There is one question that most people interested in the world of 3d animation ask. The question is “Can you teach yourself 3d animation?” There is a growing number of courses, certificates, and degrees in 3d animation, some of which are aimed at specific fields like medical animation. However, there may be various reasons why you cannot attend school for animation such as location, finances, or lack of the specific major you want to pursue.
In this article, I will go into the cons and pros of 3d animation schools, what disciplines official schooling is required for, and how difficult is it to teach yourself 3d animation.
The simple answer is yes, you can teach yourself 3d animation. Of course things are never that simple in real life and in this article I will describe how it can be done and what limitations it may present in your career.
Before we get into the details of this topic lets define what 3d animation consists of and what paths there are. 3D animation is a general term sometimes used instead of the term “3d graphics” or “computer generated imagery (CGI)”. In reality, 3d animation is just one part of the field of 3d graphics, and 3d graphics are part of an even larger field of CGI which includes 2d as well as 3d elements.
When you decide you want to learn 3d animation, it makes a difference whether you want to learn it just for fun, to freelance or start a studio, or to work for a company. If you want to learn 3d animation just to play around with it, make virtual worlds and inhabit them with people, practice building 3d games or making movies, the answer is yes you most definitely can. It will take a lot of work and patience but you will enjoy the rewards. More about how to get started later. For now lets focus on learning 3d animation as a career.
When you go for a degree in 3d computer graphics, which I completed, you are usually taught a variety of subjects including previsualization, 3d modeling, texturing, rigging, 3d animation, rendering and so forth. You can also pick a major and take elective courses in a specific area, such as medical animation.
This, however, is not a strict path, nor are these the subjects covered in all 3d graphics degrees. Most schools do give you many elective options so that you can select the courses that interest you the most. Many schools, especially in degree programs, require you to take courses which might not interest you too much if you already know what path you want to take, such as a large number of art classes, art and technology, visual media, and other courses deemed foundational by a particular institution.
3d animation schools are not cheap. At the time I was enrolled in a Masters program it was over $40,000 and this was many years ago. There are various reasons for this. The instructors who teach at these schools are professionals who are up to date with a quickly evolving field. The software packages taught in school need to be constantly updated and as you may know, 3d software is pricy. The hardware including workstations, large monitors, tablets and other input devices must be upgraded and maintained. This is a field that heavily depends on the latest technology, unlike traditional art.
Pros of 3d Animation School
- Little guesswork in choosing courses
- Instructors who work in the field and provide industry experience
- Job placement/internship access if available
- Solid foundation and electives
- Learn whats important in industry now
- Learn various software packages
Cons of 3d Animation School
- Time to complete
- Limited locations for particular fields of 3d animation
- Limited number of students accepted
- Required courses may not interest you
- Some have poor job placement record
Degree vs Certificate
I ended up attending both a degree program, a certificate program, and individual courses that interested me. It did cost a significant amount of money but I feel it was worth it, especially having access to industry professionals currently in the field.
Certificate programs as you may imagine are more focused on a particular field, have a fewer number of required courses (and these may be more to your liking since you are put in a field that interests you), are easier to complete part time while you are at a full time job and are less expensive.
You can always take individual courses to get better at a particular skill. I would not take individual courses until you have a basic knowledge of animation and software. They are more suited for advancing your career/knowledge. You can always take individual courses that can later add up to a certificate in a particular subject, and that way you can have some sort of document to show you have an education background in the field even if you are limited on time and money.
Learning 3D on Your Own
So now that we discussed schools, lets get into learning 3d animation on your own.
Again, we need to differentiate between 3d graphics and 3d animation and define “learning on your own”.
The reason is your interest in 3d graphics may be programming for example, which again requires a different background, such as a bachelors in programming or coding experience. 3D is another level that builds upon basic programming knowledge.
Learning 3d animation on your own requires more of a background in traditional animation than learning other aspects of 3d graphics. You need to learn techniques of traditional animators before you even sit down to a computer to understand squash and stretch, anticipation, follow through, slow in and slow out, etc. You then have to translate these into computer language. Here are the 12 principles of animation.
And here they are in a video tutorial:
For 3d animation, you should also understand the basics of modeling, rigging, texturing, previsualization, lighting and rendering. The reasons are as follows.
3d modeling affects animation and models for animation are built differently than for still images. Rigging is how characters are controlled during animation. Textures can be animated and they also need to be created in a certain way for animation. Previsualization is like drawing a cartoon (storyboard) that will be translated into an animation including camera shots and moves. It also includes animatics which are simplified animations to give people a rough idea of what an animation will look like when finished. Lighting is something that animation needs to take into account as lighting is used to focus attention to certain parts of your scene as well as enhance animated models. Rendering for animation is a topic in itself and has its own limitations and needs such as motion blur, etc.
Rotoscoping is another form of animation that you may be required to know at some point. Motion graphics, which may be 3d or 2d, are common in movies and television, and have their own animation principles and common dos and donts.
Physics simulations/ dynamics are a form of animation where forces are applied to 3d models that have actual mass instead of keyframing and the computer simulates what would happen to the objects. This is important to learn as it can save you hours of keyframing.
I personally remember learning 3d animation which consisted of 30 or so 2 hour DVDs by watching them everywhere I went while commuting. 3d animators continually invest time and energy into learning and improving their skills, both in and out of their job. You will see character animators spending hours practicing their facial expressions and body moves in front of a mirror. Learning and keeping up with software and hardware changes is not an easy task either, especially if you are not too computer literate.
Teaching Yourself Animation
Since there are full degree programs, certificate programs, and single 3d courses you can take, lets assume by “learning on your own” you mean not paying for any courses. This leaves you with books and online tutorials. I will be honest, to learn 3d graphics on your own you need a lot of time, patience, drive and self discipline. One more thing, and I dont want to be discouraging here, a lot of people have these traits and dedicate their lives to 3d graphics, just like doctors do to medicine, because they are very passionate about the field which is competitive. I cover some of this in another article linked near the end.
If you are interested in some videos to get help you learn 3d as well as traditional animation, here are some sites with courses:
Youtube is also your friend. More and more tutorials and even hour long or longer recorded classes can be found there for free. One site that has youtube 3d graphics tutorials cataloged by category is http://3dtutorials.net.
Something you can do if you want or have to learn 3d graphics on your own is research school curricula and required textbooks and create your own self curriculum from them. Even some class notes and documents are available online if you look hard enough. Again, it will not be easy but it will give you a structure to follow. If you know how to search the web for pdfs and powerpoints that will help. Google actually in its Advanced Search options has file types you can search for including pdfs and ppts.
Learning The Software
Learning software is part of learning anything CGI. And software changes often. There are new versions of 3d packages every year. Luckily there are student and trial versions and pay per month options where you no longer need to shell out $4000 for a program like back in my day.
I have to tell you something. Learning 3d software is not easy. There is a learning curve that is higher than that of Photoshop or even After Effects. This is because there is a lot crammed into 3d software. After all, this software allows you to build a virtual world that is often lifelike, especially if you do photorealistic rendering. Dont be discouraged, with patience and practice it can be done. The good thing is once you learn one 3d animation program it is not very difficult to switch to another.
On the topic of learning software, here is what I learned in my degree program: Maya, After Effects, Unreal Engine, Premiere, Photoshop. Maya is a 3d software program and many others can be substituted such as 3DS Max, Zbrush, Lightwave, Blender, Rhino, etc. Be careful though, some of them do not have all the features of others. Some have fewer animation tools.
Things to learn on your own to get started in 3d animation:
- traditional animation
- drawing for animation
- 2d computer animation
- character animation
- previsualization including animatics
- basics of modeling, texturing, rigging, lighting, rendering
- video production
When Do You Need a Degree in 3d Animation?
In some fields such as medical animation, having a degree is important, especially if you are going to work for a hospital, publisher, or another institution and not run your own studio. This is because a medical animator needs an extra background in science. This background can be learned in a Masters program in medical illustration or a bachelors degree in science.
In general animation, entry level positions in existing companies require successful completion of at least a bachelor’s degree in computer graphics, graphic design, fine art, or animation. So if you are looking to work for a company, one that you have dreamed of working for, it will be very helpful if you have a degree in one of these fields. If not and you are still young and you want to work for a company, highly consider this path. Having said all this, there are various people out there who have taught themselves 3d over the years and are successfully running their own studios or freelancing.
One thing that is always important but even more important if you do not have a degree in animation is a great portfolio. It may make the difference between getting the gig you want or not. There have been cases where an amazing portfolio had mattered more than official education.
Networking is important in any field. It is especially important in the fast changing world of 3d animation and making personal industry connections is even more important when you do not have that link through a school. You need to go out there and sell yourself.
In the video below, FlippedNormals talks about how you can learn 3D software fast:
Best Way to Learn 3D Animation?
By reading this article you probably realized that there is no one best way to learn 3d animation for everyone. Everything depends on your situation, your discipline and drive, and the field you want to go into. Before embarking on this journey which will be a lifelong one, do your research and find out what is required and what people have done to be successful in your particular field. You want to know all this before, not after you invest years into your learning.
If what you are looking to do does not have specific schooling requirements I would try a hybrid approach. By that I mean use the time you have to learn on your own, and attend online or other courses in your area of interest. Make sure to be exposed to instructors that are currently in the industry, whether its through youtube videos, books, or structured classes. See how it goes and whether you need more help than those provide.
For a list of recommended books, take a look at our Recommended Tools page.
I hope this article has answered the question of being able to teach yourself 3d animation.