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I came to the realisation recently that nearly everything I enjoy doing, or am in any way good at (the two things often go together), I’ve taught myself how to do. Case in point: animation and graphics are my day job, yet I don’t have any formal qualifications in them. My degree was in physics from a decent university, but I didn’t enjoy it much, and these days if you gave me an exam paper on Fourier transformations, definite integrals, group theory or Lagrangians, I’d probably struggle to get a single right answer.

Animation, however, is something I’ve been doing since long before that. I’ve come at it by turns enthusiastically, cack-handedly, frustratedly and in a state of confusion. Along the way, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, started learning a lot of software that I no longer use (Maya, 3D Studio, Shake, Paint Shop Pro, and all the way back to Deluxe Paint on the Commodore Amiga), and stumbled on a lot of techniques that I’ve subsequently discovered in the pages of animation “holy books” like The Illusion of Life and The Animator’s Survival Kit.

You might think I’d have been better off learning all this at university – but often that’s where your education begins, not where it ends. And in a subject as fast-moving as animation, you’re never ‘done’ learning anyway. Even in the last 10 years there’s been a tremendous change in the cost of software and hardware: you can now get all Adobe’s software packages on a pay-per-month basis, compared to the one-off £1500 or so we paid for their Production Premium CS2 package in 2006, and it’s all pretty useable on a machine costing about £1000. Meanwhile, instead of animation programs consolidating into one piece of software to rule them all, there’s now an enormous variety of specialist applications and plugins – many of them free – specialising in everything from 3D modelling (ZBrush, Mudbox, Modo, Sculptris), through simulation (X-Particles, Krakatoa, Vue) to rendering (Octane, Furryball, Arnold, Clarisse, V-ray).

So where does this leave us, as creatives? What should you learn? How should you go about learning it? And what are you really learning in the process?

1. There’s no point trying to learn something by doing a bunch of tutorials without having a goal in mind.

While there are some fantastic tutorial sites out there – Video Copilot, Greyscale Gorilla, Helloluxx – I’ve lost count of the number of tutorials I’ve done which cover some obscure part of a piece of software I don’t know all that well, and which I’ve subsequently forgotten. To make your learning stick, set yourself a goal that you actually want to achieve, and then work out what you’ll need to know to get there. This could be as simple as trying to replicate a shot from an advert or film. What it does require is at least some idea of how you’re going to break the problem down and apply it to the software you’re going to use.

2. Software changes. Continuously.

There isn’t much value in getting tangled in learning the nuts and bolts of a particular program if you aren’t able to take a step back and find the common threads between it and other, similar software. I spent years trying to learn Maya, and getting frustrated that I was getting bogged down in endless amounts of nodes, panels, menu items and options. I didn’t realise that I was also learning the fundamentals of how 3D software works. When I began learning Cinema 4D a year or two ago, I found that I already had a head start: a lot of the time I knew what I was looking for, I just didn’t know where it was. But being able to search online for “uv mapping Cinema4d” or “point-level animation C4D” cut out a lot of time.

3. Don’t be put off by the internet.

The internet is basically a giant hive mind. This is amazing when it comes to asking advice or finding out how to do a certain thing, but it can be a bit depressing if you’re measuring your level of knowledge against that of other people. It’s too easy to feel like you don’t know anything in comparison to everyone else. You have to face the reality that you’ll never know everything about anything. What counts is how you apply the knowledge you’ve got, how you work out the bits you don’t know, and the end results you can get given the things you do.

4. There’s no substitute for practice.

I’ve learned not to ignore a tutorial just because it looks basic: if it doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know, at least it confirms you’re on the right track. And if it does, you’ve filled a gap in your knowledge, which always helps when you’re learning more complicated stuff. A large part of knowing how to use a piece of software, especially the more complex 3D programs, is just going through all the menu options you can find and making sure you’ve used each of them at least once. I’ve been using Photoshop for nearly 15 years, and until I made a point a couple of years ago of doing this, there were several menu items I’d never used.

5. Learn all the keyboard shortcuts you can.

It’s like playing an instrument: you can’t really play it until the business of pressing the keys or forming chords on the strings is something you don’t have to think about any more. You can use Photoshop, After Effects or Maya without knowing a single keyboard shortcut; of course you can. But you won’t be using it very effectively, and you’ll waste – cumulatively – a lot of time going through menu options and tool buttons.

6. Remember that nothing matters as much as the end result.

I’ve often wasted a day or so trying to achieve a particular effect, put the project aside for 24 hours, and come back to it realising that I could get the same effect with something way simpler. The tools we use to make the things we make are just that; they’re complicated, but now and then we have to force them out of the way.