1) What's the difference between 3D animation and graphic design? Are they the same thing?
I have never worked in a AAA game company but I believe animators are usually not the same people who create the actual 3D models. After a model has been made, it will be "rigged" (that is, there will be special control 'bones' put in the model which will be used to instruct it how to move. Think of it like attaching strings to a puppet so that a puppeteer can make it dance around.Instead of strings, it's little invisible objects which are inside the 3D model).
After these bones have been put in, the animator can drag them around in a program like 3D studio max and pose the model in different ways, similar to how a stopmotion video would be made. This takes alot of time, and alot of skill to make the motion seem lifelike. To alleviate these concerns modern games will use 'motion capturing' - an actor performs the action (a roundhouse kick for example) with little reference points attached to his body. When he moves the reference points change position - these changes of position will be recorded and used to manipulate the 3D model (look up a video of motion capturing if I didn't explain this very well).
Graphic design is more about creating a friendly user interface (that is, the buttons the user can click). It would include things like making sure the "save" button looks like a floppy disk so that the user can recognize what it does without having to read the manual first.
At least, that is my interpretation of this term, could it be that you meant to say concept art?
2) What is the process for making art in video games? Can you give me some general steps about how one goes from point A (concept) to point B (physical product)
Very generally speaking:
- game designer has an idea ("I want a slimy bossmonster!")
- concept artists make a few thumbnail drawings in which he or she experiments with the design (more slime, less slime, bigger, meaner, hairier, etc)
- game designer makes a choice, the concept artists then makes a "clean" drawing in which he draws the monster front, back and sides. The idea is to really understand
what this thing will look like before a 3D artist ever touches it.
- these drawings will be given to the 3D artists who might scan or otherwise import them into a 3D modelling software (kind of like a blueprint) and begin modelling
the monster. Modelling is kind of like working with geometric clay: you start with a rough shape and gradually refine it.
It's kind of hard to explain in text but what you're doing in essence is creating a tapestry of triangles which we call "polygons". The tapestry is called a "mesh".
- after the mesh has been modelled a texture (which is a flat, 2D image which you would probably make with photoshop) is made and put onto the mesh. Think of this like
upholstering a couch - you can choose whichever color or appearence you like, the underlying shape will be the same.
- the mesh will be "rigged" (see above) and the animations will be a made (run, walk, sneeze, look angry, etc)
- model, textures, animations and all this good stuff will be imported into the game engine
3) Where can I learn how to make art for video games? Where do I start? (I have no idea). What should I tackle first?
Being able to sketch is always a plus. As with all art 3D modelling (and animation) is a matter of honing your craft which can only be done by practice, practice, practice.
Check out the books section on this website which might have a few good starting points. Experience with photoshop is highly recommended.
4) What are the similarities between physical painting and computer artwork?
Well that really depends on your definition of 'computer artwork' - It will have more to do with creating textures than animating a facial expression, for example.
Most texture work will be done with photoshop and a wacom tablet. I have never made a physical painting but it's not hard to imagine you will be able to use some of your techniques in the digital realm. Your knowledge of composition and color will definitely be useful. You can never learn too much
4) What is the difference between programming and coding? (in regards to game design). How hard is it for someone with zero programming/coding experience to learn this? How can I start learning how to program/code, and what should I tackle first?
As a complete beginner, I would recommend you start with a scripting language like python. Being able to program is about learning how to "think like a programmer".
Once you can make stuff in one programming language it will be easier to transition to another one.
It's kind of like how speaking Dutch will make it alot easier to learn German: they're not "the same", but you can carry enough stuff over to pick it up faster than somebody who's starting from scratch.
coding and programming is the same thing, it's just a fun word we programmers like to use
programming and scripting is a little different, scripting basically means the code has to be "understood" by another program.
For example, if the artists for a game have to put in a few interactions with NPCs they might 'script' these interactions in a language like lua or python.
The scripts they write will be 'understood' by the game engine. The point of scripting is usually to make the job of programming easier which also enables non-programmers to create content.
5) How do programmers/coders and artists work together? Where do their jobs intersect?
Well that depends on the company ofcourse, but you can think of it kind of like a theatre production: the programmers 'build the stage', make sure the curtains open correctly and the soundsystem is turned on and the lights aren't shining in anybody's eyes.
The artists are the ones who make the cardboard backdrops and sew the costumes and make sure the props look historically accurate.
It's difficult to say where their job intersects exactly, it all works together to form a whole. My guess would be somewhere in the realm of 3D animation and scripting of ingame events or interactive audio. I can say this however: knowing how programming and artwork is produced will be helpful no matter what side of the team you're on - an artist may make the most moving piece of 3D art you've ever seen, it he didn't pay attention to the memory constraints of the game engine it will be useless
It's a long and interesting journey. All I can say is this: work hard, be patient, learn from many different sources and try to have fun (that is the point after all).