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The 12 Principles of Animation and Why They Are Essential

This blog was written directly from the notes of our guest animation instructor Jesse Denobrega to share with you.


Just like there are principles of design in art such as balance, contrast and movement, there are also principles of animation that help make it successful and captivating. Here are the 12 concepts to consider to level up your next animation project!


#1 - Squash and Stretch

This is a technique used to show movement in animation! This is like a game of dodgeball. As balls whip past you in all directions, the balls don’t look like perfect circles but like elongated ovals—almost as if they’re stretched. In the same way, when the ball hits the wall, you can imagine it briefly flattens against it. While drawing, the more an object or character is stretched as it moves, the greater the feeling of speed. The more an object is squashed against surfaces it comes into contact with, the greater the feeling of weight.


This principle is so effective in lending things a feeling of movement and gravity that it is used in almost all movements, not just bouncing balls. A character like Totoro might squash a bit with every step across the ground, a car might stretch as it zips by, and a character’s head might even squash and stretch as they express themselves. When we animate, we get to treat the world more like clay.


#2 - Anticipation

When we think about the motion of somebody jumping, we usually think most about them flying up in the air. But just as it’s impossible to jump without first bending down briefly before springing up, very few big motions come without smaller, slower motions before and after a big motion. Before someone yells in anger, they might take a big breath and raise their shoulders first. Before someone swings a sword, they raise it above their head. And before someone bursts out crying, they might shudder a little bit and look down with their eyes winced.


On top of making movements way more believable and giving them a really satisfying feeling of weight, anticipation can make movement more exaggerated and can show how a character feels about what they’re about to do. Anticipation builds excitement in the viewer because they become aware that something is about to happen and are then more satisfied by the movement! Comic and Manga artists also use animation principles like anticipation and follow through because it gives the story more action and helps with dynamic posing!


#3 - Follow Through and Overlapping Action

This animation principle is a great tool to use in conjunction with anticipation. When we think about parts of a character dragging behind them when a movement starts and wobbling to a stop when the movement finishes, we get a good idea of follow-through and overlapping action. Since characters aren't made of metal (unless they’re a robot) their movements don’t all happen at the same time.


When somebody whips their head around to the side to look at something, their shoulders might turn first and their hair whips around slightly after their head does. Similarly, an animal’s head looks toward where they turn before their body moves toward it, and their tail turns around later than their body does. When we stop running, our upper body might stop a little later than our legs, and so our body might wobble forward a bit after we’ve already stopped. All of these actions overlap with each other and lend a sense of weight and springiness to characters that feels really good.


#4 - Staging

To get an idea of how staging can be used effectively, we can think about how we might choose to place a camera if we were filming, or how we would arrange things on a stage if it were a play. How can we ensure that the viewer knows what the most important thing is, so that they look where we want them to and don’t miss important information?


We can highlight important parts of an animation and create emphasis through lighting—having the most important thing slightly more illuminated than the rest of the shot, by having it be central to the shot, or by having it be situated closer to the viewer than the rest of the elements. If we want to make things really interesting, we can even draw the environment around a character so that the lines point towards them or place them in a doorway for emphasis. All of this deals with proper staging!


#5 - Straight Ahead Action & Pose to Pose

These are two different approaches for the order animation frames are drawn in. In Straight Ahead, the animation is drawn frame-by-frame in the order that the frames will be played back. This is the simplest way to animate, and is really great if you don’t have a big story to tell but just want to make things move. It often leads to a really natural motion and lets you add unexpected twists and turns as the animation plays.


Think of this as a flip book animation, you start in one place and may not know exactly where you want to end up, but that’s okay! Every frame builds off of the last frame. If you draw a cat jumping onto a shelf, you’d draw every frame one-by-one as it gradually crouches down, gradually springs up, gradually flies up, and then lands. The key with straight-ahead animation is to make sure you don’t forget what happened in the last few frames and which direction things were headed, otherwise it can start to get pretty weird.


In Pose to Pose animation, the “key” frames are drawn first. These are all of the poses in the scene that will be the most important. If you’re animating a cat jumping up onto a shelf, you would first draw the cat standing on the floor, the cat fully crouched down as it prepares to jump, the cat in the middle of its jump up, and the cat having landed safely on the shelf. With these “key” frames established, you’ll have a good idea of the major points of the animation, and will know roughly how it will look. Then, all you have to do is add frames of animation in between these key frames to bridge the gap and make the animation feel smooth and complete.


This is the way a lot of animators and storyboard artists draw in the animation industry, since they’ll usually focus on key frames, while the in-between scenes are drawn by someone else. With this technique you can focus on the poses first so that you know the animation will work, and then you can have fun drawing the in-between frames that give the animation its life.


#6 - Slow in and Slow out

In animation, the start and finish of a movement is slower than the movement in the middle for an exaggerated effect. Characters don’t just start running at full-speed, and similarly, when they drop something it doesn’t fall at full-speed right away either. To give animations a natural feeling, we start and finish movements slower—similar to the build up of anticipation and follow through that we discussed earlier. To do this, we draw more frames for the beginning of a movement than the middle of a movement, and it makes a huge difference in how believable a scene looks. When we combine this slow-in and slow out with some squashing and stretching, it makes the animations we draw feel super real, bouncy and fun!


#7 - Arc

Natural-feeling motion follows arcs, even curves, that guide the motion. Think of a baseball pitcher, a finger pointing, even a cat slinking along a floor. Though there may be a bit of deviation from a perfect arc, they generally will follow a pretty organic-feeling line that curves. This is why it’s a good idea to think about not only where you want a character or their arm (or whatever you’re animating) to end up, but also how you want them to get there. After all, animation is all about lending a believable sense of aliveness to the moments in between the big poses. Once you have this pathway in mind, you can confidently animate your character along this guideline toward the position you want them to end up in.


#8 - Secondary Action

Think of this as the icing on the cake! Throwing in some secondary action is a fun way to enhance the feeling of the main action you’re animating. The secondary action you choose to add will be different for every character. If a character has pigtails, they can be animated flying back in the wind to add to the feeling of speed as a character runs. If a character has earrings, they can be animated flipping to the side as the character whips their head around to look at something. Glasses can slide down noses, antennae can bounce on top of heads, tails can sweep along the floor. The only thing you might want to keep in mind while animating is that the over-use of secondary action can actually distract from the primary action, so make sure that your secondary actions complement the main thing rather than stealing the show!


# 9 - Timing

Timing in animation refers to the way we space out our actions to give them more drama. A classic example might be the beginning of a fierce showdown between two enemy characters, where the two characters stand in a tense pose waiting to strike. The waiting as they stare each other down can almost be more intense than the fight itself. This is a great example of timing being used to heighten the tension and power of a scene. Sure, the fight itself can be well-animated with lots of action and cool movements, but without moments of pause to build tension, the action won’t feel as powerful.


Another important example of timing is how many frames we pause on important scenes so that the viewer can take them in. For example, if there’s a big reveal of a character opening a chest to find an ancient relic but we only have the relic on-screen for one second before the shot changes, the importance and power of this object won’t be felt as strongly as it would if we were to let the viewers sit with it for a longer period of time. Because animation is a time-based visual art form, we don’t just think about what we draw, but how much time we want it to occupy.


#10 - Exaggeration

Exaggeration is what makes animation so special in the first place. It’s the artistic liberty we get to take with how the world looks in motion. Although we can learn a lot about animation by observing the real world and how things move within it, animation gives us a unique opportunity to push things to their extremes, speeding up or slowing them down, making people move like play-doh, or even blowing up an angry character’s head.


There are so many amazing examples of this, particularly in anime, where the style in which a character is drawn completely changes to show their emotional state. We can do this, not just with the style in which things are drawn, but also in the way we animate them. A sneaky character might turn into just a thin line darting across the screen as they move from doorway to doorway, or the outlines of an angry character might gradually go from being drawn as smooth to being drawn as jagged and spiky, creating a sense of pent up anger just vibrating under the surface. The options for exaggeration are endless, which is part of the fun!


#11 - Solid Drawing

Behind the “solid drawing” principle is the idea that animation can become more convincing when the artist has a good understanding of the physical, 3-dimensional form of the thing they are animating—also known as structure drawing. The reason for this is because being able to understand and render forms in 3 dimensions gives an animator the ability to draw characters from all angles and in all sorts of poses while creating a believable sense of the space they are in. With solid drawing skills, an animator can make a character do all sorts of wild movements from all sorts of different angles without things ever becoming too confusing for a viewer.


With that said, all sorts of wonderful animation can be done without these drawing skills, and experimental animators with a knack for storytelling can craft convincing worlds and characters without ever needing to show them from more than one angle. However, learning how to draw from different perspectives can still be a very useful skill in all animation.


#12 - Appeal

Appeal is a really fun principle. If secondary motion was the icing on the cake of animation, then appeal is like the cherry on top that completes the whole thing. We all have favourite characters from cartoons and video games, and there’s something about them that makes us fall in love or empathize with them. After all, Pikachu isn’t a popular pokemon just because his body is animated well. His cute eyes, red cheeks and sweet body language are really what makes him a special character.


The great thing about animation is that if you use all of the other animation principles to make your characters feel alive, it makes all of the appealing details, like cute eyes, clothing and expressions, even better. You might find that focusing on Appeal might start to influence the way you choose to use the other animation principles. Maybe you have a big blobby creature who’s really sleepy, and you show this through Appeal by shutting her eyes as she walks. You might then allow Appeal to influence the Squash and Stretch principle with her body briefly squashing into the ground every time she dozes off. Appeal makes good animation great!



Are you looking to explore animation with the guidance of a trained professional? Take a look at our animation class so that you can learn how to apply what you know about the principles of animation.


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