Back when I started, Silicon Graphics dominated the market, and a computer that could run the latest software cost something like $20,000, and that was without the 512mb (!!) memory upgrade. Suffice it to say, these days you can get away with some pretty amazing visuals with an off-the-shelf home PC. Video games have been pushing GPU power at breakneck speed, and so our graphics capabilities are amazing. This being the case, I want to generally say that any processer, be it AMD Athlon, Intel Core, or Xeon, released within the last 3 years, paired with at least 8gb of ram, and a radeon or geforce (again within the last 3 years) will run Maya 2013 decently. Meaning if you have newer or more powerful equipment than what I just mentioned, you are past the point of really being able to blame your art on your tools. So if you're rocking an i3, 8gb ram, and a Geforce GTX 280, you're in the range here. That's really all I'll say about computer requirements as far as getting your animation DONE. In other words, to all the animators who ask me what the minimum requirements are for learning animation, is your PC more than 3 years old? Then maybe upgrade the processor, ram, or gpu.
The first exception to the rule of necessity is new Solid State Drives. If you don't know what this is, it's basically a hard drive comprised entirely of RAM. Because it has no moving parts and therefore no access time or spinning plates, it is super fast. Upgrading to a solid state drive has been the single most profound upgrade in the last 10 years for me. Sure processors and GPU's have been getting scary fast, but being able to now open a program in 2 seconds flat is a total game changer. If you are going to get one of these, be sure you remember to move your pagefile to a different hard disk, and to disable hibernation on your PC. This will free up valuable space on your new SSD, normally RAM x 2 amount of space. (I have 32gb ram so this freed up 64GB on my 128GB SSD, which is huge).
The second exception is multiple monitors. This is another one of those "you don't know until you try it" kind of scenarios. With extra screen space comes extra perspective on your animation. You can see the pose from multiple angles by not having to minimize your panels as you pose in the Persp window. You can work with the graph editor open and let the curves unveil themselves to you as you block. You can have the outline open and select objects and controls quickly. You can tear off frequently used panels and keep them at arms' reach. And as anyone with two monitors will tell you, perhaps the clearest indicator of the necessity of more screen space is that fact that once you have multiple monitors, going back to one is absolutely CRIPPLING.
The last exception I make in terms of necessities has to do with protecting your BODY, and that's ergonomics equipment. Specifically a wacom tablet for mousing. If you want a detailed breakdown of my ergonomics setup, watch this @sk VideoMail free: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuConiRIbWE
But now to the real necessity; safeguarding your work. Until you lose a major project you cannot understand the pain that data loss creates. Protecting your work is so simple and inexpensive, you have no excuse to not do it.
First thing you should have is at least two hard drives, set up in a RAID configuration. Depending on how many disks you have, you will most likely be using RAID 1 or RAID 5. RAID 1 is basic mirroring. With two hard drives, you can be sure that if your hard drive fails, the other one can be used as a backup. It's all automatic and fast. And with 3TB drives going for something like $175 online, you can most likely create a RAID 1 array on your PC that will hold every piece of animation you will make in your life. RAID 5 is like RAID 1 in that it protects your data, but instead of needing double the amount of disks, RAID 5 uses just one disk-worth of space no matter how many disks are in the array. So if you have 6 x 3TB disks in RAID 5, you will effectively have 5 x 3TB disks, and the data is still protected. 99% of modern motherboards have RAID controllers built in, and it simply requires you hitting a button at boot time to set up your hard disks in the desired configuration once and then forgetting it.
Even better than setting up a RAID on your PC is to use network storage. QNAP makes many small RAID enclosures that are perfect for this use. I really like the pricing and reliability of their products. These network storage devices are even simpler to set up than your PC most of the time - just plug in your drives, plug in the network cable, map the network drive on your PC and away you go. The major advantages here are 1) if a drive fails you don't have to open your PC - just swap a drive on the NAS device 2) portability 3) multiple machines can access it with very little setup compared to doing the same on a PC securely.
The final part of any good data protection plan is off-site storage. Just because your home is your 'site', doesn't mean that you can take it any less seriously than if you were working for a company. I mean, if there's a fire, and you lose EVERYTHING that was going to go on your demo reel, you might have set your job-search back a year. Think of the financial impact that might have on you and compare it to most cloud storage services that are between $200-$300 a year.
I like to automatically backup all source files for 3D work. That means .ma and .mb files, .psd's for textures, mudbox files, models, in progress rigs, presets, etc. What I do no back up is anything that can be re-created using the source files. So I do not back up renders, particle data cache, dynamics cache, final comps, etc. I've started using syncplicity.com's service because I need extra space, but others like Dropbox are perfectly fine as well. You just HAVE to have a copy of everything you need in case the worst happens.
I am very happy to give recommendations when it comes to protecting your work. As far as guiding animators on the PC side however, all I'll say is if you are running Maya at a decent enough framerate to pose your character, and don't have to wait longer than 2 minutes for a playblast, your computer is probably good enough. Will you benefit from a screaming fast machine? Probably, but not as much as you'll benefit by protecting your files, and taking another tough look at your workflow. :)
Kenny Roy is an animator, Owner of Arconyx Animation Studios, animation author and mentor at KENNYROY.COM. He has worked on King Kong, Garfield and Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.