Real-time explainers

What is a 3D animator?

Courtesy of All Possible Futures | Devolver Digital
As real-time technology continues to influence the job market, candidates traditionally associated with game development are now in high demand across multiple industries. But what types of jobs do they do? 

One role with a considerable amount of transferable skills is a 3D animator.

What is a 3D animator?

Every hero’s journey starts with a first step—and it’s often a 3D animator making it happen. Whether you’re creating the next Avengers or a new Animal Crossing, 3D animators are required to turn stills into stories by using keyframes to create movement. This helps convey everything from how old a character is to the breadth of a ship moving through space. 

3D animators can be generalists or specialists; they can be found working on projects, including:
  • Games
  • Films
  • Ads
  • Television shows
  • Automotive designs
  • Concert holograms
  • Virtual productions
  • Architectural visualizations
  • Manufacturing simulations

“A 3D animator is a digital puppeteer," says Jeremiah Grant, Product Manager for Animating and Rigging in Unreal Engine at Epic Games. "Just as artists like Jim Henson told amazing stories with puppets and Disney’s Nine Old Men brought drawings to life, a 3D animator breathes life into characters through a computer. Not limited to only animating people, 3D animators may be asked to animate anything—think of the brooms in Fantasia or the magic carpet in Aladdin.

Why are 3D animators needed?

Without a 3D animator, most creative projects won’t get past the opening credits. Just as an animator cannot animate a character until it has been modeled and rigged, a gameplay programmer cannot test the game until the character has been imported with at least some of its animations. As we move toward a world where many experiences will be built in the metaverse, these different roles will be more intertwined, and animators will be needed more than ever. 

“Even projects that may look like 2D drawings are regularly controlled by 3D motions," notes Tony Bowren, Solutions Architect at Epic Games. "Someone has to know how to set these assets up for animation, and then actually make them move.”

Where are 3D animators needed?


In the games industry, 3D animators breathe life into characters, vehicles, props, and more by using the designer’s storyboard to help create the game’s movements. They are responsible for adding personality, realism, and interactivity to the game, and frequently make use of a library of moves that can serve as a basis for the finished result.
Courtesy of All Possible Futures | Devolver Digital

Film and TV

Sometimes prosthetics aren’t enough to turn your actor into the character you need. This might be because you need a photoreal dragon to interact with your live-action hero. Or it might simply be because you’re making a fully animated feature with no live-action scenes at all. 

Whatever it is, a 3D animator will help bring your vision to the screen. On a film or television show, you’ll usually find 3D animators working with modelers, riggers, and storyboard artists to create the illusion that a 3D asset made up of pixels can move just as its real-world equivalent would.
Courtesy of DNEG Animation and Howdybot Productions


Will your car’s interior be too distracting for the driver? Does your design work when the truck doors are open? Automotive manufacturers rely on 3D animators to help answer all of these questions and more by creating visual presentations of what the interior and exterior of a car will look like during the development process.

From clearer human-machine interfaces to driving simulators that help manufacturers test airbag release speeds, animators can remove months from the design process as well as make driving safer for us all.  
Courtesy of


When you’re trying to save lives, every frame counts. Working with artists and medical professionals, 3D animators create real-time medical animations that realistically replicate everything from viruses to red blood cells. These animations help reduce misinformation for the public and even train future surgeons on how a particular procedure should be performed. 

“People often think of video games or animated movies as the only place where animators work,” says Grant. “The truth is 3D animators are needed across a broad spectrum of industries, from architecture and automotive to weather simulation and toy manufacturing. The list goes on and on!”
Courtesy of Byker Biotech

What skills do I need to be a 3D animator?


  • A great artistic eye
  • Basic drawing and/or sculpting skills 
  • An understanding of 2D animation principles
  • Basic understanding of geometry
  • Basic understanding of physics, particularly gravity
  • Ability to work on a team
  • Ability to be detail-oriented

A good start for learning about animation is the 12 basic principles, which have evolved over decades of the industry's development.

Specialized skills 

Technical proficiency

The ability to understand complimentary technical skills like scripting, rigging, or motion capture will help any animator stand out from the crowd, as well as enabling them to work faster by being able to edit skeletons or code walk cycles without outside help.

The ability to use different software

While animators don’t need to master a specific software package, they should have a working knowledge of the most common tools that may be used within a prospective studio’s pipeline. 
For instance, Bowren uses:
  • Unreal Engine for real-time animation
  • Maya for keyframe animation
  • Xsens MVN for motion capture
  • MotionBuilder to process and edit motion capture data
  • Marvelous Designer for cloth simulation
Courtesy of Cory Strassburger

The power of real-time animation

Real-time workflows are transforming the animation industry, dramatically speeding up the iteration process. “Users can assemble their content, see it in context, and evaluate it faster than ever before,” says Bowren. “In the past, a gameplay programmer was needed to assign animations to the player character. Now an animator can set up their own Animation Blueprint and Behavior Trees to evaluate how animation states blend together. Using Sequencer, an editor can choose camera lenses and angles and give immediate feedback to the animator for poses. These processes might have taken a day or two to bounce between departments for rendering—now it can happen instantly.”
Courtesy of Cory Strassburger

Ability to change

As virtual production and other real-time workflows become increasingly common, the best animators will be able to continuously evolve.

“This industry is always changing and new tools are being invented all the time,” adds Bowren. “As an example, thanks to real-time pipelines, animation that would have once taken a few days to render can now happen instantly. But the immediacy of real time can be overwhelming, especially when there is no more ‘fix it in post’. The best animators will take it in their stride. Always be learning and never think you’re too old to evolve.” 

Artistic talent

Many animators base their performances on their own acting, which can be a great skill for learning to animate characters moving as realistically as possible. Figure drawing and sketching is also a very beneficial skill for animators, since it helps them understand anatomy.

What does the career path look like for a 3D animator?

Entry level 

Entry-level animators will probably be given smaller, more contained tasks as well as extra time to familiarize themselves with the pipelines a studio uses. They will likely be eased into full production and will have supervisors to make sure they are clear on what is expected of them, and that they are working well with the larger animation team.

It’s at this point that an animator will begin to specialize. You can be a character animator, for instance, but it would involve dealing with a lot of notes, opinions, and revisions. Alternatively, you could also become a technical animator, so focus on creating animation rigs and setups. 

Mid level

Mid-level animators are expected to be mostly self-sufficient. They are very proficient with their tools and able to coordinate with other departments; efficiently respond to and incorporate feedback from reviews; and consistently deliver top-notch animation.

Advanced level

Advanced level or very senior animators will probably have specialized skill sets. Some may have more technical skills or deep knowledge of MetaHumans or in-camera VFX. Others may be experts at delivering great acting performances. Senior animators will be looked to as leaders and mentors on the animation team. They often have ownership over the animation portion of a task or initiative.

How can 3D animators excel?

A tailored portfolio

Expectations for demo reels and portfolios can vary greatly in animation, but a common requirement is that their work showcases the ability to use posing and timing to create an interesting and believable performance.

“You should also consider where you are applying and what kind of work that studio does,” says Special Projects Animation Lead at Epic Games, Ray Arnett. “Ultimately, you want the people reviewing your demo reel to feel confident that you have the skills to join their team and start contributing immediately. So if you are applying at game studios, but your demo reel consists entirely of subtle acting shots, you should probably add some locomotion cycles or physical actions.”

Resilience to adversity

Animation is a very competitive and work-intensive industry, something any new animator should never forget.

“Another aspect to consider with this career is that it’s not necessarily the most stable industry,” adds Bowren. “Layoffs are common and sometimes long hours are required. It looks like the culture of long crunch weeks is less popular with companies these days, but it’s still a hard job that requires a lifelong commitment.” 

Great collaboration skills

Being friendly and easy to work with goes a long way in the animation industry. A positive attitude, eagerness to contribute, and a commitment to growth and improvement are far more important than where someone went to school or how well they know an animation tool.

“As with all professional artists, being able to receive critique and deliver on a director’s vision is critical,” says Grant. "Even the most skilled animator who is incapable of receiving critique or working well with a director won’t remain employed for long.”
Courtesy of Blue Zoo Animation Studio

A high level of patience

Animation is a very labor-intensive process. A few seconds of animation may take weeks and multiple revisions before it is finally approved. That means 3D animators may spend hours on the trajectory of an object or the shape of a character’s animation curves. Patience is key to not becoming frustrated throughout this lengthy process. Remember, nobody gets good at animation quickly. Share your work early and often, and make sure you find people and resources to learn from and be ready to improve over the course of many years. 
Courtesy of Engine House

Where should I start on my journey to becoming a 3D animator?

If you’d like to get started on your path to becoming a 3D animator, consider SCAD, SVA, or Gnomon. We can vouch for their programs. Or if you’re more of an autodidact, check out our free real-time character animation resource round-up.  It’s a great way to start learning the key fundamentals you’ll need to succeed.

“When I graduated from high school, there were very few places where you could learn animation, and animation software ran on huge Silicon Graphics workstations that cost more than a car," says Arnett. "Now, you can watch free tutorials online and download free software like Unreal Engine or Blender on your home computer and start playing around immediately. There's never been a better time to learn animation—the barrier to entry in this field has never been lower.”

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