Computer-generated (CG) animation

Computer-generated animation refers to any animation, usually 3D, created using a programme such as Blender, Houdini or Maya. Thanks to the popularity of computer-generated animated films and TV programmes, this industry is booming worldwide.

Paddington © BFI

Skills required

  • demonstrable artistic skills including a strong sense of composition and perspective, good use of light, shadow and colour; the ability to create atmosphere and a good understanding of editing
  • drawing skills including use of light and shadow and a good understanding of anatomy, scale, form, weight and volume
  • working knowledge of whatever animation software applies to the production (or learn how to use software quickly on the job)
  • good understanding of the principles of cinematography, animation, fine art and photography
  • ability to take direction and address comments
  • ability to work with a minimum of supervision
  • ability to keep to deadlines and budgets, and work under pressure
  • respect for the procedures of a particular studio, production or pipeline
  • excellent communication, presentation, project management and teamwork skills
  • good understanding of maths and physics
  • knowledge and use of a wide range of materials
  • technical or mechanical skills relating to the model making process
  • ability to be methodical, thorough and patient, with a good eye for detail
  • good movement and timing skills
  • ability to think in 3D
  • an understanding of the work of other departments
  • good IT skills
  • working knowledge of Photoshop and Illustrator
  • ability to follow design reference accurately and work in a range of styles
  • ability to create moderate to complex and organic models, characters, props and environments
  • good understanding of modelling with either Polygons or NURBS
  • ability to do UV mapping
  • good working knowledge of 2D software and various industry-standard rendering programmes
  • good working knowledge of palettes and CLUTs (Colour Look Up Tables)
  • enthusiasm to learn and develop professionally
  • ability to record information accurately and produce reports
  • experience in scripting is desirable but not essential
  • knowledge of current compositing software such as Shake and After Effects
  • good knowledge of keying process

Ways into computer-generated animation

People working in computer-generated animation are likely to have graduated with an animation degree or a comparable art school or computer science degree. 

However, it is possible that a period of professional production experience as a runner can replace an academic qualification, provided that a portfolio can demonstrate the necessary talent and skills. Training in at least one of the relevant software packages is desirable, and familiarity with other programmes will be an advantage. Animation higher apprenticeships are currently being developed and will offer additional routes into the industry in the next few years.

Jobs in computer-generated animation

Series director
Directors are responsible for creative planning and design. They must be aware of any relevant restrictions, both in the budget and schedule. They may be involved with design, storyboard, layout, animation and post-production departments.  It is likely that they will be active in all aspects of the soundtrack, including casting. Directors may also be involved in crew selection and technical choices, although they do not necessarily have a technical background themselves. On smaller productions, they may produce the storyboard and either animate themselves or direct other animators.

CG animation director
 Animation directors are responsible for the quality of the animation. They keep it on brief and ensure performances are consistent by assigning, recruiting, casting and supervising the appropriate animators. They must understand the implications of movement, performance, style, quality, continuity, technical, scheduling and budgetary requirements. They are the main liaison between departments, and on longer projects usually report to the production department for delivering the quota within the specified deadlines.

Layout artist
Layout artists break down storyboards into shots, making sure everything is set up appropriately. Working from designs and models, they build locations and props, block in the position of characters, select and plot camera angles and moves. Layout artists may also be responsible for establishing the lengths of shots. They may also make final adjustments. In film, the 3D layout department often plays an important creative role, with a mid-level layout artist equivalent to a camera operator. In TV, dedicated 3D layout artists are usually limited to large productions, but in 2D CG animation is more common (here the layout artist may be called a "scene planner").  In post-production facility houses, layout artists may be called layout TDs or set up TDs (technical directors) and perform a more technical role. 

Animator
Computer animators follow a brief,  referring to established designs, layouts, models and characteristics when creating movement. They may work alone, or supervise a team, always mindful of the production schedule. They must keep up to date with software and adapt to different systems. Animators may be cast, like actors, for their special talents – comedy, dialogue, song and dance, action, or for a particular drawing style.

Junior animator
Junior animators may be given tasks such as adding small characters in the distance, crowd scenes or inanimate objects. The role is more likely to exist on larger projects or as a permanent job within a company. This is usually the entry-level job within the department. 

Digital painter
Digital painters add colour to line images created by animators, using programmes such as Animo, Toon Boom, Opus, Toonz or Photoshop. They must follow the production's references and continuity requirements. They may also clean up the line work on a computer before colouring. Digital painters usually work as part of a team and may progress into the compositing and post-production departments.

CG modeler
Modelers create 3D models from designs, concept drawings and references. They need to produce an accurate translation of the reference, staying 'on model' (in style) and meeting the production's creative and technical requirements as provided by storyboard and layout. Modelers also sometimes do their own research. On smaller productions, modelers may also rig, build textures and create lighting. On larger projects, they may be required to liaise with riggers, texture artists and lighters.

Match move artist or 3D tracker
Match move artists position tracking points on live action shots to work out the coordinates in the relevant 3D programme. The information they provide enables the CG geometry to fit accurately and convincingly into the live action plates when elements are composited. Without accurate match moving, the later stages of production will not work. They work with current software, training or re-training as software develops.

Lighting technical director (TD) or lighter
Lighters ensure consistency in lighting, colour balance and mood between elements of a shot so that the CG looks photo-realistic to match the live action plates. Lighting TDs need to work closely with the rendering and compositing departments to understand what is required and when. They must abide by the designs as faithfully as possible, maintaining continuity. A lighting TD is sometimes involved in research and development. On smaller productions, the role of may be combined with that of modeller or texture artist.

Render wrangler
Render wranglers supervise the rendering process, monitoring anything from a few computers to a major render farm of a thousand machines. Artists submit completed data for rendering, which is placed in a queue for render wranglers to prioritise and check to ensure there are no technical problems. As new entrants, render wranglers can expect to shadow senior colleague before starting on supervised shifts. With more experience, they can be assigned to night shifts, working to a rota. 

3D CG modeler
Modelers create 3D models from designs, concept drawings and references. They need to produce an accurate translation of the reference, staying on model (in style) and meeting the production's creative and technical requirements as provided by storyboard and layout. Modelers also sometimes do their own research. On smaller productions, modelers may also rig, build textures and create lighting. On larger projects, they may be required to liaise with riggers, texture artists and lighters.

Compositor
The compositor's role is to combine all elements into the final image, ensuring style continuity is maintained. To achieve this they enhance the lighting, match colour levels, add grain and motion blur where required, add motion blur, create convincing shadows, keying and rotoscoping. They also need to keep up to date with technological developments within their field. They liaise closely with render wranglers to progress work. As this is the end of the production line, hours can be very long.

Roto artist
Roto artists trace areas of live action frames where computer graphics overlap or interact with live images (rotoscoping). This creates clear areas (mattes) within the frame to allow elements to be layered convincingly. Roto artists also help prepare material for compositing, such as painting out wires and rigs, green/blue screen compositing or grading live action plates. Rotoscoping is the first skill required by compositors and compositors may even do their own rotoscoping on small projects. This role typically exists in facility houses and can involve long and anti-social hours.

Find out more about working in computer-generated animation

Websites:

Publications:

  • The Art and Science of Digital Compositing, by Ron Brinkmann
  • Digital Compositing, by Steve Wright
  • Visual Effects in A Digital World: A Comprehensive Glossary of over 7,000 Visual Effects Terms, by Karen Goulekas
  • How to Get a Job in Computer Animation, by Ed Harriss
  • The Animator’s Survival Kit, by Richard Williams
  • The Illusion of Life, by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston
  • Acting for Animators: A complete guide to Performance Animation, by Ed Hooks
  • The Art of Maya, by Alias Wavefront
  • Maya Character Animation, by Jaejin Choi
  • An Atlas of Anatomy for Artists, by Fritz Schider, Translator Bernard Wolf
  • Digital Lighting & Rendering, by Jeremy Birn, George Maestri (Editor)
  • Painting with Light, by John Alton
  • Inspired 3D Lighting & Compositing, by David Parrish

Some other job roles in animation, games and vfx