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3D animation pipeline: A Start-to-Finish Guide (2020 update)

The process of creating a 3D animation is much more complex than what most people think. The number of steps to produce a 3D animated video can vary to a great extent, depending on the animation studio involved and the scale of the project itself.

But generally, a lengthy list of tasks must be checked and a large group of people with different skill-sets must be engaged for a 3D animated video or feature film to be produced. In order to push such a complicated process forward efficiently and affordably, a solid structure and a detailed framework is needed: 3D animation pipeline.

What is animation pipeline?

Animation workflow or pipeline is a system consisting of people, hardware and software aligned to work in a specific sequential order to do pre-determined tasks in a pre-determined time frame, which will lead to a 3D animation product or asset as the final output.

The final product could be a traditional animation such as a feature film, short film, television show, or video game asset, or it could be something totally different. It’s much like an assembly line for 3D animated video production.

If you are a video type of learner, check out the following video where Dreamworks breaks down its CGI animation pipeline process from A to Z. You can come back and read the more complete and detailed steps of 3d animation pipeline as the one in the video is not new and misses some key sections like Rendering.

What is the difference between 3D animation and CGI pipeline?

CGI stands for Computer-generated imagery and is defined as using  computer graphics to make or utilize  images in art, game art, feature films and series, TV series, commercials etc. There’s not difference between CGI and 3D animation as both uses the same techniques and methods to create and use art in different ways.

Why do we use a pipeline for 3D animation production?

You can picture the 3D animation pipeline as a creative assembly line in which everything is planned out; from conception to publishing. The entire pipeline might consist of as much as 500 artists or as few as 2. The most significant point of having a workflow in place is that every single one of these artists must know what, when and how exactly the tasks in hand should be done and handed out to the next artist or group of artists.

why do we need an animation pipeline?

Generally, there are 4 main reasons for using a pipeline in 3D animation production:

  • Time management:

    Producing 3D animation, especially feature films and 3D animated series, is a complex and time-consuming endeavor in nature. When accumulated, even minor micro-delays in each step can postpone the outcome and lead the whole project towards a financial disaster created by a domino effect. So there needs to be a detailed time frame for each step and a grand plan to coordinate multiple creative lines accordingly; some of which are supposed to be done simultaneously.

  • Budget management:

    Although depending on multiple factors 3D animation costs and budgets might vary, most of the time a significant amount of money is involved and it needs to be spent in a controlled manner to be effective. The ROI of most 3D animation projects are calculated before the production is started.

  • Team management:

    The number of people involved in an animation project can be as much as 500. These people are usually split into multiple teams and groups, most of which must work in coordination for the project to be successful. The significance of managing these teams and individuals with different responsibilities and skills is something you don’t want to ignore at all.

  • Structuring and standardization:

    A thought-out pipeline is the most efficient way to make sure everyone is on the same page, working towards the same goal. Moreover, professional animation studios like Dream Farm produce hundreds of 3D animations per year for a variety of clients. Making sure each and every one of these animations are created with the adequate amount of precision and quality and providing the clients with the same fabulous experience every time, can definitely set you apart from the competition; bringing in even more clients.


Key components of CGI animation pipeline

3D animation production pipeline has three main stages:

  1. Pre-production
  2. Production
  3. Post-production

Based on organizational considerations, resources, outcomes and other factors, each segment of the 3D animation industry uses the three stages a little differently, but the main structure remains intact. The specifics of each project’s pipeline may also be slightly different. However, the three main stages remain the same again.

Here at Dream Farm Animation Studios, the following pipeline is used for the majority of 3D animation projects:


1- What is pre production in animation pipeline?

Pre-production is the research, designing and planning phase of the entire 3D project which is split between two teams: The design team which creates the idea, story and designs, and the management team who writes down the production plan (including budgets, teams and time frames). The better the pre-production phase is done, the easier the production stage will be.

Pre-production consists of the following steps:

idea generation process in animation pipeline

Pre production stage in animation production workflow

2- What is 3d animation production process?

The production stage is where all previous efforts must pay off and transform into action. At this stage, visual elements of the 3D animation will be handed out to the designated teams and artists. Team leaders make sure time frames and quality matches those of the determined plan in pre-production stage and goes as smoothly as possible. The outcome of this stage shapes the entirety of the 3D animation.


Production stage consists of the following steps:

  • 3D Layout:

    Simply put, a 3D version of the 2D animatic is called a 3D layout. The 3D layout contains basic 3D attributes such as the characters’ size, shape, environment, simple animation of the characters, proxy geometry, et cetera.

    Curious to know more? Here you can find out what exactly a 3D animation layout is and why it matters with an example.

  • 3D Modeling:

    3D modeling is the process of developing geometric surface representation of any object in a specialized 3D software such as Maya or 3Ds Max.

    Here’s a quick guide to 3D modeling you can take a look at for more.

  • 3D Texturing:

    The process of creating and applying textures (colors and surface properties) to a 3D model is called 3D texturing. Before coming to the texture artist, 3D models are usually in a default shaded flat color.

    For more information you can take a quick look at texturing in 3D animation production. If you want to get a more in-depth guide on how to use color, check out color theory in character design.

  • 3D Rigging:

    During the rigging process, a bone structure is put into the 3D object, so that the animators can move different parts of the geometric object (in character rigging for example) as quickly and efficiently as possible.

    If you’re curious to know more, take a look at 3D rigging in action.

  • 3D Animation:

    The movements of the 3D objects or characters in a scene or setting are created during the animation stage. Animation is usually the most crucial and time-consuming part of producing a 3D animated video.

    Interested in learning to animate? Check out Animation Mentor’s Ultimate Guide to Animation for Beginners 

  • VFX:

    A 3D animator animates almost everything but elements like hair, fur, water, fire, cloths, or dust; key-framing them would be too difficult or even impossible.

    These elements are created during the VFX component of the pipeline; there are things you might not know about the visual effects stage in 3D animation production.

  • Lighting:

    Just like the real-world lighting in photography or filming, 3D animation lighting is the stage at which the mood of a 3D scene or sequence is created through light based on the pre-production designs.

    For more information you can take a look at The ultimate guide to lighting fundamentals for 3D.

  • Rendering:

    When dealing with a 3D animation, every scene is separated and rendered into multiple layers including objects, colors, background, foreground, shadows, highlights, et cetera. The layers are going to be united again in post-production stage (Compositing).

    If you are curious to find out more, take a look at The final step in 3D animation production: 3D Rendering


everything you need to know about in animation production stage

3- What is animation post production process?

At this stage, the final touches are added to the project to make it look polished and professional (the definition of polished and professional might differ in various projects, of course). Post-production artists have a number of tools that can make up the look of a project in whatever way they want.


Post-production in 3D animation pipeline includes:

  • Compositing:

    To make a final output, the layers rendered previously are put together again in compositing. The layering process can be as simple as putting 2 layers together, or as complex as matching hundreds of layers and adjusting their properties.

    You can get more familiar with Compositing in animation.

  • 2D VFX:

    Some visual effects such as sparks, dust, rain drops, camera shakes, et cetera, are more easily achieved in a 2D environment at the end of the project, without sacrificing the quality. These effects are usually mixed with other layers in compositing.

    Take a quick look at the 2D VFX component of the 3D animation workflow for more on the subject.

  • Color correction:

    Also known as color timing or color grading, color correction is literally the last adjustment we make to a 3D animation in the pipeline. This step makes each shot and the whole project look more consistent.

    Read more: A quick look at color correction in 3D animation production.

  • Final output:

    There are different options out there regarding the output format of the pipeline, however, the most common type is digital video which is compatible with most digital devices and can be played on the internet.

    Here is a short guide on choosing the right format for a video file.

post production in animation pipeline

How about 3d animated commercial production? 

Animated commercials are usually short videos from 15 to 30 seconds which only serves one goal: A Call-To-Action

Making a brand mascot is often an important part of a commercial animation as most corporate videos revolve around characters. If you want to know more about this, take a look at the guide on how to create a brand mascot.

Whether your are thinking of promoting your company’s products or creating a brand from the ground, 3d animated commercial will be your top choice. You can use them in Facebook or YouTube ads, or tv commercials to direct your potential customers into your product landing pages.

The process for a 3d animated commercial production is the same as we told you in this guidem however becasue a commercial animation is usually shorter than a feature film, some of the stages can be removed and shrinked.

Using a well designed animated 3d commercial will help you standout in the competitive world of content marketing. Dream Farm Studios is one of the most creative commercial animation studios that focus on creating story based animation with well-designed characters.

If you have more questions about commercial animation production, check out our other articles that illustrates all the frequently asked questions about this topic:

what are different types of commercial animation?

how long should a commercial animation be?


Creating a 3D animation is a complicated process involving a lengthy list of tasks, a comprehensive set of hardware and a large group of people with different skills and responsibilities. In order to keep the process flowing efficiently and affordably, a solid production workflow is needed.

A 3D animation pipeline is a system consisting of people, hardware and software aligned to work in a specific sequential order to do pre-determined tasks in a pre-determined timeframe. Sticking to this procedure will lead to a 3D animation product or asset as the final output, such as a 3D feature film, short animation, television show, 3D video game asset or else.

If you have any questions regarding animation pipeline, feel free to ask us in the comment section below. We’ll keep this article updated.

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kaveh kaviani
kaveh kaviani
1 year ago

thanks for your great article, its so helpful!

Payam Adib
Payam Adib
1 year ago
Reply to  kaveh kaviani

I’m glad you liked it Kaveh! Make sure you come back again, I’ll keep producing more content and update the 3D pipeline article for nice folks like you!

1 year ago

very interesting article it’s great to learn more on 3d animation

Payam Adib
Payam Adib
1 year ago
Reply to  mauricio

Thank you Mauricio. I’m continuously updating our blog. Make sure you check on our new posts and leave comments more often! 😉

Aaron Paul
Aaron Paul
6 months ago

You explained everything in detail in this article about 3d animation studios

Payam Adib
Payam Adib
5 months ago
Reply to  Aaron Paul

Hope you liked it Aaron 🙂

Brianna Wiest
Brianna Wiest
2 months ago

Great break down. Just wanted to know if different animation companies work with different animation pipelines

Jessica Wildfire
Jessica Wildfire
2 months ago

I would very much appreciate your informative article. Is it possible that we outsource the pre production stage of a 3d animation to a company and then we take care of the rest?

Mona Miri
Mona Miri
1 month ago

very helpful article

Riddhi kumari
Riddhi kumari
1 month ago

thanks for all your efforts to make this guidings ,it`s so helpfull for a begginer.

1 month ago

Great break down and easy to understand materials. Please write about each part of the pipeline separately.

1 month ago

A lot of animation studios neglect the use of traditional CGI pipeline and instead try to come up with their own workflow. What do you think is the result of such action? Is it ok to skip some parts of the traditional pipeline?

22 days ago

thanks for your great article, its so helpful!

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