Spongebob-friends-1421958_banner(C) Alexandre Setter

Working in animation

About the Animation Industry

Animators bring drawings or computer generated characters and scenes to life on screen. 2D and 3D animations can be see across all screen-based media, including film, video games, TV, advertising and web as well as in non-creative industry sectors like healthcare, engineering, architecture and town planning.

As well as being a very creative sector, animation also pushes the envelope technologically.  US-based company Pixar own thousands of patents for both characters and animation technology.

What is the difference between 2D and 3D animation?

While the obvious difference is in the look of the films due to the difference in dimensions, there are plenty of other differences between the two forms. The 2D animation process has developed a huge amount over the years and is now mostly done using software, even if traditional methods are still practiced.

Modern examples of 2D animation include The Simpsons, South Park and games like Angry Birds. Occasionally, 2D animation will be combined with live actions films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Mary Poppins and more recently The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, but this is a rare technique.

2D animation used to be made by placing hand-drawn characters onto a celluloid background, but the industry has now gone fully digital. Frames are drawn directly into a computer, allowing for various effects to be used to help enhance the visuals. For example, complex camera movements that were impossible can be set up within an animation program to bring a sense of depth into a picture despite its remaining 2D.

Most modern 3D animation is computer generated. Some of the best known examples of fully 3D animated films include Toy Story and The Lego Movie. 3D animation is also used to create images for live-action movies, such as the dinosaurs in Jurassic World, or the armies in Lord of the Rings. CGI animation technology is also used to remaster old films, like the Star Wars trilogy.

3D allows animators to create things that are not possible in 2D animation because rather than working on flat images that are layered on each other, animators create an object in a 3D world that can be modified and moved. This allows animators to experiment with lighting and camera angles to create a desired look.

Stop motion animation is a form of physical 3D animation. It involves creating physical 3D models (often made in clay) and photographing the models one frame of film or video at a time – similar to the traditional method of 2D animation.  Bristol’s Aardman Animations are the leading producers of stop motion animation with successful titles like Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run.

The Pipeline

Both 2D and 3D animation begins with a development phase. This is where the initial idea is scoped out and many will never make it past this stage. The filmmakers will decide on the story, characterisation and some initial visuals, ready to pitch to funders.

Once a concept is signed off and has funding it moves into pre-production. This is a planning phase before any real animation begins and the storyboard and animatic are created. The storyboard is the story laid out in a visual way. The animatic is essentially a moving version of the storyboard, with dialogue and soundtrack added in, to give a clearer idea of timing and pace. In 3D animation, there may be some early animation tests to test out complex some of the more complex ideas. During the pre-production phase characters, backgrounds and the overall visual style of the film will also be developed.

With the planning stage complete, the film moves into production. Animation is a painstaking process and feature films can take years to complete. In 2D, layout and background artists draw the images, either by hand or using computer software. Larger productions will make use of in-between artists to fill in the animations between key shots designed by the key artists. In 3D, modellers will digitally sculpt 3D wireframes before a rigger creates a virtual skeleton for the model to be animated. From there, they are given colour and texture by the painting and texturing department before the animation department creates the scenes.

In post-production, the various scenes constructed separately will be output as individual frames before being put together as the full film, where sound effects and music can be added before the film is finally finished.

Develop your skills

In addition to academic qualifications and training, employers are looking for skills and experience you will have been developing over many years. They seen energetic people and those with passionate interesting something they have pursued. They want to see what you’re capable of and how you might develop, and the best indication of that is what you have already achieved. Think about how you can display your talents and your ability to work as part of a collaborative process. As well as a physical portfolio, you can create an online portfolio, or build an interactive community as a swarm on Hiive, the professional networking site for creative people.

Don’t wait until you’re qualified to begin building your portfolio or developing showreels to demonstrate your skills. Have a look at a list of open source software that you can access online that will enable you to create your own animations. As you start to produce your own work, create a profile on Hiive so that other professionals and employers see what you can do. 

Facts and Figures

The talent behind the UK’s animation industry make significant contributions both creatively and economically.  Over £50 million is spent on UK animation productions each year, attracting £7.8 million of investment from overseas, making an overall contribution of £171 million to the UK economy.  Home-grown successes that have hit the international market include Wallace and Gromit, Bob the Builder, Mr. Bean and Peppa Pig. Over a quarter of children’s TV programming is animation.

The animation sector currently employs 56,800 people and employment is predicted to grow by 8% over the next 5 years.  Employers have said that 25% of current vacancies are due to skills shortages across both 2D and 3D. 

Productions employ a huge number of staff, many of whom will be freelance, to complete projects.  2014’s Paddington employed 893 people of whom 200-300 were animation artists. 

As well as benefiting from a thriving UK animation industry, there are lots of opportunities to work abroad. Companies across Europe and North America have ongoing talent exchanges which people moving as production requirements rise and fall.


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