Digital Age and Animation
Digital art is pervasive in TV ads, animated movies, TV shows, video games, websites, mobile apps, and more. DegreeQuery highlighted some of these in the article titled: Which Jobs in Animation command the most money? With most positions, salaries vary considerably by geographical location, company stature, and elevation within an organization. This post won’t reiterate the best paying areas, but we will explore some of the possibilities regarding wages.
For example, Pixar, Blizzard Entertainment, DreamWorks Animation, and Walt Disney Animation Studios may pay more than a smaller animation studio. Many may not have heard of Illumination Entertainment, which started in 2007; however, most will be familiar with their successes. Names like Despicable Me, Minions, Robots, and The Secret Life of Pets.
Candidates starting their careers in animation often wonder what salary they can expect from their first animation job. Salaries can vary from one position to another and from one company to the next. While entry-level positions typically pay the lowest wages, animators do have the potential to earn a livable wage even if it is their first job. So many factors can come into play when determining the salary potential in animation, even at the entry-level.
What Factors Determine Wages
A person fresh out of college with an animation degree can research the average wages for this position. Still, they may not accurately portray the individual’s compensation at their first animation job because many factors influence earnings and benefits.
Training and Education
Before embarking on a search on – what and where will I earn a decent salary, you need to be selective in your college. The internet affords several rankings of the best animation programs with a range of tuition. One of the top-ranked schools is the Rhode Island School of Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film/Animation/Video. Students may concentrate on animation, live-action, or open media with courses in animation preproduction, 3D animation, stop-motion animation, digital effects, and puppet animation. Unfortunately, a prestigious program carries exorbitant tuition of $55,220 per school year. In contrast, the BFA in Animation at Sam Houston State University will cost approximately $7,400 per school year for in-state students.
Although animators typically have a bachelor’s degree, someone with an associate degree may have sufficient experience to work in this field. Some animators also have master’s degrees, which is the terminal educational requirement in animation.
One notable institution is the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, resulting from two Los Angeles art and music schools merging in 1961 by Roy and Walt Disney. By 1971, the name changed to CalArts, which offers art, design, film, theater, dance, and film degrees. The school has a three-year Master of Fine Arts in Experimental Animation that emphasizes technique and theory.
Typically, the higher the degree the individual has, the higher the starting wage. However, the additional years of studies can create further debt (tuition) and detract from the years you could be gaining experience. Undoubtedly, the master’s degree in your portfolio would open more doors. Ultimately, it’s a personal decision based on your career aspirations—individuals whose self-study and grasp of animation techniques may not require a graduate degree. Either way, most employers will want to see examples of your work from school projects or work experience.
Experience – Experience is essential when applying for any job, and more is better. An animator with minimal experience might require supervision, training, and mentoring, which could deter some employers. Furthermore, animation has different areas of expertise, each with its own salary scale:
3D Animators: Requires immense creativity, artistry, and technical skills. According to Payscale, the median base salary is $54,385, with first-time employees closer to $36,00 per year. Computer Careers lists the junior level for 2022 at $38,666 and a senior position at $114,580.
Medical Animator: Demands courses in anatomy and physiology. Glassdoor reports the average salary at $53,433 with a high of $83,000 for years of experience. Salary.com disagrees, as their average salary is $66,483, ranging from $54,637 to $80,164.
Special Effects Artists and Animators: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics BLS) states the median pay for the profession at $77,700 with a bachelor’s degree and a projected 16% growth through 2030. This position covers the gambit of creative effects used in various media and entertainment forms.
Video Game Animator: Much of video game animation involves 3D; therefore, the jobs require this skill and the minimum of an undergraduate degree. According to Zippia, Career Experts, about 14% of video game animators have a graduate degree. They report the average pay at $74,795; however, entry-level jobs could be considerably less (<$30K/annually). The top dollars are in California, namely, San Mateo, Berkeley, Daly City, Richmond, and Irvine (Zippia).
Different companies and industries have dissimilar pay ranges. Across most sectors, larger companies usually pay higher salaries. The BLS states that most of the Special Effects Artists work in the Motion Picture and Video Industries (2.59%). That seems like a small percentage, except the second spot goes to Software Publishers with 1.09% of the animation workforce.
The Motion Picture category also has the highest annual mean wage at $105,670. The second-highest wage is in Employment Services, with only 320 employees and an average salary of $95,330 (BLS 2020).
Location – This probably plays the most significant part in determining animator salaries. Wages vary from state to state and city to city.
Location is critical when determining the salary an individual can earn at their first job in animation. Here are the five states where multimedia artists and animators earn the highest wages, followed by those with the lowest wages according to the BLS.
- Connecticut – $115,660
- California – $105,480
- New York – $98,770
- Oregon – $96,350
- Washington – $90,130
At the lowest end of the scale is:
- South Carolina – $38,050
- South Dakota – $49,890
- New Mexico – $50,360
- Ohio – $54,410
- Iowa – $57,090
As can be seen, by the numbers, there is a substantial difference between the wages earned in Connecticut and the wages earned in South Carolina. This difference will usually also be there for entry-level positions in animation.
Additionally, states with less desirable wages likely do not employ many special effects and animation.
Cities play a role in determining where an animator sits on the salary chart. As expected, the best paying cities are in California, New York, and Washington. Typically, as in most professions, a higher cost of living generates better income to offset these costs and attract talented employees. Higher median wages generally translate to more enticing entry salaries as a novice animator.
These are the top cities, per the BLS 2020 data:
- Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim: $110,370
- San Francisco-Oakland: $102,560
- San Jose-Sunnyvale: $100,510
- Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue: $90,910
- New York-Newark-Jersey City: $97,000
The site, Comparably, contains an information treasure trove posting entry-level salaries for animators in various locales. Founded by three highly accomplished business people and entrepreneurs, the site also tells you the average rent in a particular city. These statistics allow the job seeker to weigh the housing cost against the starting average salary.
Comparably reports the entry-level wage at $51,482 in Winston Salem, North Carolina; in contrast, the BLS data for the state is at $73,730. Regardless, the average rent in that city is $2,506 for a two-bedroom, which would consume 72.66% of the animator’s take-home pay.
Unexpectedly, in Long Beach, Comparably reports the average salary at $51,534 or about the same as Winston Salem. More importantly, the average two-bedroom apartment in Long Beach is $1,939 per month! Presuming the data are correct, the job in Long Beach is the better choice. From checking on Apartments.com, the rents are almost double the $1,939 figure ($3,797).
In fairness, Comparably took the rent stats from Apartmentlist.com, and this site does have a two-bedroom in Long Beach at an average of $1,939. Why the disparity? Further research is necessary to confirm data before leaving one’s current residence.
What Kind of Work Animation Involves
When we hear the term animation, we often think of these cute little animated characters we see on the television or movie screen. The exciting fact about animation is that it’s used in so many more ways than just cartoon characters. An individual with a degree in animation may work in the motion picture industry, advertising, or help solve crimes as a forensic animator. The starting salary for a job in animation will vary by industry or position.
In addition to the above two job sectors, the following three for employment are:
- Computer Systems Design and Related Services
- Advertising, Public Relations, and Related
- Specialized Design Services
Here are the top four sectors with the highest number of multimedia artists and animators employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
What about Wage When Starting?
In summary, according to the BLS, wages for multimedia artists and animators ranged from $42,390 to $142,750 in May 2020. The former salary is the lowest 10 percent, and the latter is the highest 10 percent. An individual just starting at their first job in animation will typically begin at the lower end, especially if the applicant is working for a smaller market. Some may start as low as $30,000 per year until they’ve obtained some work experience. Those working in the motion picture industry typically earn higher wages than those working in the gaming or design industries.
How do you reach these wages?
With little or no experience, a degree in fine arts specializing in animation, visual effects, or motion graphics, or a degree in computer graphics. These programs require artistic talent in drawing, painting, sculpture, film, or graphics. Communication is paramount as most settings entail working as a team toward a common goal – either the game or related visual medium.
Technical skills, primarily computer proficiency, are paramount in the animation business. Employers look for candidates with the ability to use:
- Adobe InDesign
- Adobe AfterEffects
- Adobe Illustrator
- Motion Graphics
- Computer Animation
Individuals pursuing a career in video game design may see names like:
- Unity – a real-time platform
- GameMaker – Studio 2 is a powerful game development tool
- Unreal Engine – a suite of tools for game developers, designers, and builders
- Maya – 3D computer animation, simulation, and modeling software
Future animators can increase their chances of breaching the lower wage threshold by participating in an internship during their college years. Employment sites, like Indeed, post these openings at various companies scattered across the nation. Here are some examples, as of 2022:
Creative Animation/VFX Intern at General Motors in Warren, Michigan, seeks candidates working toward a degree in visual effects, animation, or entertainment design. They must have good interpersonal skills, comfort with Maya, and creativity.
Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California, has an undergraduate intern program for students familiar with 3D digital art, such as Maya or Blender, and coding projects using Python or C++, including computer graphics. Candidates’ educational paths can be digital art, computer graphics, art, or related fields.
To progress in animation and, along with it, a higher salary, there are specific qualities for success. The University of Silicon Valley has offered bachelor’s and master’s degrees in various technological and creative specialties for over 130 years. Examples are game art, game engineering, and software development. The school stresses these attributes for success in 3D animation:
- Attention to detail as the profession requires combing through frame by frame
- Exemplary organization as animation projects might involve hundreds of small files
- Thrive on challenges as the job demands creating something new and powerful that audiences or gamers will love
- An excellent memory is an asset to remember the myriad of details in the creation and the appropriate software for the job.
Graduates of an animation degree are well on their way to earning a good salary and doing work that can be fun and interesting. Even working at their first job in animation doesn’t deter their ability to make a good salary because this field offers so many career possibilities.
However, keep in mind that approximately 62,400 working as special effects artists and animators in the United States (BLS); therefore, this will be a highly competitive industry to find viable employment. As stated above, the 16% growth or job turnover looks impressive, but that translates to 9,900 positions over ten years – meaning only 990 each year. Compare those statistics to Software Developers, which the BLS projects a turnover of 409,500 jobs from 2020 to 2030 or 40,950 openings per year.