So You Make Cartoons for a Living? – 8 Career Lessons for Animators by Isaac Mugabi

Isaac Mugabi at work

By Isaac Mugabi

Isaac Mugabi at work

What is it like being an animator? Which skills does one need to thrive in the animation industry? These are questions I get asked quite often. Put simply; animation is drawings or images that appear to walk, talk and think. They are a series of images moving in time. Well, it’s more complicated than that, but that gives you the basic idea. Some people tend to think animation is about making cartoons, and that cartoons are only for children. That is not the case, and I hope this piece of writing will be helpful in making this point.

My name is Isaac Mugabi a 3D computer animator and app developer. My friends call me Skyman. My story is a long one, but I will attempt to keep it short, and focus on the more outstanding landmarks in it. I graduated from Makerere University, Kampala with a Bachelor’s degree in Art and Design. After that I trained in 3D character animation with Digital Tutors, have worked on a number of projects, including Television commercials, viral internet clips, fun personal projects, and had the privilege to travel around the world. Here are some links:

I have slowly evolved into a mobile app developer too, thanks to the basic programming language inside my favourite 3D animation program (MEL). That is  a story for another day though. I have published the Uganda constitution in the Google Play store, and Love Triangle, a strategy game. I am really passionate about what I do; anything I do.

Isaac Mugabi, Slay Queen, 2017
A drawing inspired by Tyra Banks expressing the power of the selfie and social media.

Growing up, I always loved drawing. I drew at any time and anything. My mother works in the education sector and drew with me quite a lot when she created her teaching aids. Noob, our house-help at the time, loved to draw with me as well. Looking back, I can see where the early art influences stemmed from. I used to think drawing came naturally to everyone until I quickly realised it was not the case. I loved, and even now love, watching and drawing cartoons. I was always fascinated by the process of making TV cartoons. They were like mystical beings and contained a form of energy and excitement that resonated with me at a deeper level.

When I started school, I naturally picked interest in anything art related. Fast forward, one night during my first year at university, I was browsing the internet for my favourite animated movies, mainly Pixar (A Bug’s Life, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo and many more) and found short videos about how these animated movies were made. It was a beautiful moment! I forgot about everything else and just wanted to learn this beautiful art form. I immediately shared the videos with my very good friend Kenneth Kimani. Since then, we never looked back. We co-founded an animation company Pomp Motion Studios, which now brings me to the opening questions. What is it like being an animator? Which skills does one need to thrive in the animation industry?

Well, based on my personal experience, I will share eight lessons I have learned over the past several years.

Isaac Mugabi, Rebecca, 2017

Lesson 1

Be curious. Curiosity killed the cat, but thankfully, you are a thinking human being. Always be on the lookout for new knowledge and ideas, read about anything and everything. For every single day, discover something new about this industry. If you take a global snapshot of successful animators, one common thing you will find is that they are inquisitive people. They love learning.

Isaac Mugabi working on a fused glass artwork inspired by a starfish, 2017. I found a pregnant starfish at the coast in Mombasa. It was my first time to see and hold one. When I had the opportunity to work with fused glass, I remembered this starfish and the stories I heard from the wildlife conservationists there.

Lesson 2

Collaboration is key. Animation is a painstaking process. It takes countless hours just to produce a few seconds of animation. A lot of people do individual projects, but if you are to create something versatile, you need to work with a team of fellow animators, musicians, actors, directors and other creative people.

Lesson 3

A pen is a pen. Let me explain. When starting out, a lot of people ask, what software is the best for animation? Which software do you use to create your work? Here is the thing though. It is like asking J. K. Rowling which pen she used to write Harry Potter. Thinking about it, it does not matter which pen. What matters is that she can write. It is therefore essential to learn the art itself and employ the tools as helping aids. It is prudent however to choose appropriate tools for your contemporary situation and generation.

Isaac Mugabi, Bubu in Time Bad, 2017, a work in progress
This cartoon character is called Bubu. He stars in an animated short film that I am currently working on. It is a personal project and takes a lot of time to get it to just one minute of animation.

Lesson 4

Never give up. Yes, this sounds like a cliché, but it is true. The art of animation is a difficult one. It requires a lot of patience and time. At times you just want to throw in the towel and do something more manageable. Perhaps you could. To thrive in this industry though, you have to keep going. Keep working. Take a rest if you need one, and keep on keeping on.


Isaac Mugabi, Bubu’s home, from Time Bad 2017, a work in progress This is an alarm clock. It is Bubu’s home.

Lesson 5

Find your heroes. Starting out in the animation world is like entering a long dark tunnel with no light. The animation industry is still very young. Its less than 50 years, and there is always a lot to discover. To thrive, you need mentors and people to look up to. These act as your fuel and guides. I admire John Lasseter a lot. He founded Pixar with Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull. Pixar has gone on to become the most successful animation company in the world. In Uganda, I really admire the talents of Solomon W Jagwe (Founder of Uganda Cartoon network) Richard Musinguzi (Creator of Katoto) and Raymond Malinga Creator of Akalabanda ate my homework They are passionate about what they do and are my good friends.

Isaac Mugabi, Fan Art, 2015
A tribute to Katoto, a popular cartoon character originally designed by my friend Richard Musinguzi.

Lesson 6

You must read The Animator’s Survival Kit. Yes, it is a book by Richard Williams, director of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. As I said earlier, animation is relatively young. There are very few good books and resources available to budding animators. Richard’s book helps you cut out the noise and get to the important things. The text is full of methods, principles and formulas for good animation. That is all I will say for now. Read it, and you will thank me later. I can guarantee that.

Lesson 7

Animation is about storytelling. If you want to be a good animator, your primary focus should be on telling a good story. Being proficient at a tool is great, but without a good story, it is merely noise. People only care and connect with good stories. Never forget that.

Isaac Mugabi, The River Ad Reflections of Life, Oil on canvas, 150 x 100 cm.  This was in Scotland and the weather was brilliant that day. When you look closely, the central cloud forms the map of the United Kingdom and it is reflected in the river below. I love hiding symbols in my paintings because I like them to tell multi-dimensional stories. The River Ad and the Crinan harbour village are my favourite holiday places in Scotland. The sunsets are beautiful.

Lesson 8

Have fun! I became a good game-player and designer through animation. When you draw a beautiful picture, that is it. It is a beautiful picture. Do not get me wrong. I love traditional art forms and artists. I am a huge fan of Leonardo da Vinci, Taga Nuwagaba, Ian Mwesiga, and other contemporary artists. However, some people (animators mostly) love to see those drawings doing something. Breaking boundaries and crossing dimensions. They want the pictures to move. They want to breathe life into them, which is why I will tell you about a mobile game I love: Clash of Clans. It is beautifully crafted and is a global success. It has animated characters which “come to life” every time you interact with them. How limited it would be if they were just drawings on paper! The thing is, enjoy your work. Play some games. Explore new dimensions. Who knows, you probably could discover the next best virtual experience.

Bottom line, to thrive creating animated stories that rhyme with people, you have got to give them your best shot, season them with your style, and make them as authentic as humanly possible.

Isaac Mugabi is a 3D character animator, mobile app developer, programmer, digital artist and gamer. He co-founded Pomp Motion Studios in Kampala, Uganda. He graduated from Makerere University with a Bachelor’s degree in Art and Design, and earned a certificate in character animation from Digital Tutors.

He can be reached at: and Mobile: +256 773 168 382

1 thought on “So You Make Cartoons for a Living? – 8 Career Lessons for Animators by Isaac Mugabi

  1. Mayanja Hussein Studying Masters of Art and Industrial Design, BEd Art and Industrial Design, DES art and Industrial Design (Kyambogo University). Head of Department Fine Art, Bilal Islamic Institute Kakiri, Director Husma Solutions Ltd, Director DTM institute Nasser Road, Director Husma Kids School – Wakiso.
    Thank you Mr. Mugabi, I would like to meet you for animation.
    My research topic is ” Development of Animated cartoons for Teaching Arabic alphabets in Nursery Schools.

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