Job: Computer animator
The role: Computer animators are the artists and designers behind the digital effects in film productions, both within fully computer-animated entertainment as well as productions that blend reality with digital animation.
"Computer animator is a broad term to describe anyone that's working in the animation industry doing 3-D animation, and that includes several different roles," said Noel Hooper, a professor and program co-ordinator for Sheridan College's faculty of animation, arts and design. Mr. Hooper explains that those employed by smaller animation studios – which focus on fully animated projects – and smaller visual-effects studios – which combine computer-generated (CG) images with live action – are often employed as generalists.
Computer animators at larger firms, however, may be employed as a specialist with a focus on one part of the animation process. A modeller, for example, uses two-dimensional renderings to build computer-generated models, while a rigger builds the structures that allow the model to be animated.
From there an animator is responsible for getting the model to move realistically. A texturing artist matches the model's textures to its original design and a lighting artist ensures the textured model is lit appropriately. "And then a compositor puts it all together at the end and does final tweaks," adds Mr. Hooper.
Salary: While generalist computer animators can expect a starting salary of between $35,000 and $50,000 annually, Mr. Hooper says specialists tend to make slightly more, typically earning starting salaries between $40,000 and $60,000.
"And where it goes from there is difficult to say, it really depends on the ability of the artist," he adds. "Someone can accelerate to a six-figure salary fairly quickly, say within five years, and certainly beyond when they get to a senior position, but it really depends on the artist. It can vary quite a bit."
Education: As a rapidly evolving field, up-to-date education on the latest tools and trends can be vital to a successful career in computer animation, though it is not mandatory for securing employment. "The artists' demo reel is the one thing that gets them in the door and gets them the job," said Mr. Hooper, adding that while rare, completely self-taught computer animators can still have successful careers in the industry.
For the rest, however, Mr. Hooper says there are educational programs countrywide, ranging from short-term crash courses to multiyear postgraduate programs. "You need to find the one that suits the direction you want to go, the time you have and the money that you have, but they're available across Canada," he said.
Though the industry is wholly dependent on technology, Mr. Hooper adds that educational programs often seek to teach programming skills to talented artists, rather than the other way around.
Job prospects: Demand for computer animators tends to ebb and flow, says Mr. Hooper. He explains that two or three years ago demand began to skyrocket and there was a shortage of talent, but supply has since caught up with demand. "There's a good, consistent need for entry-level artists now, and judging by the number of products happening, I think it will be consistent for a while," he said.
Challenges: Like many professions in the film industry, Mr. Hooper says computer animators often have to deal with strict deadlines, which can require staff to work longer hours as the deadlines approach.
Why they do it: For Mr. Hooper and many of his students and colleagues, there really is no business quite like show business. "We love movies, we love animation, and there's nothing quite like sitting in a theatre and seeing your name come up on the screen after a movie," he said.
Misconceptions: With various specialties and different studio types, Mr. Hooper says the terminology and titles surrounding computer animation often get confused.
"Even on just the visual-effects side, they're called 'visual effects' or 'special effects' or 'digital effects' or even just 'effects' – everyone's saying the same thing but they're getting confused, and that's true within any area of computer-generated animation," he said. "The labels often get mixed up."