Which Jobs in Animation Command the Most Money?

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In the world of digital art, animation jobs have the potential to yield some of the highest salaries. One influence is the consumers’ preference for animated entertainment and technologies. Some business sectors offering employment are advertising, web design, mobile apps, television shows, and feature films.

DegreeQuery.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

What is Animation?

Before addressing the caption question, you need to understand how the artist creates animation – the rapid succession of static and sequential images or drawings. The illusion of movement or continuous movement comes from the photos or stills moving at a certain number of frames per second.

One of the pioneers of animation was Walt Disney, who in the 1920s introduced Steamboat Willie (1928) with sound. However, Disney was not the first – the artistry of animation goes back to the 1800s when Simon von Stampfer experimented with rotating gears. Spinning his optical magic discs or Stroboscope simulated movement, which he demonstrated in 1833.

Readers interested in the history of animators should check out The Atlantic article. You will learn how earlier contributors in the 1800s and 1900s paved the way for the advancement and sophistication of the art form. For example,  Émile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie in 1908, French filmmaker Georges Méliès’s The Prolific Egg in 1902, and cartoonist Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in 1911 led the pack that later became a multi-billion dollar business.

The first full-length film was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, followed by Pinocchio in 1940. By March 2021, Disney Animation Studios had 59 feature films to their credit, plus more when you add Pixar Animation Studios, acquired by Disney in 2006. At the time of the purchase, Pixar had a valuation of $7.4 billion!

Visual Development Artist

Imagine having the creative license to set the style, mood, and color palette for all elements of an animated project – which is the exciting role of a visual development artist. Once a producer and writers establish a storyline, the artist invents the characters, settings, landscapes, buildings, and scenes to enact the plot. The landscapes, buildings, furniture, lighting, people, clothing, and props are among the many details they create using 2D and 3D programs. The development artist collaborates with the concept artist, whose role, by most definitions, overlaps with the visual development artist. According to Concept Art Empire, the concept artist also creates characters, environments, and vehicles for a game, television show, or feature film.

Some experts in animation state that the two terms above are interchangeable. They both sketch, do mood paintings, layouts, design props and backgrounds, and more. Subtle differences are that the concept artist typically focuses on developing characters for films and video games. The video development artist may use physical materials as props, whereas the concept artist draws detailed images.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports on the occupation of Special Effects Artists and Animators whose average wage in 202 was $77,700 with a bachelor’s degree. There were 62,400 working in the profession, and the projected job growth was 16%, or a change in 9,900 jobs over ten years. Most work in the Motion Picture and Video Industries (8,220), followed by Software Publishers (5,300). California leads the country employing 11,460; New York is a distant second with only 2,000 in the occupation.

Comparably compiles statistics on companies, employees, and employers – salaries are part of their data. It has a median income of $90,691 for visual development artists, with 60% earning $91,000.

Glassdoor, an online employment site, reports the average salary for visual development artists at DreamWorks Animation at $99,023. The range is $78,715 to $205,542. Another employment site, ZipRecruiter, states the median wage at only $57,447 based on recent job openings posted on their website. That’s a $40,000 difference!

To succeed as a visual development artist, one needs refined animation, graphic design, illustration, painting, and drawing skills. Also essential is fluency in 2D and 3D software.

Character Technical Director

Working in the video game and film industries, this professional uses complex software to supply the physical characteristics of people, creatures, and mechanical objects. Examples are skin, muscle, hair, clothes, and props. Also called a technical animator or creature technical director, the job centers on the skill of rigging. This animation process involves creating the bony structure or framework of a 3D model, including its joints. The technique, commonly used in movies, television shows, and video games, allows the person or object to move freely.

While sequencing the motion along a timeline, the technician takes camera shots. For characters to have realistic behaviors, rigging must be precise and natural. Among the most complex types is facial composition.

So, that’s the technical side of the job. The rest is managerial, facilitating the work of the rigging department. For example, the director resolves problems with skeletal physics. They choose the best software tools for modeling and rigging through ongoing research, training staffers in their use. Therefore, the job demands expertise in specific 3D software, such as Maya, 3ds Max, Cinema 4D, and Houdini. Used as a tool for 3D animation and special effects, the latter is prevalent in TV, games, and film.

The BLS does not report in this profession. According to SalaryList, the average salary in the United States for a Character Technical Director is $104,000. Individuals fortunate enough to work at DreamWorks Animation will have an average income ranging from $87,092 to $189,142. Typically, recruiters seek candidates who’ve worked on marketed games for video game development, preferably with AAA status, meaning productions from a studio with a hefty budget.

3D Modeler

3D modeling has numerous applications, including architecture, interior design, furniture design, site layout (construction), video games, special effects (film), advertising, and the medical field. The animation technique gives realism to the character or objects, and it is easier to visualize, for example, a 3D rendering of an interior design.

In video games and feature films, a 3D modeler may design scenery, including tweaking set lighting, shadows, and brightness. Next, the modeler positions the camera, choosing the best viewing angle. Once static images are complete, animators can wield their magic, empowering figures with seeming movement.

3D modelers are the backbone of film productions, TV programs, and video games, necessitating a high degree of computer expertise. Again, knowledge of particular software programs is essential to do 3D modeling. As mentioned above, Blender 3D and Maya are two modeling packages.

Depending on the source, salaries can be unimpressive. Salary.com lists the average income at $53,042, and ZipRecruiter is about the same at $50,544. Another company, Computer Careers, has the median salary at $65,640, naming Wisconsin paying the least at $43,483 and California paying the most at $77,707.

Animation Art Director

As head of the animation team, the art director sets the visual tone for media images. Reading the script is the first step to understanding the entire project before meeting with the director and the art department personnel. They may also meet with investors (clients) at the same time as the director and producers. They also determine what artwork is in final cuts. Before signing off, the director ensures that all artistic elements are perfected, such as motion graphics, textures, lighting, and special effects.

In a managerial capacity, the art director oversees the animation staff. The work is faced-paced, driven by deadlines. Accordingly, the director plots workflows and timelines, keeping staff on track. Other responsibilities include managing budgets, hiring staff, and training them. Although much of the job involves delegating tasks, a director must be well-versed in animation software, such as KeyShot, Blender, Animaker, Cinema 4D, and Houdini.

Some art directors start their career as illustrators, or visual development artists, such as Patrick O’Keefe, who has worked on McDonald’s commercials and Marvel Comics feature films.

The New York Film Academy reported the average salary for the profession at $70,000 to $80,000. Salary.com has a salary range of $83,088 to $104,398, or an average of $91,963 as of August 2021. However, if your talents land you at Pixar Animation Studios, you could make up to $459,000 for a technical director!

Forensic Animator

Forensic animation brings a crime or accident scene to life with audio and visual representation when used in law enforcement and criminal justice. A crackerjack analyst, this professional helps investigators formulate evidence by recreating accidents, crimes, and human disasters, such as suicides and building collapse. Their expertise is crucial when incidents leave no survivors or witnesses, as in car wrecks. Forensic simulations are used in regulatory hearings, arbitration, and court trials, to facilitate legal action.

The process for automobile collisions is substantive animation. The animator first gathers all relevant data, including police reports, forensic scientists, engineers, medical professionals, and eyewitnesses, before a reconstruction commences. He/she also studies photographs and scenario parameters; for example, with an auto collision case, the factors include vehicle specs, road conditions, impact speeds, and weather at the time of the crash.

After organizing the notable criteria, the animator loads them into simulation software, which calculates object movement. Next is building 3D models, then animating them, requiring virtual cameras placed at the scene to duplicate the actual location. Lastly, the forensic artist records a copy onto a DVD or other media format for client viewing.

Some firms specialize in forensic animation, like Crash Animation Studios in Newberry, Florida, which recreates vehicle accidents, pedestrian and bicycle collisions, slip and falls, and more. Jobs in this profession may require an engineering degree; for example, a job posted in Indeed for an Accident Reconstructionist & Forensic Engineer stipulates a bachelor’s in Mechanical or Electrical Engineering.

According to the New York Film Academy, the median salary is $20 to $100 per hour for a highly experienced and qualified forensic animator. Most work freelance as police departments, legal firms, and insurance companies don’t have sufficient need to hire a full-time animator.

Background Designer

Also known as an environment artist, those with limited experience might secure an entry-level position. As the name implies, the designer creates the scenery around or above or under the animation, ensuring that the foreground and background interact appropriately with the action. The job demands a high skill level for drawing and attention to detail, color, light, and texture. They must be familiar with architecture, landscapes, and city settings for a realistic scene.

SalaryList reports the median wage at $101,400 with a range of $85,280 to $114,400 – no doubt with experience and a proven track record.


Experience and education are crucial to secure employment in one of the prestigious animation studios. In addition to the animation job of visual development artist, character technical director, 3D modeler, and animation art director, there is the animator. Studios, like Disney, have 40 to 60 animators work on feature films, such as Frozen and Mulan, with the top animators earning up to $125,000 per year.

A bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in animation is a wise choice. Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design (RMCAD) in Denver offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Animation that teaches 2D and 3D animation technical skills. Courses also highlight modeling, storyboarding, stop action, character design, and line of action. Interested students can begin learning before college through the RMCAD Dual Enrollment credits program for junior and senior high school students.

Another example is National University that has online and campus classes at over twenty locations in California. Its Bachelor of Arts in Digital Media Design studies camera and image, media storytelling, motion graphics, 3D modeling, digital audio creation, and game scripting. Graduates will be skillful in graphics, animation, video, sound, and media software.

Each of the positions above requires a bachelor’s degree in animation, special effects, or motion graphics. Additionally, certification is preferable to becoming a forensic animator, such as the International Association for Identification. The IAI has full-time college student memberships at $45/annually for students enrolled in forensic science or law enforcement. Examples of the appropriate credentials are:

  • Forensic Video Certification
  • Forensic Art Certification
  • Crime Scene Certification
  • Forensic Photography & Imaging Certification

All these certifications require experience, training, artistic skill, and extensive knowledge of the subject. Bear in mind, with forensics, that income varies depending on whether your work is permanent or contractual basis as a freelancer. Other factors influencing pay scales are company size, studio revenue, geographic location, and current economy.

Animation at any level is an art and a science. Individuals pursuing a career in this field should express a creative flair at an early age by drawing and sketching. Your recognizable artistic traits must blend with computer science, as animation is a software-intensive environment. Master both of these, and you may find lucrative and rewarding employment in the animation world.

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