What is an Animator? Skills, Salary, Responsibilities

Written By: Yuri
Credit: Government of Alberta

During the breakout of Covid-19, certain filmmaking-related processes and methods had to adapt to a new world, with several restrictions and distancing demands. Meanwhile, certain occupations that always had a more remote and isolated nature saw themselves working in an environment that was already familiar to them.

The search for jobs where you wouldn’t have to leave your house increased immensely over the last couple of years, and people could end up in several different job sectors during this hunt.  However, people leaning more towards artistic or filmmaking related areas would probably see the animator profession as a very attractive and interesting choice.

You heard of them by now, of course. But how to be an animator? What are their skills? What’s an animator’s salary? We’ll answer these questions and also clarify other common doubts about the occupation, so you can figure out if the position would be a good match to you.

What is an Animator?

The animator’s job consists of creating (through a digital software or by hand) a series of images that produce the illusion of movement when sequenced together.

Ok, that’s a really on-the-surface explanation, but we’re not done just yet. It’s actually a pretty complex profession, and there are many areas in which an animator could specialize in, filmmaking obviously being one of them.

And in the movie universe nowadays, most animation work is computer-generated. That means every animator out there should definitely know their way around one of the major digital animation softwares to get some work done.

But that doesn’t mean other types of animations are completely obsolete. I mean, just back in 2018, Wes Anderson was releasing Isle of Dogs, a great animated film that was achieved by stop motion work, one of the most old school animation methods out there.

So yeah, you should definitely know a bit about each area before deciding what’s the one you should eventually dedicate more time to learn about.

Credit: EduGuide

What Kinds of Animation are There?

The main methods of animation currently used for movies, video games and TV productions are:

2D Animation

We could say it’s the most traditional animation method out there. 2D animation creates flat characters and environments. This animation technique has been around for almost 100 years and was made extremely popular by Disney films like Cinderella, Snow White, Pinnochio…y’know, all of those films you probably never heard of.

It’s considered a rather cheap and very flexible way of doing animation work. This allows for 2D animation to be used in anything from corporate videos from mid size companies to current-day feature films (although not as frequent as back in the day).

It has its limitations, sure, but 2D can always look amazing. That depends only on the effort and talent of the people being the creative engine behind it.

Credit: Disney

3D Animation

If 2D animation has you thinking about classic Disney films, then 3D it’s Pixar territory. Movies like Up, Toy Story, The Incredibles and many others from the studio were made through 3D animation.

It’s certainly a more realistic type of animation, that costs more money and involves complex digital techniques in order to achieve satisfactory results. It’s commonly used in commercials for big companies, architectural projects and, of course, feature films and short films.

Although 2D animation nowadays is mostly made through computers for 90% of the process, 3D animation simply wouldn’t happen without the tech provided by highly advanced animation and design softwares. In 3D, you have to learn how to digitally design characters, spending hours sculpting it to perfection, to later learn how to properly manipulate them.

Oh, and VFX? Yeah, 95% of those cool effects that you see in big budgeted films out there start from a basis of 3D animation.

Credit: Pixar

Stop Motion Animation

It’s probably the most peculiar-looking and unconventional method of animation on this list. Through stop motion, we obtained movies like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Chicken Run, Anomalisa and many more.

It’s just as old as 2D animation and also used to be utilized once or twice in very old live action films as a way of achieving special effects, like in King Kong (1933).

In stop motion, instead of drawing your characters, digitally or by hand, you have to create physical models of characters and also create or manipulate the objects that they will interact with, as well as the artifacts that will compose their environment.

After obtaining all of those physical elements, you must essentially take photos of separate frames until… Well, until you have your movie. A reminder: stop motion is usually done with 12 to 15 frames per second. And just to confirm what you’re probably thinking right now: Yes, it’s an extremely laborious animation method. A 90 minute stop motion film would have to be filled with about 64,800 frames.

On the other hand, nothing looks quite like stop motion, which is not a very money consuming method as well.

Credit: 20th Century Fox

What Qualifications Does an Animator Need?

Technically, none.

Yes, there are definitely a ton of courses that offer B.A. or B.F.A. degrees. Most of them are in great colleges. But, thinking in grounded terms, we can quickly arrive at one conclusion: Not everybody has the money to pay for this kind of education.

If you have the money and want a degree, great, go for it! But there are other ways to get started in this world. Employers in the industry are generally looking for people that have an attractive skills set and a good portfolio.

You can achieve these things by starting from the bottom, as everybody else. Learn how to draw, make research about more affordable (or free) online courses on animation, start to learn your way around an animation software, and then just start doing your thing.

Obtaining some basic knowledge on areas like computer science, sculpture, and photography would help a lot too. These fields can help a lot when it comes to handling the animation softwares, modeling your characters, and properly lighting them (digitally or practically).

Try to do some animation everyday, improving your skills and increasing your chances of participating in relevant projects. By doing that, you’re already on your way up.

What Skills Does an Animator Need?

● Drawing abilities. A notion of the basics of drawing it’s really important in order to properly start creating and modeling characters.

● Knowing how to work with a team. Yes, you’d normally work alone (or surrounded by 2 or 3 other people) as an animator. But that certainly does not mean it isn't a collaborative position. If you’re working as an animator in an entry level animator position, for example, there’ll be some people you’ll have to report to and pick the brains of,  in order to contemplate the project’s creative vision

● Being flexible with your hours. You can work as an animator in a 9 to 5 job, sure, but if we’re talking about working in the movie industry, you’d essentially be a freelancer. You’d probably have to administer more than one project at a time at some point, as well as giving up some weekends and holidays to do some work.

● Having basic notions of physics. Observing how people move themselves and how gravity works in general, is really important in order for you to decide how YOUR characters and objects should move. Of course, they don’t have to move around exactly like things in real life do, but having a basis revolving around that is important.

● Domain of an animation software. Almost everything is done digitally in animation these days. Being really knowledgeable in one (or more) of the major animation platforms out there is key. Some examples are: Adobe Character Animator, Moho Pro, AutoDesk Maya and Clip Studio Paint.

What’s an Animator’s Salary?

There’s many variables that go into this. Factors that can directly influence the salary you could get as an animator are:

● Quality of your work

● Years of experience

● Level of education

● Your connection with people in the industry

● Amount of work you get within one year period

The type of animation you work with also heavily influences the animator’s salary.  As of 2022, the average salary for the main methods of animation in filmmaking are:

● 3D Animator: U$77,203

● 2D Animator: U$50,000

● Stop Motion Animator: 72,520

RCR Podcast to the Rescue

As always, the Red Carpet Rookies podcast has an interview with a really interesting guest that could help you out big time when it comes to the subject at hand.

In episode 20, we had the pleasure of interviewing Disney’s celebrated animator Joe Haidar, the guy behind the animation done for, y’know, just some small movies… Things like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Hercules and Mulan. You may have heard of those.

In the chat we had with him, he talked a little bit about really insightful stuff, like his journey to the top of the industry of animated films, how he pitched the idea of Hercules, how was it to work with Robin Williams during the making of Aladdin, but most importantly, he gave some really important advice to aspiring animators out there.

Here’s a segment from our interview with him, more specifically, a moment when he speaks on the education options (both formal and informal) available for animators out there, and the animation methods they should consider specializing in.

On an Ending Note…

The animation world is definitely just growing and growing. 3D animation is evolving in one way or another practically everyday, and methods like 2D and stop motion are not showing any sign that they’ll vanish any time soon, since they’re also constantly adapting to new technologies.

It’s a market on the rise and it’s employing a lot of people right now. May you choose the informal or formal route, getting yourself educated in animation processes will definitely require some effort, but entering this world means stepping into a position that will stimulate you constantly and also to be part of a new era in storytelling history.