Is a computer science background beneficial to a 3D artist?


Hi, my name is Alexander Lee and I’m currently a senior in high school in the United States. My career goal is to eventually become the senior artist/owner of a 3D studio that specializes in character animation. I want to both be able to direct a team, and to participate in some of the work myself. I am fully aware that this goal is a long way down the road, and that I will work as a grunt at some point in the meantime.

My primary question is this: how beneficial would a university computer science background be to a 3D character artist and generalist, especially to one who will eventually be the owner of a 3D studio? I know that many program-related issues could be more quickly overcome by someone who understood the basic structure of computer applications. Computer science knowledge would also be useful in the development of studio-specific proprietary software and plug-ins.

I am considering attending a traditional university for a 4-year education, majoring in computer science. Would this be the best usage of my time, if I was also practicing traditional and 3D art on the side? A major negative in this option is the great expense of time and money, especially in light of the fact that software development is in no way a career goal of mine.

Or would I be better off going to a school that trains people in the usage of 3D programs, like VFS, SCAD, or Gnomon? My fear is that in going to one of these schools, I will be limiting myself to a future career in a narrow aspect of 3D, like modeling props, or texturing characters for example. This would be a problem, because I wish to eventually be adequately skilled in all 3D-animation-related disciplines, so that I will have the ability to direct a team of artists. This fear may be completely unfounded, however, so please input based on your experience.

I am also considering going to a traditional art school like AAU or Florence Academy of Art, Italy. Good art schools like these are hard to find, however, so please post here if you know of others.

In order to further consider these options and perhaps find placement in an internship, I am also considering taking a gap year (a year off after graduating high school).

Thanks for reading this somewhat lengthy and confusing post! If you have a suggestion about a better college plan which I have not listed here, please let me know.


My best suggestion is to find a university with a computer graphics, visualization, or animation bachelor degree program. Use this as you major and then minor in studio art and computer science. Some programs might be comprehensive enough that you do not need the two additional minors.

Texas A&M has a fairly new BS Visualization program that would probably be good. CalArts has a character animation program, although you would have to pick up the computer science related topics on your own. I am not too sure of other undergraduate programs, but look into the architecture, computer science, studio art, and technology departments for relevant degree programs. It sounds like you would benefit from a program with a balanced art and science approach or one that emphasizes art/animation but can be supplemented with a minor in computer science.

Majoring in computer science is not the best idea based on your specific goals. Computer science covers a wide range of topics and languages that may not interest you unless you really like science and theory. At a minimum I would not consider any computer science program that does not have significant offerings in computer graphics or visualization.

Just in case you are interested, the most common programming language for computer graphics is C++ and the most common scripting languages are Python and MEL. Other languages are used as well, but these 3 are the most common. From the technical side of things, look for courses on these languages and/or the topics of object oriented programming, data structures, and algorithms. The specific language used is less important than the topic the course covers, though. Once you learn a language and general programming concepts it becomes easier to learn new languages.


Thanks so much for the info and input! I agree with you that I would be spending a lot of time on non-CG-related subjects if I took computer science as a major. Does anyone else know of any specific programming courses that could be taken on the side? Would a community college be suitable for this?


A 3d artist could use (but doesn’t necessarily need) a bit of programming, but a full comp sci degree would be ridiculous overkill. A single semester of general programming training, plus some instruction on how to apply that in a 3d program, is more than enough for the majority of 3d artists.

Now, there is a place in the 3d industry for computer science majors (developing software), but most of those people would describe themselves as scientists or engineers, not artists. For what you describe, you’d be best served by studying film/animation and/or business.


how beneficial would a university computer science background be to a 3D character artist and generalist

I’d say very little based on my experience. Computer Science is very mathematical, even more so than programming. There’s a lot of theory to cover about theory of computation, algorithm analysis and hardware. It’s very low level so you don’t learn to use applications, you learn how to make them in the most efficient manner. Usually, the first year is the only year where they teach you programming, after that, you may use programming as a tool to solve Computer Science problems which is pretty much mathematics. It’s fun in its own right, but it’s no art, it’s a science.

There are graphics courses in CS though. But they won’t teach you art either, it’s more mathematics. I like to think of Computer Science as an applied field of mathematics that uses programming.


I have the same basic goal as you, and from my own experience, I would say yes, computer science COURSES will do you a large amount of good. I agree with Meloncov in that you don’t need that to be your major. A background in CS can help in a number of ways:

  1. If you have any code guys on your project, you can provide input on what they are working on, or at least know what they are talking about.
  2. At a “grunt” level, you gain the ability to learn new scripting languages on the fly. For my junior/senior year project, I was able to teach myself TorqueScript while I worked because I could comprehend syntax and generalities of language as I went.
  3. There are very few artists who want to get their hands dirty with any kind of scripting (whether it be game scripting or MaxScript or anything along those lines). If you have that ability on your resume from the get-go, you stand out in a pool of potential hires for any studio.
  4. This is just my own experience, but code guys tend to get pretty busy on large scale projects. Especially since there’s usually more than just that project on their plate. If you can create small scripted additions to help with workload (like, say, a rubble generator or something like that…), it saves you from taking time away from the code guys and it helps out your employees (or colleagues as it might be).


Beneficial? Of course. Everything extra will be a plus in your CV. You may do things others won´t do, or you simply think different and may take a completely different path of finding solutions for artistic problems.

But a necessity? No. Definetly not if you want to be an artist anyway. You can run a successful internation 3d studio without knowing the scientific side. But as I said, it won´t hurt knowing. Though of course I agree taking it as a major may not be a good idea. In the end you should stay on topic and everthing extra should be just that, extra.


I appreciate all of your input so much, it really helps me to hear responses from people with more experience in this field.

Meloncov- I actually am currently taking a C Programming high school course, but I don’t yet know how to apply my knowledge to 3D programs. I will definitely look into some course that covers this.

helios01- I really did not know that CS focuses primarily on mathematics rather than code. Good thing I posted this thread! :smiley:

jakeh14- Those are some of the abilities that I thought could be very beneficial. Do you know where I could go to get a quick course in 3D-related coding? (as I probably won’t be able to minor in CS if I go to an 3D Animation or Art school)

Designer- Thanks for your input. Same question as for jakeh14-- Do you know of any good independent courses that wouldn’t take much of my time, but would cover the CS basics that relate to 3D programs?

Thanks to all who replied!


as an ex computer science student, i would suggest you to go to any univ/college that has research focusing on computer graphic. most univ got that but there are some who dont have such thing, so check and double check.

as how it can be beneficial, it probably one of the best way to become generalist but not just in theartist, but also for the whole pipeline of the industry.


If you’d like to specialize in character animation, there’s not much need for a computer science background. Animation and its supporting foundations can be a life long pursuit and the time required can make it hard to devote as much attention to the 3D tech side of things. Graphics technology is constantly innovating and changing, and trying to keep abreast of those can also be a life long pursuit.

But if you’re looking to run your own studio it can definitely be useful knowledge to have, even if you are not doing the daily coding tasks.

There are a few small and larger studio founders whose backgrounds are in computer science, but they come from an earlier era of CG where the technology was still in it’s infancy, and doing 3D often required a degree in computer science as you were writing your own software.

If you do decide to pursue computer science, definitely find a university that has a strong graphics program. Usually you don’t specialize in and area until graduate work, but as an undergrad a good graphics program will give you good exposure to the field where you may be able to participate in researching new CG techniques.

For the general undergrad computer science, expect equal amounts of math and programming, and lots and lots of theory.
If you’re interested in exploring CG programming on your own, look into a few books such as:
Computer Graphics, Principles and Practice
An Introduction to Raytracing
Advanced Renderman

It will require quite bit of advanced math, but if you can hack it, go ahead and start writing your own raytracer and z-buffer renderer. That’s pretty low-level stuff. If you’re more interested in the end user applications of programming, pick up a copy of Houdini’s training edition and play around with scripting and Houdini’s particle system.




I would also just add that taking some classes at a local community college in computer science, computer art, and traditional art would be a cool way to sample each of these disciplines at a much reduced cost compared to a 4 year school. Most community colleges have traditional art classes but 3d classes and computer science classes prob will be a bit less common. I’m sure there’s some out there. Just have to do some research to find out. Good luck in your studies!


Any programming knowledge is extremely beneficial for technical art (rigging).

But a comp sci degree is over the top.


If you want to eventually own your own studio, then focus on being a business owner, not an artist. Every studio I’ve ever worked at that’s been run by artists has been disastrous.

 I kind of agree actually :) Our department of instructors is made up of former Marvel comic artists to an animator from Disney, etc. We actually had an 'artsy' professor become the dean for a year. That's it, it lasted one year. Then back to having a dean that could manage people and was trained to do so. In my mind, it seems highly unlikely that you would have time to run a 3D company and work on projects as well. And to reiterate what everyone else has said (being correct), a few programming courses over the summer could help down the road, but an entire degree!? I guess it could be used to crunch polygons out of other people's work, but I doubt you'll ever be doing much art.


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