interviewed for this article, to give you an idea of what they work with most often.

There are definitely other programs and tools used throughout the industry. These came up time and time again when discussing 2D and 3D animation with those I interviewed, as well as in researching what programs popular animated movies and television shows have been using recently.

Design work for Capcom Mobile by Amanda Martin
Design work for Capcom Mobile by Amanda Martin.
"Currently I mainly use Photoshop and Toon Boom Harmony. In my previous Prop Design Position I was mainly using Adobe Flash. It just depends on what program the show is using." — Amanda Martin, Character Clean-Up Artist at Guru Studio.

What Is an Animation Project Like?

To answer this question I asked my interview subjects what their daily work life was like, in addition to what sort of deadlines they face and projects they've worked on. Often work days start with a meeting—whether they're reviewing a script, looking over storyboards, or getting their day's assignment, artists tend to be in communication with each other often during production. This can vary, though, as meetings may not occur daily or with more than one small portion of a team at a time. Additionally, communication may not be in-person, but through email or a message board of sorts if managers or directors find this to be more efficient.

Work is constantly in production and often being pushed back and forth between artists and departments. Higher-ups look over character designs, storyboards and various parts of the animation, and send them back to their respective artists for changes or additions, much like in many professional art jobs.

character design work for a sticker set by kina forney
Character design work for a sticker set by Kina Forney.
"Deadlines are in short: insane. Often I pull tons of overtime to meet deadlines. They are strict, and sometimes a bit ridiculous, but if you manage your time well throughout a project you are less likely to be stressed with the deadline as it approaches." — Kina Forney

Deadlines vary from project to project. If a studio is working on a film, for instance, there comes a time when animators are in "crunch-mode", aiming to meet very tight deadlines and work long, long hours into the night. While managing time well can contribute to less stress in a project and reasonable work hours, higher-ups may underestimate the time needed for artists to reach said deadline, or not make room for difficulties that crop up during the run of a project.

For plenty of studios, though, deadlines have breathing room and artists meet various goals through a production on their way to the final goal. This is why artists meet with their directors, supervisors, coordinators, etc., throughout a production. Little goals are met daily in order to keep the entire project moving forward at once.

Storyboard created in Louie Del Carmens CDA class by Jason Dwyer
Storyboard created in Louie Del Carmen's CDA class by Jason Dwyer.
"For some of my freelance projects I'd have a week to two for clean up animations depending on how many frames, or one month to complete a set of five animations for twenty individual sprites." — Jason Dwyer, Storyboard Artist.


artwork by christina Halstead
Artwork by Christina Halstead.

So you want to be an animator? You've got a huge range of roles to choose from so long as you can work up your skill set and portfolio, and make an impression on the industry to network yourself into a studio. It's a highly competitive field, but with hard work you can find yourself contributing to an amazing team of artists creating feature films, video games, television shows, advertisements, and more.

If you want to take any sort of storytelling to the next level, a career in animation, as one of the many integral cogs within the machine, may be for you. I hope you found this article informative and inspirational.

I'd like to thank the animators who took time out of their very busy schedules to answer my long list of questions about their careers and experiences. You can check out their work below:

Extra Resources

If you're interested in getting some help with your animations, Envato Studio has a great collection of Animators that you might like to explore. 

Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.