Animation Career Track

Want to launch an animation career? Learn more about 3D animator skills, education requirements, animator jobs, and animator salary potential in this guide.
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  • Animators design characters, graphics, and backgrounds for a variety of mediums.
  • Some may specialize in components like character design, lighting, or 3D animation.
  • Animators use software like Maya and Autodesk 3ds Max.
  • In 2020, the median annual salary for animators was $77,700.

Animation is present in nearly all forms of entertainment and media, including television, film, advertisements, mobile applications, and video games. Professionals may design characters, graphics, or backgrounds.

Historically, animations were composed of thousands of hand drawings, but now modern animators can use specialized computer software to bring static designs into motion. Animators demonstrate both artistry and a command of technology.

A considerable number of animators work "behind the scenes" to produce the bounty of visual media that viewers consume.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 62,400 people worked as special effects artists and animators in 2020. The organization projects jobs for these professionals will grow 16% between 2020 and 2030, much faster than the average across all occupations. Although some are affiliated with studios or other production companies, 59% of these professionals worked on a freelance basis in 2020.

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What Is Animation?

Animation is an eclectic medium in which artists use images to create the illusion of motion and employ visual storytelling techniques. Professionals use software like Maya, Autodesk 3ds Max, Morpheme, and Flash; some larger studios even have their own software programs.

Animators must replicate the effects of lighting, dimension, texture, and movement. Animation styles may be more simplistic two-dimensional cartoons, photorealistic sequences, or CGI techniques that create illusions vivid enough to blend seamlessly into live-action video.

Although animation is used often in entertainment mediums like television, film, and gaming, it can have some unexpected practical applications as well. Animated graphics often serve as visual aids in areas like forensic analysis, flight simulation, and medical instruction.

What Does an Animator Do?

Animation is a highly collaborative field. Some animators may specialize in components like character design or 3D animation. During the animation process, professionals must consult with clients, directors, or other animators consistently to form a cohesive final product.

Animation consists of both technical and artistic components. Professionals may storyboard scenes to help animation teams visualize how the images will translate into a moving sequence. They often use digital drawing platforms to create designs by hand.

Some professionals may write their own code when working with animation software. They may be familiar with programming languages like C++ and JavaScript.

Animation Career Outlook

According to the BLS, the number of special effects and animator jobs is projected to grow by 16% between 2020 and 2030, double the 8% average growth rate for all careers. This accounts for 7,800 new job openings each year.

Many animators find lucrative positions and earn above-average salaries. As of 2020, the median annual animator salary was $77,700, with the top 10% earning over $142,750 a year.

Animation Career Paths

Many animators choose a specialization within their discipline. Because of the detailed and labor-intensive nature of animation, directors, game designers, or lead animators usually delegate segments to different specialists to create a cohesive scene or effect. These professionals work together to assure that visual elements, such as light, movement, and color, fit together harmoniously.

2D/3D Animator

These animators often work in television or film production and design 2D or 3D animation sequences that coincide with screenplays. They may consult with writers or directors to assure that artistic choices, such as color scheme or facial expressions, enhance storytelling. To build 3D animation skills, these individuals must be competent in software like Autodesk 3ds Max or Modo.

Average Annual Salary (February 2022): $54,840

Background Artist

These artists design backgrounds, which can be still images or incorporate moving details. Background specialists determine how backdrops can enhance storytelling objectives and match artistic styles; animators then layer characters and other moving objects over the top to create a final product.

Some background artists create images through more traditional methods, such as painting, while others use digital illustration programs like Photoshop.

Average Annual Salary (March 2022): $59,350

Character Animator

These animators design and style characters; they determine how to represent characters' mannerisms, lip movements, facial expressions, and actions according to storyboards and other outlines. In some cases, animators use tools — such as motion capture technology — to more authentically represent human motion.

Average Annual Salary (March 2022): $57,290

Lighting Artist

Replicating realistic lighting can alter a scene's mood and enhance the illusion of dimension and texture. Lighting artists are responsible for representing white balance, shadows, levels of brightness, and the location of light sources.

Average Annual Salary (June 2021): $91,890

3D Modeler

Animators often use sculpted physical models of concept designs to plan how characters will move, speak, or appear on the screen. Modelers are responsible for translating sculpted props into digital designs, typically using software like Autodesk 3ds Max or POV-Ray.

Median Salary: $52,630

What Kind of Skills Do Animators Need?

Animators in all areas must have a sophisticated and practical understanding of art, visual composition, and animation software. These professionals should also have the soft skills to thrive in a collaborative, creative, and potentially demanding field.


Although they typically use screenplays or other outlines to guide their work, animators exercise a great deal of creative agency. They are the artists who ultimately determine how story principles will be represented on screen, how characters look, and how artistic choices, such as color schemes, will impact storytelling.

Attention to Detail

Animation is a labor-intensive, sometimes tedious, process. Many animation sequences are highly detailed, and animators must create realistic representations of lighting or complex textures, such as hair or grass.

In some cases, animators will use principles of anatomy, kinesiology, physics, or other hard science principles to create more authentic representations of structures and movements.

Ability to Work Under Pressure

Often, animators must adhere to strict deadlines and need to complete large volumes of work within tight time constraints. Animators should be adept at working in cooperative, fast-paced environments and completing high-quality work under pressure.

Artistic Skills

Competence in the visual arts is fundamental in animation. Although animators must have well-developed technical competencies, they ultimately need artistic skills to create original designs and visual interpretations of stories. Many character or background designs are drawn digitally, sculpted, or painted by hand. Animators must also demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of visual composition principles, such as lighting, color, texture, and spatial balance.

Is a Career in Animation Worth It?

Animation careers can be well-suited for artistic individuals who embrace technology as a creative tool and are passionate about developing visual media. This path is ideal for detail-oriented individuals who thrive in deadline-driven environments.

There are numerous in-demand and well-paying opportunities available in the animation field. However, employment prospects vary considerably by region. Many of the world's most prominent animation studios, including DreamWorks, Pixar, Nickelodeon, and Warner Brothers, are headquartered in California.

California has the greatest number of animator jobs in the United States. According to the BLS, there were 11,460 animation and special effects professionals employed in this state in 2020. In the same year, there were also 2,000 animation professionals working in New York and 1,250 working in Texas.

The BLS reports that animators earned the most in Connecticut in 2020, where they made an average of $115,660 per year. However, there were only 220 animator jobs in the state that year. In California, animators earned an average annual salary of $105,480 in 2020.

Frequently Asked Questions About Animation Careers

How do I start a career in animation?

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Animation careers typically require a postsecondary degree, and while associate programs and professional certifications are available, many employers require animators to hold at least a bachelor's degree.

Budding animators can showcase their skills and connect with employers by building well-developed portfolios. Fortunately, many animation students are able to create portfolio-quality materials while still in school and can enrich their portfolios with internships, apprenticeships, or freelance work.

Animators may use social media platforms and personal websites to publish demo reels and portfolio content. Since so many animators are self employed, marketing and self promotion capabilities are crucial.

What is the highest-paying job in animation?

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Animation is a diverse field, and salary potential varies significantly by specialization. Certain niches are especially lucrative; in 2020, animators employed by software publishers earned an average of $87,840 per year, according to the BLS.

Animators who worked in motion picture and video industries were among the highest-paid, earning an average of $105,670 per year.

Which degree is best for animation?

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Most studios require that all animators hold a bachelor's degree. Many individuals in this field major in computer graphics, a more generalized discipline in which students take computer science and fine art courses. Some colleges offer more specialized majors, such as digital arts and animation. In these programs, students can receive hands-on training in marketable skills and animation software.