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Computer Animator

The Real Poop

Leaping lizards!

Or jumping jackrabbits, or galloping gazelles, or...swimming sharks? Whatever—for a computer animator, it doesn't really matter what type of wildlife is doing what type of wildlife-thing. They just get the assignment, nod in understanding, and set to work on making the magic happen. 

Do you want to be the one to breathe life into the two- and three-dimensional creatures and objects that grace the movie, TV, and computer screens of modern life?

If so, you'll need to know a few things right off the bat. Most importantly, it's a pretty good way to make a living. The median salary for computer animators in 2012 was $61,370 per year (source), which isn't bad for a career that probably starts with endless doodling and daydreaming in grade school. 

If you were perfecting the shading on your T-rex drawings by the time you hit high school, you may want to see about turning that hobby into a career.

"I'm picturing an alligator...that looks like a giraffe...playing an accordion." (Source)

Nowadays, animators are computer whizzes who also happen to score high on the creativity scale. They can construct otherworldly landscapes in two and three dimensions, or cobble together life-like creepy creatures—like Gollum of Lord of the Rings infamy—with state-of-the-art modeling software and mega-powerful computer processors. The only limit is that of their imaginations...as well as the imaginations of their bosses or clients. Okay, to be honest, the animators are mostly just fulfilling others' visions all day.

Career possibilities for computer animators stretch way beyond film and TV, though. For those interested in marketing, companies are always looking for gifted animators to help with advertising campaigns. 

And if you want to be all noble and helpful and stuff, you can illuminate and explicate complex processes for doctors and patients. Have you ever seen a 3D kidney stone? Well, you probably don't want to if you don't need to.

The computer animators of today are giant steps beyond the pencil-and-paper folks of yesteryear. The 2D artisans of Disney, who created the likes of Mickey Mouse, Snow White, and Cinderella, had to draw one panel at a time in order to make their characters "move" at thirty frames per second. 

So, for Porky Pig to eat a doughnut, animators created hundreds of frames to show Porky raising the doughnut to his snout. Ouch. That's hard work (not the doughnut eating, the drawing of the doughnut eating).

These days, two principal types of computer animation exist: computer-assisted and computer-generated. In the first type, the animator draws the objects, outlines the most important movements, and then, with the help of a computer, uses math to fill the in-between frames and make their creations move fluidly.

The second type is all computer. In math-geek speak, this involves creating sophisticated three-dimensional polygons on the screen, then applying textures, lighting, and other effects to form a complete image. In the 3D computer animation universe, you'll see things like fields of wheat gently rippling in the wind and cartoon characters with rich, thick manes of hair that almost tousle themselves.

"I expressly asked for more hair on top of my head and less on my cheeks." (Source)

Another option is to work with clay models that are scanned into computers. Or, you can hook up live human beings to evil-looking machines that capture human movement, then transfer it onto characters and objects on the big screen (think Avatar).

There are also many opportunities for your working arrangement as an animator. You could work as part of a crew, toiling on a specific scene in a movie or portion of a video game while the others piece the other animated bits together. You know that saying about missing the forest for the trees? That'll literally be your job—missing the forest because you're drawing the individual trees.

You could also be self-employed, working on a consultancy basis to improve how a CGI shot looks, for example. There are lots of possibilities in this career; there's no such thing as a one-job-description-fits-all in the field of computer animation. It's safe to say, however, that most animation jobs outside the big movies and TV shows are in commercials or video games.

There's technically no formal training required for the field, but you'll at least need to bone up on current animation software, including graphic design and editing programs, if you want to give yourself a shot at making it. So, while your interest in this field might stem from the Transformers drawings you filled a notebook with (rather than, y'know, notes), you'll need to be up on your cyber skills, too.

Really, in this day and age, you should probably aim to complete at least a couple classes or a minor degree in animation techniques. Even without a technical requirement, most employers would prefer to see someone who has slogged through a formal training program. No matter what your academic background is, a portfolio showing some skill in graphics and art will help you stand out in your applications.

But who are we kidding? You've got the skills, right? Doodle for now, take a couple classes later, and you can enter the whimsical world of computer animation in no time.