What does a Cartoon Animator do?

M.J. Brower
M.J. Brower
A cartoon character.
A cartoon character.

A cartoon animator creates animation for cartoons, animated feature films, advertising, or video games. There are many different jobs in animation. An animator for a web cartoon might be the only person working on that cartoon, while an animator for a big-studio feature might be one of dozens. What a cartoon animator does depends on which job he or she has.

Cartoon animators may work on big budget, family-friendly films.
Cartoon animators may work on big budget, family-friendly films.

A lead animator is essentially the project manager for the animation process. This person supervises a team of animators and artists, and makes sure the project is on track and consistent. The lead animator is responsible for making sure the project follows the established storyboard, and might have some say in staging and acting. A large-scale animation project might have several animation units, each led by its own lead animator.

Cartoon animators may work on television programs for children.
Cartoon animators may work on television programs for children.

The animators on the team translate drawings into two-dimensional or three-dimensional animation, either by hand or using computer animation software. In either hand-drawn or computer animation, animators generally use sketches that they translate to animated figures. In hand-drawn animation, a "key" animator draws key frames of each character, and other artists called "inbetweeners" fill in the frames between to provide the illusion of movement. Cleanup artists go in and make sure that the transitions between frames are smooth and fluid. In computer animation, animators create the key frames in the software, which then fills in the frames in between.

A cartoon animator in the television or film industry must have a great deal of artistic skill and, usually, formal art education. Most cartoon animators have at least a bachelor's degree with a specialization in animation. They have extensive knowledge of animation software. They usually work as part of a creative team, so animators must work well collaboratively and be willing to take direction and make modifications.

These professionals often work long and irregular hours; few computer animators work on a nine-to-five schedule. Many animators for television and movies work for large animation studios, but an increasing number work on a freelance basis. Web animators, game animators, and some computer animators are especially likely to work as freelancers or independent contractors. It takes a lot of people to put together a large project, so there are usually plenty of opportunities for a beginning cartoon animator to get started in the field. The traditional entry-level job for someone who wants to be a cartoon animator is inbetweener, but many now get their start in computer animation, especially for the web.

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Discussion Comments


@malmal - It sounds like Flash takes a lot more work and skill at drawing than the other programs people are talking about here. Personally, I don't think I would be comfortable calling an animation my own work if I used pre-made pictures for it. That might be fine for something like a web banner advertisement, but if I'm making an actual cartoon I want my characters to be unique, something people can't see anywhere else.

Not only that, but using pre-made characters runs the risk of many cartoons being drawn in the exact same style. A huge part of why I love animated cartoons and Japanimation is that they have unique drawing styles that set them apart from each other.

All of the aesthetics aside, I would feel like I'd taken the lazy way out if I didn't draw the pictures myself. I'm not that great of an artist, but I'm sure that takes practice, and using other people's pictures isn't going to help me get any better!

If I wanted to apply for a job to make cartoon animation shows, they would definitely want me to be able to do all of my job without leaning on any crutches.


@NathanG - I think I know the program you're referring to. This is what is known as vector animation. Vector was made popular by the highly sophisticated animation and art program called Flash. Flash objects, as each piece of a scene is called in Flash, are basically vector drawings grouped together to form a whole image.

If you drew, say, a flying pig, the body might be one object, the wings another, and the feet another. Flash makes animating the pig without ever redrawing it again very easy by letting you create little looped animations for each piece and then choosing whether each piece should move or not.

For my flying pig example, you could activate the wings lapping but not show the pig's feet moving, or vice versa. The results are a complicated-looking figure with only very basic bite-sized animations for each piece -- I think Flash is really clever, and has revolutionized computer animation.


The article's mention of "inbetweeners" made me want to add some comments here for anybody who's curious about them in particular.

Inbetweeners are much more common animators than the key frame artists. There are several inbetweeners for each key frame artist. Because their job is to draw the "motion" frames moving one key frame to another, inbetweeners require less skill in drawing than the key artist but more skill in realistically portraying movement.

Being an inbetweener is typically a good way to break into doing animation. Even if you aim to be a key frame artist eventually, cartoon animation studios won't let you just jump to that important of a role -- especially since there are less key frame artist positions available.

Being an inbetweener is great experience to have on your resume when you apply to become a key frame artist.


I always wanted to get into cartoon computer animation throughout high school.

As an avid fan of both Western cartoons like Fox's X-MEN series and Japanese "anime" style animation such as Gundam Wing, I was fascinated by the wide array of fantastic, imaginative stories that animation allows you to tell. Live action filming wouldn't possibly be able to pull off what cartoons can do without a massive budget Hollywood film production going on.

Because I was determined to become a computer animator for cartoons, I did a lot of drawing during high school, but also brushed up on computer software that I read was the standard. Cartoon animation isn't what it used to be -- nowadays you need to be good with computers if you want to work in most animation studios, since animation entirely by hand is a thing of the past.

I got a job as an intern at an animation studio fresh out of college. My skill with computers was a definite deciding factor!


@Charred - I downloaded a free cartoon animator software package some time ago that took a completely different approach to creating animations. It came with its own stock characters, and all you had to do was to script them in order to create the animations.

You told them where to move, whether to raise their feet or arms, what to say and so forth. It was easy for me to use since I am a programmer by trade and scripting came naturally. The resulting animations were certainly no great works of art.

They were cutout animations, the lowest and simplest form of animation in my opinion. However, they were my creations, and I could use them to tell a story.


@everetra - I tend to disagree about the kind of talent you need. It depends on the level of animation.

For example, anyone can draw stick figures; there’s nothing fancy there by any stretch. There are certain software packages that enable you to animate your stick figure creations and tell stories with them.

Some of the finished pieces are quite good. What makes the difference between good animation and poor animation in this regard? It’s certainly not the quality of the art.

It’s an understanding of the basics of animation, like how to simulate body movement and stuff. Watch any of the old Popeye cartoons and you will see some of these basics in action, which involve concepts like stretch, pull, exaggeration and so forth.

I read a book on the history of animation that explained these concepts clearly. You don’t need to be an artist to understand these concepts.


@David09 - You’re right; I think that’s the allure of all software packages however, the idea that they will bring your greatest ideas to life.

The real or aspiring cartoon animators will go to a cartoon animation school. They either attend some of the well known brick and mortar variety or take some classes online.

I know of one guy who majored in graphic arts in college, started posting some of his animations on a video sharing site, and got picked up by one of the most well known studios in Hollywood to work for them. No software package will do that for you.


Years ago I bought professional cartoon animation software. I paid big bucks for it, because it was a professional package. I had no artistic talent whatsoever, but I learned things like key frames, which are the points in a time track where the animation changes position.

One thing that I learned from my experience is that it’s not the software that makes the animation; it’s the artist behind it. What I mean by that is if you have no talent to bring to the table the software won’t create any great piece of animation for you.

At best I was able to create simple moving images and stuff like that; certainly looking at my finished “productions” you would never have guessed that it was produced by some powered software.

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      A cartoon character.
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