Best Animation Schools and Colleges, Portfolio Tips and Animation Careers


The Best Colleges and Schools for Animation

If you’re interested in a career in animation, you should definitely be looking into the schools that offer the most highly-regarded animation programs. A career in animation, especially at the highest level (e.g working for Pixar, Dreamworks, etc) is no easy feat, but by securing a spot in one of the schools that have elite animation programs, you’ll increase your chances of landing a job or internship in a prestigious, well-respected entertainment/video game company.

In this post, we’ll go over some of the most highly regarded animation programs in the US and the rest of the world. We’ll also go over what you can expect in terms of salary if you pursue a career in animation, how you should approach attending an animation school or program, and what you need to keep in mind if you’re serious about becoming a professional animator.

Best Animation Schools and Colleges - Featured

California Institute of the Arts

When it comes to animation, the ‘best’ school is obviously subjective. However, many people see CalArts as the gold standard when it comes to education in animation. In particular, CalArts is known for its unparalelled excellence in 2D animation in particular. CalArts, and the animation program in particular is extremely selective. CalArts offers BFAs in Character Animation and Experimental Animation. Calarts has state of the art equipment and facilities that are made available to the students, and it’s known as a prime recruiting destination with some of the larger firms in the animation industry. It obviously doesn’t hurt that the school is located in Valencia, which is just a stone’s throw away from Hollywood. CalArt’s alumni (from the animation programs) reads like a who’s who of the animation industry. If all of the above didn’t solidify CalArt’s position as one the best animation schools in the world, get this – it was founded by none other that Walt Disney.

Ringling College of Art and Design

If CalArts #1, then at worst Ringling is a #1B – it’s neck and neck between the two schools for the top spot. While CalArts is known for focusing a little more on traditional animation and 2D, Ringling is known for the exact opposite – they offer what is perhaps the strongest computer animation BFA degree program in the world (and have both the software and hardware to match). Ringling stresses excellence at every stage, and initially students usually focus almost exclusively on fundamentals like drawing, design, and color. Ringling is also very much an art school – if you’re not sure about your major or you’re not truly passionate about pursuing a career in animation (or another art/design subject), then you might want to think about applying to a school that’s a little less focused than Ringling that will give you more flexibility.

School of Visual Arts

SVA is strong in both 2D as well as 3D animation, so if you’re not sure which one you prefer, this school might be a good choice. SVA is known as one of the top schools for animation, so large companies like Pixar, Dreamworks, etc. do recruit there each year, and the school has a distinguished list of alumni to show for its excellence. It has all the obvious advantages of being located smack bang in the middle of New York – on the other hand, it’s a little far away from the bright lights of Hollywood. That being said, if you’re looking to the east coast for college, you can’t go wrong with the animation program at SVA.

Sheridan

There are a number of strong animation programs available in the schools based in Canada, and Sheridan’s program is probably the strongest of them. The faculty is extremely well regarded, and its location, while not the most glamorous, can be advantageous as more and more entertainment and media companies move productions to Canada due to tax considerations. Sheridan also has the additional advantage of being significantly more affordable than many other options on this list. Also, Sheridan offers 1 year programs along with a 4 year Bachelors in animation, so it may be well suited to those who aren’t interested in or can’t afford college.

Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)

SCAD offers a BFA in animation. The school has campuses all across the world (with the most well known one being located in Atlanta, Georgia). It’s well regarded by industry professionals. One of the drawbacks of attending SCAD is that it isn’t really near any industry hotspots (LA, NYC, etc). so it can be hard to network and get your name out there. Still, there’s a reason why SCAD’s animation program is considered a standout amongst all the programs that it offers.

Other Schools that Offer Top Animation Programs

  • Rhode Island School of Design
  • Maryland Institute College of Art (Experimental Animation Only)
  • Rochester Institute of Technology
  • Pratt Institute
  • University of Southern California
  • University of California Los Angeles
  • Laguna College of Art and Design
  • Vancouver Film School
  • Brigham Young University

Here’s a quote from someone who knows what they’re talking about – the topic of discussion is CalArts vs Ringling (Source: College Confidential)

First off, both are the very best in their fields. CalArts is predominantly 2D animation while Ringling is 3D animation. For people worried about not being able to get a job by learning 2D animation, that’s nonsense. 2D is still being used and the market actually has been getting a little larger if I’m not mistaken. Anyways, both are extremely good at what they do. Both are extremely competitive. Also, both schools focus on Character Animation. This is where they teach you how to use the character’s movements and expressions to create a convincing, life-like visual. It’s like acting through your drawings/computer.

Tips for Getting into Animation School

One important thing to keep in mind when applying to the top animation schools (and in particular, CalArts and Ringling) is that you’ll need to submit a portfolio of work that will be judged by the admissions committees of the schools that you apply to. What exactly is required in these portfolios will differ from school to school, but at the very least you should expect that you’ll need to submit some observational/life drawings, some form of sketchbook or visual diary that you’ve been keeping,and some other assorted works. Make sure you check out each school’s website to see what they require in your portfolio, and if you’re not sure what needs to be included, it never hurts to ask.

In particular, you should try and focus on producing outstanding life drawings – apparently the top schools pay a lot of attention to these. You should try and make your work stand out from the other applicants. also, it’s advisable to browse around on the web and see what kind of work other people submit – it’ll give you a good idea of the quality of work that gets submitted to these elite animation programs. You should also try and get feedback on your portfolio before you actually submit it to the schools you’re applying to.

Also, keep in mind that you may want to avoid the obvious when it comes to putting together your assorted works. This quote was pulled directly from the Ringling Portfolio Prep Page

Avoid cliches like anime, tattoo designs, dragons, or unicorns.

For some examples of accepted portfolios, you can head over to the ConceptArt Forums. We’ve linked to a few threads from these forums that might be useful to you below:

ConceptArt Thread about Accepted Portfolios

Thread with an Example of CalArts Portfolio

Another Thread with Someone Looking for Portfolio Advice

Choosing an Animation School

Animation is obviously an extremely broad term, the term can encompass everything from 2D drawings in the style of Saturday morning cartoons all the way through to 3D CGI and visual effects on big budget movies or video games. What school you want to get into will depend in large part to what specifically what kind of animation you’re interested in and want to pursue. Careers in animation cover an extremely wide spectrum of jobs, and different types of animation require vastly different skills.

Here are some factors you should consider when thinking about what animation school is best for you:

  • Are you interested in 2D or 3D animation
  • Are you primarily a visual person or are you more interested in storytelling?
  • In what medium do you want to work? TV? Film? Videogames? Advertising? Youtube Shorts?
  • Are you primarily a technical person or a creative person?

Depending on your answers, the schools that you want to apply to might change, and the exact programs that you want to enter will definitely be different.

Here’s a list of different specializations that you can focus on that all fall under the broad, umbrella term of ‘animation’

  • Fine arts: This is basically art-theory – you’ll learn things like proper composition, color theory, how to portray motion and stillness, how to use and portray lighting (and darkness) – basically all the ‘classic’ ideas behind art and design.
  • Modeling: This is exactly what you think it is – how to create models of complex objects and how to utilize them in different mediums like TV, Film, and Videogames. In particular, you’ll become familiar with how to model extremely (from a modeling standpoint) complex things like hairs on a dog or the surface of a table etc.
  • Computer animation: This will typically include a bit of both 2D and 3D animation – with a focus on the holistic animation process (as opposed to the really nitty-gritty detail oriented approach that you might learn in modelling). You’ll get to learn how to use industry standard software to prepare you for work in the real world, and you’ll get equipped with all the standard knowledge, tools, and techniques that professional animators use on a daily basis.
  • Special effects: This specialization will help you learn how to create visually believable and tonally appropriate visual effects. Stuff like explosions, weather effects, weapon effects, etc.

If you do end up going to animation school, chances are you’ll have to take classes in all of the above areas, as well as some more generic art/visual design classes. This is especially true if you end up in a 4 year Bachelors program.

What Type of Animation Career Do you Want to Pursue?

If you’re genuinely interested in a career in animation, chances are you already have something specific in the field that you’re interested it (and you probably have a portfolio as well). Look over your past work, think about what interests you, and what kind of media you generally consume.

For example, if you’re obsessed with old saturday morning cartoons and you’re a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki movies and modern american cartoons like Rick & Morty or Adventure Time, chances are you’re interested in 2D animation, storyboarding, and to some extent, writing.

On the other hand, if you’re an avid gamer who puts together custom maps and models, you might want to focus on 3d animation/modelling, special effects, and lighting and pursue a game on the video game side rather than the film/television side.

If you’re still unsure of what you want to pursue, try to reach out to people in the industry and pick their brains. Look online for videos that describe what different careers in animation might look like, then make your decision.

You might also want to read up about the different choices of schools and programs you have on forums like college confidential or reddit.

What Kind of Qualifications do you Want?

Other than what you specialize in, if you’re attending animation school, you’ll also have to think about what kind of degree or qualifications you want. Typically, art/design schools will offer Bachelors (BFAs or BAs) degrees in some forms of animation, but if for whatever reason you’re not interested or not in a position to go to college, you can also pursue a diploma or certificate.

There are technical programs that will allow you to obtain a certificate in animation in 2 years or less – these will typically be trade schools or technical colleges. Obviously, a college degree is more prestigious, and a longer period devoted to studying might help you out in the long run. On the other hand, college is incredibly expensive for a lot of people, and if you complete a 1 or 2 year program and you manage to find a job quickly, you’ll already have 2 or 3 years experience when fresh college grads who are your age are just entering the job market.

You should also be realistic about what a career in animation is like. Animation is a pretty competitive field, and while salaries are quite good, depending on the exact job that you have, you may be expected to work long hours or through weekends (e.g if you’re working on a film that has a release date).

If your school has job placement programs, internship programs, or links to big companies in the space, you’ll likely find it easier to secure a job after you graduate. If your school is lacking these perks, then you might have to put together an awesome demo reel, show initiative and network more in order to get ahead. While this isn’t always the case, broadly speaking schools that are near the industry hotspots (e.g LA, NYC etc.) will afford you better networking and internship opportunities than schools outside of these areas.

You’ll also want to think about whether or not you’re interested in an online program. Online programs can be significantly cheaper than going to college in the old-school way, but there’s definitely a kind of stigma attached with attending an online-only school.

Animation is one of those fields where hands-on time with the instructor can be extremely valuable (because it’s such a practical and hands-on activity). In some cases, learning animation in an online-only environment may not adequately prepare you for the real world.

That being said, there are actually a couple of programs like Animation Mentor that are online-based that seem to have built up a pretty good reputation.

Another thing to remember is that at the end of the day, careers in the arts typically allow for much more unconventional paths to success, so if you don’t get into a top animation school, that doesn’t mean that you should give up.

The gold standard of the industry, Pixar studios, has this to say about what school you should choose (apparently this used to be on Pixar’s website, but has since been removed):

We do not judge potential candidates on the basis of the school they attended (or didn’t) and therefore do not recommend any particular school(s). As much as we would like to keep on the forefront of universities offering animation and/or computer visualization programs, we do not know the details of all programs. We have listed schools that offer courses in animation but please know that this is simply a list. If your school is not on our list, this does not mean that you are unqualified to apply to Pixar.

We look at your work first, typically in the form of a videotaped reel. If the reel shows mastery or great potential in the area(s) of animation, lighting, modeling, or writing shaders, we then look at the resume to see your background and experience.

In choosing an animation related school, look for one that focuses on traditional skills, drawing, painting, sculpture, cinematography. Ask the school how they will help you build an effective portfolio of your work: not merely a collection of your assignments, but a well developed presentation of your unique point of view, and your technical skills. Also ask the school how well integrated their theatre and film departments are with their 2D and 3D art departments.

Learn enough about computer graphics to know how they work in general. Look for a school that has not substituted electronic arts for traditional (or vice versa). Ask them about how they balance the two. Avoid just learning packages of software. Today’s packages will be replaced several times during your school career, and many studios use proprietary software that you cannot learn in school anyway. Learn enough to know you can learn it, but concentrate on the more expressive traditional skills.

In short, what matters is that you produce good work and understand animation – not where you went to school or what qualifications you have. It doesn’t matter if you end up going to the very best animation school in the world – if you don’t put in the effort and produce good work, it’s unlikely you’ll find success with a career in animation. The thing about creative industries is that employers can actively see your work. so if you don’t get into your first choice school, don’t worry – as long as you’re dedicated and talented, you still have a chance of getting to where you want to be.

Animation Careers

As is the case with most artistic and creative careers, the salaries in animation can vary greatly.

If you’re the best of the best and you end up at a top-tier studio like Dreamworks, you can expect to be compensated handsomely – high end animation jobs can have salaries in excess of $100,000 a year.

On average, a typical animator can expect a decent salary of $40,000-$50,000 annually. As far as careers in the arts go, that’s not bad. According to the BLS, ‘multimedia artists and animators’ get paid $69,000, but you should keep in mind that this figure probably includes a range of jobs that don’t actually fall under the category of animation.

As an entry level animator, you should expect a starting salary of $30,000 to $40,000. However, if you’re unable to find a position with a company and you’re working freelance, this figure could obviously be significantly lower.

While careers in animation pay reasonably well, it’s not really something you want to pursue unless you’re truly passionate about it. Hours can be long, work is sometimes expected on the weekend, and most importantly, the majority of the people you’re competing against really love what they do – so if you don’t have that same spark, it might make sense to look at a different career path.

If you’re interested in reading more information about salaries, The Animation Guild publishes a yearly wage survey that might be of interest to you.

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