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. You might want to enter the VFX industry through an apprenticeship as an assistant technical director or a junior 2D artist. Have a look at NextGen Skills Academy VFX apprenticeships for school leavers. These involve a lot of learning on the job working in a VFX company.
Check out What’s an apprenticeship? to learn more about apprenticeships and find an apprenticeship to learn how to find one in your region, or approach companies directly. Go to ScreenSkills information on VFX apprenticeships for the main apprenticeship schemes in VFX.
If you can’t find an apprenticeship with a VFX company, it might be worth getting an apprenticeship in a related industry, such as games or animation, which could give you some experience to help you find your way into VFX at a later point.
Build a portfolio:
Learn the software, experiment with VFX programs and create a showreel that you can show to admissions tutors or employers. Focus on producing a portfolio which includes relevant prep work to showcase your immediate practical skills. 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:
VFX companies or studios generally prefer it if you have a degree in graphic design, or another VFX-specific course for this 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. Check out the events in ScreenSkills training and opportunities directory. 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 network well to learn how to do this.
Search for jobs:
Look at ScreenSkills list of job boards. Research VFX companies you’d like to work for. Go to their websites and check if they are advertising for junior roles the art or pre-production departments. Even if they aren’t, send in your CV and showreel and ask them to bear you in mind for future roles or work experience. Keep looking on job websites too. 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.
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