A degree in animation prepares students for careers in animation, entertainment, art and design, advertising, and other industries that require multimedia artists. While opportunities vary depending on an individual's portfolio work and education level, many employers require a minimum of a bachelor's degree. Students should begin developing their portfolio and gaining experience early to position themselves for success in this competitive industry.
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Why Pursue a Career in Animation?
Animation can lead to lucrative job opportunities in many industries. Art directors, for example, typically earn over $90,000 per year. Animators often enjoy the creative aspects of their job as well, constantly engaging with their imagination and seeing the materialization of their concepts and designs. As with most creative industries, this field is highly competitive, and learners should begin strengthening their portfolio early in their college career.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects multimedia artist and animator jobs to grow 4% from 2018 and 2028 -- similar to the average growth rate for all U.S. occupations. Those looking to pursue a career in animation should possess strong artistic abilities, good time-management skills, and computer competencies.
Animation Career Outlook
Salary outlook for animators depends on their professional experience, job type, and degree. While the industry is steadily growing, the number of students entering the occupation is also rising, making animation a competitive field.
The BLS reports that 71,600 current jobs exist for multimedia artists and animators, and the industry is projected to add about 3,000 new openings from 2018-2028. Employment opportunities are not limited to one geographical location, although the West Coast and Northeast regions of the U.S. typically offer higher salaries.
As indicated by the table below, a worker's earning potential is largely dependent upon their job type and industry experience.
Skills Gained With an Animation Degree
When animators enter the job market, they need educational qualifications, skills, and a portfolio that demonstrates their talent. A college animation program cultivates learners' raw artistic talent and develops proficiency in the use of 2D and 3D computer applications. As students acquire hands-on experience, they develop other skills essential to the animation business, such as those related to communication, teamwork, and applied mathematics. The following list reviews common skills of a successful animator.
- Artistic Talent
Animators often begin developing their projects on a storyboard. Storyboards involve sketches and still images brought to life with computer applications. Students must master the use of color, light, and texture. College programs develop these skills with art classes that focus on drawing, illustration, design, color theory, and typography.
- Computer Software
In order to animate their ideas, students learn computer applications such as Autodesk Maya, Adobe Animate, and Adobe After Effects. These programs help animators make realistic characters, movement, and backgrounds from a flat storyboard of drawings and designs. 2D and 3D designs require using different software and designers must know the differences to obtain the desired effects.
- Applied Math
Animators can use applied math skills to develop more innovative animations. For instance, knowledge of trigonometry helps animators move characters around, while algebra and integral calculus help animators create more defined special effects and scenery. Even if students do not need to complete advanced math courses as part of their curriculum, they can choose elective coursework to advance their applied math competencies.
Animators work full time or part time for an employer or client who establishes project goals and specifications. Animators require effective communication skills to understand client needs and relay necessary information about issues like timelines and budgets. Animation programs help students develop these soft skills, which are crucial when working with others.
Many animators work in a team of designers tasked with developing a project. Given the challenges that typically arise when working with others, animators must master the art of navigating diverse personalities, communication styles, and project visions to ensure successful collaboration. Faculty often require that college students complete animation projects in teams, which gives them practical experience as part of a group.
Animation Career Paths
Animation students can often prepare for a specific career path by choosing a concentration or focus. Some programs may offer animation as a concentration within a graphic design, fine arts, or related degree track. Others may offer standalone animation programs that feature specializations like mobile game development and character animation. Four common career focuses related to animation are outlined below.
- Mobile Game Development: Video games require the artistic and technical talents of animators to design, prototype, and produce engaging entertainment. Students conduct research; learn about character sketches and story development; and use game production tools, such as Adobe Animate, to develop games for computer and mobile applications.
- Character Animation: Developing memorable and realistic characters is crucial for animators to connect with their audiences. Character animation focuses on the artistic and technical training needed to develop sophisticated characters and their environments. Students learn how to build characters and alternate realities by taking courses like life drawing, visual design, dialogue, and sound effects.
- Visual Effects: Students develop expertise in creating illusions and simulated events with the use of software programs like Adobe After Effects. They learn to turn digital imagery into believable live-action footage. Courses cover topics such as storytelling, 3D layers in After Effects, compositing in After Effects, and creating and controlling 3D particle systems.
- Advertising: Learners preparing for this field develop the theoretical and technical expertise needed to create digital advertising campaigns. Students learn about social media strategies; digital branding; and multimedia storytelling for print, television, and other advertising channels.
How to Start Your Career in Animation
To pursue a career in animation, individuals usually need a sizable portfolio and a bachelor's or master's degree. Most colleges do not offer an associate degree in this field, but they may offer individual courses that help learners prepare for a four-year university animation program.
Creative individuals who possess a bachelor's degree can secure most entry-level animation jobs. However, most employers require some type of industry experience, which is why many programs assist students by providing internship opportunities. Internships often give students a competitive advantage over their peers, allowing them to strengthen their portfolio work ahead of graduation.
Although some high-level roles may require a master's degree, the main advantage of these programs is the ability to specialize. Master's students can advance their skills in areas like 3D character animation, special effects, and stop-motion. Outside of positions that require highly specialized animators, a bachelor's degree generally suffices in this field.
Associate Degree in Animation
Colleges generally do not offer an associate degree in animation. Instead, students may pursue an associate degree in art and design, fine arts, or graphic arts; these programs may offer students the option to take some animation courses. An associate degree can also provide an entryway into a bachelor's in animation program, allowing students to complete general education requirements for a four-year degree at a significantly lower cost.
While an associate degree provides few job prospects in animation, graduates can work in related fields to gain experience and prepare for a bachelor's program.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Animation?
- Production Assistant
Production assistants work behind the scenes to support the producers and senior staff of television and radio productions. They may manage a catalog of digital images, answer phones, work with guests, distribute scripts, and check production schedules. Bigger productions may require these workers to hold a bachelor's, but graduates with an associate degree can find opportunities with smaller productions.
- Web Developer
Web developers focus on the design, creation, and maintenance of websites. They work with organizations to ensure sites work at full speed and can handle projected traffic. Many web developers work as self-employed contractors, although others work full time for larger organizations that employ in-house web designers and developers. Many of these workers hold bachelor's degrees, but an associate degree can provide entry into the field.
Bachelor's Degree in Animation
Animators and other multimedia artists typically hold a bachelor's degree in animation. This degree may qualify graduates for work as video game designers, art directors, and film and video directors. Students can earn a bachelor's degree online on a part-time or full-time basis. The following table describes a few common careers for an animation major.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Animation?
- Video Game Designer
Video game designers develop video games for computers and gaming systems. Some bachelor's in animation programs offer a concentration in gaming that teaches students how to conceptualize and implement game mechanics and develop characters, narrative, sound, and effects. Students may receive practical experience in a gaming lab or through a practicum.
- Multimedia Artist or Animator
Animators create images and special effects for video games, television, movies, mobile devices, and other media. A bachelor's degree in animation develops students' drawing, painting, and scripting skills. Students also learn how to use specialized software to animate their creations in 2D or 3D.
- Film and Video Editor
Film and video editors work at studios, broadcasting companies, advertising agencies, and similar organizations. These editors use specialized software to splice together frames from digital footage as they determine story pacing, sound effects, visual effects, and other characteristics. Students can cultivate artistic talents and learn related technical skills by earning a bachelor's in animation or a bachelor's in film and video with an animation specialization.
- Art Director
Art directors oversee the work of animators, illustrators, graphic designers, and multimedia professionals in television, film, advertising, and related areas. They need at least a bachelor's degree and a few years of experience. While many art directors possess art degrees, some begin their careers by majoring in graphic design or animation.
Master's Degree in Animation
A master's program teaches animators advanced skill sets, giving them additional experience that can open the door to senior roles in animation. A major advantage of a master's degree is the opportunity to specialize. The field of animation offers diverse opportunities for animators with specialized skills in areas such as stop-motion and effects animation.
The following table lists career options for animators with a master's degree. Although students can enter many of these roles with a bachelor's degree and experience, a graduate-level degree can help workers stand out from their peers. Some animators may choose to pursue an online animation master's degree on a part-time basis so they can continue to work while studying.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Animation?
- Animation Producer or Director
These workers recruit and oversee teams of animators who work in-house or as contractors. They work as key facilitators in the production process, overseeing schedules, budgets, and deliverables. These positions typically require at least 3-5 years of animation experience. A master's degree in animation gives animation directors and producers the theoretical and practical expertise needed to succeed in this role.
- Character Animator
These animators specialize in creating 2D and 3D characters for film, video games, mobile applications, and advertising. They ensure that characters act realistically within these digital environments. Character animators create models and design environments in which animated characters reside.
- Key Animator
This senior-level position typically requires at least 3-5 years of experience. Key animators direct other animators and manage the flow of work. They work with riggers and model makers as part of the preproduction process and collaborate with directors to manage the production lifecycle.
- Effects Animator
These specialists concentrate on special effects in different types of animation. They work with VFX supervisors, art directors, and other animators to translate conceptual ideas into realistic special effects using their expertise in software tools and interfaces, such as Houdini and Mantra. While some effects animators work for big companies, like Disney and DreamWorks, many others find work in smaller enterprises. A few master's programs allow students to specialize in this area of animation.
- Stop-Motion Animator
Stop-motion animators set up special rigs that involve puppets, miniatures, clay figures, and similar props. The Wallace and Gromit films provide examples of the labor-intensive work of stop-motion animators. Some schools offer master's programs in stop-motion puppet animation.
How to Advance Your Career in Animation
Once you earn a postsecondary degree in animation, there are a few different ways that you can further develop your skills. While most entry-level roles typically do not require a graduate-level degree, highly specialized roles can lead to higher salary prospects. One way to obtain these positions is by pursuing a master's degree, which allows learners to pursue specializations that enable them to work as art directors, 3D character animators, and effects specialists.
Earning certifications can also lead to greater earning potential and more job responsibilities. As new animation software becomes available, individuals can enroll in online programs to certify new proficiencies, which can also lead to new career opportunities.
Gaining certification in programs like Adobe Animate and Final Cut Pro X can lead to more job opportunities and increased salary prospects. Upon completion of program requirements, users take exams to certify their new proficiencies, further strengthening their employability. Seasoned animators can also pursue certificates to stay abreast of the latest software releases and upgrades.
Another way to advance your knowledge and animation proficiencies is by enrolling in continuing education programs (CEUs), such as workshops, seminars, and online classes. Several schools offer these programs with specialized focuses, such as stop-motion animation. Other schools feature programs that include software training for products like Adobe Animate. These software skills are often sought after by employers and can lead to greater salary prospects.
While these classes provide plenty of value for animators looking to develop new proficiencies, they generally only cover the fundamentals and may not directly lead to career advancement. For highly specialized positions in animation, industry experience and advanced degrees tend to provide you with the greatest advantage over your peers.
For current animators, completing online CEU courses can help develop new proficiencies and skills. These courses can be helpful for professionals looking to stay current with certain software. However, if you are looking for ways to advance your career, building connections across the industry can take you a long way.
In a competitive field like animation, networking is often crucial for professional growth. In the entertainment and arts industry especially, having an experienced mentor to connect you with distinguished artists can position you for future career success. While these relationships often develop naturally as you spend time working in the industry, you can proactively seek advice from members in established organizations.
Many professional organizations are dedicated to helping and connecting artists within the animation community. While joining these groups may not directly lead to advancements in your current role, organizations offer many valuable resources for current and aspiring animators. Additionally, you can meet and learn from prominent artists with advanced styles and techniques, allowing you to strengthen your own portfolio work.
How to Switch Your Career to Animation
A career in animation generally requires a bachelor's degree in animation or a related field. Additionally, as with most careers in art, demonstrating strong portfolio work is an essential component to securing a job.
Many colleges oversee online bachelor's in animation programs. These distance options often offer lower tuition rates, flexible scheduling, and scholarships. You may also be able to continue working while earning your degree.
Individuals who already possess an art degree may find the transition into animation easier if they have a preexisting body of work and industry experience. These individuals can take online courses to strengthen their animation skills and potentially earn certifications.
Where Can You Work as an Animation Professional?
Several factors impact employment prospects for animators, including their education, experience, industry, and location. The following sections provide an overview of the locations and industries that offer some of the strongest animation career prospects.Industries
Many animators seek careers in the motion picture and film industry, but fields such as advertising and software publishing also offer lucrative career options. Additionally, animators who work as freelance and independent artists enjoy greater flexibility in terms of the projects and clients they work with. The following table reviews five of the top industries that employ animators.
- Video Game Designer
Motion Picture and Video Industries
Animators find employment at studios that produce feature films and television programs. California stands as a global hub for entertainment, with Hollywood providing many opportunities for talented animators and others skilled in digital filmmaking.
Average Salary: $100,910
- Advertising, Public Relations, and Related Services
Animators can find lucrative careers in advertising, public relations, and marketing in metropolitan areas across the nation. Many companies seek 2D and 3D animators to produce memorable digital campaigns.
Average Salary: $74,530
- Freelance and Independent Artists
Freelancers can work in a variety of industries, choosing the projects and clients that interest them. They also enjoy flexibility with regard to location -- many freelancers work from home or anywhere with an internet connection.
Average Salary: $86,670
- Computer Systems Design and Related Services
Average Salary: $73,320
- Software Publishers
The popularity of video games provides a strong market for publishers who specialize in game software for consoles, mobile devices, and personal computers. Animators work with game designers to create memorable characters and digital worlds for consumer audiences.
Average Salary: $84,150
While a worker's education and industry greatly affect their salary prospects and career opportunities, geographic location also plays a significant role. When deciding upon a location, students should consider the number of available jobs and cost of living.
California, for example, sees the largest number of employment in animation, largely due to companies like DreamWorks and Pixar; however, animators who reside in the state also experience a high cost of living. States like Texas and Georgia also provide plentiful job opportunities in animation, but with a lower cost of living.
Generally, jobs in multimedia and animation can be found across the country, especially if you are seeking positions with advertising and marketing companies. The map below details average animator salaries for each state.
Interview With a Professional in Animation
James Chambers is a designer, developer, and entrepreneur living in London. He co-founded and is a director of Animade -- a London-based animation studio -- and is CEO of Boords, an online storyboard creator. He has a BA in interactive design from London College of Communication and an MA in design interactions from the Royal College of Art.
- Why did you decide to pursue a career in animation? Is it something you were always interested in?
I've always loved making things. There is something magical about movement and its ability to evoke emotion. Animation brings craft and emotion together in a unique and wonderful way.
All great animation has one thing in common: character. Realizing that the principles of character could be applied beyond linear animation was a real turning point for me. Wherever things move -- robotics, games, user interface design -- animation principles are present. It's all around us and something I love being a part of.
- How is an animation program different from other college majors?
Animation, like many creative endeavors, requires a lot of motivation. Class time is really just a touch point to keep you on the right path. Successful students have an unrelenting drive to create the best work possible. This often means long hours.
Animation is, to some extent, subjective. You have to learn which advice to listen to and which to ignore. This can be difficult when you get conflicting opinions from different professors. Risking the ire of a respected elder is never a fun prospect. Being able to back up your decisions is a key skill for a creative career.
- What was the job search like after completing your degree?
We started our studio right after graduation. We had both been freelancing during our degrees, so after graduation day we emailed our contacts and hoped for the best!
We started the studio in 2010 when the economy wasn't in great shape. Because we were so small, our costs were obviously lower than some more established studios. In our case, being small was a real advantage.
- Why did you decide to start your own business? Is this common for those who pursue a career in animation?
I've always wanted to work for myself. The freedom and the sense of achievement when things go well are fantastic. The flip side, of course, is that when things go poorly, the buck stops with you.
Freelancing or starting a small studio is very common in the creative industry. Both are a great way of working on varied projects. The trade-off is the lack of financial stability from working at a large company.
- What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job? The most challenging?
Having an idea and being able to see it come to life. There's nothing else like it. Balancing creative time with business logistics is always challenging and requires discipline. The flip side is the practicalities of running a business. Keeping the two in balance is an ongoing struggle!
- What advice would you give to students considering a degree and career in animation?
Make noise about work you love -- both other people's and your own. This could be starting a portfolio, a newsletter, or an animation blog. The animation world is full of incredible work and wonderful people -- get involved!
- Any final thoughts for us?
- Animation can reach people like no other creative discipline. Use this power wisely.
Resources for Animation Majors
Organizations and educational resources can help multimedia students better understand the history of animation and gain a competitive advantage over their peers. The lists below detail online professional groups, education courses, and publication resources available to aspiring multimedia and animation artists.
- Professional Organizations
The International Animated Film Society: Established to advance the field of animation, ASIFA-Hollywood allows members to network with professionals through special events such as workshops, shows, and social network meetings. Animation students receive a membership discount.
CGSociety: This site is a professional development and networking platform for digital artists. Animators can learn about developments in the field, receive information about workshops and programs, and participate in forums to discuss software and other tools of the trade.
Animation World Network: This online resource provides news, blogs, a job board, and lists of networking events. ANIMATIONWorld magazine gives members a first look at upcoming projects from big and small studios, highlights awards programs, and offers a section on recruiting and similar topics.
International Game Developers Association: Animation majors interested in the video game market can join IGDA -- an international community of writers, designers, artists, programmers, and producers. Members gain access to networking events, IGDA student chapters and special interest groups, and discounts on events and programs.
American Institute of Graphic Arts: AIGA represents design professionals. Members gain access to local and national events and programs. AIGA also lists job opportunities and offers professional development resources. Members receive health insurance enrollment assistance and benefit from discount programs, such as savings on Apple products and accessories.
The Animation Guild: This guild represents animation and visual effects artists. It serves primarily as a labor organization that negotiates wages and working conditions for its members. The guild also offers pension and health benefits to members and mediates disputes between employees and employers.
Graphic Artists Guild: Graphic and interactive designers, illustrators, and animators can join this guild. Members receive access to virtual and in-person educational and social events, a teleclass archive, a news blog, and an e-book series.
Freelancers Union: This union advocates for its nearly 500,000 members and offers free membership. Membership benefits include access to healthcare, dental, disability, and liability insurance. The organization also operates a blog and manages local communities for freelancers across the United States.
Entertainment Software Association: ESA serves as a voice for the video gaming industry. While the organization does not offer student memberships, animation majors can still access a wealth of information on ESA's website, including news on developments and facts about the computer and video game industry.
SIGCHI: SIGCHI is the world's largest organization of professionals who work in fields that use human-computer interaction (HCI), including graphic designers, interaction designers, multimedia designers, and software engineers. Members gain access to local chapters, networks of HCI professionals, publications in the ACM Digital Library, and sponsored conferences and speaker series.
- Open Courseware
Character Design for Video Games - California Institute of the Arts: Led by three studio designers, this course teaches students the foundational concepts of character design, including movement, expression, and technical limitations. Over the course of four weeks, learners observe the processes of these designers and have the opportunity to test out concepts on their own designs.
Algorithms for Computer Animation - MIT: Targeting students interested in machine learning and scientific computing, this class explores the processes that make animation possible, including optimization, motion capture, and inverse kinematics. Learners study the methods of specific effects and computer graphics, while also assessing the limitations of animation tools. This free online course is taught at the graduate level and may require an advanced understanding of computer science.
Introduction to Programming and Animation with Alice - Duke University: This course provides students with an introduction to animation using the virtual programming tool Alice. Emphasizing 3D animation, this course teaches students how to set up scenes, move camera angles, and rotate digital objects. Additionally, learners explore programming concepts that teach them the skills needed to build their own 3D game.
Pixel Art for Video Games - Michigan State University: In this course, students explore the foundations of making art for video games with Unity -- a cross-platform game engine used to develop interactive 3D content. Designed for art novices, this course teaches foundational and technical skills to help learners develop their creative designs into games. Classes are divided into a series of video lessons over the course of four weeks.
The Animator's Survival Kit - Richard E. Williams: Widely regarded as the seminal animation book, The Animator's Survival Kit covers nearly every principle of animation. From staging to timing and motion, this book explains how drawings can demonstrate animated action. Williams also illustrates ways to develop animated characters with personality and feeling.
Cartoon Animation - Preston Blair: Across five chapters, this book teaches the fundamentals of animation. Blair starts by covering the foundations of drawing, explaining how to construct cartoon characters with personality and human mannerisms. Over the next three chapters, he explores ways to create character movement, poses, and expressions. The final chapter focuses on technical animation topics, like spacing, camera movements, and timing.
Timing for Animation - Harold Whitaker and John Halas: This book serves as vital text for aspiring animators. As its title indicates, this book conveys the importance of timing and how it makes animated characters appear realistic. Whitaker and Halas explain how space and length are essential components to creating dramatic effects for characters and objects. The revised second edition also includes timing for digital production, storyboarding, and after effects.
The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation - Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas: Written by two of Disney's most prominent animators, this book explains the processes of character animation. Through thousands of illustrations, Johnston and Thomas describe everything from storyboarding to animation sequences. The first book to feature Disney's philosophies, The Illusion of Life incorporates all 12 basic principles of animation.
The Art of 3D Computer Animation and Effect - Isaac Kerlow: In this book on computer animation technology, Kerlow explores techniques and styles used to create 3D animation and visual effects. He covers the entire animation process, from the creation and preproduction phases to the finished composition. The fourth edition includes the latest computer animation techniques.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What degree should I get for animation?
- Many employers require a bachelor's degree when hiring for animation roles. Students may also pursue degrees in computer graphics, art and illustration, and fine arts.
- Do you need a college degree for animation?
- Most entry-level careers require a postsecondary degree, and a bachelor's helps demonstrate your animation proficiencies to prospective employers. However, it is possible to succeed without one, especially as an independent artist. Your portfolio work, certifications, and industry experience are also important and can help further demonstrate your qualifications.
- What careers are available in animation?
- Animation professionals can pursue many roles. For example, in the entertainment and arts industry, animators may find work as stop-motion animators, art directors, film and video editors, and video game designers. Other roles include forensic animators, mathematical modelers, and advertising artists.
- Do animators get paid well?
- Animators can pursue job opportunities across many different fields, some more lucrative than others. While education level and industry type significantly affect salary potential, the average animator salary is around $55,000, which is comparable to the annual mean wage of all occupations in the U.S.
- Is a degree in animation worth it?
- For creative students who are passionate about digital art and design, an animation degree can be a good investment. With solid job growth projected in many related roles and lucrative opportunities across a variety of fields, a degree in animation can provide ample value. However, for those who do not consider themselves tech-savvy or creative, pursuing a degree in animation may prove difficult.