The Ultimate Guide to Animation for Beginners
Animation Mentor
January 15, 2021

The Ultimate Guide to Animation for Beginners

Considering a career in the animation industry? This guide will show you what professional animators do, and share how to get started on your own animation career. It will outline the skills and education you need, as well as key steps to getting a job as a professional animator.
Animation Studios & The Animation Pipeline
Animation is a broad discipline with many facets and specialties. Before we jump in, let’s look at some of the behind-the-scenes steps that studios go through to make your favorite animated films.

First, imagine that an animation studio is a machine made up of many moving parts. In this case, the parts are departments, people, and projects, and together they build visual stories. You can break down the assembly line of this machine, let’s call it the Film Production Pipeline, into three large groups.

Pre-production is the earliest stage of the film, and involves things like script writing, storyboarding, visual development, and others. It’s where a lot of the story’s building blocks are created.

Production is the middle stage and includes pieces like character modeling, rigging, and animation. This is where much of the building happens, using those initial blocks to shape the story.

Post-production is the final stage, including compositing, VFX, and color correction. This last step is about the details, polishing the story and getting it ready for the audience.

The studio is a collaborative environment so while people and departments have their specific areas, a decision in one area can affect all of the following teams down the line.

In this article we’re mainly focusing on the animation part of the film production pipeline, but we encourage you to learn about the other elements as well.

image credit: CheriseHigashi-AiaFriesComp

What Animators Do
Animators are artists, but instead of tools like paint brushes they use the characters we see on screen to tell a visual story. It’s the animator’s job to take the script and the director’s vision, and bring characters to life. If they do it well, the audience may forget that they’re watching what is essentially a digital puppet and not a living, breathing person.

Animators can be acrobats, comedians, and actors, sometimes all in the same scene! Their job is to create dynamic and interesting character performances for movies, TV shows, games, and advertising.

Animators generally fall into two main categories.

2D animators use traditional, hand-drawn techniques or modern, digital tools to tell stories. They use the core principles of timing, spacing, and appeal to bring characters to life on screen.

3D animators use 3D software to accomplish many of the same things 2D animators do. In addition to the fundamental principles of animation, 3D animators use the advantages of modern software to push their artform to new levels. These artists are responsible for animating everything from spaceships, to dragons, to lead characters.

At their cores, 2D and 3D animators use the same principles, but different tools. Let’s look at 3D animators a little more closely:

3D character animators bring characters to life on screen. There are many different careers they can focus on, but here are the most highly sought-after roles:

Feature-film animators work on movies and TV shows to create appealing and entertaining performances. These animators are responsible for the memorable character performances in movies like F rozen, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and How to Train Your Dragon.

Game animators typically focus on body mechanics and physical performances, with an emphasis on weight and impact. They create dynamic animation that makes both the gameplay and storytelling immersive.

VFX animators use varying levels of exaggeration and subtlety to animate digital characters alongside their live-action counterparts. They frequently bring superheroes, giant robots, and fantastical creatures to life.

image credit: MadisonErwin-Laundry

Different Types of Jobs in the Animation Industry

Earlier in this article we outlined the film production pipeline and the three phases of production: pre-production, production, and post-production. We’re huge fans of animation, but animators will be the first to tell you that their art is collaborative and that it takes many talented people working together to bring movies, video games, and other projects to life.

Below is a brief list of some specific job titles you might also encounter in a typical production environment in the animation world.

Pre-production job titles: art director, background artist, character designer, concept artist, effects designer, environment designer, previs artist, story artist, and visual development artist.
Production job titles: 3D modeler, animator, CG artist, CG supervisor, character animator, cloth simulation artist, groom artist, layout artist, layout TD, lighting artist, lighting supervisor, matte painter, modeling supervisor, rigging artist, rigging supervisor, rigging TD, shading TD, shading/texture supervisor, and texture artist.

Post-production job titles: 3D rendering, compositor, editor, motion graphics artist, roto artist, sound effects artist, VFX artist, and visual effect supervisor.

The best way to get information about specific skills and requirements for various types of animation jobs is to keep an eye on job listings. Most spell out the requirements in great detail along with any specialized training or experience that might be necessary.

You can find job listings a number of places, the Animation Guild, individual studio websites, LinkedIn, and various other job-seeking sites.

Is 3D animation a good career choice? We think so, but it’s important to make sure it’s a good fit for you! Check out this page for more info about salaries and industry growth. We also took an in-depth look at the animation jobs some of our students and mentors are doing, including reasons why they love their work.

Do you need a degree to get an animation job? No! The good news is that you do not need a college or university degree to get a job as a professional animator. Feature film and game studios don’t really care about degrees, they care about your skill set.

Do you have good body mechanics? Can you act a range of emotions and scenes? You highlight your skills by putting together a demo reel to show future employers. A demo reel is a series of short clips, usually 15-30 seconds, that showcase your absolute best animated work. For more specific information about what recruiters look for in a demo reel, please see tips from Animation Mentor Co-Founder Shawn Kelly, along with many other blog articles and videos on the subject.

Take a look at Animation Mentor’s Student Showcase, which is essentially a school demo reel. The Showcase highlights the best work from our students, many of whom started our program with zero animation experience.

image credit: RyanPfeifenroth-Quinn

What’s next? Learning to animate

There are a number of animation programs and schools across the globe. For instance, Animation Mentor offers a six-course animation training for people who are new to animation and want to learn how to become professional animators. The courses build upon the 12 principles of animation so that as you progress through the curriculum you create more complex and dynamic assignments.

All the courses are taught by industry pros—from studios like Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and BlueSky—who will give you feedback on your animation and mentor you to be successful. You’ll join a caring, online community of like-minded peers who share assignments, feedback and support, and build life-long friendships and connections. You will also have access to professional rigs that you can use on assignments and your demo reel, with ongoing access after you graduate.

In total, the series takes 18 months to complete. After this, there are many workshops that teach other specialized skills.

Animation is an art that takes passion, patience, and practice. You can’t fake passion, you either have it or you don’t, but the rest is just hard work. The true secret to an animator’s success is this: The more time you spend on animation, the better you will become.

image credit: SilviaPanicali-AiaComp

How to Animate for Beginners
Unlike traditional 2D animators, 3D animators use computers and technically don’t need to know how to draw to do their work. Learning basic drawing skills, however, can help you sketch and plan your ideas before taking them to the computer, which saves time in the long run.

Because animators have to make their characters move, act, and react, it is helpful to understand the basics of human anatomy and movement. There are a bunch of great books we recommend, which include exercises and lessons to help you start learning right away.

If you want to learn 3D animation for beginners, check out our free video tutorial series taught by one of our Co-Founders, Bobby Beck. Not only did he help create a school to train future generations of animators, he was also one of the lead animators on Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo!

Beck will walk you through downloading a free Maya rig and show you how to get access to a student version of Autodesk Maya’s software so you can work through the exercises and create a simple animation. You can also check out the Animation Mentor Blog to find tons of free articles written by our mentors and alumni—they’re full of animation tips and tricks!

Animation Software for Beginners
Animators use many different tools to animate, and while there’s no way to list every one of them here, we’d like to outline the most popular ones for you (they’re used by animation studios worldwide).

3D animation software tools:

• Autodesk Maya If there’s a gold standard for 3D animation software it’s Maya. This is the go-to tool for professional animators and studios, and it’s crucial that new animators learn to use it. Although licenses can be expensive, Autodesk offers a free education version.

• Blender – Blender is gaining popularity as a high-quality but still free 3D animation tool. This software has grown in recent years to include better usability and exciting features. If the price of Maya is too much for you this is your next choice.

• Houdini Houdini is famous for giving artists the ability to create stunning visual effects. Like Maya it’s a bit harder to learn, but there is a free version available for students.

• Cinema 4D  Marketed as one of the easiest tools for 3D modeling and visual effects, Houdini is good for anyone interested in enhancing live action movies with realistic effects.

Autodesk 3ds Max 3DS Max is another Autodesk software that covers several animation pipeline steps. It’s best known for game animation and modeling.

2D animation software tools:

• Toon Boom Harmony – Harmony by Toon Boom is an animation tool that can be used by both pros and new animators. We recommend it for our 2D Animation for Beginners Workshop.

• Adobe Animate CC – Adobe created this software so it’s easy for beginners to understand, but also complex enough for professionals to enjoy.

• Adobe Character Animator – This software’s main goal is to make facial animation as easy as possible. It does that by connecting to your webcam and animating a 2D character according to your facial expressions. While this is a great tool for beginners, we still recommend learning facial animation on its own.

• Adobe After Effects -–This software is used in the industry for character animation and character rigging. 

Best animation hardware:

• Drawing tablet – A drawing tablet is a tool used to create digital sketches. This is must if you want to become a concept artist or simply want to draw out a scene for a storyboard. Wacom makes some of the better known products in this area.

• A good computer – Animating scenes with complex rigs, atmospheric lighting, and multiple moving objects takes a lot of processing power. You’ll need fast memory and a good graphics card. If you are not sure exactly what to buy, high or mid-range gaming PCs should have what you need. This website has several good articles about the best computers for animation.

Animation Resources
There are many available resources, from books, to webinars, to videos, and more.

Animation Books for Beginners and Experts Alike
Learn from the legends of animation with these books by famous animators along with books by our mentors and school founders.

Animation Career Resources
Animation Tips and Tricks Volume I and Volume II by Shawn Kelly and Animation Mentors
Carlos Baena, Keith Sintay, Aaron Gilman and Wayne Gilbert
Cracking Animation: The Aardman Book of 3D Animation by Peter Lord and Brian Sibley
How to Get a Job in Computer Animation by Ed Harriss

General Animation
Animation: From Script to Screen by Shamus Culhane*
Cartoon Animation (The Collector’s Series) by Preston Blair*
Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes, Volumes I and II: The Walt Stanchfield Lectures by Walt Stanchfield
The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston*

Anatomy and Drawing
Atlas of Human Anatomy of the Artist by Stephen Rogers Peck
Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior by Desmond Morris *
Simplified Drawing for Planning Animation by Wayne Gilbert*


Animals in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge*
Facial Expressions: A Visual Reference for Artists by Mark Simon*
Heads by Alex Kayser*
The Human Figure in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge

Performance and Acting
Acting for Animators: A Complete Guide to Performance Animation by Ed Hooks*
A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeleine Olnek, Robert Previtio, Nathanial Pollack, Scott Zigler and David Mamet

Staging, Lighting, Rendering and Composition

Digital Lighting & Rendering by Jeremy Birn
Digital Texturing and Painting by Owen Demers
Film Lighting: Talks with Hollywood’s Cinematographers and Gaffers by Kris Malkiewicz
The Art and Science of Digital Compositing, Second Edition by Ron Brinkmann

Animation Mentor Blog
Here you will find a wealth of information about the animation industry, working in animation studios and working on games and movies written by professional animators. You’ll also find in-depth articles about the importance of demo reels; and webinars for how to animate specific challenges such animating realistic creatures or animating fight scenes; or our series on how to animate the six basic emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and disgust, to name a few of the amazing articles you’ll find.

top image credit: AntonioVieira-AristotleComp