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Improve Your Character Animation with These 5 Tips

28 May 2014

Animated characterAnimators these days have the most advanced applications and workstations at their disposal, and they can even incorporate the best industry hardware and software in their workflow to create stunning masterpieces from the comfort of their own bedrooms. As access to these tools has arguably leveled the playing field in computer animation, skills and talent will now more than ever be the prime differentiator; to this end, competency in decades-old animation basics will be crucial moving forward.

Though the animation landscape has changed drastically since the early days of stop motion, many hand-drawn techniques and methods rooted in the psychology of visual perception still apply, even in today’s environments. The following 5 tips can help in honing your character animation skills, regardless of the sophisticated tools in your arsenal.

1. Master Disney’s 12 Principles of Animation

Over three decades old, this classic by Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas is still to this day held in high regard as the animator’s bible. While it’s true that the number of self-taught computer animators keeps growing each year, with the wide availability of training materials, literature, and software on the internet, those trained in academic settings know why Disney’s 12 Principles of Animation is still a standard textbook for introductory animation courses across the world. The principles detailed in this book are still relevant for today’s computer animation techniques, and mastering its techniques will assuredly translate to an improvement in one’s skill set.

2. Learn proper motion blurring techniques

Computer animation, no matter how fantastical, imitates real objects and settings. Specifically, film cameras capture life. Audiences are accustomed to the nuances and artifacts of live action film, including the way cameras render the motion of objects and people. Motion blur is a subtle but powerful perceptual indicator that not only tells the viewer that the object is moving, but also the speed and direction it is moving. To properly convey and enforce the illusion of movement, incorporate motion blurring techniques to make your computer animations come to life.

3. Animate standing characters using unique postures

If you observe a throng of standing people in the subway, park, or other gathering place, you will notice that people's postures constitute a unique element of their persona. A teenage girl's hips may shift to one side as she's explaining a story, while someone else may slouch lazily with his arms folded, one hand holding a cigar. Whatever the case may be, people seldom stand perfectly upright. For this reason, animated characters that are standing should always do so in some distinctive manner and in a way that is appropriate for their other bodily actions, mood, or persona.

4. Use shadows to ground your characters

Shadows are crucial elements to reality -- unless you're creating a vampire, the viewer expects to see your character cast a shadow. They give a sense of depth by anchoring characters to the ground and thus are important elements to character placement and orientation. Shadows also function as important psychological triggers to an animated sequence (e.g. long shadows indicate a later time of day, which can trigger melancholy, apprehension, or fear.)

5. Adjust sharpness and colors to indicate depth

By mimicking the shallow depth of field of a film camera, one can instantly give their animations the illusion of depth. By blurring the background objects and setting, you reinforce the believability of your character to the eye. Colors can also be used to indicate depth -- by using strong, saturated colors in the foreground subjects and muted, unsaturated colors in the background, sequences and character within seem more realistic to the eye.

Interested in pursuing a career in computer animation? Learn how we can help you get started!

4 Cutting-Edge Career Options in Computer Animation

8 May 2014

Car AnimationWhether it’s working on the hottest new installment of a popular PC game franchise or adding effects in post-production to the latest Hollywood sci-fi thriller, there are a wide variety of job opportunities for graduates with degrees in animation these days. With continued demand in traditional entertainment sectors, as well as a need for animators cropping up in industries as varied as healthcare and automotive, the field of computer animation is a good field for those seeking an exciting and rewarding career path that will sustain them into the foreseeable future.

The following are the typical sectors in which computer animators find themselves employed, as well as some new industries increasingly requiring the skills of computer animation talent.

Gaming and Computer Entertainment

Video game and computer entertainment studios employ both 2D and 3D CG animators to bring their storyboards and characters to life, often under the direction of a key animator or director. In some cases, animators are given loose guidelines and creative freedom to create at-will, provided that they meet deadlines and release schedules. Depending on the size of the company and team, an animator’s role in this capacity could range from working on one small aspect of a title to taking on principle animation responsibilities in all facets of the production.

Motion Picture, Film, and Television

Fully computer-animated films, as well as live-motion productions with significant animation sequences, are typical of today’s big budget production. The vast majority of animators find themselves working for studios in monthly or year-long projects in sizable teams of artists and animators working in conjunction to bring 2D or 3D animated features to life. Television projects are usually smaller in scope and may consist of piecemeal animation sequences or advertising/commercial work.

Aerospace and Automotive

Animators are increasingly finding employment with aerospace and automotive companies, realizing prototypes and concepts for demonstration and marketing purposes. An animator’s job duties in these sectors may range from building 3D renderings and animations of subsystems (such as transmission assemblies or engines) to designing sequences of complete vehicles or air/spacecraft in motion.

Medical and Pharmaceutical

The medical and pharmaceutical industries are increasingly relying on 2D and 3D computer animation, simulations, and renderings to depict complex biochemical interactions and medical device functionality. For example, animators employed in this capacity often find themselves using their skill sets to simulate pharmaceutical mechanisms and processes occurring on the nanoscale — often in educational, research, and investment-related settings.


Artist Interview with Mark Edwards

10 March 2014

Written by Guest Blogger Mary Clare
Graphic Design Faculty Member

Part of the Interview Series from The Art Institute of Pittsburgh – Online Division’s Connections Graphic Design Group

Mark Edwards Art

Meet Mark Edwards

Mark EdwardsMark Edwards (ME) is a Senior Character Technical Director for Blue Sky Studios. Since joining Blue Sky in 2005, he has worked on a number of animated films including No Time for Nuts, Surviving Sid, Horton Hears a Who, Ice Age (Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Continental Drift, and A Mammoth Christmas), Rio, Rio 2, and Epic. On the job, Mark uses Maya animation software and Python programming language.

Mary Clare (MC): How did you get involved in the art form of animation?
ME: Growing up, I was fascinated with special effects and movie monsters. I read books about Lon Chaney, Dick Smith and Tom Savini. I was a huge Godzilla fan as well. A friend of mine and I spent much of our formidable years in his parents' basement trying to figure out how to do cut throat effects and the like.

Once I was older, I started learning makeup and prosthetics for special effects. I enrolled at a local community college where I spent two years studying all the graphic design, illustration, sculpting and photography I possibly could. I had no intention of going back to school until I couldn't find a job in my field, so I took a year off and ended up at Buffalo State College where I spent all my free time sculpting and making prosthetic appliances and fake teeth. I always had great Halloween costumes.

After graduating, I taught myself web design and development in my free time. One career led to another, and, before I knew it, I was developing websites for The Oneida Indian Nation in Central New York. I was doing a lot of Flash development, and my boss decided we should do 3D Flash and gave me a copy of Maya to play around with. Shortly thereafter, The Oneida Nation decided to do some animations of their historic tales, and I got an opportunity to be a part of the team that made a short film titled "The Raccoon and the Crawfish.” During my time there, I put together a demo reel of some of my work and sent it to all the major animation studios. That's how I ended up at Blue Sky. In some small way, my childhood dream was realized.

MC: What is your artistic background?
ME: My parents taught me to draw at an early age. I remember my dad helping me draw Star Wars figures at the age of 5 or 6.

MC: Would you explain your part in the animation process?
ME: If you think about traditional puppeteering, I am the marionette and the animator is the puppeteer. Of course there’s more to it than that. We have designers, modelers that make the digital 3d model, etc. My job is to take a static model and give it points of articulation. I give it a skeleton and controls so that the animator can bring it to life.

MC: What's the best part of your job?
ME: I enjoy the problem solving.

MC: Are there typically specializations in your field?
ME: It depends, smaller studios have more generalist jack of all trades types, but at a studio the size of ours people tend to be very specialized. That is not to say, however, that they don't know a lot about other facets of production.

MC: How many people are involved in the creation of a film like Ice Age or Epic?
ME: We have approximately 500 employees at Blue Sky.

MC: Can you suggest any software that students could experiment with for animation?
ME: There are educational versions of most software including Maya. There are also open source applications such as Blender.

MC: What experience would someone need to work with a company like Blue Sky?
ME: The hardest part is getting noticed. You need to have a great demo reel. There is a lot of competition for jobs at the big studios.

MC: What advice would you give a student interested in animation for film?
ME: I would suggest figuring out what aspect of animation is the most appealing to you and learn as much as you can. Programming skills in Python and C++ are a plus no matter what discipline you enter. Being able to present your work is important as well.

MC: What elements of art and design should students have under their belt for a career in animation?
ME: It is always good to have drawing skills. Most of all, having a good eye. It really depends on what facet of animation you prefer. Modelers and riggers should have a good understanding of anatomy. Animators can benefit from acting and performance skills.

Meet Our Faculty: Introducing Renata Ballo

12 July 2013

Renata Ballo Teaching Philosophy

Comic created by Renata Ballo to express her teaching philosophy.

Renata Ballo joined the Media Arts & Animation program faculty at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh – Online Division in 2007, bringing years of professional experience in merging traditional and digital animation to create interactive and engaging user experiences. Most recently, Renata has been researching the use of storytelling in child therapy.

“Stories are an integral part of our lives. They are interwoven with human culture, the learning process and societal values. Stories and metaphors have a unique ability to empower through healing,” Renata says. “My work with therapeutic storytelling has so far been my most rewarding experience outside of teaching and something I’m very passionate about.”

Renata didn’t plan to become an instructor, but after teaching one course and then another and another, she realized she enjoys the experience and how it challenges her to stay current with her skills as well as her technical and industry knowledge. The profession, she says, gives her fulfillment and interacting with students is refreshing and inspirational.

As expressed in her comic above, seeing students develop self awareness is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of her job. “Helping students gain a more conscious artistic awareness and a better understanding of the learning and creative processes is, for me, one of the most satisfying experiences in teaching. This kind of mindfulness equips students with tools that will serve them in life, not only in class,” she says.

She adds, “It allows them to revise their plan of action, decide what areas they need to focus on the most, and determine how to move forward. It is not easy to tell someone who worked very hard that they still have room for improvement, but there is a moment when it clicks for students, when they become very receptive to feedback.”

Renata also aims to teach her students the importance of networking, often hosting live class meetings via Skype or social media. She says, “Networking is a crucial part of an artist’s life, not only because it leads to finding projects and professional opportunities but also because it enables engagement with the ever evolving industry.”

She also encourages her students to collaborate on projects as well as to meet other artists in-person or online—experiences, she says, which help students to create relationships beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

Renata also suggests that students look for a mentor to guide them along the way. “Find someone you admire--someone who is willing to assist you, keep you accountable, help you stay on track, inspire you, lend a hand when you need support, give you constructive feedback when you do poorly, and congratulate you when you do well,” she advises.

Renata holds an MFA in Graphics and Multimedia with a specialty in Animation Direction from the National Academy of Fine Arts in Poland. She also participates in Women in Animation, ACM SIGGRAPH and Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

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Gamers, You CAN Make a Difference!

21 January 2013

Attention, gamers! Dr. Natalie Hruska, a faculty member at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh – Online Division, started a club to talk about games that you as a group can design and develop to evoke real, positive change. Have you heard of the “Games for Change” organization? Here is Dr. Hruska’s low down on the group and why you should care:

What is “Games for Change”?

Dr. Hruska: Founded in 2004, Games for Change is a non-profit organization that facilitates the creation and distribution of social impact games that serve as critical tools in humanitarian and educational efforts.

What does “social impact game” mean?

Dr. Hruska: It means the game would make an impact on society in some way, and I think this would connote this impact is positive. For example, make the environment cleaner or making people happier. They want to improve aspects of our world like how we work, health, and our interaction with the environment. There are just certain things that technology can do that they would otherwise not be able to accomplish, like facilitate learning about a condition or motivating a person to take care of a disorder like depression. The added interactivity and calling on all the senses might facilitate motivation and learning.

How do these games serve as tools in humanitarian and educational efforts?

Dr. Hruska: Do a search engine search and you will find that social games are used in a variety of ways to serve a variety of causes.


  • Check the Games for Change website. Here you will find games organized by age and social impact area, like ‘conflict’, ‘art and empathy’, ‘human rights’, and ‘youth produced’.
  • Non profit organizations and medical websites often have a multimedia, education, children, or games page. You will probably find a game or some other kind of interactive media on these pages.
  • The FBI and the CIA use games to entertain educate. Check out CIA Interactive, for example::
  • - I was surprised to find a game about how to run a POW camp. I ended up playing the game and I was educated about international law.


Why should students get involved - what are the benefits?

Dr. Hruska: Three major benefits that come to mind

  • Fun, community interaction - besides sharing resources and links to games that are already out there- I would like to the group to make their own game- a game we can submit to Games for Change for others to play. Members of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh – Online Division Games for Change Group might also meet some friends (and references).
  • Gain Skills- People with some knowledge of the connection between game play and social impact might find many opportunities as they enter the workplace, whether planning the concept, defining the functionality, writing a script, designing, developing, or something else.
  • Introduction to the Industry. Our country is growing ‘older’. There might be more demand for health related games. Studies have shown that game play in areas like memory training and sensory health can have positive outcomes. People like the interactivity and entertainment factor of these social impact games.


How can being involved like this work with a student’s education goals?

Dr. Hruska: There is nothing wrong with finding an interest and making it part of your education. When I was pursing my Master’s, I found my interests in web design and non-profit organizational work. All of my projects and essays were in some way focused on these interests. If you find something you like in Games for Change, think about how your class projects can be merged with your interests. In the process, you might build your portfolio too, toward a specific niche that you will want to keep pursuing once you graduate.

What do you think about violent games?

Dr. Hruska: I do not have an issue with violent games, just as I do not have issues with movies or stories with violence. However, some people, including me, are not drawn to these kinds of games. Ever since my early days playing infocom games like Leather Goddess of Phobos, and later, Trinity and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, I liked plots with a different kind of creativity on different levels. Games do not have to have violent to be entertaining, interactive, exciting, engaging, challenging, and beautiful.

Tell us about your passion for Games for Change.

Dr. Hruska: I have always had an interest in volunteering, and technology, and new cultures. When I saw the opportunity to help out countries in the developing world that wanted to go high tech with their own websites, graphics and more, I was hooked. I have written many essays ( on the topic of social change and technology, and hope to do more.

My interest in connecting these organizations to the benefits of technology evolved to my interest in use of video games to help with social issues. It seemed the next logical step. I found out about Games for Change, about the same time the organization was founded. One day, I want to attend their annual festival in NYC.

Mission for The Art Institute of Pittsburgh – Online Division Games for Change group:

  • To promote gaming as a way to rouse positive social change
  • To develop games that support positive social change
  • To encourage others to be a part of our cause; to share resources and more!


Our first Meeting is Sat., February 9th at 1pm EST. It should last one hour, but could go longer. It will be by online teleconference and webinar. You will just need your phone, a connection to the Internet, and your computer. Register Here!

If you want to attend, email

Animation Degrees - Creating a New World

12 July 2011

The world of animation is a fantasy world. Ever since Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse, animation has allowed mankind to express itself through a series of ever-changing universes. Places that aren’t limited by the laws of physics, that ignore reality, but through ignoring it more clearly express the greater reality that lives within our minds and imaginations.

Animation is only limited by the creativity of the animators; possibly some of the most creative people of our age. These are the people who don’t just see with their external eyes, but see with the internal ones. They are people who have learned how to dream with their eyes open.

Creating animation is just plain fun. It gives you the opportunity to take the fantasy world that is in your imagination and bring it out to play in a virtual world of your making. Animation degrees teach you the techniques you need to be part of this exciting field; delving into some of the greatest filmmaking of our time.

What do you see on the inside of you? Are you one of those people who should be pursuing animation degrees? Do you see the world differently? Is your particular creativity the kind that borders on fantasy, comedy and expressing the real in unreal ways?

Working towards your animation degree at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh will open the door for turning those dreams that you see with your eyes open into dreams that others can see as well. You will become one of a handful of people who spend their days playing in a fantasy world, and get paid to do it. Your fantasy world will become the fantasy world of many others as well.