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What Does An Animation Background Artist Do?


Close your eyes and think of your favourite animated movie. Maybe you’re old school and it’s Fantasia. Or, maybe you’re more drawn to modern animation, and could watch Minions Rise of Gru on repeat. (We do love those little, yellow trouble-makers!). Now, picture this…how would this piece feel if the characters were displayed on a simple, white background? Probably not as good. Right? It’s a little difficult to get lost in Ariel’s story, when that Little Mermaid has no ocean to swim in. It’s true that we mostly pay attention to the moving characters in animation, but without 2d and 3d backgrounds, these characters are going to be a little “limited” in the antics they get up to.

So, let’s dive into the important role of background artistry in animation. Read on to discover exactly what they get up to!

Animation Studios Use a Pipeline Workflow

To grasp the full importance of animation background artists, you first need to understand how animation studios produce finished pieces. Not every person who works on a piece of animation can be considered an “animator”. “Creatives” as they can be referred to, fill a variety of important roles in a studio, beyond animating the actual characters appearing on screen. Character designers, storyboard artists, animators, and background artists can all be referred to as “creatives”, each performing a vital role in the process of creating a piece of animation. Each of these creatives contribute to the final animation at different stages, in what is known as a “pipeline”. The pipeline starts like many creative projects, with an idea. This idea is transformed into a script and a storyboard artist then sketches the panels which provide a roadmap for the scenes. Here’s where the background designers and background painters come in. Using the storyboard, the background designer creates settings (or backgrounds) where the characters will come alive. The initial concept for the art and design of backgrounds may include digital media created in software like Adobe Photoshop, but traditional, fine art methods and real background paintings may also be included. Character designers then create the figures, and layout artists decide where they should be placed in the background. Moving down the pipeline, animators then bring the characters to life, working with 3d modeling, animating movements and expressions.

What Skills Does a Background Artist Need?

So, now you know how important a background artist’s role is and when their skills come into play. To dig a little deeper, let’s have a look at what skills they need to shine. If you want to be responsible for creating the vivid backgrounds in animated films, video games and more, we’ve highlighted a few of the key skills you’ll need:

  1. Drawing – Probably guessed that, didn’t you? A high level of technical skill is required to be able to create work in a variety of different animation styles. Attention to detail, and a strong understanding of colour, form, texture, and light, and how they relate to each other is vital to this role. 
  2. Environment Knowledge – We’re not talking about saving the rainforest (but please do, if that’s on your bucket list). In this context, environment knowledge refers to a keen understanding of architectural styles, and an awareness of the ‘feeling’ of a place (how does a countryside differ from an urban setting?).
  3. Creativity – This one is probably a given too. To work in a creative industry, having imagination and vision is an obvious asset. The ability to come up with innovative background ideas and provide creative problem-solving can be indispensable in a studio.  
  4. Communication – Applying to ALL types of careers, communication will be a major component of your success as a background artist. Understanding the Art Director’s vision and the ability to understand and apply feedback are all part of effective communication for a background artist.

What Tools and Software Does a Background Artist Use? 

Picture trying to fix a flat tire without any tools. Kinda tricky, right? The right tools for the job are very important and animation is no different. So, what does a background artist need to get the job done? 

Physical Art Materials – No matter whether you intend to work in a 2D or 3D animation setting, the craft of animation starts with hands-on art supplies. Think pencil and paper, paint, ink, chalk and other drawing materials and mediums.  

Image Editing Software – What starts on paper often has to end up on screen, so a digital image editing software is crucial. There are many out there, but the industry standard is Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator.  

3D Modelling, Sculpting and Painting Software – If you do intend to create backgrounds for 3D applications, you’ll likely find yourself using some animation-specific software to get your backgrounds just right. Blender, 3DS Max, Maya, and ZBrush are some of the post popular options available, many of which you’ll be exposed to in our animation programs at Centre for Arts and Technology.  

2D Animation Software – Just like 3D animation, 2D work has its own specific software. ToonBoom Harmony is the most recognized in this area. This amazing software is a comprehensive program offering all the tools and features you need to make backgrounds come to life! Working in the creative industry can be a lucrative career, and some of the roles discussed in this blog are among the highest paying positions in an animation studio. The skills and tools mentioned above, are just a small selection of what you’ll need to succeed as a background artist for animation. A program like Centre for Arts and Technology’s 2D Animation & Digital Art Diploma Program, or our 3D Animation Diploma Program will ensure you’re career-ready. You’ll walk away with these skills (and more!) as well as hands-on experience working in a studio-like setting. When you add in the industry connections you’ll receive as a CAT student and alumni support after