Stop Observing and Start Practicing: 4 Ways to Level Up Your Animation Skills

Are you a learning junkie? I know I am. I could fill half my schedule with learning new tools and techniques in animation. A few years back, I enrolled in animation bootcamp with School of Motion. This was a huge eye opener for me.  I realized I only need a computer, after effects and good internet connection to learn motion graphics.

But with quality learning, there is a price tag.  And although I value the bootcamps and online courses, there are times I need to be creative with learning.  Meaning, I want to find free ways to get better at my craft.

But without a clear plan, how do you learn and get better at animating on your own?

I used to overthink this a LOT. I thought I had to plan this big grandiose personal project and focus every weekend on this one thing.

Although that would be an awesome situation – it isn’t realistic for me. I have clients, a business to run, a family to take care of, and many other obligations. I haven’t got a lot of time or extra money to make big personal projects right now.

Because I had such huge expectations, I’d get overwhelmed and unsure where to begin.  And as a result, I’d end up frustrated and aimless. I’d watch random After Effects tutorials or binge watch animator demo reels looking for “inspiration” or “research”.

Instead of practicing and getting better, I ended up feeling crappy about myself. Why couldn’t I just be awesome like these other animators?

Learning is about doing, not watching. At some point it’s time to stop consuming and start making something.

If you have fallen into the same holding pattern as me, then it’s time to get off the internet, put on your blinders and choose a project!

To help you get started, I’ve listed out some project ideas to get you off the interwebs and into animation.

51 Animation Exercises

When I found this list of 51 animation exercises, I was relieved. Someone else has created the list and now I just need to show up and  work. No decisions required.

The list is broken up into levels, so you can start out at the basics and work your way up. I’m not going to lie. These exercises may be “simple” but not easy. I’ve completed level 1 and have yet to embark on level 2. But I’m determined to get through this list at least once in my lifetime.

Brick falling off shelf - animation exercise

These are the exercises great animation masters practiced over and over. Simple exercises such as the ball bouncing and flour sack jumping. All the way to complex animation such as character dealing a deck of cards or brushing his teeth. These are the exact exercises you would complete if you at animation school. This is the real work, proven to make you better. And based on my limited experience actually doing the exercises, I would highly recommend them.

Self Directed Projects

Personal projects are a fantastic way to practice your animation and art skills. Big projects are not ideal for me, but for those of you who have a grand idea like creating a short film, this is a great way to learn.  It’s a perfect opportunity to develop your own process without the stress of a client looking over your shoulder.

Do you have an idea but struggle to get it off the ground? Start out by mapping out all the steps for your project. Do you need to design characters? How about a storyboard? What style of animation are you going for? Do you have a clear story or plot? Get all these tasks out of your head and onto paper or google doc. Pro tip: use a project management app like Asana to outline tasks and track them.

Once you have a list of all the tasks required, it’s time to treat yourself like a client and organize a schedule. If you are working full time or if you are juggling client work, it helps to block out a time each week to work on the project.

Perhaps every Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon will be personal project time. Get it in your calendar. Let your family/significant other/friends know that this is your sacred time to work on an important project.

Executing a project like this is the most difficult part. If you find you need some accountability, consider bringing someone on board to work with you. Collaborations are so fantastic and will push a personal project to the next level.

Consider partnering with another animator, or designer or writer. The new perspective will motivate you to push past those sticky times when you want to throw in the towel.

Group challenges

If a big personal project feels way too intimidating, you’ve got other options. The online animation community is exploding with all sorts of collaborative projects. Anyone with After Effects and a willingness to animate are invited to take part. Here are a few examples…

Motion Corpse is a fun exercise full of surprise and delight.

  • Each project consists of 5 people and each person get 10 seconds to animate
  • All participants submit their final frame design to the organizer
  • The organizer will give you the first frame of your section (the final frame of the participant before you)
  • Then you animate 10 seconds of animation between the 2 frames.
  • It’s super fun and when it’s complete you will be part of a wonderful 30 second piece.

I’ve participated in 3 rounds of motion corpse and each time delighted by the results. An external deadline helps if you struggle to keep yourself accountable. And knowing your final frame is the beginning of another animator’s section is motivating!

Another challenge that has popped up recently is the 15 minute Mo graph challenge, organized by a member of the SOM community.

The rules:

  • create a scene to animate
  • turn on timer for 15 minutes
  •  animate and then render out and share with hashtag: #15minmograph .

If you have limited time (that would be me!) give this one a try.

If you are into character animation, there is a jem of a challenge over at the 11 second club.  Each month, a new movie audio clip is posted – a conversation between 2 characters. The idea is to animate these characters – full lip sync and all. I have had this challenge on my radar for quite some time. I am hoping to take a stab at it this summer when I have more personal project time.

11 second club website

There are many elements to keep you motivated here:

  • a countdown timer on the website
  • an active forum where you can get feedback on work in progress
  • active voting which ranks all the submissions from 1st place, all the way down to 100th place.

Check it out here

30 day projects

For those of us who have limited attention span, 30 day projects might be appropriate here.

Typically this sort of challenge is used in the fitness world. 30 days to six pack abs or 30 days to better health or 30 days to better yoga while balancing a chicken on your feet…


But this challenge idea works really well for creative projects too.  30 days of drawing, 30 days of Cinema4D, 30 days of After Effects and Inktober (one ink drawing a day in October). These are all excellent ways to level up your skills quickly.

Inktober - 30 days of Ink drawings

The only rule is a commitment of one month. Every day make something and then share it on Instagram or Tumblr or Twitter or wherever you feel so led.

If your challenge feels like it should be longer, feel free to change up the number of days.

This animator’s walk cycle challenge extended for 100 days, and wow! Look at the results!

Final Thoughts.

Whether it’s with your time or money, learning animation is the one of the best investments you can make for yourself.

Just remember to spend the bulk of this time practicing, rather than consuming. Sure, look at other people’s stuff and get inspired with tutorials and demo reels. But then, shut it down and get to work on your own project.

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