By Chandler Harris The list of this year's summer films includes movies filled with computer generated imagery (Iron Man 2, Prince of Persia), or made entirely on computer (Toy Story 3, Shrek).
While it's clear the demand for CGI animators is big in the movie industry, their skills are also being used in video games, advertisements, websites and the business world. To work as a computer animation specialist, a rare balance of creativity and technical acumen is required. Painters, photographers and architects with computer and specific software skills are often good fits. "The number one skill that everyone has who works for us is an art degree," says Joey Jones, co-owner of Shaded Box, a computer animation firm. "Even though a lot of the stuff we do is highly technical, even our head IT guy has an art degree. A lot of people that work for us come from illustration backgrounds, film backgrounds, design backgrounds, graphics and product design backgrounds."
Art + Technology While an artistic bent is necessary, knowledge of animation and creative software ranks high, also. Across the country, colleges with computer animation programs have sprouted up to teach industry-standard tools like Adobe Creative Suite, Autodesk's Maya, 3D Studio Max and Softimage. At the computer animation program at the Expression College for Digital Arts, the first level of classes teach Adobe Photoshop, After Effects and Maya, while the second level entails learning ZBrush, Mudbox, Nuke and PFTrack. Then, motion capture classes are taught using the Vicon Motion capture system, with Vicon Blade software and Autodesk MotionBuilder. Finally, students attend a dynamics class in Maya and learn character rigging, MEL and rendering in Mental Ray and Renderman. Yet for Tab Burton, an animator at Blue Sky Studios, which created the feature-length animated films Ice Age and Horton Hears a Who, the most important thing for computer animators to learn is the 12 principals of animation developed by Walt Disney animators in the 1930s and 1940s. These include squash and stretch, anticipation, staging, straight ahead action and pose to pose, follow-through and overlapping action, slow in and slow out, arcs, secondary action, timing, exaggeration, solid drawing and appeal.
Broad Needs For computer animation projects for feature films or small animated shorts for the Web, computer animation specialists are needed in 3D modeling, texturing, lighting, animation, motion capture, character rigging, rendering, concept art, storyboarding, compositing and matte painting. Yet the industry extends far beyond entertainment, with a significant and growing demand in television, the Web and business applications. "We see various visualization fields opening up and embracing animation - scientific, medical and architectural to name a few," says Andrew Schlussel, director of the animation and visual effects program at Expression College. "The moving image is fast becoming the primary way people get their information, from any number of glowing rectangles that we surround ourselves with - Internet, television, phones, billboards and more." Now more than ever, companies in numerous industries are hiring computer animators to help produce animated presentations for conferences and conventions, says Norman Engel, animation instructor at the Art Institute of Houston. Video game companies, which are creating games that have the look and feel of an interactive movie, rely heavily on computer animators for the artistic and technical development of a game. THQ looks for technical artists with strong skills in math and scripting languages like Python. Having a good demo reel is often the key to getting a foot in the door of many computer animation studios, video game companies and computer animation firms. "The great thing about this industry is that the only true qualification you need is the quality of work that you produce," says Burton. "As long as your demo reel shows industry standard quality, you'll get hired despite what your educational background is." Chandler Harris writes about business and technology from California.