Which software should you learn, and when?
When you’re starting out, you might feel a little overwhelmed by the huge amount of tutorials and articles out there about motion graphics. This field is vast, and there is certainly enough to learn that no one person can master everything. Some people specialize, some are generalists, some are design-oriented, others animate. The trick is to figure out what you are good at, excel at that, and slowly improve everything else. In the beginning, though, it’s tough to know where to start.
As Creative Director at Toil, I have hired both staff and freelancers based on their skill set, and I now have a pretty good sense of which programs are necessary to know and which ones are nice-to-have. If you are at the beginning of your career or are looking to advance to the next level, here is a roadmap of the apps that I think make the most sense to focus on. In order of importance:
1. Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator
The mommy and daddy of motion graphics. When I started out learning After Effects, I was told that it was essentially Photoshop with keyframes. This is fairly accurate. Almost every great piece of motion graphics starts with a great design, and these two apps are where those designs begin. There are a million tricks you can learn to help make images pop more, create beautiful elements from scratch, and touch up assets that are given to you by a client. Mastering these programs takes years, but in general you should at least know how to:
- Cut out images from photographs
- Organize work into layers so you can use them in After Effects
- Create vector artwork, create text outlines
- Resize images that are too big
2. Adobe After Effects
You should have a decent grasp of Photoshop and Illustrator to be a really effective motion graphics artist, however from an employability standpoint, a good After Effects artist is worth their weight in sushi. Is that a weird metaphor? After Effects is one of the deepest programs I’ve ever used, and it took me a while to feel like I really •knew* the program. I learned piece-meal over a few years, and then got a big burst of holy-crap-I-better-learn-quicker when I started doing work for a top-notch studio. I’m sure you’ve heard this before but the best way to learn After Effects is to use After Effects, a lot. Do as many tutorials as you can, keep practicing, try to figure out how things were done in pieces you like, ask questions. There is a lot to learn, but if you are trying to get work as an After Effects artist, you need to know the following at a minimum:
- How to set up comps with the proper size and framerate
- How to use vector vs. bitmap artwork
- How to use masks
- How to parent layers
- Basic color correction
- How to manipulate keyframes and their interpolation
- How to render to popular formats
- Basic / commong effects such as blurs, glows, light glints, shading
On this site you will learn all of this and more. Once you master the basics, you will be immediately useful as a motion graphics artist. You might not be getting calls from Buck quite yet, but you’ll be on your way.
3. Cinema 4D
In today’s motion graphics market, it’s almost a requirement to have some basic 3D skills. There are great plugins for After Effects such as Element that allow you to use some 3D capability in that program, but you can’t beat the flexibility of a true 3D app. There are half a dozen 3D programs out there that get a lot of use, but in my experience I have seen Cinema 4D become the standard for most motion graphics shops. On the very high end you will see Maya, SoftImage, and 3DS Max as well, but if you have to choose one I recommend Cinema 4D.
Cinema is also an incredibly deep program, and is far more technical than After Effects. I learned it the same way I learned After Effects, trial-and-error and piece-by-piece. If I had to go back and relearn it, I’d try to understand some of the basics a lot earlier. Things such as:
• How to do basic modeling
• What texture channels are used for
• How lighting works in 3D
• How to use Global Illumination and Ambient Occlusion
• What are normals
• What are UV’s?
The great thing about Cinema is that there are so many amazing resources out there to help you make cool stuff with it very quickly. Greyscalegorilla has some amazing products out that make lighting, texturing, and animating far easier. However, this can also become an achilles heel if you can’t quite get the result you want and you don’t know how to go about fixing your scene. Having even a basic grasp of how 3D programs work can be extremely helpful. I’ll try to show you some of the basics, and of course how to do some really cool stuff too.