Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People, Chapter 3: What to Learn. By Sybex | 2 | WebReference

Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People, Chapter 3: What to Learn. By Sybex | 2

Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People, Chapter 3: What to Learn.

Cinematography and Photography

The art of film is an essential component of most 3D production environments. In film work, an understanding of camera angles, screen direction, camera moves, lens selection, and effects is essential. If a sequence supervisor asks for a dolly or a tracking shot, a medium shot or a close-up, you’ll be expected to know what the difference is and how to do them. If a shot calls for more depth of field, you’ll have to know how to achieve that. Similarly, if you’re working in a studio that produces effects for many different clients who may work in different formats, you’ll have to understand aspect ratios, frame rates, and other essential aspects of each medium. Previsualization artists work as virtual directors, and their work is directly comparable to that of a director who works behind a camera. But even 3D animators working on real-time cinematics for games need to be able to direct and cut a sequence in much the same way as a director and editor. Evan Pontoriero discusses how cinematography applies to his job of “layout” or “previsualization” at Pixar:

A lot of it is understanding composition, which you’re taught in design school or art school. Some of it’s just being someone who enjoys film. If you studied film and you understand good cinematography and film, just by watching you can get a grasp for it because a lot of directors just cut up pieces of other films together to come up with their films: they buy their cinematography from other films. So no, you don’t need to go to film school necessarily, although I think it would help...There’s a lot of stuff that can be learned on the job.


Photography also teaches you a great deal about lighting and how to see form, space, and shadow (Figure 3.4). Having a basic grasp of how light functions in addition to composition, as Evan Pontoriero mentions, is an invaluable asset to a 3D artist.

Figure 3.4 Photography is a great way to hone composition and lighting skills. This fine art photography is by Stephen M. McClure, 3D animator.

Character Animation

Character animation is an art form unto itself, and the classic reference is The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by legendary Walt Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. These artists, along with a handful of others at the Disney studio, invented not only the art form of animation as it is known today, but the language to describe what they had made. The 12 fundamental principles that these animators described have become the golden rules for all character animators:

    1. Squash and stretch
    2. Anticipation
    3. Staging
    4. Straight-ahead action and pose-to-pose
    5. Follow through and overlapping action
    6. Slow in and slow out
    7. Arcs
    8. Secondary action
    9. Timing
    10. Exaggeration
    11. Solid drawing
    12. Appeal

Much has been written to add to these basic principles and the descriptions that Thomas and Johnston provided, but these new rules are really just amendments and nuances that contribute to an understanding of their original work. While character animators will work with the principles of animation every day, learning the fundamentals will help all 3D artists better appreciate and understand the art form they work in. Concept artists, modelers, character technical directors, and effects artists all dip into this well of understanding whenever they work with characters. If you’re planning to be part of an art team—and you will be, unless you’re uniquely equipped to produce film and games in total isolation—knowing the rules of animation will make you far more useful when it’s your turn to constructively criticize what you see in dailies.

Dailies are a ritual in almost every animation environment. Most film effects studios have a theater where artists gather on a daily basis to view and critique their peers’ work in progress. While your work is going to have to survive their scrutiny, the real key to surviving dailies is to learn to form and express a constructive opinion about everything you see because sooner or later you’re going to be asked what you like about a shot and why.


A mistake that students and inexperienced animators often make is they plan their animations around the physical actions of a character without thinking of the character’s motivation: why would it move? They focus more on what the character does and what looks cool, such as a bullet-time fight scene (which is getting cliché), or a John Woo “shooting two pistols while flying over a table in slow motion” move. But this sort of thinking overlooks a very big part of character animation: character. Simply making your character move around is not enough; you need to have motivation and emotion to drive the character’s motions. Without that, you’ll do your animation a great disservice. As many character animation studios will agree, recruiters look for emotion in character work, not just body movement. Plan your animations to scratch deeper than the surface. Have a clear motivation for your movements, and you’ll find your animation much the better for it.

Dance and Theater

Understanding how a human body moves and communicates a character’s thoughts, and understanding the difference between action and acting are essential to creating interesting character animation. The ability to act, and to move in interesting ways, can even play an important role in how an artist works with motion capture, as discussed by Sean Miller of Sammy Studios:

It comes in handy in a number of senses. When you want to create some reference motion, you could get in there and direct the motion capture shoot—that’s where having the motion capture facility in-house is helpful—or you could even get in the suit and act the motion out yourself. Whether that becomes the final motion that’s used in the game, it’s a terrific tool for you to be able to realize it in your final art. If you have an animator that can’t move that doesn’t know how to move his body, when he does the animation a lot times he’s going to be basing it on how he thinks the body moves. So, if they’re stiff, their animations will very often be stiff. Even in terms of motion capture, if you can’t recognize good motion and clean poses, you’re not going to be able to direct a motion capture shoot to get the kind of data that’s going to be useful to you.


Technical Fundamentals

3D and effects are part art and part science. The science part is mostly math: algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and physics. But the discipline also requires an understanding of a variety of technologies and tools that help achieve the ends of the 3D process: scripting and programming, computer networking and management, and a variety of tools for specialized work such as motion capture and match moving.

You don’t have to be a mathematician to do some kinds of 3D work, but you do if you want to really master the form. 3D modelers use math to create accurate forms and to build mechanical objects whose proportions are correct for animation; texture painters use mathematical relationships to control the appearance of surfaces; animators use math to calculate the timing of motion; and effects artists and technical directors use math for everything from scripting to rigging to driving animation with physics-based expressions.


Algebra, trigonometry, and geometry are fundamental math in 3D design and effects. For example,

  You are modeling an airplane’s n-bladed propeller by creating a single blade, then duplicating it around the x-axis n-1 times. How many degrees of rotation (a) do you need for each of the copies?

The answer is that the angle (a) is equal to 360 divided by the number of copies:

  The following is a basic expression in Maya that causes a vehicle’s wheels to rotate at the proper speed, no matter how fast the car travels across the ground. (Without this expression, it would be very difficult to animate the car without the wheels sliding unnaturally across the ground’s surface, especially as the speed of the car changes.) To write this expression, you have to know that:

The good news is that such an expression is easy to set up once you know the math. The bad news is that this equation barely scratches the surface of what’s possible with expressions. For example, you might create an expression to generate wind-blown particles from the crest of a wave when the wave’s height (generated by a randomized sine function in another expression) exceeds a certain value. A second expression could control the speed of particles and the rate of the particle emission, based on the speed of the wind. Once these expressions are in place, you have only to tell the system how big to make the waves and how hard the wind should blow, and voilà, you have foamy, wind-swept waves that change with the weather.

Never mind how long it takes for a plane to fly from London to Paris in a head wind, scripting dynamics and effects is one place where you’ll really need that math class you may be tempted to sleep through.


Physics are also part of the art of animation: the timing and weight of characters, the inertia of follow-through, and slow-in, slow-out are all expressions of physical laws. Effects animators use physics to define the action of objects as they react to world forces and the interaction of particles as they move through space. Physics are also a necessary component of game-play in most 3D games, and whether they are applied through a game physics API, such as Havok, or through custom programming, game engineers must have a basic understanding of how physical rules apply.

Among all of the laws of physics, few are more fundamental to the art of animation and effects than those discovered by Sir Isaac Newton, paraphrased here:

In 3D, physics are used in particle systems, cloth and other soft and hard-body dynamics, collision effects, and even “ragdoll” effects in the animation of characters. Of course, with dynamic effects such as particle systems and fluids in motion, the physics become increasingly complex, and simple laws are insufficient to handle the orderly chaos of events such as tornados and storms at sea.

Created: March 27, 2003
Revised: April 9, 2004