Tuesday, September 2, 2008

How Important Is an Art Background for an Animator Who Is Starting Out?

There was a time when I thought that there was nothing more important for an animation student than a solid background in traditional art. Painting, drawing, color theory, art history, the works. At least that's what I was told, back in the day, and on the surface, it makes sense, doesn't it?

Of course an artistic background will help you as an animator. It's a no-brainer. Color design may inform staging decisions, drawing classes will certainly help with composition issues, figure drawing and an understanding of anatomy are helpful for any animator.

But if the question is whether or not an art background is absolutely NECESSARY to becoming a great animator, experience has taught me that the answer is no.

It isn't.

Now, to be clear, it certainly doesn't hurt! I'm thankful, in particular, for all those years of figure drawing. I may be a decade out of practice, and unable to accurately draw anything to save my life right now, but the anatomical and biomechanical knowledge I soaked up in those classes helps inform my animation decisions to this day.

If nothing else, as strange as it sounds, it was very helpful for me to just sit in a room with a naked person and study how their body worked without any of the important hip/spine interactions being hidden by clothing. I actually even learned more in between the model's poses than when he or she was actually holding a pose for us to draw! As an animation student, it was fascinating to watch them move from pose to pose, or climb up onto the stage, etc. In fact, I think I'd say that considering the sad state of the animation program I was attending at the time, I probably learned more about body mechanics during the spaces between figure drawings than I did in any of my "animation" classes!

That said, it isn't absolutely necessary. In fact, you know what kind of background would be helpful for an animator who is just starting out?


That's right! ANY background is going to be helpful in SOME way. I've met animators who were fighter pilots, detectives, maintenance workers, engineers, architects, soldiers, bartenders, and athletes. All of these people bring their unique backgrounds and knowledge base to their work, and these life experiences inform the acting decisions of their characters, the stories they will tell, and the style of their work.

As animators, observation is one of the most important aspects of what we do. In order to bring a character to life, there is almost nothing more important than having a collection of interesting actions and acting choices we've observed and either committed to memory or written down or sketched. These actions we've set aside to remember are our secret weapons in the creation of memorable character performances.

In light of that, just about any life experience you have may come in handy during your animation career!

I would say that any artistic experience you can have, whether it's studying photography, visiting museums, or even reading comic books -- these are all more immediately helpful to you as an animator than your memory of the drunk who spilled everyone's drinks one night when you were tending bar. The drunk may come in handy at some point down the line as you craft a performance that takes place in a bar, but the artistic growth you've experienced in the first three examples is something that you'll be able to use from Day 1 as you jump into animation.

So sure, any art background is helpful to the animator, and obviously I think that figure drawing classes, in particular, can be very beneficial, but I've met too many incredible animators now who have next to no art background at all to be able to say that it's completely necessary.

While an art background, used properly, will be an advantage for any animator, the computer has removed the absolute need for draftsmanship. Keeping a character "on-model" is no longer an issue, at least as far as maintaining the mass goes. (taking the facial animation and acting choices off-model is still as big a problem and challenge as it ever was, though!) Being able to draw an accurate turntable of a character is a fantastic and enviable skill, but as our computer tools get more and more robust, there is increasingly room in the ranks of the world's animators for animation artists who have never picked up a pencil for serious drawing.

Of course, if you want to pursue 2D animation, obviously that means you WILL need strong draftsmanship and a well-rounded background in traditional art, but the question I get is usually referring to a career in 3D animation, which is a different story all together.

Animation students who don't have any artistic background at all may need to work a little harder to make up for it, but it's simply no longer necessary to have the drawing skills that many of our animation heroes possess.

What's necessary is that you have a passion to learn animation and a hunger to seek that knowledge out anywhere and everywhere. What's necessary is a keen sense of observation throughout your daily life, and the ability to learn from what you are observing. What's necessary is the ability apply those observations to your work, and to accurately recreate and exaggerate the life you see around you. What's necessary is the patience to plan your work out, and the tenacity to be detail-oriented enough to completely finish it. What's necessary is the desire to find criticism of your work and to grow from what you hear.

THAT's the stuff that's absolutely necessary. If you're missing any of the above, you might as well give up right now - you aren't going to make it as an animator. I'm sorry. That's the stuff you can't live without. Everything else is gravy. Sometimes the gravy really makes the dish, though - something we shouldn't ignore. In other words, your ice-cream sundae might be delicious, but it might not be able to compete with your neighbor who actually put the cherry on top, you know?

I do think that you can make a pretty darn good sundae without any art background, but if our goal as animators it to never stop learning (which is SHOULD be), I'd encourage all of you to study any and all aspects of art in any way you can.

And if you become an animator, having no art background at all, then guess what?

You're an artist.

...Which I guess means you have an art background now! Cool, huh?

Shawn :)


mattanimation said...

Thanks for more awesome advice, as I go to figure drawing tonight I will remember to concentrate between poses as well. Every time I hear you describe your animation school I feel like I'm at it now :) can't wait to go to Animation Mentor, after I graduate here!

Copper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Copper said...

That's actually exactly what I've been wondering today.
Good timing!

Ana Leitao da Cunha said...

Thanks a lot for the post Shawn, I am an engineer this was one of my concerns when I decided to became an animator!!!! This really encourage me even more!!!

Ukulele Moon said...

Hi Shawn,

Big Question: Well-known art academy online vs. Animation Mentor?

At the part-time rate I'm going, I have 2 to 3+ years left at "well-known art academy." I would love to attend AM - "animation all the time" seems more effective, efficient, productive and yes ... fun to me!

Please help me convince my wife that not having a degree from a well-known traditional art school will not matter in the job market if I have a kick-ass reel from AM.

She's a little weary of the "non-degree," "non-traditional art background" route. She's supportive, but worried.


Carlos Ranna said...

I also have a question, but i´ve been postponing it for a while. Guess i better ask you at once, right?

What are the differences in animating for movie companies and game companies? Any technical concerns or special abilities?

Darameja said...

Gosh it is so good to hear that you don't need to be able to draw very well to be an animator

Unknown said...

Wow nice post!

Totally came here cause Glen McIntosh mentioned your blog in an interview I did with him at the San Diego ComicCon for Chicagoanimators.com. I'll be coming back.


D Wheezy said...

Congrats on the VES win Shawn!

Anirudh said...

hey shawn,
thanks yet again for your clear and honest views as to whether art background is important for an animator or not. I wanted to ask a similar question for a long time, just that procrastination got the better of me and since its somewhat related to this post, i shall ask it now -

A brief before the question - Apart from learning the principles for being an animator, which is very very important and its understood that we need to learn it, what are the other ways that an animator can enhance his skills like staging, composition, a sense of color and so on. I am a student of AM and i must add, these skills are very important too. Atleast in my experience. Animating to a given layout with camera angles set, storyboard already there is fine, but to take it to the next level, a sense of staging, composition, color(to name a few) can be extremely helpful.

So my question is - visiting art museums, studying photographs, seeing movies(live-action and animated), how should we do it ? As in when i see a movie, most of the time i get engrossed in the story that i fail to see it from a technical or a creative point of view. So how to study a movie to deep under its hood.

Similarily for art museums and photographs. How to judge different photographs, what makes a good photograph, as an animator how should one utilise these different resources to add to our ammo of skills. When we go to an art museum, how different should an animator be in its observation when compared to say a kid or a person who is an engineer and just visiting the museum because he is interested in history.

Hope my question makes sense... :-)

Thanks a lot ! Cheers!

Paul Naas said...


I'm not Shawn (obviously), but I can tell you how I study a movie (I've been animating for a couple of decades now)...

See it at least twice. Like you, I get wrapped up in the story the first time around - if it's a good story, that is - which is what should happen. Once I know the ins and outs of what's going to happen, I can watch it again for the "under the hood" stuff.

You may have to develop the ability to do that. One way that helps is to affirm to yourself when you sit down that you're going to watch for shot composition, for example, rather than storytelling.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Shawn!

There was a time where I had the unwavering belief a rigorous art training was a prerequisite for animation.

With the computer, time and again, I've had that theory proven absolutely wrong.

Guys who can't draw if their lives depended on it would pull out these awesome animations.

It made me realize that animation has really evolved into its own art form, not just an outgrowth of something else. It's its own craft that has it's very own particular skillset (that you've mentionned in the post).

I think it pays to really just focus on the those skills and refine the hell out of them.

If you can inform that skill from various outside sources like drawing, painting etc... so much the better, but definitely not absolutely necessary.

Again, great post Shawn.

arnver said...

lol for the punchline!

... You're an artist!

That is awesome positive thinking and I know you've been very good at that since 3 years at least.

Anucharan said...

Hey Shawn,
You are one super terrific person i've come across. I'm a design engineer. But guess what... i'm gonna quit my job and jump into animation studies(will land up in a gud AUS or SINGAPORE university) within two or three months.Lets see whats on the lot for me.
This comment of mine comes after thoroughly reading your animation Tips and tricks and almost every post of yours. You have been really helpful or should i say inspirational in deciding what will best suit me. Thanks for that.
Regarding this particular post. Great advice. Though i dont have any art background i do sketch a bit. Lots to learn. I havent tried my hands in painting. But thanks for the advice.Keep posting.Time for my advice "Remember that You are being really helpful to many unknown guys in many unknown places. So keep doing it"...tata..hey did i mention I'm from India.

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