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6th Oct 2021

What a video game animator does and how you can become one

Everything you need to know about becoming a video game animator including responsibilities, advice, and salary information.

Whether you've stared in awe at the natural flowing of Aloy's hair in Horizon: Zero Dawn or were simply impressed with the innovative character animation (for it's time) in 1989's Prince of Persia, then you've been charmed by the work of some very talented video game animators. From the gentle swaying of the trees in Skyrim to the amazing character facial expressions in The Witcher 3, every moving object in every video game ever has been given life by a video game animator. Who are these silent heroes of the game development world, and how can you become one? Let's talk about that!

Class Summary: What is a Video Game Animator?

To put it simply, video game animators give life to all of the in-game assets created by 2D and 3D artists. Using a variety of different animation software, these animators add movement, personality, and realism to the video games we love. We spoke to a couple of fantastic animators already working in the video game industry and got their advice on what being a games animator looks like, and how you can kick-start a career in this exciting sector.

Your Primary Quest

According to Sophie Shepherd, an animator at Creative Assembly, a video game animator's primary quest, "is to create believable motion for characters and creatures in a set world/universe. It’s important to understand how a character moves and feels within the game, and we do this by talking to other departments to find more about the lore or intentions."

Phoebe Hunt, an animator for Ubisoft Leamington, agrees, explaining, "As a gameplay animator, I am responsible for the creation and implementation of the animations for characters in the game. To do this, we communicate with many other departments including design, programmers, character and prop artists, and more."

If you love to see silky-smooth animations in your favorite games, and think you could help bring games to life in this way, then this could be the career for you.

Animation provided courtesy of Sophie Shepherd

The Skill Tree

Junior

  • Creativity
  • Attention to detail
  • Communication skills
  • Open to feedback
  • 2D/3D animation
  • Animation software (Adobe Suite, 3DS MAX, Houdini, Blender, Maya)

Intermediate

  • Game design
  • Game engines (Unreal, Unity)

Senior

  • Team management
  • Project management

Being a highly creative field, video game animation requires a plethora of creative skills. Building skills in key animation software like Autodesk 3DS Max, Houdini, or Blender will give you the technical skills you need to create fantastic and realistic animations. However, being able to work independently on animations isn't enough to give you the edge in the video game industry. Creating games is a highly collaborative process, and being able to work in a team and, more importantly, accept feedback and critique from your team, is absolutely essential.

"Reach out to your team for feedback and to bounce back ideas. Communication between the team and other departments is invaluable as there’s always something new to teach or learn," Sophie says.

Phoebe holds a similar sentiment. "An animator needs to be creative and willing to take criticism. They also need to be able to work in a team and communicate appropriately."

Sophie continues, "Another skill that sets animators in games apart from those in film is to think from a game design perspective. This is a new skill that shows you understand what is important for the game and that both departments (design and animation) can work together to create the best experience. A lot of new animators in the games industry like to focus on making their animation the best it can be, but I believe communication with design will push your work to make it the best experience for the player, which is the ultimate goal."

Having basic knowledge of game design, as well as an understanding of game engines like Unreal Engine or Unity will take your skills—and employability—to the next level! "Something else that will really make you stand out is implementing some of these animations into a game engine. I recommend Unreal, even if this is a simple walk, run, and jump sequence. By showing this in-game, it will demonstrate your focus and understanding of a game engine," Phoebe told us.

Player Profile

If you like the sound of creating amazing animations for video games as a career, and reckon you have (or can learn) the relevant skills, then it's time to start preparing for that career and building your player profile.

Don't skip the tutorial!

Like most careers, animation requires some training, but if you don't have a degree then don't panic. "A degree is definitely not essential to work as a gameplay animator. Your showreel is what's most important," Phoebe advises. "However, if you don't have a degree I would recommend an online course such as iAnimate in order to improve your skills."

In this day and age, there's lots of online learning resources that can support your career goals. When we asked Sophie about education for an animator, she told us, "If you choose not to get a degree, there are many online animation courses that are more affordable and will help you boost your skills tremendously. Courses such as iAnimate, AnimationMentor, or AnimSchool can provide you with a mentor for a number of months as you go through the exercises."

Do your dailies

As a creative sector, video game animation requires passion and commitment. To stay at the top of your game, you should be practising regularly. There are always new techniques, methods, and technologies to learn, so don't neglect your dailies.

Sophie also suggests sharing your work with other animators and getting feedback to help you improve. "Reach out to other animators in the industry for advice and they will be happy to help, just be aware not to ask too many questions and respect their time. We’ve all been there, applying for our first jobs, so we understand the difficulty of breaking into the industry and are happy to help others. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t post my work online and reach out to people. I have received valuable critique and advice over my years in university and it prepared me for when I started applying for jobs in my final year. Even if you aren’t ready to apply or are only half way through your studies, start sharing work and talking to people.

Clearing up myths

Most professions have some myths or misconceptions around them, and we asked Sophie and Phoebe to help us clear some of them up for you.

Sophie says, "One myth might be that you need to be good at 2D animation or drawing. When you see animated movies behind the scenes you often see storyboards, character designs, poses, and facial expressions, so it's understandable to think that you might need these skills for 3D animation. Nowadays it's possible to draft out these ideas straight into 3D instead. That's not to say 2D isn't still used — some animators still find it useful to draw out ideas quickly to convey to the team what they are planning. It’s also possible to make 2D animations while waiting for a rig to be finalised. So while it is definitely helpful, it's not necessary by any means."

One myth about game animation that Phoebe wanted to dispel is how the role is broader than you might first think. "You wont be animating 100% of the time and I think a lot of people don't realise that," she says. "You won't just be handed an animation task and left to get on with it. You work with your fellow animators and other teams to determine what is required. This includes investigations into the engine you will be working with, as well as determining what exactly is wanted from design for the animation. You will then also show your animation to directors and your lead during the process so they can give feedback and make adjustments."

Animation provided courtesy of Phoebe Hunt

Loadout Tips

It's dangerous to go alone and unprepared, so be sure you have the right equipment to succeed in your new video game animation career. Start off with a strong resume and cover letter. Make sure you are polishing and fine-tuning these for each job application. Trust us, this stands out.

Almost certainly, however, the most important piece of equipment you will need as you venture out to hunt down your dream game animation job is your showreel. This is the best way to demonstrate your skill to prospective employers.

"The most important thing when applying is the quality of your work. If you have a great show-reel then that is primarily what employers are looking for," explains Sophie. "Keep your animation showreel short and sweet, quality over quantity — especially as a beginner. Also tailor your work for games. That means locomotion cycles, attacks, emotes, and hit reactions. It shows that this is exactly what you want to do; you would be surprised how many film students apply for games jobs with acting pieces when in reality, studios would much prefer to see more game animation-focused reels. Try to tailor your animations to the company you are applying to and have variety in your work. However, it's understandable that this is not always possible as a student since you will be applying to multiple job positions."

Quest Rewards

So what's in it for you? What can you expect to get from working as a video games animator other than a salary? We asked the pros.

What's the best thing about being a video game animator?

Here's what Sophie loves about being an animator in games: "I will say that the people are the best part. The game animation community is incredibly welcoming and kind. Everyone is sharing advice and helping students and I can’t say I’ve personally met an animator that I didn’t get along with. There is a certain energy that comes with animators where they are hardworking and passionate — it’s just where I want to be. Coming up with crazy ideas and jumping around filming reference/motion capture together makes everything worth it. I also love meeting animators online around the world and finding out how everyone knows each other. This community is surprisingly small and that is what I believe makes it special."

The people you'll work with definitely seem to be one of the major draws to animation, as Phoebe reiterates: "I absolutely adore working with so many different people. We really do get to talk to every team working on a game as animation crosses everyone's path. I also love how creative I can be within my animations. You never get told exactly what it should be. Its a communication between the animators, design, and directors."

We also asked both of our contributing professionals for one piece of advice they wish they had received early on in their careers. Here's what they told us.

Phoebe - "Its not easy. You will face many different trials, which will be different for each individual. But just be confident, everyone you work with was in your shoes at one point. You'll be fine."

Sophie - "It’s important to keep an open mind and not to put all your eggs in one basket. The industry is constantly changing, this includes companies and games. Dream companies are nice to have, but it’s also worth thinking about what projects or people you want to work with as well. I feel that over the years perceptions can change, but think about what kind of animator you want to be and connect with those you admire."

Video Game Animator Salary

Now you know what being a video game animator involves, what skills you'll need to hone, as well as some of the challenges you could face. Still interested? Great! But here's the big question — what can you expect to earn as a video game animator?

Well according to Glassdoor, the average national salary in the US for a game animator is $72,077 per year, with the most senior animators earning over $100,000.

So what now? If you're fully equipped to start your quest as a games animator, take a look at all the available opportunities on Hitmarker and get applying. Good luck, and remember, Hitmarker is always here to help.

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