What Does an Animator Do?

Luke Leighfield
Luke Leighfield, Content Writer

If you’re just as comfortable with a computer as you are with a paintbrush or pen, then animation might be the perfect career for you. Animators are artists who use computers to create 2D or 3D animations for video games, motion pictures, television shows, social media, apps and more.

The animation world is appealing for lots of reasons. You get to combine your artistic talent and computer skills, using animation software to blend art and technology. Also, many animators are self-employed – so if you prefer working at home to a more traditional work environment, then you’re in luck.

In this post, we’ll answer some of the most common questions about becoming an animator, tell you about the wealth of animation projects that exist, fill you in on the average salary you can expect, and give you pointers on developing your animator career.

What is an animator?

In basic terms, an animator is an artist who creates multiple images (known as frames), which give an illusion of movement called animation when displayed in rapid sequence. Animators can work in a variety of fields including film, television, and video games.

Animation is closely related to filmmaking and is similarly hard work, often involving extremely short timelines. Large projects tend to require several animators to work together as a team. The methods of creating images or frames for a piece of animation depend on the animators' artistic styles and their field.

Animators often specialize in a particular type of animation. For example, character animators deal with character movement, dialogue, and acting. Whereas special effects animators animate anything that’s not a character, including vehicles, machinery, and natural elements such as rain, snow, and water.

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What does an animator do?

Animators use a mix of computer software and hand drawing to make realistic 2D or 3D animations for a huge range of applications.

Depending on the animation industry you’re in, you might find yourself designing computer-generated characters for a motion picture, working on special effects for a TV show, creating scenery for a video game, or using stop-motion animation in a social media ad for an advertising agency.

As an animator, you need a broad skillset to deal with a varied job description that includes a multitude of tasks. Day to day, you could be:

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    Creating frames
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    Designing characters
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    Building an animated environment with backgrounds, objects, and sets
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    Consulting with clients and designers to finesse your work
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    Using storyboards to plan your animations
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    Using photographs of an actor’s movement to animate as a 3D character
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    Creating animations with 3D modeling software like Maya
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    Working in collaboration with art directors, game designers, actors and directors
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    Working out movement timings so they meet they fit the needs of a script or soundtrack

Animators use a range of software, which varies depending on the type of animation you’re creating. (Game development will require different skills from the video industries, for example.) Popular software programs for animators include:

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    Adobe After Effects
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    Adobe Premiere
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    Autodesk 3ds Max
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    Autodesk Maya

On top of artistic talent and technical skills, you’ll also need time-management skills to work to tight deadlines, communication skills to sell your ideas and collaborate with others, and an entrepreneurial mindset if you set up your own business or remain self-employed.

Where do animators work?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups multimedia artists and animators together, saying, “multimedia artists and animators often work in a specific medium. Some focus on creating animated movies or video games. Others create visual effects for movies and television shows. Creating computer-generated images (CGI) may include taking images of an actor’s movements, which are then animated into three-dimensional characters. Other animators design scenery or backgrounds for locations.”

The BLS also says that a typical multimedia artist or animator works in one of these industries:

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    Motion picture and video industries
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    Computer systems design and related services
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    Software publishers
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    Advertising, public relations, and related services
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    Other information services

As we mentioned earlier, plenty of animators are self-employed – either working from home or at an office. In 2021, 63% of animators and multimedia artists were self-employed, up from 57% in 2012.

As a self-employed animator, you’ll typically work as a contractor with film, animation or video game production studios, cartoon networks, advertising agencies, web design firms, graphic design firms, and tech companies.

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How can I become an animator?

Animators come from a wealth of backgrounds, and there’s no single path to follow. However, you may need a bachelor’s degree to even be considered for a role in the animation industry.

You might want to consider gaining a BA, BFA, or BS in:

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    Animation
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    Animation/Illustration
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    Animation & Digital Arts
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    Media Arts & Animation
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    Computer Animation
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    Computer Graphics
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    Media Arts & Science
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    Fine Art
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    Computer Science (with an emphasis on Animation)

Common courses in these degree paths include Drawing, 2D Animation Production, 3D Animation Production, and Stop Motion. Many animators also study anatomy to learn how animals and humans move, which helps make character movements more realistic.

If you choose to not go down the bachelor’s route, there are tons of online tutorials and resources that’ll help you develop your animation skills. It’s also smart to follow animation blogs to learn about new trends and techniques.

Regardless of your education, you’ll need a portfolio. Your portfolio is a collection of work that shows your visual style and skills. It helps prospective employers decide whether you’re the right person to bring in for a job or project.

It takes time to build a portfolio, so take advantage of any work experience opportunities you get. You can also add work from related fields, like graphic design, video editing, and anything else that you think is relevant when applying for an animator position.

What does an animator’s career path look like?

Once you’ve established yourself as an animator, your career can go in a host of directions. You could use your animation skills to apply for a range of roles, including:

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    2D animator
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    3D animator
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    3D modeler
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    Art director
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    Background artist
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    Character animator
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    Clean-up artist
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    Digital ink and paint artist
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    Flash animator
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    Image editor
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    Key frame animator
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    Layout artist
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    Lighting artist
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    Modeler
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    Rendering artist
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    Rigging artist
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    Stop-motion animator
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    Storyboard artist
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    Texture artist

A few years down the line, you may want to progress your career by considering job titles like Creative Director, Senior Art Director, Creative Services Director, or Design Director.

Other animators choose to broaden the scope of their career slightly, taking on roles like Marketing Director, Sales Director, or Communications Director.

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Average animator salary

On average, animators are paid pretty well. Naturally, this depends on how many years of experience you have, where you live (expensive cities like London or New York tend to pay better), and what industry you’re in.

In terms of the US, the latest data from PayScale says the average animator salary is $58,066. As a junior animator, your salary might be closer to $39k. But on the senior end, this figure rises to $90k.

In the UK, Talent.com puts the average salary at £35k. For junior animators, you’re looking at £27,500. This rises to £52,500 for seniors.

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