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Computer Animator

The Real Poop

Leapin' lizards!

You'll be doing and seeing a lot of animated reptilian life, not to mention fat, smiling, Day-Glo-hued bugs and Gumby-flexible walking and talking toys if you choose to live the life of a computer animator. You'll be the one who breathes life into the 2-D and 3-D creatures and objects that grace the movie, TV, and computer screens of modern life.

Nowadays, computer animators are computer whizzes (well, ideally—we won't talk about the average Joes or Janes) who happen to score high on the creativity scale. In 2-D, and especially in 3-D, they can construct otherworldly landscapes, 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 limit? Their imaginations…as well as bosses and/or clients who have their own ideas of what imagination is.

Career possibilities for computer animators stretch way beyond film and TV. Animators can try their hand at keyboarding for video games. Animation can illuminate and explicate complex processes for doctors and patients (ever see a kidney stone in 3-D?). And for those who enjoy the merchandising world, there are always the marketing and advertising campaigns where computer animators are in high demand.

But what's it all about? What are the techniques an aspiring computer animator must learn and perfect? Basically, your job is to take something that doesn't move—an inert, immovable bump on a log, for example—and turn it into a moving, living, breathing entity, preferably with a personality and attitude. Take that bump on the log, and transform it into a beauteous bump, doing a conga line dance up and down the log. An animator can do this Svengali thing by using computer software to draw, model, and animate the bump against a digitally created backdrop.

Pretty cool, eh?

The computer animators of today are giant steps beyond the pencil-and-paper folks of yesteryear, the 2-D artisans of Walt Disney who created the likes of Mickey Mouse and Snow White and Cinderella, one hand-drawn panel at a time.

Way back when, animators broke down the action of a scene into a series of pictures called frames. Frames were shown at a rate of 30 per second, and this gave the appearance of motion to the human eye. So, for Porky Pig eating 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; rather, drawing the doughnut eating).

Two principal types of computer animation exist: computer-assisted and computer-generated. In the first type, the animator draws the objects (either by hand or by computer), outlines the most important movements, and then via computer, uses math to fill in the in-between frames—like, where the movement is going.

The second type is 3-D all the way, involving planes and X, Y, Z axes (math and more math). In math-geek speak, this involves sophisticated math to manipulate complex, three-dimensional polygons (these can be triangles) and apply textures, lighting, and other effects to the polygons—and voilà, you get a complete image.

In the 3-D computer animation universe, you'll see things like fields of wheat gently rippling in the wind, cartoon characters with rich, thick manes of hair almost tousling itself. You'll be using modeling computer software like Maya, 3ds Max or Blender, which are jam-packed with basic 3-D shapes that are the building blocks of objects. Or, you can work with clay models that are scanned into computer or motion capture. Or, you can hook up live human beings to evil-looking machines that capture human movement that can be transferred onto characters and objects on the big screen (think Avatar).

Speaking of the career nuts and bolts, what you'll be doing as a professional computer animator is coming up with animated content for films, visual effects for video games, or advertising campaigns, mostly. You'll probably be part of a crew churning out stuff to fulfill the creative vision of others, mostly. You could be working on a tree, but not the forest, meaning, you could be toiling on a scene, character, or sequence, but you wouldn't be the one to put all these pieces together in a coherent whole. And you'll be doing what others tell you to do—it's their creative vision, not yours.

You could, however, be self-employed, and you could specialize in creating computer-generated-images (CGI) to improve how a shot looks, for example (Gollum hawking a brand of sushi, and you're hired to improve the flow of a scene involving Gollum scarfing down California rolls). Lots of "coulds" and "maybes" in this career, because computer animation is used in myriad of areas, and there's no such thing as a one-job-description-fits-all in the field of computer animation. It is safe to say, however, that most animation jobs are in commercials or cartoons.

To be a computer animator, it helps to have a knack for art and design. And since you'll spend a heck of a lot of time mulling over stuff with teams of people—designers, writers, directors, gadflies—communication skills will come in handy. But so, yes, you can draw, but in this day and age, cyber skills are a must. Remember, this is computer animation that you want to do. So, bone up on the current animation software, including graphic design and editing programs.

What also helps is formal training in the field. While it is true that many companies don't require academic credentials, many would prefer to see someone who has slogged through a formal training program. A portfolio—no matter what your academic background is—showing skills in graphics and art would help you stand out from among the competition.