Going to animation school? 5 animation tips that you can do over break to improve your skills!

What can I do over break to get ready for animation school?  This is a question that I get asked quite often, usually by perspective students, or friends of friends and family that don’t know exactly what to expect when starting an animation school, or wanting to improve over break. When I first got to CalArts, I remember how overwhelming it was to be surrounded by so many talented students. At first I felt out of place, with so many of the students from the LA area that had grown up near the animation industry. There were so many talented students, and some students even had formal life drawing training at their high school. At most, I had gone there with a general idea of how animation was made. The best info I had gotten was from picking up the original copy of book The ILLUSION OF LIFE , and read it from cover to cover.

Maybe you are a high school student, or a college student attending an animation school and about to go on break.. How can you use your time wisely to be better prepared for what you will face as an animation student?  At this point you probably are not sure what to expect, and perhaps not sure what aspect of “animation” you are interested in the most.  Don’t worry; you have some time for that. Not everyone becomes an “animator”.  I will outline in a later post some of the different disciplines within the animation field, but the following list of animation tips are meant to be a catch-all that will prepare you regardless of which route you go later on whether it is an animator, technical director, or 3d modeler. Here are a couple of boiled down essential things that you can find the time for to be better prepared and know what you are getting into. This To Do List is written in a specific order to build each skill upon the next.

  1. Build up your drawing and observational skills. The first and most important on the list is to begin keeping a sketchbook!  I know what you are thinking: “But I just want to do 3D Animation…”  Bear with me. The sketchbook is an exercise that will build up your skills regardless of what aspect of animation that you are interested in.  You’ve probably never had to do this before and it will be a new experience for you, and every animation school will have you do this. I always had scraps of paper stuck in a folder and always wished I had done this growing up. I spent a lot of time drawing cartoon characters which helped as well, but there is nothing like gesture drawing the people, animals, and locations around you to improve on your skills for a career in animation. It is a great morale booster to look at your stack of sketchbooks from when you started to see the progression of how you are actually improving. Go out and buy yourself an inexpensive sketchbook. I always prefer the spiral bound type because they are easy to flatten out, and make sure that it is not too small. It is best in my opinion to get one that is at least 8.5 x 11 to 11 x 14 size sketchbooks.I know that some people like to draw small, and perhaps you may be afraid of being spotted drawing someone but trust me, your drawings may suffer in a smaller sketchbook and your work may tend to look stiff. Now that we got that out of the way, what you are going to draw is not manga, or anime characters, no scantily clad girls with bat wings, but everyday life around you. By gesture drawing humans and animals, you will be practicing your observational skills and pushing poses for animation. Gesture drawing will also help you practice with your anatomy which will help you with your 3D modeling and animation rigging skills, or observing and caricaturing people as an excellent way to build up your skills as a character designer. If you have been doing this already, then awesome! You will be ahead of most of the aspiring animators that I have spoken with.  Here is a great blog with some examples of what I am talking about. The artist whose site it is has a ton of industry experience as well, and he’s a great guy to boot.
  2.  Read up on the Principles of Animation. The next to do on the list is to pick up the book:The Animator’s Survival Kit, by Richard Williams. Yes, this book is for animators, but I can almost guarantee you that any animation school will have you start at a basic class in animation as part of the curriculum, so you might as well be ahead of the game. This book is loaded with “how to’s” from the most basic animation principles to more advanced techniques. This book is the mandatory book in a few of my animation classes, and is one of those reference books that you will always refer to even after you have been working in the animation industry. I have a list of other animation books and resources that you can check out when you get the chance, but this is the first one you should get to get a better visual understanding of some of the principles of animation. Make sure to read to page 95 in the Animator’s Survival Kit before going onto the next thing on the list!
  3. Get a head start on some animation exercises that you will most likely be doing first in animation school. Make yourself a schedule during the summer to do some animation tutorials between your summer job and hanging out with friends.  I would start with the Bouncing Ball tutorial since it is the exercise that just about every school will give you to get used to the animation principles of squash and stretch, timing, spacing, volume, and arcs. I would start out doing the exercise in 2d animation, to learn the foundations of the animation principles and not have the interface of a 3d package to distract you from the performance. Here is a pretty good free 2d bouncing ball tutorial to start out with. Download Pencil. This is a free animation program that is both vector and bitmap for you to do 2d animation tests in. If you have an inexpensive tablet or lucky enough to own a Cintiqalready you can animate right in the program. Here is a free tutorial that I found online on how to use the Pencil program: Pencil: Episode 1, Pencil: Episode 2., If you have some extra cash laying around, then you can try the software that we use at SCAD called Flipbook. It’s an inexpensive and easy to use 2d animation software package similar to the proprietary package that we had at Disney. There are other higher end 2d programs such as Toon Boom Animate, but for the purpose of we need, I would hold off on that right now. You can check out a great tutorial by Jason Ryan on animating a 2d bouncing ball in Flipbook here: Part 1, Part 2. After you have completed the 2d bouncing ball exercise, then go onto doing the bouncing ball exercise in 3d animation. By doing this, we already have the mechanics of the exercise down so we can focus on the Maya interface and the process of animating in 3d, and using the graph editor.
  4. Download the free trial version of Maya at the Autodesk website. It is the industry standard 3D animation software package, and every animation school will teach you 3d animation using this program. I always suggests for people to download the free trial version, and do a simple tutorial over the summer to get used to the interface and the graph editor in particular. This seems to be the biggest learning curve for most people. You can check out a good free bouncing ball tutorial for 3d animation here. There are a few places you can go if you have some extra funds this summer. The following two sites are paid sites, and I don’t make any money off of them, but they are relatively inexpensive to subscribe to on a monthly basis, and they give you thousands of tutorials to start with:

Lynda – This site has a ton a tutorials but it is a paid site.
Digital Tutors – has thousands of tutorials and also offers a student discount for a monthly subscription. Even if you only get a subscription or two months during the summer, the price is well worth it and a heck of a lot cheaper than college courses.

5.Watch one film a day. It always surprises me when I ask people that are interested in getting into animation, how often they watch animation, and what their favorite animated films are, and they give a response leading me to believe that they don’t watch much animation at all. It’s a good way of separating the “fans” from the film makers. I suggest getting a Blockbuster account or go to Red Box and watch one film a day over the break. It is good to watch both live action and animated films. You will most likely have a History of Film class, or a History of Animation class, so why not start now. You will start building your eye as a film maker. Here is an excellent list of films that are a must see for any film or animation student. I would suggest starting to watch one animated film a day and first and foremost analyzing the story. At the end of the day, all animation is a means to tell a story that could not be told in live action. When you are done, try going frame by frame on areas that particularly interest you, whether it is how a shot is lit, how a character blinks and turns, how much attention to detail may or may not be on a 3d character model, or perhaps just to find out if the background is a matte painting or an actual model. This exercise is to get you to really observe the animated films and allow the attention to detail to start developing, and building your eye for your animation discipline and developing you into a film maker. The other thing to take note of when watching the animated films is to make sure to watch the credits on some of the more recent animated films. This will start to give you a better idea of what animation job titles there are in the industry, and maybe spark an interest in something that you may have never thought of. Here are a few links to some good film lists:





Well, that should keep you busy for now.  Whatever path you are taking to learn animation, whether it will be going to an animation school, or just to learn on your own, I hope that you found this info useful and gives you a good start… I would like to hear any comments, questions, or suggestions. If you have any ideas to add to this list from your past experiences, I would like to hear them.

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Going to animation school? 5 animation tips that you can do over break to improve your skills! — 5 Comments

  1. This is so great! Thank you so much so all your tips. I just graduated from college with a degree in biology so I have a steep learning curve. I’m looking into animation school next Fall. I will definitely be referring this site all this month!

  2. Hello,,i’m going to complete my inter.I am very interested in animation(2d,3d).I used to draw some stick figures in different positions in class when i’m bored.I watch all animated movies.I’m using a 3d software called blender and got habituated to it basically animating,modellig,rigging,texturingetc..I’ll be always thinking of animation and the famous characters and observe real world which provides an advantage.I’m a good artist but not that much creative to draw imagination drawings.whenever i get time i’ll get stick to reference books of animation like animators survival kit etc..My question is after completion of my inter i cant do a degree in animation due to some problems so i decided to do a diploma course in animation is it good for my future career as an animator or i should compulsory do a degree?

  3. As someone who is building an online 2D Animation course, I found this article very insightful.

    I appreciate how much you emphasize the importance of building observational skills and studying films with a critical eye. I’d say about half the work in good animation isn’t just knowing how to make things move, but how to think about why they move. Analyzing acting, watching people in real life, thinking about your own relationship struggles, reading psychology – these all inform wether the images merely move across the screen, or wether they truly come to life.

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