Do you need a formal education to get work as an animator? Does it help if you have a college degree?
Note: A college degree can be very helpful (and often essential) in securing a work visa when moving from one country to another. The below article is primarily meant for animators looking for work in their home country, or countries where they are free to work. :)
I hear questions like this a lot, and usually tend to avoid answering them on the blog because the answer sounds so self-serving as a co-founder of an online school, but I hear it so often that I guess it deserves a spot on the ol' tips and tricks blog...
First, I'll say this: having a college education is great. It sure doesn't hurt you in any way, may open your mind to new artistic avenues you may not have found otherwise, and a degree does at least show that you have the tenacity to finish a challenging task that you started.
I have nothing but the utmost respect for college graduates.
That said, at least in the US and at most major animation studios worldwide, your chances of being hired as an animator are dependent entirely on your demo reel, your interview, your reputation, and your geographic location for certain countries or studios.
I would say that 95% of the time, the recruiters and animation supervisors couldn't care less where you went to school or if you finished. What they care about is that your demo reel is jam-packed with jaw-dropping animation and that you will be easy and fun to work with.
Some schools enjoy a very strong reputation which does help recruiters stand up and take an extra bit of notice, and I'm proud to say that Animation Mentor has become foremost among them. Having AM or another well-respected animation school's name on your demo reel can help get that reel into the right hands or get the recruiter to pop it into the dvd player, just as a strong credit-list on a resume will help move your reel to the top of the pile. However, there is no school you can put on your resume that will even slightly overshadow poor animation on your demo reel.
It's really ALL about your demo reel.
I would say 90% of whether or not you get a job is based on your reel. The other 10% is your reputation, interview, and geographic factors. I would say your college degree will affect the job position at major animation studios in the US by roughly 0%.
Which I guess brings up the question of whether or not you can learn animation without a formal animation education at all.
The answer is yes - you can learn animation without going to school for it, but you better be remarkably naturally talented, heavily plugged in to a lot of animation resources, and willing to spend three or four times as long learning this stuff. It can certainly be done, but without a mentor or solid animation curriculum being taught by very experienced animators, it's going to be slow-going to the point where most people will give up before reaching their goal.
Animation is unbelievably intricate, to the point where a lifetime of study will still only scratch the surface of this stuff, so if you have the option of attending a school, I'd strongly recommend it as long as their animation program is well-respected and you will have teachers and mentors with a lot of experience actually working in the field.
If that is simply not an option, then the next best thing would be to plug yourself into some online animation communities such as CG-CHAR, the 11-second club, and so forth. Find people who you can get feedback from (and give feedback TO, which is JUST as important to your education!). Pick up some great animation books, find some free characters you can work with, and create a disciplined schedule for yourself that will push you and give you the time and opportunity to practice, practice, practice!
At the end of the day, that animation job is going to based almost entirely on whether or not your demo reel knocks their socks off, and they most likely won't care a bit whether or not you have an official college degree.
You can take it from me. I'm a college dropout.
Yup, that's right - I don't have a degree either. I saw that my college wasn't teaching me what professionals were telling me I needed to know in order to work as an animator, so I got the heck out of there, found a mentor (thanks Wayne!!!!), and got to work learning this art the way it's meant to be learned.
Anyway, if you want to be an animator, you know what you really have to do? Animate. That's it. Everything else is just helping you do that one thing better and better, but the key is to sit down and ANIMATE. Bring a character to life, and then do it again, and then do it again, and then do it again. Each time, the character should feel more and more alive, as you learn from your mistakes and successes.
I won't pretend that trying to do this on your own will be easy or fast, or that Animation Mentor wouldn't accelerate your learning by an incredible margin, but there are self-taught people out there who animate circles around me, so it's certainly possible!
Whatever you choose to do, know that you don't have to spend a fortune on a degree to succeed in this business. What you need is a demo reel that will stand out above the crowd with perfect body mechanics, dynamic scenes, emotional and communicative acting performances, and entertaining and memorable scenes!
There are many paths that can lead to that demo reel, and it's up to each of us to find the path that best fits our own needs and time-frame. For some of you, spending the next 6 or 7 years learning on your own is a fine pace, and that's great for the few of you who are naturally gifted enough and disciplined enough to pull that off! For others, you need something more immediate and guided, such as one of our experienced mentors eager to pass their knowledge along to the next generation of animators.
Each of these are merely different paths, hopefully leading eventually to the same result.
Wherever you guys happen to be on that path, best of luck, and I hope you're having half as much fun as I am with this animation stuff! :)