Motion Designer - MVARTZ

Can you teach yourself 3D animation? | Become a successful animator

I know that going to expensive animation schools with amazing mentors, that are industry professionals, isn’t a possibility for everyone. This probably made you wonder, just as I did, is it even possible to become a successful animator by self-teaching. 

This is a question a lot of us asked ourselves at some point. The short answer. Yes, it is possible to teach yourself 3D animation. There are plenty of examples of those who took that route before you. However, the question remains, what separates the average from the most successful animators. Let’s take a closer look at what that means.

The many fields of 3d animation

If I speak for myself, the first thing that came to mind, was feature film animation. You know studios like Pixar, Dreamworks, and all the big names. However, the animation industry is a vast one, to say the least. So let’s quickly break down some of the fields and areas within 3d animation, starting with the most popular.

Character animation for film and television

This is probably why I got into animation in the first place. Breathing life into a unique character and giving him or her an interesting personality, is one of the most fulfilling forms of art I know. The possibilities are endless and only our imagination can limit our performances. 

Animators will be crafting a shot to perfection, which takes hard work and dedication, but most of all, time. Sometimes an animator can work on a single shot for months.

Game animation

On the other hand, a lot of animators want to work in the game industry. 

Which is at its core not so different from animating for a film. 

Although there are some key differences, we not going to cover them all now, but to give you an idea here is one. In-game the player controls the camera, opposed to a set camera in film. For a game animator, this means he has to assure that every viewing angle shows a clean animation. 

Motion graphics

Characters are not all that require animation, in motion graphics you’ll animate videos for clients, brands, music, and much more. It’s very exciting to work on commercials, teasers, and product reveals.
Working for different brands offers plenty of creative opportunities. Which also means a high variety of work and styles.

Motion graphics is a broad field in itself, but there is a lot of room for creativity and experimentation. 

Technical animation

Let’s start on the commercial side, for example, engineering companies pay lots of money to see their innovations in action. As a technical animator, you realize that vision, you take complex ideas and visually explain the process. 

On the other side, film, television, and games also need technical animation. 
For example, if a character sits down on a couch, the impact in the cushion is animated by someone. Also think of background animations, machinery, and hair, and clothing. 
This type of animation adds an extra layer of realism to film or games. Working in this industry is not only creative but also technically challenging.

What’s next?

If you want to teach yourself 3D animation, I encourage you to look around and see what you would like to create. I want to stress that whatever you start doing, does not have to be what you end up doing for the rest of your life. Lots of animators make a switch from commercial to film and vice versa.

A few questions to ask yourself, that might help narrow the fields:

  • Does your home country, state, or city have opportunities in your particular field?
  • If not, are you willing to move, or even emigrate to a new country?
  • What is the average wage in your field, does that meet your standards?

It takes time

As earlier mentioned, 3D is a broad subject, and the route of becoming a self-taught animator requires self-discipline. The industry is constantly changing, because of technological advancements. For that alone we all might be students for a lifetime, constantly learning new valuable skills.

The people who had to switch from 2d animation to 3d animation kept going, we’re never too old to learn.

Ultimately, teaching yourself will require you to be patient and be open to the new information that comes along, which is an added advantage.

Learn the software

Learning any animation by yourself software can feel overwhelming and complicated. It’s like learning to drive a car, you have to know what all the pedals, buttons, and sliders are while checking your mirrors and whatnot. 

The best tip I can give you right now is not to worry, “You’ll be doing this every day. These complex things will become second nature.”. That’s what my teacher told me, guess what? he was right!

You don’t need to know the complete software package inside out. Knowing what techniques are available to you is far more important, if you forget how to do something because you haven’t used that technique in a while, there’s always Youtube to help you out.
Over the years you’ll learn everything relevant from your software. Also, remember in animation software there is not just one golden way of doing it. Where one animator prefers to use a particular workflow, the next animator might prefer a different one.

Knowing what field you want to work in helps choosing the software. For every field, there are industry standards when it comes to software. But don’t let that limit you, I know some of these can be expensive, so alternatively teach yourself 3D animation through free software or student versions of those expensive industry standards.


If learning software is like learning how to drive a car, then, in a sense, learning the animation principles is like knowing the traffic rules.
Learning yourself what buttons to push and which sliders to set is only gonna get you so far. 
Wouldn’t it be odd if someone told you they only learned how to drive a Volkswagen? You’re driving instructor taught you everything fundamental for driving cars.

In a similar light, you have to teach yourself 3d animation principles that apply to animation in general.

So to take things to the next level, you’ll have to master proper mechanics. Let’s discuss the common mistakes beginning animators tend to make.

Upfront I want to say, that these are terms that most often pop up around character animation, however, I can’t stress enough that even in other fields the same principles still apply to animation. Some fundamentals might be easier to grasp, for others you might need to twist the definition to fit your particular case.

Ease in/out

Linear vs EaseInEaseOut

Easing in and out is probably the most well-known principle in animation. It is crucial in conveying the weight of an object, character, or creature. 
Every animation software comes with an option for eased interpolation. (The acceleration and deceleration between keyframes.) Usually, this is visualized in a graph-editor with an S-curve. 

For example, After Effects uses F9 to ease a keyframe. Other programs allow you to switch to bezier, spline, or something along those terms. 

Because these software packages make it so easy, a lot of animators just turn on easing. While that is better than having a very linear movement, therefore a sudden start and stop. However, I encourage you don’t apply default easing on every single object.

As discussed before, every object has its own unique properties. Rolling a large heavy boulder to the brink of a valley costs lots of energy. Therefore, the boulder’s movement has a very slow build-up. Once it picks up pace downhill, saving that picturesque village down in that valley isn’t just gravity’s work anymore. It also will take a lot of counter forces to bring it to a stop. This means slowly easing the boulder into a full stop.

Generally speaking, smaller/lighter objects start and stop easier than heavy/large objects. 

By adding distinctive eases to a movement the shot will automatically have more expression and provoke more emotion. Like a head turn of someone being startled, compared to a boring and linear A to B motion.

The fun thing about animation is, you don’t only express the properties of a character, also everything the character interacts with.
Outside forces influence our movement in a major way. Just think of the difference between moving through air and water.

For example, this iconic scene wouldn’t work as well, when the animator hadn’t adjusted the spacing for the icy surface Bambi was standing on.
What will help you in having proper spacing is planning your animation. Draw thumbnails, act out the movement or find reference elsewhere.


One of the principles of animation is creating arcs when moving.

An arc is the industry name for the line of movement any object has while moving. A clean arc is what makes the difference between an appealing performance and a choppy animation.
Keep in mind that arcs don’t solely apply to character movements, but also motion graphics or camera animation, for example.

You’ll soon discover that tracking your arcs is a tedious job, and that’s probably the main reason a lot of animators skip over this step. If you are committed to teaching yourself 3d animation, this will be an area where you need to be extra disciplined.

For you to get smooth and clean animation it is necessary to track and clean up arcs. Start by tracking your arcs at least clean your arcs for those parts that immediately stand out. Obviously the more you can clean up the better.

What should you be looking for, a common mistake when it comes to arcs is to have pops in the trajectory. 
Scrubbing through an animation frame by frame will unveil one frame direction changes.

Let’s look at a couple of ways to tackle this problem.

Most animation software comes with options such as view motion paths. (This could also be named trajectories or motion trail.) This allows you to visualize in 3d space what path your, for example, the wrist is following.

Scott Teaching Arcs

Some animators use the pencil tools for this. Because the motion paths can get out of hand and might get distracting. So instead, they will manually track the wrist by marking the wrist on every frame.

Or use bright colored primitives, parented to the wrist, as locators. This could help you see the arc better, because of the contrast.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule of one frame direction changes. 

If your character punches the door, believe me, his hand is going to stop in one frame. When a ball hits the floor, it instantly comes back in the opposite direction.

Lifesaving tip!
Cleaning up your arcs is so much faster starting from the center working your way out to the limbs. The reason for this is when you adjust the hip, for example, the hip will affect the position and rotation of the limbs. This could potentially mess up your hard work on cleaning up the arcs of the feet.

In the end, it comes down to giving yourself the time to track your arcs. Yes! It is repetitive and tedious work, but put on some music and clean those arcs, cause your animation will look much more appealing and smooth.

Last note on that topic. When you’re working on a shot and you might not have much time for whatever reason, at least clean your arcs for those parts that immediately stand out.

3D movement

A lot of beginning animators only focus on animating from one view, in some cases the camera view, this would be considered bad practice for several reasons.

Ultimately, this is where animators can shine, let the creativity flow, and go nuts. In 3d we’ve got the freedom to move everywhere. (as long as nothing breaks that is.) A straight movement from a to b will get you there, but realistically when does that ever happen.  

Humans are organic and not always as practical in their movement because a lot of external and internal factors can throw us off. 

Consider this so your animations have personality and emote your audiences.

Of course, this will make a shot more complex and time-consuming, but it shows your capability and creativity. In this case, it isn’t the movement, but how you get there. 
This doesn’t only apply to the character performance as a whole, no, also to the single movements in that performance.

What happens when say your director or client suddenly wants to see the camera slightly turn or in a completely different angle. You end up doing a lot more work than when you would’ve initially put in doing all 3 dimensions from the start.
Besides the fact that in real life nothing moves just over 1 axis, even the subtle 2 to 3 axis movement can give your animation the liveliness and realistic feeling that it needs to push it from good to exceptional. (Exceptions would be machinery and such.)

Different styles of realism ask for different approaches, some stylized studios tend to exaggerate more than others. Hyper-Realistic animations for games, for instance, tend to be more on the subtle spectrum when it comes to this. In the case of a head turn, Sony Animation probably would push the arc in every direction, where Rockstar would probably minimize the arc for at least one of the axis.


Maybe rhythm isn’t the most descriptive title, but I’ll explain what I mean in just a second. Let’s look at music for just a moment, maybe you even can tab along. On one hand, we got:

“Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.” on the other “Clap, tss, clap, tss, tss, clap, tss, clap.”. Which one does sound more interesting, even with just a small variation?

For animation, from complex to even as simple as a fade-in, variation is key, which goes for timing and position. If I’m about to grab my tea, my hand goes from position A to B, from desk to mouth.
What happens next is one of the most common mistakes, when you place back the tea, you don’t go back to A, you choose position C. 

Similar situation, but his time, I’m about to get my tea. My hand moves towards the mug in 12 frames. When I’m there, the mug is so hot, I instantly pull back, not to the same timing, probably way quicker. 

Having worked in motion design for +5 years now, this is something I did and something I see a lot of people do. 
Having a movement from pose A to B and back to A. 

Center of mass

Weight and balance are by far the most influential for achieving believable animation. Nevertheless, a lot of animators struggle with this. 

Your character should be able to stand still, without falling over in a single pose. That’s why you should always keep an eye out for the center of mass, is it still supported.

Most people will grasp that fairly quickly, but the more challenging part is keeping balance in movement. For example in a step aside, you push your right leg in and extend the leg, this motion pushes the hips from one side to another. 
You’ll only lift your right leg when your left leg is fully supporting the body. Otherwise, the second you’ll lift your right leg the weight shift to the other side and you’ll fall over.

Note! If you want to switch directions, you’ll have to be physically able to generate enough energy to transfer the weight of the object. Consider this in the timing and posing of your character. 

Rule of motion

The rule of motion is not a complicated rule at all, in fact, it just comes down to cause and effect.
Every character or object has a weight, to move that weight there are two options, a person could fire up a few muscles and start walking, or on the other hand, someone else might push you over, this is an example of an outside force.

Why is that important to know? Well, this is the foundation for many animation principles.
Such as, overlapping action and leading in movement. In the end, these are the principles that sell fluidity and liveliness in a performance.

The cause of the motion is the body part that leads the movement. A beginner’s mistake is to animate the torso as one block, hips up to the neck, which results in a very stiff movement.


When you work on your blocking pass, you start to work on the key poses, the breaking points, and all the in-betweens you think are important. 

Due to this workflow, a lot of starting animators end up with animations that are labeled pose to pose. This means that all the movements are in place, however, everybody part starts and stops at the same time.

To combat this, you could include overlapping action in your blocking phase. When analyzing your reference don’t just look for the extreme pose, keep an eye out for the extremes of individual body parts.

This is a contact pose for the feet, but a couple of frames later the body hits its lowest point. So, mark that in your reference as a key position.

This makes blocking a lot more time-consuming, so usually, do this for essential storytelling moments and important acting choices. Then later on in the process, do a pass of cleaning up the overlapping actions and offsets for the rest of the animation.


In whatever type of animation you’re doing, readability is crucial. Whether you pose a character for a still image or during an animation, you want the action, expression, and intent of the shot to read clearly.

Silhouette is a method for checking readability, by making the composition black on white. When you’ve created a silhouette, you could check your object of interest on negative space.

Negative spaces are breaks in silhouette, this could be a separation between the fingers. So that a gesture reads clear. 

Negative space is a resting point for the viewer. When the audience takes in a still frame, the eyes tend to drift and explore the canvas for all the wonderful details. Now and then, the viewers need an anchor point, a focus point for their eyes to rest on.

An object shouldn’t read as one lump of black on white. The audience should be able to absorb the intent of the motion, or the mood of the character, even when they would be squinting their eyes. 

When it doesn’t read as a silhouette, the most basic form, no lighting, and rendering is going to fix that skewed foundation.


We, as in a human audience, can empathize only with emotion. As animators, it’s our job to create a sense of empathy in the audience. 

See it as animation layers. Layer one is the action, plain and simple. Layer two is the way emotions dictate the action. These recognizable mannerisms will convey emotions. This is where the animations get separated from the good ones and become perfect scenes.

We give our characters thoughts and brainpower so their values can be picked up by the audience. But equally important, they can get picked up by other characters as well.

The audience sees what the character is doing and then, via empathy, looks underneath the doing to find the emotion that probably led to the doing.

What does this mean for you? 

Your character should portray an action in pursuit of an objective while overcoming obstacles. There are only 3 possible kinds of conflict or obstacles:

  • Conflict with yourself.
  • Conflicting situation.
  • Conflict with another person

If you work in a big enough studio then you’re animation supervisor will tell you what characteristics the person has. Unique traits that are tied with the core believes of the character.

Say you’re teaching yourself 3D animation, and you’re working on your animation reel. Then these core beliefs are what’s going to boost your shot. From a plain and simple exercise to a storytelling shot. 

Acting is doing, but also reacting. What’s interesting to see in performances is how the character maneuvers through his/her surroundings. On the other hand, a character’s reaction could also have to do with his values. What does the character thinks might be the intention behind this action.

When you are animating, you must know your character’s values, culture, and contextual situation so well that his reactions are almost automatic to you.

Here’s a line to wrap your head around from ed hooks’ Acting for animators: “Scenes begin in the middle, not at the beginning.”.

When we think about it, the actor was doing something before this shot. He wasn’t born on the spot and started walking towards the milk aisle. Your character’s not blankly entering this scene. He came from somewhere. Did something before this.

In conclusion, acting has very little to do with words. The important things in acting are, intention, motivation, objectives, and emotion. In the real world, movement precedes words. Head and eye movement for example. Before thought. Backwardsengineer, find the inner impulse, that thought, that was expressed by the words.

Ed Hooks’ indispensable acting guidebook for animators has been fully updated and improved!


When you still want to teach yourself 3D animation, I suggest you start to look into everything discussed above. This is a springboard for you to dive further into the content. Youtube is an awesome place to get started. A lot of great animators have taken their time to post great valuable content on the topic. With MVARTZ I try to help animators grow, so you could check out my youtube channel. Of course, I’m not shamelessly gonna plug just myself, because the list of great animation channels is endless, these are some of my favorite animation-related YouTubers:

Jean-Denis Haes, Midge Sinnaeve, Alessandro Camporota Ben Marriot.

If you’re teaching yourself 3d animation, you might ask, is reading books better than watching video tutorials, which is the best?

In my opinion, instead of preferring one over the other, we would actually learn better by utilizing both of them. There is no point in dividing between both learning processes, they both should be incorporated during the learning stage.

Simplified Drawing for Planning Animation is packed with information about drawing the human form in a simplified way, for animators, illustrators, character designers and comic artists.

The Animator’s Survival Kit is written by Who Framed Roger Rabbit director of animation Richard Williams.

As a kickstart, you might want to look up a beginner’s tutorial. Get a feel for the software, and see what’s possible. After a while, you notice that some subjects are deeper than what a tutorial can cover in a few minutes.
So, to deepen your understanding of the subject, you might want to get a dedicated book to fill in the gaps and elaborate on certain topics.

Combined with the beginner’s tutorial you have a solid understanding and a full book doesn’t seem so daunting anymore.

On the more traditional hand, books are so valuable, authors usually spent a long time getting everything they know into a small package. They filtered years of experience down to all the good stuff, in one single read. Some highly recommended books are the ones I’ve shown above. The subject has a variety of books which you can buy and read in your own leisure time. You can even get general “the art of” books. For example, if you’d like a certain Pixar movie, they usually have an ‘art of’ book, showing us a little peek behind the curtains.

As I said before, I know where you’re coming from, schools are expensive. Nevertheless, there are some cheaper options out there to get you started with learning animation. For example, take a look at Skillshare or Udemy, these are online learning platforms with ever-growing content. Both are great options because they’re constantly kept up to date, with new courses. I prefer Skillshare, just because with one subscription you have access to a wide variety of courses. Where Udemy is a pay-per-course platform, in Udemy’s defense I must say that the course quality is very top-notch.