An animator produces multiple images called frames, which when sequenced together create an illusion of movement known as animation. The images can be made up of digital or hand-drawn pictures, models or puppets.
Animators tend to work in 2D animation, 3D model-making animation, stop frame or computer-generated animation.
Computer-generated animation features strongly in motion pictures (to create special effects or an animated film in its own right), as well as in aspects of television, the internet and the computer games industry.
The basic skill of animation still relies heavily on artistic ability, but there is an increasing need for animators to be familiar with technical computer packages.
Producing animation involves a number of stages including generating ideas, building models and rigging lighting.
Computer animation uses software known as CGI (computer-generated imagery).
Tasks typically involve:
- liaising with clients and developing animation from their concepts;
- creating storyboards that depict the script and narrative;
- drawing in 2D to create sketches, artwork or illustrations;
- designing models, backgrounds, sets, characters, objects and the animation environment;
- using a range of materials, including modelling clay, plaster, oil paints, watercolours and acrylics;
- developing the timing and pace of the movements of a character or object during the sequence of images and ensuring they follow the soundtrack and audio requirements;
- using technical software packages, such as Flash, 3ds Max, Maya, LightWave, Softimage and Cinema 4D;
- building up accurate, detailed frame-by-frame visuals;
- recording dialogue and working with editors to composite the various layers of animation (backgrounds, special effects, characters and graphics) in order to produce the finished piece;
- working to production deadlines and meeting clients' commercial requirements;
- working as part of a broader production team, which might include liaising with printers, copywriters, photographers, designers, account executives, website designers or marketing specialists;
- dealing with diverse business cultures, delivering presentations and finding funding.
Much of the work involves pitching and being proactive in selling your ideas and work to prospective customers and clients. This applies whether you are self-employed, working freelance or employed within a company.
- Where available, entry salaries are in the region of £12,000 to £15,000. Salaries in computer games start higher at £18,000, rising quickly with experience.
- Experienced animators can earn around £23,000 to £26,000.
- Salaries for animators with at least ten years' experience are around £36,000+.
For information on animation freelance rates, see the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU). Starting salaries are low but it is important to build up experience and contacts to secure future work.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are regular office hours (approximately 40 hours a week) but, as deadlines approach, you may need to work overtime, including at the weekend. Flexitime is quite common.
What to expect
- Animation is an office/studio-based profession. Some experienced freelancers have studio equipment set up at home.
- Animation is a global industry and many projects are for international clients. Most production companies have a list of animators they use, so maintaining regular contact will prevent you from slipping off their list.
- Only 20% of animators are women. The representation of people with disabilities is 3%, one of the lowest across the audiovisual sectors (The Creative Media Workforce Survey 2014, Creative Skillset).
- The animation industry is global but there are regional centres based in London, Bristol, Manchester, Dundee and Edinburgh.
- Overseas and UK travel may be necessary to showcase your work at festivals or to negotiate commissions with clients.
Although this area of work is open to all graduates, the following degree or foundation degree subjects are particularly relevant:
- art and design;
- computer-aided engineering;
- design for moving image;
- electrical engineering;
- film and video;
- graphic design/illustration;
- model making or sculpture;
- spatial design;
- 3D design.
Entry without a higher education qualification is unusual, but not impossible. Exceptions may be made for very talented candidates. Many animators consider that having an artistic background is just as important as having skills in IT.
Although not essential, a relevant postgraduate qualification in animation may enhance your employability. Courses include the:
- two-year MA Animation at the Royal College of Art;
- two-year MA in Games Design and Development at The National Film and Television School;
- two-year MA in Character Animation at Central Saint Martins.
Other postgraduate courses can be found on Creative Skillset: The Sector Skills Council for the Creative Industries.
You will need to show:
- artistic talent and technical skills;
- a good eye for detail;
- communication and storytelling skills;
- ability to work with others and to take direction;
- networking skills and commitment to projects through previous work experience;
- an engagement with the industry from submitting work to festivals and competitions;
- the flexibility to switch between several projects at once.
In character animation, specialist talents, for example in comedy, dialogue, action or singing and music, may be required.
Animation is a competitive industry. To find work you must have a showreel. This is your portfolio to show to production companies or animation commissioners in advertising agencies, music companies or television companies.
It is acceptable practice to send showreels out speculatively, although it is better to target particular projects. Take time to ensure your showreel is short and punchy, as companies are likely to be drawn in during the first five seconds and will probably have made a decision after one minute of film.
Graduates may consider applying for a residency in order to raise their profile, make new contacts and build a portfolio. Residencies provide the opportunity to work as an artist-in-residence and have access to facilities and a working environment that are conducive to creative work. Graduates either pursue their own work or can work with industry professionals on specific projects. Residencies can last from two weeks to several months.
A number of universities, including the London College of Communication, offer residencies. Good sources for starting your research are regional film offices and The British Council . It is also recommended to send your films to the British Council, where their arts department may promote them at festivals overseas.
When establishing contacts you may find it useful to visit:
It is also worthwhile contacting your local media development agency to find out about workshops, support and networking opportunities. Creative Skillset acts as an umbrella information and advice service for the audiovisual industry.
The Careers in VFX video, produced by Creative Skillset in collaboration with visual effects (VFX) companies and UK Screen, provides a useful insight into how to get into digital/computer animation. It explains what VFX is, the subjects you need to study and the different roles involved.
Advice on how to get into digital careers and case studies of people working in digital jobs can be found at Bubble Digital Career Portal.
Just under a third of animators work as freelancers or on short-term contracts (Creative Skillset: The Sector Skills Council for the Creative Industries).
Generally, animation companies work in several areas of animation (television, advertising, feature film, etc.) but computer games studios tend to specialise in the one area.
The UK also leads the world in the production of pre-school storytelling and design, and this area continues to attract investors, ensuring the availability of work.
Other areas of work include:
- feature films;
- children's programmes;
- music promos;
- titles and idents;
- adult comedy and drama.
Many animators work as independent film-makers, producing their own short films and trying to win commissions from animation commissioners at broadcasting companies such as Channel 4, the BBC (in particular BBC2), or from the internet or other related media.
Getting a short film broadcast could lead to a commission for a short series, a longer film or interest from music company advertising agencies (for music videos) or commercial and business ventures.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Animated People
- Animation Magazine
- Association of Illustrators (AOI)
- Chinwag Jobs
- Design Week
Other useful directories and sources of agents include:
Most animators learn on the job but attending classes and courses can be helpful, either to refresh or hone your skills in drawing, modelling or software.
A list of media and multimedia courses can be found at British Film Institute (BFI).
Larger companies may offer a more formal training package. This might include taking a Masters qualification in animation or working towards a professional qualification in a more specialist area.
There are numerous short courses and master classes, lasting from a few days to several weeks, covering specific areas of animation. For details, visit Creative Skillset: The Sector Skills Council for the Creative Industries.
Local audiovisual sector skills councils can be very useful when it comes to researching short courses or opportunities to develop further specialist areas. Contact Creative Skillset to see which organisation covers your nation/region of the UK.
Local sector skills councils may, in turn, direct you to local organisations that offer audiovisual training, for example Cyfle in Wales.
Most animators begin as studio runners and then progress to junior animation roles.
In 2D animation, you may begin work as an 'inbetweener', then progress to key framer.
3D animation has a more hierarchical structure: starting as a junior animator, you'll progress to senior animator after a few years' experience and finally reach design manager or art director level.
Senior roles involve more paperwork, managing staff and generating new ideas. Career progression is usually through freelance work, which develops the animator's reputation, and this is likely to ensure a regular supply of work as well as more senior responsibilities.
The UK is particularly renowned for stop-motion or stop-frame animation and children's animation and has a thriving computer games industry.
However, animation is a global industry and you may have to move abroad if you wish to specialise in a particular type of animation.
The USA is home to some of the largest animation, CGI special effects and games studios. A lot of 2D animation is also done in East Asia. Animators are increasingly looking for work overseas, as well as in the UK, in order to maximise their client base.
In terms of development, versatility is the key and if you can work with puppets, models and drawn and computer-generated animation, you may find more options open to you.
Another progression route for animators is to go into teaching or lecturing.