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Ten Ways to Make Learning 3D Animation Easier

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Kenny Roy, co-author of Sams Teach Yourself Maya in 24 Hours, offers ten ways you can focus your efforts and make learning 3D animation easier.
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It pains me to see student and novice 3D artists struggle with the basic concepts. In the beginning of your training, it is common to try to just ”push through” the difficulties presented to you. In fact, all of this extra effort will not pay off as much as focused learning will. The following are some ways to make learning 3D animation easier.

  1. Pick a Discipline. There are hardly any generalists hired in this field at all. Because the field is so specialized, you must hone in on a certain aspect of CG if you want to make it. In order to practice the discipline you want to pursue, it might mean working with assets that are freely available online. For instance, if you want to be an animator, then download some of the free character rigs available online and start animating. Do not get caught up learning how to model characters or create rigs. Believe me, I know the allure of CG: even though I knew I wanted to do animation, I really enjoy modeling. On top of that, I thought that the only way I could strike out into the industry was to animate my own characters. To make a long story short, the only things I have to show for the first few years of my self-training are a handful of half-finished character models and zero animations. Pick a discipline and focus on it.
  2. Journal your progress. It is hugely beneficial to have a record of your learning experience. Try this:  For every hour that you work on your art, spend 5 minutes jotting down notes. At first, these will just be little notes talking about what you are working on and how you are going about it. Do not judge the notes or try to force them to be beneficial to you; just let the thoughts stream out. At the end of a week, go back and read all of the notes that you’ve made. It will not only give you a good sense of the areas where you need improvement; it will inspire you to keep going. As time goes by, you will depend on these notes to help you figure out what is going wrong with a shot, model, texture, etc. The notes become more than just a log of your journey; they are a roadmap to success.
  3. Establish a network of like-minded artists. Nothing is harder than trying to accomplish something in a vacuum. With dozens of online forums, Facebook groups, and Meetups, it is easy to find hundreds of people in your exact same situation. Be active in your network too; most job offers are given to people who know somebody in the company. Who knows—you may think you are learning CG with friends, when in fact you might just be building the network that is going to support your career. In the beginning, I was very active on many online forums, and know some of the members to this day.
  4. Get feedback. Your network is not there just to share techniques, discuss the business, or commiserate. Novice artists have a huge problem showing their work before they think it is good enough to put on display. This is a massive hindrance to your progress. The reason is your work will not look as good as you want it to for a long time. The finished product that you envision in your head is a long way away from being within reach. So if you are waiting for that day to show your art, you are cutting yourself off from the beneficial critique that will allow you to achieve greater heights. Let go of your insecurities, and show everything you make, even in the very earliest stages.
  5. Give feedback. Too often, fledgling 3D artists venture onto online forums only to post their work, collect critiques, and then skulk back to their rooms to work in solitude. It is well known that until you have to teach a concept, that you don’t truly have a grasp on your own understanding of the concept. To be able to voice your opinion, but also to give helpful tips on creative choices or techniques, requires you to have your thoughts organized.  When I started teaching, it was painfully obvious I had never given animation enough thought to give meaningful critique. Fast forward years later, and I have found that the concepts that I helped others with are the concepts that I am the most confident I can tackle. Sometimes I’m looking for a new challenge that will stump me, just for this reason.
  6. Set a schedule. Feeling successful in any endeavor requires setting and meeting goals. Even the smallest goals make us feel like we are constantly achieving. A goal as small as working on your craft for the amount of time that you scheduled gives you a little boost in morale.  As you start amassing these tiny little “victories” you can set larger and larger goals, like having a certain amount of work completed by a certain day. Learning how much working you can do in turn becomes even easier as you stick with your schedule. The cycles continues, and before long you have total confidence that you are on the right path and are achieving even a little bit every day.
  7. Remove distractions.  Social media, email, YouTube, the television—any distraction from your work is a waste of time. I have a huge problem staying focused, believe it or not. I have many extensions running in my browser that prevent me from spending nearly any time on these sites. In that same vein, do not feel bad if you have to take measures to keep yourself from being distracted, as I have. These sites are made to be distracting; it is not a comment on your commitment or your passion that you find yourself watching kitten videos when you should be animating. I love them, too.
  8. Create a workspace. Most of us learn at home, some of us learned in school. No matter what the case, if your work area is shared between CG and many other things, then you will get far less accomplished. The best case scenario is if you have a room in your house or apartment that you can dedicate to being solely your “office”. When it’s time to get work done, you go in, close the door, and your roommates or family know not to intrude.  Almost as good would be a desk in a corner, but not if it also has the TV, the junk drawer, or is the dining room table!  The more secluded from the rest of your home, the better. A nasty side effect of having a workspace right in the middle of your home commotion is that you never quite feel like you can get away from home when it’s time to work, and you can’t get away from your work when it’s time to stop. This can be very aggravating to family and friends as well.
  9. Find a mentor. The artists who you envy are just people. They might be very busy, but I don’t know a single animator or CG artist that doesn’t have time every once in a while to give feedback or answer a question about art. Seek out some really incredible artists in your discipline, be it modeling, animation, or texturing, and start by introducing yourself as a fan of their work. Don’t be pushy, and certainly don’t lead with a request for them to look at your stuff. You’ll eventually find someone with whom you can strike up a conversation, and then naturally they will want to offer help to you. Every single great animator I know had at least one mentor who made the difference in their career. I have mine, and I occasionally contact him even today.
  10. Have fun. This is a very liberating and exciting career path. Learning should be just as much fun. Remember that though there are a lot of artists out there who are better than you, there are probably just as many struggling more than you. If you stick with it, put a lot of work in, try to not get distracted, and be positive always, it will happen for you. I look forward to working with you when it does!
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