Animators use their imaginations and technical expertise to bring still images to life as 2D and 3D models. The demand for talented animators continues to rise because of consumer need for sophisticated 2D and 3D animations for entertainment, educational tools, and other areas. The popularity of animated films demonstrates the potential for commercial success when talented 3D animators enliven drawings with sophisticated computer software. 2D animators -- who produce flat animations -- also create characters and multimedia products for advertising collateral and other materials common in American life.

Those looking to pursue an animation career should begin career planning early to determine what kind of educational programs align with their goals. While some employers may accept a certificate or associate degree for entry-level jobs, most seek multimedia artists and animators who hold at least a bachelor's degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This guide examines degree requirements, career options, certifications, salaries, and resources for animators.

Image of three animators discussing an animation project in front of a computer

Skills Gained in an Animation Program

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 communication, teamwork, and applied math abilities. 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.

Communication

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 soft skills, such as communication, which are just as important as technical expertise when working with others.

Teamwork

Many animators work in a team of designers tasked with developing a project. Given the challenges that typically arise during teamwork, animators must master the art of navigating diverse personalities, communication styles, and visions for the project to ensure successful collaboration. Faculty often require that college students complete animation projects in teams, which gives them hands-on experience as part of a group.

Why Pursue a Career in Animation?

Talented animators can find career opportunities in a variety of industries. The entertainment sector provides strong job potential, as do areas like gaming, advertising, and marketing. The BLS projects multimedia artist and animator jobs to grow by 8% between 2016 and 2026, which is slightly faster than the average growth rate for all occupations in the U.S. Since the animation field remains competitive, it is important for aspiring animators to earn a degree and put together an impressive portfolio.

How Much Do Animation Majors Make?

Several factors affect animators' potential salary, including their experience and industry. A portfolio of high-quality work, an advanced degree, and experience can give animators an advantage over the competition. The following table outlines a few animation careers and accompanying salaries based on experience.
Median Salary for CAREER by Occupation and Job Level
Job Title Entry-Level Employees
(0-12 months)
Early Career Employees
(1-4 years)
Midcareer
(5-9 Years)
Experienced
(10-19 Years)
Animator $45,000 $50,000 $60,000 $65,000
Graphic Designer $38,000 $41,000 $47,000 $50,000
Production Artist $35,000 $41,000 $49,000 $55,000
Art Director $48,000 $54,000 $66,000 $73,000

Source: Payscale

Interview With a Professional

James Chambers

James Chambers

Director of Animade; CEO of Boords

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: the 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 that 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 something 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 pursuing 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.

How to Succeed in Animation

Education Required

Employers typically want animators to hold at least a bachelor's degree for entry-level animation careers. A bachelor's program teaches students fine arts concepts, such as drawing and painting, as well as technical skills in computer graphics, game design, and interactive media. Many programs help students establish their careers by providing internship opportunities. Internships allow learners to begin developing a portfolio that demonstrates their talents.

At the master's level, students can further hone their craft in areas such as animation production techniques and lighting and texturing. Master's students may also pursue a concentration, such as cartooning or video gaming; this option is not always available at the undergraduate level.

Experience Required

While a college degree in animation teaches learners theoretical knowledge, employers usually place a premium on prospective hires with some experience. The level of experience an employer expects depends on the position. A job candidate for an entry-level position needs less experience than an art director or producer position.

Students can gain experience by completing an internship or apprenticeship. Both options allow learners to develop their craft under the supervision of an adept animator. Students can develop a portfolio during internships and apprenticeships, while also building a network of peers, potential clients, and employers. Learning never stops in animation because it relies heavily on digital technology and innovation. Therefore, animators should expect to engage in self-study to keep up with the latest technologies and tools to remain competitive and relevant.

Licensure and Certification

Licensure and certification are not typically required for animators. Animators and other multimedia professionals do, however, need to use the latest software in their work. Many software vendors offer exams to certify users' skills and proficiencies, and these certifications can provide career advancement opportunities.

For example, animators may gain certification in Adobe Animate and Adobe After Effects -- software programs that animators and multimedia professionals use to create animations, films, and similar projects. Animators can take exams online and earn credentials, such as digital badges, that they can present on social media to demonstrate their expertise.

Concentrations Available to Animation Majors

Concentrations options differ by school. 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 animation concentrations 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. This concentration 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 with courses covering topics such as storytelling, 3D layers in After Effects, compositing in After Effects, and creating and controlling 3D particle systems.
  • Advertising: This specialization gives learners the theoretical and technical expertise to develop digital advertising campaigns. Students learn about social media strategies; digital branding; and multimedia storytelling for print, television, and other advertising channels.

What Can You Do With an Animation Degree?

A degree in animation prepares learners for employment in entertainment, advertising, and other fields that rely on digital specialists. An animator's education and body of work determine their career options. Bachelor's and master's graduates fare better in the job market than graduates with only an associate degree because they acquire a level of expertise not available in two-year programs.

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 degree.

Production Assistant

Production assistants work behind the scenes to support 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 may find opportunities with smaller productions.

Salary: $37,000

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.

Salary: $69,430

Bachelor's Degree in Animation

Animators and other multimedia artists typically hold a bachelor's degree in animation. A bachelor's degree in animation qualifies graduates for jobs such as video game designer, art director, and film and video director. Students can earn a bachelor's online on a part-time or full-time basis. The following table describes a few common occupations for bachelor's in animation graduates.

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.

Salary: $63,000

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.

Salary: $75,520

Film and Video Editor

Film and video editors work in studios, broadcasting, 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 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.

Salary: $58,990

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.

Salary: $92,780

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 that they can continue to work while studying.

Animation Director

Animation directors 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. This career typically requires at least 3-5 years of animation experience. A master's degree in animation gives animation directors the theoretical and practical expertise needed to succeed in this role.

Salary: $71,680

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.

Salary: $72,520

Key Animator

This senior-level position typically requires 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 pre-production process and collaborate with directors to manage the production lifecycle.

Salary: $72,520

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.

Salary: $72,520

Stop Motion Animator

Stop motion animators set up special rigs that involve puppets, miniatures, clay figures, and similar props. The Wallace & Gromit films provide examples of the labor-intensive work of stop motion animators. Some schools offer master's programs in stop motion puppet animation.

Salary: $72,520

Where Can You Work With an Animation Degree?

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.

Locations

An animator's geographic location can greatly affect their career prospects. California residents enjoy the largest number of jobs in multimedia and animation, due in part to the state's large entertainment industry. Texas and New York also offer abundant multimedia and animation jobs.

Students should also consider a location's cost of living and quality of life when deciding where to pursue employment. For example, while California offers the most jobs and prestigious opportunities at places like DreamWorks Animation and Pixar, the state also comes with a relatively high cost of living. The map below is a useful tool to help animators explore their job prospects around the country.

Industries

Many animators seek careers in the motion picture and film industry, but industries such as advertising and software publishing also offer lucrative career options. Additionally, animators who work as freelance and independent artists enjoy greater flexibility in the projects and clients that they work for. The following table reviews five industries that employ animators.

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: $84,390

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: $72,830

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: $72,070

Computer Systems Design and Related Services

Animators and multimedia artists work in this field as web developers, graphic designers, and flash animators. They can create 2D and 3D content for websites, games, and other digital materials.

Average Salary: $75,640

Software Publishers

The popularity of video gaming 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: $83,180

Source: BLS

How Do You Find a Job as an Animation Graduate?

The BLS projects the number of positions for animators and multimedia artists to grow from 73,700 to 79,900 between 2016 and 2026. This growth is due largely to increasing consumer demand for high-impact video games, 3D movies, and computer graphics for mobile devices.

Animators can advance their skills and marketability by pursuing certifications related to industry software, such as Adobe Animate, Adobe After Effects, and Microsoft Visual Studio. They can also join organizations such as the Society for Animation Studies, Society of Illustrators, Artists & Designers, and Women in Animation to gain access to professional development opportunities, networking events, job boards, and discounts on products and services. The following list outlines additional resources for current and aspiring animators.

Professional Resources for Animation Majors


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.


CG Society

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 375,000 members and offers free membership. Membership benefits include access to healthcare, dental, disability, and liability assurance. The organization also operates a blog for freelancers 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.