How to Become a 3D Animator

By Linda Galeazzi
  5 Min Read
3D Animation

VanArts’ Ken Priebe gives us the nuts and bolts on what it takes to become a 3D animator.

3D animators take the imaginary and, through computer software, create a world that seems utterly realistic, full of depth, texture, colour and sound. The dynamic graphics that 3D animators create make movies and games appear to literally come to life.

The day-to-day responsibilities of a 3D animator depend largely on the industry in which they’re employed. These duties may include consulting with clients to establish the graphic elements and content required for a project, and then developing, creating and executing that content. 3D animators create storyboards that can be brought to clients long before anything is actually animated in a computer program. They might record the dialogue that accompanies the graphics, and work with editors to ensure that all aspects of the animation have flawlessly come together.

What does it take to become a 3D animator?

As consumers, we’re so used to the seamless integration of 3D animation in movies, TV and games that we take those lifelike images for granted. So what does it take to become a successful 3D animator? What qualities does one need to not only see the overall vision, but bring that vision to life?

“Technical skill and comfort with computer software is obviously important,” says Vancouver Institute of Media Arts’ Ken Priebe, “but even more important is a sense of visual art and film language, traditional art skills and a knack for acting and performance. Animation is another form of acting.”

The Vancouver Institute of Media Arts—or VanArts, as it’s more commonly known—is one of the world’s leading animation schools. A new survey by Animation Career Review, “Top 100 Schools for Animation, Gaming and Design,” listed VanArts as the #1 school in Western Canada for animation training, and #11 in the world, a designation that makes Priebe and his colleagues especially proud.

The unique thing about the animation program at VanArts is the singular focus on character animation.

Ken Priebe

“The unique thing about the animation program at VanArts is the singular focus on character animation, compared to most other programs that combine students’ time on more technical aspects like modeling and visual effects,” says Priebe.  “We have separate programs for these areas which are equally specialized and focused.  We also have small class sizes and our industry pro faculty members have worked at such studios as Disney, DreamWorks, and Industrial Light & Magic.”

3D animators are generally people who love the arts – drawing, painting, sculpture – and know how to marry their artistic talent with the world of technology. They keep up to date with new techniques, from software tools and programs to production techniques and more. Since 3D animators often confer with clients, it’s important to have solid communication skills, be adaptable and have the skills and training to execute the plan that’s been made in the time frame that’s been set. Unlike studio artists who tend to work on their own, 3D animators should be team players, as most of their work is done in collaboration with others.

Adaptability, says Priebe, plays a huge part in being a successful animator.

“Animation is fun and can be very rewarding,” he says, “but it’s also very hard work and the industry is changing all the time.  Students need to be aware that many of the jobs they get may be contract-based, and they should be open to changing studios or moving around to different cities to keep their career going.  They should also be able to work on a team, take direction well and always stay connected to their fellow peers for referrals into future opportunities.”

As for VanArts own graduates, Priebe says, “They’re working all over the world and in many studios local to Vancouver, with credits on major feature films and TV series. Many are now in senior/supervisory roles as lead animators and directors.  Most recently, we found 11 of our Animation & Visual Effects graduates had worked on the #1 box office film Ender’s Game.”

(Un)conventional: where the jobs are

Canada has a thriving animation and special effects industry and is home to such renowned studios as Nelvana (Babar, Magic School Bus), Pixar Canada, DHX Media (Undergrads, Watership Down) and House of Cool (Despicable Me, Horton Hears a Who!). Pre- and post-production animation, clean-up, storyboarding and more keep Canadian 3D animators busy as well.

Canada also boasts the third-largest video game industry in the world, surpassed only by the U.S. and Japan. Video game companies abound and include some of the most ubiquitous names in the industry, including EA Canada (FIFA, Need for Speed), Ubisoft (Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia), BioWare (Baldur’s Gate, Star Wars: The Old Republic) and RockStar (Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne).

“The gaming industry is still alive and well in Vancouver, particularly in the area of mobile gaming, start-up companies and new technologies and platforms,” says Priebe. The gaming industry in Quebec and Ontario is also thriving, with both provinces benefiting from incentives and tax credits that keep developers in the country.

Completing a diploma program in 3D animation can often lead to careers in lesser-known, less conventional industries.

For example, the medical industry is using 3D animation more and more to create interactive models of the human body in order to explain how surgical procedures are performed, how prescription medications dissolve in the bloodstream, and so much more. Forensics laboratories use 3D animation to re-create crimes, reconstruct crime scenes, among other things, to help solve crimes. Aviation schools prepare pilots with 3D flight simulators that are capable of re-creating an astonishing number of different scenarios. Architectural firms use 3D animation to bring their blueprints to life, including designs for amusement parks, sports arenas and other projects.

Where to study 3D animation in Canada

Thanks to the lead it has taken on the global market, Canada is now home to some of the leading 3D animation schools in North America, and there’s no shortage of places across the country where artists and animation buffs can hone their skills and earn their diploma.

Here are some of the Canadian schools that offer programs in 3D Animation and Design:

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