Getting into 3D animation
May 3, 2007 10:13 AM   Subscribe

How do I get into 3D animation? Should I go back to school or can I teach myself?

I've been working as a video editor since I graduated from school two years ago. At my last job I was briefly introduced to Lightwave before the company went under. At my current job I occasionally use After Effects, though that's pretty rare and I don't claim to be proficient in that program. That's the extent of my experience with 3D animation.

But I've got a hunch I might eventually be good at this and there are some possible opportunities for me as well. The company I work for now has a 3D department in Chicago and my roommate is a graphic artist for CNN. I'm just not sure how I should get started. I've got so much to learn.

There are a couple of really useful threads on the green that I've already read but I think my question is a little bit different. Oh, and perhaps I should mention that I don't have any formal training in design but I do have quite a bit of knowledge and experience with digital video. So do you think it'd be better to go to school or can I teach myself?

Thanks hive mind!
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in a pretty similar situation to you. In fact, I've (rather extraordinarily) been somehow offered a position as an entry-level drone at an animation studio, and they want me to tell them what department I'm interested in. I guess they liked my portfolio...

I immediately went to amazon to find some books on the subject. The one I've been working through this week is: The Art of 3-D Computer Animation and Effects .

You can also see some of the other books that look promising on my wishlist .

I like the first book I mentioned above because it is not program-specific, but rather introduces the field from a more theory perspective, hitting the history and practice of the industry in nice chewable sections.

I'm also thinking of taking some summer evening courses at NYU or something. Pretty expensive, but a great way to learn on great equipment.

Finally, I believe Maya and some of the others are available as free downloads for tinkering with. Blender3D is the opensource one. You may just want to play and see.

If I'm wrong about any of the above, hopefully someone will correct me below.

if you're in NYC and want a study-buddy, the email's in the profile!
posted by prophetsearcher at 10:26 AM on May 3, 2007

You should go to school if you can afford it. You'll learn much faster (from your classmates at least as much as from your teachers), be exposed to a larger variety of techniques and software, and hopefully have bad habits drilled out of you.
In the meanwhile, download and learn Maya.
posted by signal at 10:48 AM on May 3, 2007

Best answer: I would say don't go to school if you can approach it like a job. Spend the money on a good setup and software, get out in the community (both real and virtually) and talk with people who are active in the industry, doing the kind of work you will be doing. Find user groups for your software of choice and start going to the local meetings. Look at demo reels and decide what you want to do and start doing it. Spend 8 hours a day, five days a week doing it.

When you hit a roadblock, ask. If there is a specific roadblock (for example you want to do characters and you can't) then take a character design class, or a color theory class, or whatever, just to fill in the cracks. Spend one year or 18 months worth on a complete project where you do everything from textures and lighting to modelling and animation. After you complete that you will know what parts you enjoy the most and have talent for. Maybe it will be character design, maybe keyframe animation, maybe lighting and texturing. Whatever. Spend the next 6-12 months working on just that skill.

At the end of two years you'll come out with much more knowledge and experience than art school students, you'll be networked into the real working community so finding a job should be easier, and you should have a much better demo reel than other graduates because you have learned more and put about 10x more time into it.

The only downsides are: 1) Staying motivated. But that's what finding a project you are passionate about and staying active in the community are about. 2) Knowing how to work with others. You'll have a lot of solo skill, but it doesn't prepare you for a production environment where you are just one part of a large cycle. But every studio has a different workflow so you'll have to learn that on the job anyway.
posted by Ookseer at 11:19 AM on May 3, 2007

The term "3D animation" is really broad. It sounds to me like you want to do broadcast graphics? Or do your interests lay in feature animation?

In any case, your key to getting a job in this field is a strong demo reel. If you can build that reel working on your own (as Ookseer has outlined above) that's one way - college courses are another.

In my most humble of opinions, unless you already have a strong fine arts background, with a specialty in one discipline (design, painting, sculpting) I would choose college, so you can explore the CGI field and discover what you like and are good at.

Another approach would be to get your foot in the door at some animation company, then work your way up from there. That's what I did, back when I was young... :)
posted by shino-boy at 11:42 AM on May 3, 2007

the best training and most cost-effective is to join the pixel corps. Only $50 for the summer!
posted by roderashe at 11:46 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The term "3D animation" is really broad. It sounds to me like you want to do broadcast graphics? Or do your interests lay in feature animation?

No, I'm not thinking of features. Broadcast graphics is probably a lot closer though. I live in Atlanta and so I think Turner (CNN, Cartoon Network, etc.) is my best bet for finding a job around here. It can't hurt that my roommate works in the design department at CNN.

The 3D department at the place I work now does things like re-creating workplace and automobile accidents. I've seen them. They're not that special. I know I can learn how to do that. I'm doing well at my current company and I'd have a real good shot at moving into the 3D department if I had the skills.

So I've been leaning towards teaching myself. I've got the time and the motivation to do it. But, I don't have a design background and the prospect of gearing up is a little daunting too. So that's why I'm considering school as well.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 12:25 PM on May 3, 2007

Response by poster: Oh, there's another thing I wanted to ask about too. I've already mentioned Lightwave and I know that the 3D department at my company uses that program. But everywhere I go, I read about Maya. How much more popular than Lightwave is Maya?
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 12:32 PM on May 3, 2007

The [one 3D app] vs. [another 3D app] is a debate as old as time in the CG world. One could argue that most of the big packages are more or less comparable.

Having said that, Maya seems to be used more for feature animation, probably because it can scale to suit the needs of a large production. But nobody really wants to render with Maya so it's typically a front-end to something like RenderMan for final output.

But I've met plenty of artists who love Lightwave and can do wonderful things with it.

I would suggest you try out the trial/learning versions of the popular apps and see which feels good to you.
posted by shino-boy at 1:02 PM on May 3, 2007

If I were you I would start messing around with 3d on my own, by downloading a demo of Maya or Lightwave and going through their starting tutorials. Then find some interesting tutorials on the web, (there are tons) and try and follow along. Another option I highly recommend is getting some dvds from a place like It is much easier to understand when everything is shown in a video.

If you have any problems or questions, I've gotten lots of help at

When you start to get more knowledgeable on the different aspects of 3d, then I'd consider taking some classes. There are so many different aspects of computer graphics that no one can master them all and you'll have to pick something you enjoy doing.

This is pretty much what I did and know I'm a student at Great courses if you are interested in feature animation, but that is all they teach.
posted by meta87 at 1:17 PM on May 3, 2007

Yeah, it can't hurt you to check out what Maya is like. I know it's popular in the feature world (as opposed to games, where Max is more common).
I teach 3d stuff (Maya) at a little college, and our program is so broad that depth is not possible in the time frame allotted. Unless you hit a specialized place like Ringling or Animation Mentor, which are mostly character stuff (is that what you want?), you're probably going to see a lot of that sort of thing. Survey courses.
The base problem you'll probably have if you decide to self-teach is all the weird little problems that crop up. Things go wrong, even if you follow tutorials, and you won't be able to diagnose what's happening until you have a fair bit of experience with whatever program you choose. If you're cool asking for help on forums (where people can sometimes be pretty assy, not to mention non-timely), then you should be okay.
Also true: Maya and Max can be switched between without too terribly much trouble. More finding where the buttons are than anything else, and just the little vagaries of each. Lightwave I haven't used in probably five years, so I don't really remember how it fits in.
posted by zusty at 2:20 PM on May 3, 2007

Best answer: I have to disagree slightly with Ookseer. Even if you aren’t seeking a degree, taking at least some introductory classes will give you a strong foundation if you then decide to head off on your own. 3D apps have a HUGE learning curve. It can also give you insight as to which areas you might prefer – modeling, animation, lighting, etc. If you go to work for any decent sized studio, they are looking for specialists in modeling, animation, etc.

I also disagree with the point that you will come out ahead of students at the end of 2 years because in most schools you will be totally immersed in your projects. I went to one of the “good” schools and we spent well over 80 hours per week in the 3D labs. Would you be able to work that hard on your own – with no one driving you? I can’t stay that motivated for that long on my own. I would say 75% of my class had jobs lined up after graduation in the gaming and movie industries. Going to a good school won’t guarantee you a job, but it will help. This industry is totally based on your portfolio and experience. And not to discourage you, but I haven’t heard of anyone getting a “foot in the door” and working their way up in a very long time. 8+ years ago, companies were hiring lesser experienced people and helping them build their skills. The job market (and money) is tighter now and studios want you to walk in on day one and start working. Of course someone will always chime in with an exception. Also, character animation jobs are the most competitive (and often the least paid to start). Everyone wants to do the glamour work.

On 3D apps – as someone said, you can find about a 1000 flamewars on the net over which is the best. Each has their own pluses and minuses. I’ve used Maya for years (it was taught at my school), but am using Lightwave where I work. Many studios these days use a combination of apps – LW for modeling, Maya for animation, Renderman for rendering, etc. But, if you are starting on your own I know you have to pick one. I agree with going for the Maya learning edition. If you’re looking to buy, LW is insanely cheap compared to the bigger apps. For all the apps, there are enough tutorials on the web to keep you busy for the next 100 years. And as others have said, there are many great 3D forums around – many with thousands of users trying to break into the business on their own. The important part if you do try it on your own is getting honest, quality feedback on your work. Good luck and feel free to email if you need any more help.
posted by JimBobNoPants at 11:33 AM on May 4, 2007

« Older How long after the end of a lease can the landlord...   |   What to do in Honduras? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.