Game Animator

When most people think of animation they will often think of movies and TV shows, particularly things such as Disney or Cartoon Network. These are the most obvious examples, but animation is used in places that are less obvious, such as CG portions of live-action movies that you may not even notice if done well. The same is true for games. There are obvious examples of game animators’ work, such as Cuphead’s hand-animated Disney-esque style, but every game requires animation, from character movement to environmental animations such as doors and collapsing buildings.

Cuphead's game animators worked entirely in traditional media.
Cuphead – Studio MDHR

Where game animation and film and TV animation vary is down to the workflow and the animations that are produced. TV work comes fast a furious, having to animate predetermined scenes in a matter of hours. Film is similar but tends to have much longer to refine the work. Game animations are best separated into two categories: cutscenes and in-game. Cutscenes will work similarly to movie animation whereas in-game animations are more dynamic and will need to be cut up into short animations that are used and blended in real-time to produce realistic movement. These could be tweaked and changed over a period of months or years, depending on the work and if changes are needed.

What Does A Game Animator Do?

Put simply, a game animator is responsible for most of the moving parts within the game. For the most part, this will be the characters, both player and NPC, and will include things such as walking, using items and weapons, and in some cases lip-syncing. It could also involve moving machine parts, swinging bridges, or other environmental moving parts that are not done dynamically or need a little extra flair.

Animators will work closely with Technical Animators, who will set up the tools that the game animator will animate with. If set up correctly this can make the animator’s job easier and faster and allow them to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, so working closely towards the same objective is a key part of being an game animator.

As animators are fond of saying, their job is to breathe life into otherwise inanimate objects. They bring the emotions and the believability and infuse the work with panache that can make or break a project. Most areas of game development have become more complicated over the years, but none quite so much as animation, which has gone from simple rigid animations to simulating muscles and microexpressions on a face in a matter of years. This makes the job more complicated, but it’s also one of the most rewarding improvements games have had.

Super Smash Bros' game animations.
Super Smash Bros – Nintendo

How Does Game Animation Work?

Game animation varies depending on the project, the style, and the quality of the game. However, they all follow a fairly similar pattern, whether 2D or 3D. There will be a character or object that needs animating that will be created or designed beforehand. These will normally be prepared for by a technical animator and will normally consist of a rig that the animator will use to animate that will also contain useful functions. In 2D this might include squashing and stretching or switching pieces out. In 3D this might include things such as blend shapes that accurately show muscle definition when certain actions take place.

From here there will generally be a split in how you work depending on the animation workflow. 2D animators and those doing cartoon-like or unrealistic animation will begin animating by placing keyframes. More realistic workflows, especially involving humans, will usually have captured motion capture data, which gets placed onto the character. This gives the animation a base to start from and from there the animator will fix and clean up the animation as well as adding any flair or unique animations on top.

At this point, the animator will manipulate their character or object within their chosen program and add keyframes to it so that the program remembers where things should be at a given time. This can be replayed as an animation. This will then be added to the game engine and, for in-game animations, they will be added to an animation tree. This is a series of functions that tells the game what animations should be playing at any given time depending on what the player is doing. Animations can also be blended, for example, a running animation and a reloading animation, so that both can be played at once. This means the animator will not need to create an animation for every variable which would be impossible.

Differences Between Realistic And Cartoon Animation

When most people think of animation, they think of cartoon-like animation, and that is often the more enjoyable type of animation for animators to work on. However, due to the nature of the industry, there is a lot of realistic animation as well. Realistic animations will almost always start with mo-cap data to most accurately pick up small animations and quirks that people have. Many animators, understandably, dislike working with mo-cap data as it takes away a large portion of creative freedom and as such would rather hand animate work, however, motion capture is essential in modern workflows to get the speed and quality that is needed.

Realistic animation in Far Cry 6 done by game animators.
Far Cry 6 – Ubisoft

As well as workflow, animation style changes a lot depending on the style you are aiming for. An in-depth breakdown can be found on our Animating For Games article, but to sum up, most animation techniques such as Anticipation and Squash And Stretch should be much more emphasized with cartoon-like animations as that is what gives it the energy and appealing quality. Some of those techniques can still apply well for realistic animations but you have to be careful not to make that WW2 soldier move like he’s in the Looney Tunes.

How Much Are Game Animators Paid

When it comes to games, animators are generally paid in line with other members of the art/creative team. Generally, this means a fairly low wage for entry-level jobs, due to the competition of everyone wanting to get a job, however, this improves with more experience and as you work your way up in your career until it pays fairly well. In the US you could expect something around the $40k for an entry-level job, rising up $200k+ for management positions and the biggest studios.

Compared to other animator positions such as TV you will be looking at about the same pay, with variations for regional and job-specific differences. It’s possible that career progression is better in games than in TV. However, money will not play a huge part in the decision of which type of animation job someone will take. Usually, it will come down to your preferred work style and end product.

Is Being A Game Animator A Good Career?

Being a Game Animator can be a fulfilling and enjoyable career but it comes with some of the general downsides of game development work such as overtime culture. Overall it comes down to personal choice. If you can deal with some of the downsides like tight deadlines, long unpaid working hours, and having a reduced social life, then it can be one of the most fun and enjoyable career choices out there. It’s even possible to mitigate some of the issues by finding a good company, but that could be difficult or impossible at first, so you might have to earn your stripes at a company that doesn’t treat you so well before being able to be more choosey once you have some experience on your resume.

Monster animation in Back 4 Blood
Back 4 Blood – Turtle Rock Studios

An alternative, if you have animation skills you want to turn into a career, would be TV or movies. Movies will generally need more experience so entry-level positions will most likely be in TV. Due to its relative simplicity, TV animation is generally better scheduled so you won’t be dealing with excessive overtime. However, the work schedule is even busier than games and you will be going all out to make sure you hit the very tight deadlines. That will work better for some but not for everyone.

Do I Need A University Degree To Be A Game Animator?

Animation degrees are becoming even more popular these days with a majority of universities offering some form of course as well as a huge amount of online courses. Completing one and getting a degree is a great first step to getting a job in animation and the way that the majority of people will get into the job. However, it is not essential. Like most art positions in games, it comes down more to the quality of your personal portfolio than qualifications.

As someone who has hired employees for art positions in the past, I can tell you that the number one most important thing is your portfolio and the work you show off when you apply. Anything that’s been worked on as part of a professional production such as a past job is best, then personal work. If the portfolio passes the test then we will look at previous work experience and then finally any qualifications you may have. If you pass the portfolio test and have somewhere near the amount of work experience required for the job then whether or not you have a qualification won’t stop you from getting the job, but having it will help support your cause even more.

Reloading game animation in Deathloop
Deathloop – Arkane Studios

What Jobs Are Available?

There are a bunch of useful tools and techniques you can use to find job openings. The best way to apply for a job is to apply directly. If you know the company you want to work for and check their website for openings, even if there are none it can be useful to email them anyway as you might be able to jump the queue if you are lucky. Another way of looking for jobs is checking websites that pool job openings such as and apply through them.

The other option is applying through job agencies. The benefit to this is that they can do the hard work and put you forward for relevant jobs. The downside is you don’t get a choice in what jobs you are put forward for and, because the agency add a fee on top of your pay when applying for jobs, you become more expensive to hire compared to people who apply directly, and as such a company may go for somebody else over you if you are both pretty similar in quality.

What Tools Do You Need To Be A Game Animator

The tools that you will need to animate will depend on if you are planning to work in 2D or 3D. If working in 2D a program such as Spine or Synfig will make life much easier. However, you can animate however you find best, and games have used hand-drawn animation or even stop motion animation which is added to the computer in the form of 2D animation. It’s a case of what way is easiest to achieve the look that you want in the game.

For 3D animation, you will need a program such as Autodesk’s Maya or for a free alternative, Blender. These will provide all of the tools to manipulate your work in a 3D space, whilst allowing you to place keyframes in a timeline to plot out the animation. These can then be exported from the program to your game engine, to use there.

Interested in learning more about the process of Animation? We have you covered.