What I Wish I Knew Before Going into Animation

When I decided I wanted to major in animation, I had no idea how oblivious I was in regards to what animation really is. In my mind, I kind of assumed animation was just 3D animated films that Disney and DreamWorks put out and mainly just character animation, I had no idea there were so many different aspects within animation. With 3 years of 3D Animation behind me, and my first year into the industry, I feel I’ve learned a lot about this industry, and I thought it was worth sharing for any aspiring 3D Artists out there.


Anna Aplin

1/2/20249 min read


When I decided I wanted to major in animation, I had no idea how oblivious I was in regards to what animation really is. In my mind, I kind of assumed animation was just 3D animated films that Disney and DreamWorks put out and mainly just character animation, I had no idea there were so many different aspects within animation. With 3 years of 3D Animation behind me, and my first year into the industry, I feel I’ve learned a lot about this industry, and I thought it was worth sharing for any aspiring 3D Artists out there.

What is Animation?

Animation is widespread; of course it can be fully rendered 2D and 3D animation, but it is also a huge aspect in Film/TV, as well as pretty much all games.

From those three main areas, you can lead yourself in a few different directions:

Common positions within the animation industry:

  • 3D Generalist

  • VFX Artist

  • Animator

  • Technical Animator

  • Asset Modeler

  • Technical Artist

  • Lighting Artist

  • UI

  • Environment Art

  • Level Design

  • Many more

Some of these positions are more specific to games over animation/film and vice versa, but a lot of them carry throughout each area. The main difference you might see from Film - Animation - Games is different software, but we’ll touch on that in a bit.

What School Should I Go to?

The one thing I urge anyone to do is research your program:

Each program is different of course, but some more vastly than others. I chose Humber College’s Animation 3D program because it was specific to 3D, which is what I wanted to do, and what is also relevant in the industry today. Other schools I toured (Seneca, Sheridan) stuck to very traditional ways - lots of drawing and almost no computer time in the first year, which is not what I wanted. 2D animation still exists, but it is not very common these days compared to 10-20 years ago. The last 2D feature film Disney put out was The Princess and the Frog, which released in 2009, since then it’s been all 3D or live action film. You need to pick a program based on what you want to do of course, but also keep in mind what is relevant in the industry → 2D is still used in many places, but less common for full features in North America at least, but is still used lots for pre-production.

I can only provide insight on schools I toured and attended, so my advice would be to go to the open houses, ask questions and figure out what you want to take most from the program.

What Can I Do Right Now?

If you are an aspiring 3D Artist, you might be asking yourself, is there anything I can do to prepare/learn now? Of course you can. With the magical world of the internet, you can learn a lot, but the one thing is knowing what to look for. I wish I knew what to search for so I could have better prepared myself - I remember feeling like all I did was panic my entire first year of school, since there were so many new things I was learning. Here are some commonly used software for animation/vfx within the industry.

2D Software

  • Photoshop - can be used for a HUGE variety of things

    • Drawing

    • Digital Painting - textures (procedural), concept art

    • Matte Painting ← for anyone who has never heard this term, in simple words it’s basically photomashing/photo manipulation

Photoshop is widely used throughout the industry in all places. I personally use it mostly for procedural and tileable textures as a VFX Artist, but in school I did all my digital painting, concept art and matte painting with it. I've been using it for almost a decade now, but I still probably only use about 10-12% of its capabilities.

Other 2D Software like Photoshop:

  • Krita (free) > good for tileable texturing

  • Clip Studio Paint

    • You only pay for CSP once and it can do almost all the digital painting aspects of photoshop, but you can also animate with it as well! It goes on sale every few months so if you like drawing/painting and want to get into 2D animating this is a great place to start → https://www.clipstudio.net/en/

3D Software

  • Maya

    • Main use is for 3D animating,

    • 3D modeling

    • Character rigging

    • VFX → explosions, cloth sim, etc

This software is used all over the place from big scale studios like Disney, to small scale studios, in TV/Film/Animation AND Games. It is part of Autodesk software, which is free to use if you are a student → https://www.autodesk.com/education/students

  • 3DsMax

    • 3D modeling

    • Character rigging

    • Texturing & Rendering

    • VFX

Used vastly within the industry for 3D modeling and is incredibly powerful, it is also Autodesk software → https://www.autodesk.com/education/students

  • Houdini

    • Procedural

      • For those who have never heard this term, you’re probably going to love it. My profs would throw this term around a lot and I never really knew what it meant, here is what SideFX defines procedural as:

        • Procedural workflows make use of copying objects over and over again, so you don’t have to do it manually. This power technique allows one to make stairs from a single stair step model, or the trusses on a bridge

    • modeling and animation can be used procedurally in Houdini

    • Node based

  • VFX

    • Probably one of the most created things with Houdini is VFX: https://www.sidefx.com/products/houdini/fx-features/

    • Pyro FX - fire and smoke

    • Fluids - water and liquids

    • Particles - dynamics

    • Destruction - RBD

    • Finite Elements - solids

    • Vellum - cloth and hair sims

    • Grains - sand and snow

    • Crowds

A lot of these are used in Film/TV, but are also made in Houdini and brought into Game Engines for more realistic fx. Houdini has a free version to use for learning purposes and non-commercial projects → https://www.sidefx.com/faq/apprentice/#:~:text=Houdini%20Apprentice%20is%20a%20free,are%20valid%20for%2030%20days.

  • Blender

    • 3D modeling

    • 3D animation

    • 2D animation

    • 2D drawing

    • VFX

    • Sculpting

    • Character rigging

Blender has started booming up in the 3D world, the one great thing about Blender is that it can be used for so many things, and it’s completely free. Other software is free if you’re a student, or has a free version to use but there are limitations. Blender is still a newer software so it’s not used as much as Maya or 3DsMax per say but it’s starting to gain popularity, and is a great place to start if you aren’t a student and want to learn aspects of animation or 3D art → https://www.blender.org/

  • Unreal Engine

    • Game engine

    • This term can be kind of vague because there are really TONS of things you can do with Unreal Engine, especially now that we have Unreal Engine 5

  • Environment Art

  • Short Film

  • VFX

  • Games

  • Many many more things

Unreal Engine renders in REAL TIME → if you are new to the 3D world you might not know how phenomenal this is, but it’s a game changer. Unreal Engine is also a FREE gaming engine to use, anyone can use it.

You can use it to create games of course, it was developed by Epic Games, and there are many games made using UE4/UE5 as well as new ones in production.

Some game examples:

  • Fortnite

  • Dead By Daylight

  • The Matrix Awakens

  • Borderlands 3

  • Redfall

  • Meet Your Maker

  • Rocket League


UE5 has started to make its way into TV/Film → it was used in shows/movies such as Star Wars The Mandalorian, The Batman, A Silent Sea, and is only starting to be used more → also been used for short animated films

One other amazing thing about Unreal Engine, specifically UE5, it has a bridge to Quixel’s megascans that are free to use → Megascans are high rendered realistic 3D assets (photogrammetry) that consist of foliage (plants, grass, flowers etc), to rocks, trees, architecture assets, textures/materials, etc → https://quixel.com/megascans/home

Unreal Engine can also be bridged with other software like Houdini or Maya.

Unreal Engine is one of the most used softwares in 3D and I highly recommend checking it out → https://www.unrealengine.com/en-US

  • Substance Painter

  • Used for texturing/painting 3D models

  • Substance Designer

  • Node based procedural texturing/materials

  • zBrush

  • Used for 3D Sculpting → can also be used for the retopology of a sculpt, but retopo can also be done in other 3D programs (Maya, 3DsMax, Blender)


  • Nuke

  • Nuke is a compositing software that is node based, used a lot for film/TV, is useful when you need to combine your render layers, has a non-commercial version to use for free → https://www.foundry.com/products/nuke-family/non-commercial

  • After Effects/Premiere Pro

  • If you want to composite final rendered shots, you can use Premiere Pro, it is video editing software, and you can also do some other effects and motion graphics with it

  • After Effects (in a gist) → can be used for combining render layers, adding in different effects, you can also use AE for camera tracking → but Syntheyes is also used a lot in the industry for tracking

There are many other software's used, and many other things these software's can do but this is a basic overview.

One thing to note, a lot of these programs can do the same things, but they look different. Don’t let different UI discourage you from learning a new software, once you have the skillset you will be able to maneuver around a new software in a week two.

There Will Be Things You Don’t Enjoy

There are many parts of animation, and I can almost guarantee that are going to be things within the industry you dislike and don’t want to pursue → funny enough I disliked almost everything I learned at school, I didn’t like animating, didn’t enjoy modeling, didn’t enjoy drawing/painting etc, making it seem like this was a mistake, but when I got to learning VFX I fell in love and never once regretted getting into this industry. If you don’t enjoy every aspect of 3D don’t let it discourage you, you may just find your calling a year or two in → one thing to note, it can be ideal to have a ‘niche,’ a part of 3D you specify in. If you are aiming for modeling/generalist it can be a very competitive position to get, especially if you are aiming for large scale studios, you really need to sharpen your skill set and portfolio if that is what you’re aiming for, but it can be good if you’re working in a small studio and can help in other departments. If you focus on one department like VFX or Lighting, etc, it can make you stand out a bit more.

Another thing to keep in mind → your goals might change

Going into animation you may think you’re going to come out as an animator, or a 3D modeler, but as you go through your program you may find you actually like something more! I thought I’d maybe be a character animator once I started animating, but I fell in love with VFX instead.

Another thing to note is when you start out new in this industry, you most likely won’t get a position you want right away. You want to be a compositor, but you may start out as a tracking artist and have to work your way up – this industry is competitive so it’s something to keep in mind when you first start applying for jobs.

Market Yourself

You’ll want to have a decent portfolio – you can have a website, through site builders like wix or squarespace, or you can use platforms like Artstation → you can also create a website with your own domain right through Artstation!

You only want your best and sharpest pieces for your portfolio and for your demo reel. Depending on what you want to focus on, you’re most likely going to have more than one demo reel, and resume. If you do VFX and can animate, you’ll want an animation reel and a VFX reel, as well as a resume catered to VFX and another catered to animating → you may be able to do both of these well, but they don’t go hand in hand when you are working in one specific department, only showcase the skills that you need for the job you’re applying for.


One of the most used things in any professional industry is LinkedIn. LinkedIn is great for making connections, and having all your experience and skills laid in one place.

Ensure you act professionally → LinkedIn is not Facebook or Instagram. You are always presenting yourself to recruiters all the time so keep it relevant to your skills and interests within the industry. My advice would be to only post or share serious portfolio pieces/demo reels on LinkedIn, and keep quick pieces to platforms like Instagram.


Learn what you can → many things go hand in hand with each other within the industry. I do a fair bit of programming within Unreal Engine as a VFX Artist, which has been all hands-on experience from my job, so learning more programming and blueprinting is great in the long run.

You will ALWAYS be learning → this industry is changing everyday and even your mentors with decades of experience are learning new things.


If you got this far, I hope you enjoyed it, and/or learned something! There are lots of things to learn about the Animation & 3D Industry, if you have an interest in it, I can tell you from experience, it’s not a bad place to be.


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Maya software: Get prices and buy maya 2023. Autodesk. (2022, October 28). Retrieved January 1, 2023, from https://www.autodesk.com/products/maya/overview?term=1-YEAR&tab=subscription

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