Environment in Animation: Definition, Process and Challenges

In this article, we explore the role of an environment artist: how it fits in the animation pipeline, why it’s important, and what’s behind its creative process.

a year ago   •   5 min read

By Gwénaëlle Dupré
Photo by Bailey Zindel / Unsplash

To create immersive stories, animation studios need good characters but also good world-building. And because good wordbuilding requires great attention to details, it takes considerable time to get right whether you’re aiming for realism or fantasy. This is why it’s often an entire team’s job to create animated environments.

In this article, we explore the role of an environment artist: how it fits in the animation pipeline, why it’s important, and what’s behind its creative process.

What’s An Environment Artist

An environment artist designs the digital props and backgrounds that make up the environment of a scene where characters interact. They are 3D modelers specialized in environments.

In an animation set in a fantasy world, for example, the environment artists would be responsible for creating castles, magical forests, caves, etc. in the 3D environment.

Why Is It Important In Animation

Environments support the narrative and characters: they act as mirrors that highlight personalities, journeys, and conflicts.

Without them, the animated world would seem bland and non-immersive. It’s the little details in the environment that make the story more believable, whether it’s an exotic plant or beautiful architecture.

The ambiance the environment creates sets the tone of the project and its visual identity.

Who Is Involved

Because of the huge amount of work, an environment artist doesn’t work alone.

Concept artists are responsible for creating initial designs for the environments. They work closely with the art director and artists to establish the artistic direction, mood, and overall look of the environments before they are modeled in 3D.

Then, the modeling team, including the environment artists, takes the concept art and translates it into 3D models using specialized software. This includes everything from buildings and natural elements like trees and rocks to smaller details like furniture or props. The texture artist adds color, texture, and surface details to the 3D models created by the modeler, while the lighting artist places light sources, adjusts their intensity, and chooses the color and direction of light to create the desired atmosphere. Finally, the effects artist creates visual effects to bring the environments to life―weather elements (rain, snow, fog), atmospheric effects (sun rays, volumetric lighting), particle effects (fire, smoke, dust), etc.

The art director provides overall direction for the environment art team, working closely with everyone to maintain the artistic vision and style, provide feedback, and make final decisions.

The Environment Artist’s Process

Concept Design

Concept design lays the foundation for the visual direction of the environments.

  • Initial brief - The environment artists collaborate with the art director and stakeholders to understand the project's vision, style, and narrative requirements.
  • Research - Gather references and inspiration to document the design process. These references define the look and feel of the environments.
  • Concept art - The environment team works closely with concept artists to develop initial sketches, mood boards, and other pieces of concept art.

Because creating environments is a highly collaborative process that spans the entire animation pipeline, we’ve worked with countless animation studios that use our software Kitsu right from the concept development phase to easily share assets, receive feedback, and iterate on designs in one place to make sure everyone is aligned.

Layout & breakdown

The environment artist starts the modeling work by establishing the structure and composition of the environments with key elements.

  • Blockouts - Rough 3D representations of the environments to lay the foundation for the overall layout using basic geometric shapes.
  • Planning the placement of major elements - Like buildings, terrain, and key features within the environment.
  • Breakdown - A breakdown is a detailed list of assets to model that will guide the subsequent stages.

Kitsu also provides features to manage breakdowns and casting information for your environment assets. You can create breakdown tables that show the casted assets organized by types to populate sets, link props to characters, or customize the workflow according to your needs to make the scene-building process more efficient.


Modeling brings the environments to life with detailed 3D models. Digital content creation tools like Blender are used to build the geometry and structures that populate the environment. Then, different techniques are used to sculpt or generate each architectural elements, natural features, props, and other objects required. You can learn more about the process and techniques involved in our dedicated article on 3D modeling.

Because of the huge workload modeling represents, environment artists rely on Kitsu's task management feature to organize and prioritize their work effectively. You can view assigned tasks, deadlines, and project milestones, ensuring you stay on track with your deliverables. The web platform enables you to track your progress, update task statuses, and receive notifications for any changes or updates related to your assigned tasks.

Kitsu also allows teams to easily organize environment assets to make them easier to access and track over time with version control: you can store and categorize 3D models, textures, and changes.

Texturing, lighting, and shading

After the 3D models are completed, texturing artists add visual appeal and realism to them by sourcing high-resolution textures matching the materials. In parallel, lightning and shading artists work on placing light sources and having the 3D models behave accordingly.

For an in-depth guide on texturing and shading processes, techniques, and best practices, check out our article on the topic.

Special effects

Special effects (VFX) add an extra layer of realism to the environment. Whether it’s weather effects (rain, snow, fog, sun rays, etc.), particles (fire, smoke, dust), or other physics elements like wind or flowing water, there is no such thing as a static environment in real life.


Delivery is the final step where the environment artist prepares the environments to be integrated into the animation project:

  • Optimization - Technical considerations like efficient use of memory, texture compression, and LOD (Level of Detail) systems. 3D models are useless if they cannot be rendered without going over budget, so each asset needs to be optimized for its target destination.
  • Package the assets and organize files - Ensure they are easily accessible and well-structured for integration.
  • Provide necessary documentation, guidelines, or instructions - To facilitate the integration of the environments into the animation pipeline.
  • Final quality check - To make sure the environments meet the desired quality standards.

The asset packages are then delivered to the compositing team for rendering. If anything goes wrong during post-prod, the environment artist stays around to rework models as needed.


Through a multi-step process encompassing the whole animation pipeline from pre-production to post-prod, environment artists play a central role in setting the atmosphere and realism of the scenes.

Collaboration is a big part of an environmental artist’s work. You need to work with a variety of experts, exchange feedback, and apply resulting changes. A tool like Kitsu saves considerable time by streamlining tasks and asset management.

If you are an environment artist, an animation student, or someone who simply enjoys learning about the animation industry, we invite you to join our Discord community. Here, you can connect with fellow artists, share your work, and learn from others in the industry.

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