3D Industry

3D Animation – Virtual Actors of the Digital World

>> Last Updated on

Home » Tutorials » 3D Industry » 3D Animation – Virtual Actors of the Digital World

Virtual Acting

figurines action pose expressive
source: maxpixel

3D animators have one of the most important roles in the production of an animated film project.  Like actors in a live-action film, they have the most directly visible role in a film.  Their work is the content of the story itself, as seen by the audience.

We see it on the screen without any other intermediary, but it can only be altered by editing.  It has a similar direct effect to the finished product as sound design, montage and art direction.

Sometimes, technical animators or final layout artist complement the animator's work with small fixes and last-minute additions, but it stays mostly the same. The animation of the movements stay as intended by the animator, once approved, until the end of the production.


Animation Process

This section may contain spoilers for innocent minds who (still) believe in their favourite animated character's life outside of the big screen.


Alive with a Mind of its Own

Animators put life into every character of a film or video game.   They are the virtual actors of the world of computer graphics.  In the film industry, they create everything that makes it a different medium than a photography.   They animate characters and objects to make them seem alive, with 'a mind of its own', when in fact it really doesn't.  The liveliness of an animated character actually relies on an animator's mind, and not the virtual character itself.  Animators also make the objects in a digital world seem to be realistically interacting with the actions of characters in a film.


Virtual Puppeteer

figurines expressive poses
source: pxhere

Unlike what young kids would really like to believe, characters from their favorite animated film do not actually have a life of their own.   They seem to have real persona because of the way they look, but also mostly because of how they're animated.  Unfortunately, they do not move on their own: it lies completely inert when they are left unattended.  Even in games, computer-generated characters lie inert until a human artist creates movement possibilities for it  Anyone who has animated a character in 3D space can tell you that they are themselves part of the animation they created on a character.  A digital character doesn't do anything on its own, they are just like a puppet, nothing without the puppeteer.  3D animation is an advanced equivalent of puppetry in digital form that closely approaches acting, but also expands on them.


Working as an Animator

Role in the production

In 3D computer graphics, animators are a special breed of artists.  Animators are highly specialized in their area of expertise and they often exclusively do so.  They are very creative people, but not often very technically inclined, unlike other departments in 3D productions, who usually don't animate.  Animation is about creativity and intuition and it takes a certain mindset that is not in everyone.  For example, it is not the job to make the 3D models or the rigging skeletons that allow those 3D characters to move, are not in the animator's mandate to make.

Like actors and crew on a film set, the rest of the 3D production can be seen as 'technically supporting' the work of the animation department.  However, this doesn't mean it's the only creative department, far from it.  In fact, most of what is called the 'technical work' on an animation film is also a creative work.  As a comparison, an actor doesn't set up his own lights, nor does he build the stage set he acts on.  That's because each department has his own creative and technical areas of expertise.


Animation Specializations

There are 4 distinct categories of animators that are usually listed as separate job positions.  However, animators are able to transfer their skills more easily between medium, because it's an art about time and not form.  On a film project, 3D animators are usually assigned a specific character and scene to work on, regardless of the type of movement to create.  However, the sub-categories we list below can be useful marketable distinctions to illustrate a specific area of expertise.

  • 3D Animator
    • Character (Human) Animator
    • Facial Animator
    • Organic Creature Animator
    • Choreographers (dance, martial arts...)
    • Hard Surface Object Animator
  • Visual Effects Animator
  • Motion Graphics Animator (2D, 2.5D, 3D)
  • 2D Animator

" Animators are the virtual actors, puppeteers and choreographers behind every digital film character "

movement specialist dance animation choreography puppeteer
source: pixabay

Career Paths

An Animator's Skills

  1. An eternally young mind capable of imagining and having fun with situations
  2. A great sense of timing
  3. Ability to create or draw expressive action poses
  4. A good understanding of human motion
  5. An understanding of animation curves and tangents
  6. Knowledge of 2D animation is an asset
  7. Interest or experience in acting
  8. Strong desire to show your work to others
  9. Actively look for constructive criticism
  10. Ability to use the basics of any 3D software
  11. A lot of patience


Entry Level Positions

An animator is usually not an entry-level position.  This is because it takes a lot of skills, talent and practice, but mostly because the result of their work is seen directly on the screen, unchanged.  Alternative entry-level positions that can lead to an animator's position are the following:

  • Junior Animator
  • Layout Artist
  • Technical Animator (fixer)


Career Promotions

  • Senior / Lead Animator
  • Film Director

Learning Animation

We highly recommend a great 3D animation tutor:

Jim van der Keyl !


This renowed animator from Disney and Dreamworks, now teaches online animation classes at www.vdkanimation.com

You can also check out his caricature drawing profile at www.sketchme.com

Inside the Mind of a Professional Animator With Jim Van Der Keyl

Or read an article interview about his work.

Tools of the Animator

In order to achieve good results in animation, the animator has different tools at his disposal.  You may be surprised at how low-tech they are.


An Actor's Mind

An actor's mind is his most valuable asset.  Everything stems from a creative vision in the imagination of the animation, even before it is being technically achieved.  This is, in fact, one of the greatest and undervalued abilities of the human mind.  We can plan ahead to build bridges, buildings and planes, but also to create exquisite ideas for artistic expression.


mirror cat moment
source: pxhere

Visual References

An animator absolutely always needs visual references to recreate good timing and relatable movements.  There are many books of actual human an animal motion, photographed frame by frame that can serve as a realistic reference point (see Muybridge).

Videos can also be broken down at a frame-level to accurately decompose the motion of objects in nature.  However, you are yourself the simplest and best reference you can have for human motion, through a mirror or camera.


A Mirror

A mirror is crucial for an animator to act an test his animations and make quick references while working.  It is not enough to imagine in your head what you think is the expression you are making in your mind.  What matters is what it actually is, especially every muscle contraction you do unconsciously, without thinking about it.  This is what makes an animation relatable, and 'realistic' within the context of the project.

Everything that makes an animation realistic, or convincing, is about the subtlety, and often involontary, movements of the body.  Especially for facial animation, there are so many muscles and possibilities that have been socially coded, that is cannot be emcompassed only in a thought.  Most facial expressions are also emotionnally driven, rather than purposeful.

Both a full sized mirror and a small desk mirror are very useful, but for different purpose.  The small one for your work desk, and the big one to test your full body poses, before animating.  However, an wooden pantomime can also do for work situations.


A camera

A camera or phone with camera is a good modern tool to capture interesting life events.  The world is full of movement and fun situations, so a camera should be used to capture the right references, right when they happen.  Make sure it can capture at least 30 frames per second (FPS), for a precise breakdown.  Additionally, you will usually need to minimize the blurring, by filming in high lighting conditions.  A dedicated camera has a lot more flexibility when it comes to filming in more difficult conditions, because of the larger aperture size.


articulated figurine pantin
source: pxhere

An Articulated Figurine

This will allow you to quickly create and test expressive poses and capture them while you transfer it to your favorite 3D animation software.  This can also allow you to learn about proportions for drawing human figures to draw your poses.


A Pen and Paper

This is useful to draw what you see in real life, to inspire you later when you animate.  Real-life observation is an essential part of taking in all the visual references to boost your mind's creativity.  The drawing fixes them in time for later use.  You could also use a portable tablet to do so.  However, a drawing pad is usually what you will have access to most easily in an animation studio, to communicate your animation ideas to others.


Essential Books for Animators

Learn Facial Animation

Facial Animation Essential


The essential guide for every animator, with secrets, tips and tricks to become good.


An essential animation reference guide for all different types of animations bodies and timings.

Animator's Gear


Poseable figurines  to plan out animation poses


A desk mirror for facial animation

Connected Production Steps


Before any animation can begin any 3D object needs to be rigged by a rigging artist first.  This process adds a bendable skeleton and controllers for the animator, to an otherwise rigid 3D shape.  This is sometimes also required before the layout can begin, depending on the type of pipeline and parallelity, but it can usually be done simultaneously.


The animation step of production happens after the layout sets the framework for work.   This sets the context, environment and framing and objects for the animators to work on.   The camera, general movements and duration of the shot are all set beforehand but can be influenced by the animators' work.  For example, if there isn't enough time for a movement to complete in a shot, it could be extended.  Camera curves may also be adjusted to match the characters' movements or last-minute ideas.

Lighting & Compositing

The animation step is also done before the lighting is done on 3D scenes.  There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that it highly determines how light falls on objects in the frame.  As the final-layout can be done in parallel to the animation, the final-layout has to be included before the lighting departments starts working.  There is also often a need to fix technical bugs beforehand, to reduce the number of erroneous renders.

More Free Tutorials and Lessons in Animation




Back to the careers Table of Contents
blue curtain show stage Careers in the 3D Animation & Visual FX Industry


Featured Sections


Artist Hubs:



Tell us what you think, we welcome your comments!  Did we miss something?

- www.3Dwombat.com -


Join the Wombats

Opt-in our occasionnal newsletter to be the first to be informed of our new tutorials series, original content updates, special offers and important announcements!   It’s free and spam-free, plus you can unsubscribe at any time.

Follow @3Dwombat on Social Media