Visual effects (VFX)
Also known as: CG animator, 3D animator
What does an animator do?
Animators imbue figures with personality by making them move in ways that show their character and emotion. In VFX, they use computer-generated ‘rigs’ to help make the characters in a shot move in a believable way. They might animate vehicles or machinery too.
Animators create animation ‘frames’ (images), using the ‘rig’ (the digitally moveable 3D model). When the frames are put together in sequence, they form the animation.
In some films, a process of motion capture is used for certain characters. This is where an actor wears a special skin-tight suit with motion trackers on it, so that the movement and expression of their performance can be captured digitally and translated into a different-looking character animation model.
In the VFX industry, animators produce work to be integrated into the live-action footage of a film or TV programme. They animate 3D objects as dictated by background film plates, which means that there is footage and a set camera position that they must work to.
Animators in the VFX industry are either employed by VFX studios or they work as freelancers.
Watch and read
- The principles of animation
- The 12 principles of animation as illustrated through Disney and Disney Pixar films
- Understand Disney's 12 principles of animation
What's an animator good at?
- Art: draw and reveal attitude, emotions and mood through a character’s movement, have spatial awareness and a feel for movement over time
- Knowledge of animation: have a good understanding of the principles and mechanics of animation
- Using VFX software: be adept at using relevant programmes such as Arnold, Blender, Maya, Mental Ray, Photoshop, RenderMan, Substance Painter, V-Ray, ZBrush and 3ds Max
- Organisation: work within the production schedule, manage files and meet deadlines
- Collaboration: be able to work with other VFX artists in the pipeline, use each other’s resources and work effectively
Who does an animator work with?
VFX animators work from an overall brief from the film’s director. They pick up the work in the VFX pipeline from a matchmove artist, who creates the rigs for the elements of the scene that will be animated. They also work with the creature and effects (FX) technical directors.
How do I become an animator?
Some VFX companies take on junior animators. Other companies might have junior roles as roto artists or matchmove artists, from which it’s possible to get to know the industry and develop your animation skills in your own time. Alternatively, you might start working as an animator in another sector, such as games and move into VFX at a later point. Whatever your route, you will need a strong portfolio that shows off your abilities using VFX software, particularly Maya, V-Ray and 3ds Max.
At school or college:
If you want to go to college or university, you can take A-levels or Highers in art, art and design, graphic design, and graphic communication. Or you might want to take any of the following Level 3 vocational qualifications:
- BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
- NCFE Applied General Certificate in Art and Design
- UAL Applied General Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will equip you:
- Aim Awards Diploma/Extended Diploma in Games, Animation and VFX
- Aim Awards Diploma in Creative and Digital Media
- BTEC National Diploma in Graphics
- OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (Graphic Design)
- UAL Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
Get an apprenticeship:
Apprenticeships are jobs with training. They’re a great opportunity to earn while you learn. NextGen Skills Academy offers VFX apprenticeships for school leavers. These involve a lot of learning on the job working in a VFX company.
If you can’t find an apprenticeship with a VFX company, it might be worth getting an apprenticeship in a related industry, which could give you some experience to help you find your way into VFX at a later point.
These are some apprenticeships that might be available throughout the UK:
- Junior 2D artist (visual effects) (Level 4, England)
- Creative and Digital Media (Level 3, Northern Ireland)
- Creative and Digital Media (Level 3, 4, Wales)
In Scotland, you might be able to find degree-level apprenticeships through the following frameworks:
- Creative and Digital Media (SCQF Level 6/7, Scotland)
Before taking any apprenticeship, check what you’ll be learning with your prospective employer and college, so you can be sure it will be giving you the skills you want. Go to how to become an apprentice to learn how to find apprenticeships in your region or approach companies directly.
Build a portfolio:
Learn how to use, and then experiment with, VFX programs and create an animation showreel that you can show to admissions tutors or employers. This is essential. Go to build your VFX portfolio to learn how. Watch ScreenSkills’ advice on VFX showreels. It’s really important to develop your appreciation for VFX. Make sure you’re familiar with what’s out there.
Draw, paint and illustrate:
Practise drawing, among other art forms, with a focus on anatomy and movement. Be aware of weight and timing when drawing from live subjects (or videos of them). Carry a sketchbook around with you.
Get a degree:
Many employers require animators to have a degree in animation. Alternatively, you can get a degree in VFX or graphic design-related subjects, as these would also be relevant to the role. Have a look at ScreenSkills’ list of recommended courses and select one in VFX. We recognise courses with our ScreenSkills Select award where they offer training in the relevant software, dedicated time to building a portfolio and have strong links with the VFX industry.
Take a short course:
On the ScreenSkills website, we have a list of animation and VFX courses that we either fund, support or have quality-marked.
Get to know people in VFX by attending events. Meet professionals and ask them questions about their work, while demonstrating interest and knowledge in the sector. Offer to provide them with your professional contact details and try to stay in touch with them. Go to how to network well to learn how to do this.
Apply for jobs:
Research VFX companies you’d like to work for. Go to their websites and check if they are advertising for junior roles. Even if they aren’t, send in your CV and showreel and ask them to bear you in mind for future roles. Keep looking on job websites too. ArtStation is a good example of a site that includes job listings in animation, games and VFX (remember to filter its job listings by country). ScreenSkills offers some advice from professionals on how to approach animation and VFX employers.
You might also be interested in...
Working as an animator for animated film and TV or being a games animator in the games industry or learning to code and being a level designer. Or you might be interested in other roles in VFX, like being a modelling artist.
- Animation World Network (AWN)
- Weta Digital
- Wired – Design FX
- Which software is used for VFX?
- Blender Guru
- Khan Academy Labs – Pixar in a Box
- Creative Bloq
- CG Spectrum – College of Digital Art and Animation
- Art of VFX
- Bectu (the media and entertainment union)
- Computer Graphics World (CGW)
- VFX Voice
- Visual Effects Society (VES)
Film and TV drama
Covers genres ranging from period dramas to epic fantasies screened at the cinema, on TV or on streaming sites
Combines art with programming as well as production, design and testing - the UK’s fastest growing entertainment industry
Creates the illusion of movement, includes computer-generated, stop-motion and hand-drawn animation