Effective Tips on How to Overcome the Challenges of Becoming a Self-Taught Animator

You are an animated movie lover. You know most of Disney-Pixar movies by heart. You love the animations as well as the cool design elements unique to each movie, and you think to yourself, why not become an animator and make amazing videos, design game animations or perhaps become an animator/illustrator in the film industry!

Well, it’s not that easy to simply learn animation on your own, and good design schools are expensive and not accessible to everyone. Sure you love Adobe Photoshop and have been practicing on it a long time, but honing this skill to something you could use professionally is a whole other level.

First, let’s discuss the challenges Designer-Animators have, particularly the self-taught kind.

1) It’s Expensive!

First and foremost, not everyone has the money to enroll in a good design school. The fee is nothing less than the average university education. A quality institution such as the Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida charges a tuition fee of $36,600 per year. Books and supplies cost a separate $2,200. Someone who’s passionate about learning these skills but has limited means would find it difficult to progress any further.

2) Lack of Options

Taking a global view, not everyone is lucky enough to have a decent animation institute in their vicinity. Similarly getting a good instructor is also not easy. Ultimately, you have to put in the practice yourself, but a good instructor can set you in the right direction from the get-go. Hence, struggling animators who do not have access to design and animation schools have to somehow learn on their own.

3) It’s Complicated

Learning some basic elements of graphic design on Photoshop is one thing, but learning animation is another ball game. Obviously, there are self-taught animators and illustrators out there, but it’s definitely a challenge and takes a lot of dedication to see it through.

4) No Degree, No Job!

Another common obstacle self-taught animators have to get through is finding a good professional position without a design/animation degree. Even if you know that you have to do most of the learning yourself, attending a costly school and obtaining that valuable piece of paper is often times necessary for you to land a job. Similarly, it also makes a difference when it comes to salary. It is a common practice that employees with professional qualifications are paid more than those without a degree. Even if the latter is more skilled.

5) Freelance Animation Gigs Are Limited

When you are just learning animation, you will probably not have a full-time animation job. Instead, you will have to work alternate jobs to support yourself through it. If you’re lucky, you will land a freelance animation job once in a while, but you cannot count on it for a long-term income. According to any self-taught animators, they have had to do a variety of jobs in order to support themselves during the learning phase.

It’s Not the End of the World

The aforementioned challenges definitely do present real problems for aspiring designers/animators but the bright side is, there are many who faced all these challenges yet made it through as successful animators. The only animator I work with is self-taught. He has a strong command over 2D animations and his videos are always according to the briefs provided. He has even progressed into making custom animated logos for our clients. All self-taught, of course. His tips, along with some extensive research have provided me with some insights on how to overcome said challenges and successfully become a designer-animator.

1) Dedication

This one goes without saying, but is not said enough in my opinion. True dedication to become a self-taught animator is what eventually gets you there. Whether you’re learning 2D or 3D animation, no amount of instructors or fancy schools can instill in you the desire to learn if you don’t have the dedication. Hence, like any other skill, if your passion for animation is deep enough, you can face the obstacles head on and become a self-taught animator.

2) Free Resources

One of the greatest things about the World Wide Web is the amount of free resources at your disposal. If you know where to look, there are countless in-depth tutorials available to learn from. One of these amazing resources is YouTube. I will go into detail about that later, but utilizing these free resources is one of the fastest ways to learn animation without a proper design school and certified instructors.

3) YouTube

This treasure trove contains tutorials and how-to videos on just about anything. Similarly, you can find you tubers who are masters in animation and design and provide their expertise for free. A self-taught animator that I work with swears by some of these channels, claiming that they’re responsible for most of what he knows about animation today. One of his favorites, Draw with Jazza is a YouTube channel which contains a myriad of animation tutorials. From drawing to illustration as well as animation, this channel has it all. Apart from, technical knowledge, this channel also provides tips to maintain motivation (an extremely important tool for animators/designers) as well as how to work smart.

4) Learn Body Mechanics

As an animator, you will be spending a lot of time making fictional characters move across screens and perform animations. In order to make their movements seem real and natural, you need a good understanding of body mechanics to figure out how your characters should move in a number of different scenarios. For example, how would a character look like while running? Cycling? Waving their arms? Etc. Hence, you need to spend a lot of time studying character movements with and without objects.

5) Improve Your Communication Skills

As an animator, not many people know the subtle technicalities of your job, nor do they know how you will bring about a certain outcome. The best you can hope for is a detailed brief outlining the requirements and a list of do’s and don’ts. Similarly, if you are working on a film animation, you might be working in collaboration with certain departments, animating in stages. This is quite common in game animations. Therefore, you need to communicate better with those working around you in order to create a smooth flow for the entire project.

6) Your Own Style

Although it does take some time to get your bearings and get a grasp of the technical, self-taught animators usually develop their own style which is unique and does not seem generic. These are the artists who come up with out-of-the-box ideas which can grab a lot of valuable attention. Therefore, the best advice here is to develop your own style because it will definitely be an asset in the future and set you apart from all “trained” designers and animators.

7) Important Software

We all know animation is largely dependent on popular software. Enrolling in design courses will give you a basic idea about the functionalities and technical aspects of these softwares, but time and practice will make you an expert. Similarly, with evolving digital animation trends, you need to know all that a certain software or plugin can do for you.

Having said that, here are some important softwares you will need:

  • Flash
  • Maya
  • 3D Studio Max
  • Lightwave 3D
  • Aftereffects
  • Photoshop
  • Illustrator
  • CorelDraw

Obviously, you might run across some others that serve you better, or you have a job that requires a certain software. Therefore, it is important to be able to adapt and work with multiple tools.

8) Seek Out a Mentor

I know it sounds difficult, and it does take a lot of work, but if you are able to find a good mentor with expertise in their line of work, then you can get some valuable advice which might turn out to be career-changing. Apart from animation advice, you could get priceless industry tips on how to get the best jobs or which industry to target first.

According to Jason Behr of Moonbot Studios:

“With animation, having that one on one time with your teacher or mentor is valuable. There’s a big learning curve to understanding this craft, so having an experienced mentor there to answer any and all questions will only make the process easier.”

9) Apply for an Internship!

We’ve already discussed that getting into a design school can be expensive and at times inconvenient, similarly, getting an animation gig without these things can be challenging. But a lot of animation studios offer internships where you can get great practical experience and learn the skill hands-on. The good thing about securing an internship is continued in the next point.

10) Permanent Position Through Your Internship

If you have managed to land a great internship position at an animation studio, you have to spend a decent amount of that time networking with all the right people and impressing those who you think might help you get a permanent position. While other animators are going though university, you could have a full-time position in your lap!

11) Build Your Portfolio

Even if you do not have any fancy degrees or contacts, you can let your work speak for itself. The project portfolio or demo reel is the most important asset for an animator as it showcases what they have achieved so far. Hence, if you have worked on any freelance projects, done any collaborative work or worked on any animations on your own, you should use all that content to make yourself a decent demo-reel and upload it online so your potential employers can access it easily. This shows initiative and creativity which is something hiring companies are impressed by.

12) Specialization is Key- Work on Your CV

As any animator will know, animation is not one a singular skill but a myriad of different elements. Character animation, illustration and visual effects are just some of the examples. If you know what types of animation are required by a particular employer, then display those skills on your CV. A generic CV does not work these days, you have to tailor-make your CV for the job you are hoping to land.

In a Nutshell

The aforementioned challenges do seem very daunting, and let’s not get the wrong idea; becoming a successful 3D or even 2D animator takes a lot of hard work and practice. But if you do manage to follow the tips provided with dedication and a lot of practice, you can find yourself working your dream job. Remember, Disney’s golden age animator, Floyd Norman was self-taught in a time when there were no animation schools, just a handful of books and his passion for animation. If you have the kind of dedication and love for the work he had, then you will no doubt succeed.

It is only fitting that I end with a quote from Floyd: “I love the entire animation process. That is, every aspect of animation is fascinating to me. Plus, it’s all filmmaking and telling stories on the big screen. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. This is what makes this amazing job awesome in my eyes.”

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