12 Principles Of Animation

In the early days of the studio, Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston developed a list of ideas that came to be known as the 12 principles of animation. These 12 things are details that animators have to take into consideration with every piece they create, and cover a range of ideas, from details that exist in real life to exaggerated ideas that allow animators to push the media to work in the most effective and appealing way possible. It’s a list that every animator knows by heart, and they work these details into their work on autopilot. Below is a breakdown of each of the 12 principles, along with a brief summary of the principle and how it gets used in our work.

1. Squash and stretch. The one principle every animator is pretty much guaranteed to list off immediately when asked about the 12 principles. Squashing and stretching an object is a way to exaggerate the movement of something, to make it look more appealing and believable. The most classic example: you draw a ball stretching out as it drops, and squishing as it impacts with the ground.

2. Anticipation. Anticipation is the build up to an action. The thing you do before you do something. You crouch down before you jump up. You wind your arm back before you throw something. When you see this action happening, you’re anticipating the next.

3. Staging. Staging is how you set up the scene. You want it to be obvious what the focus is, and where the viewer should be looking. That dictates the position of the subject matter, as well as the “camera” view and the lighting.

4. Straight ahead vs. Pose to pose. When you’re working with hand drawn animation, there are two different methods of approaching it. The first method is straight ahead animation, where you start on frame one, and then draw frame two, then frame three, etc. Basically, you start at the beginning and go straight through without planning it out ahead of time. The second method is pose to pose animation, where you start out by planning and drawing the key poses of the movement. If you’re going to animate someone lifting their foot, for example, key poses would be the person with their foot on the ground, and then the person with their foot lifted. From there, you go in and animate the frames in between (which, by the way, are very conveniently called “inbetweens”). Usually, straight ahead produces a looser animation, while pose to pose winds up smoother.

5. Follow through and overlapping action. This principle is composed of two separate, but related ideas. Follow through is when one part of the subject continues moving for a moment after the rest of the subject stops. Think of Wile E. Coyote in Looney Tunes as he drops off a cliff after the roadrunner tricked him. His body will drop, while head lags for a moment behind him to show his stunned expression before it drops too. Overlapping action is where one part of the subject is animated at a slightly different pace than the rest. It follows the main subject. A woman with a ponytail, for example, will turn her head quickly, and the ponytail will swing behind her at a different speed. Her head will turn and reach its position first while the ponytail follows and reaches its position second.

6. Slow in and slow out. This is the principle that eases the edges of animations. An action will have a slower start, and a slower end. This usually equates to more frames, or more drawings, together at the beginning and the end of a movement. This keeps things from having jarring movements.

7. Arcs. Most things move in arcs, not in straight lines. As you look at the swing of a person’s arms as they walk, or the way their feet pick up and move forward, you see the arcs of those motions. In order to portray realistic movements, animators keep things moving in arcs.

8. Secondary action. This is a smaller action that tops off a main action. The main action could be someone talking, and a secondary action could be moving their head as they do so, or gesturing with their hands. People always have a lot of movement all going at the same time, and secondary action keeps the animation interesting.

9. Timing. Timing is, as you guessed it, how the animation is paced. Specifically, in terms of animation, it’s knowing how to create this timing. When working with hand drawn animation, timing is determined by the difference in frames. The more an object moves between each frame, the faster it’ll go. The less it moves, the slower it will go.

10. Exaggeration.One thing animation can do that some other media can’t is to exaggerate things. Characters’ jaws can literally drop to the floor when they’re surprised. Their eyes can pop out of their head when they see something that they love. Animators add in exaggeration to make things funny, or to make them more visually interesting and appealing. It’s usually a little more subtle, in terms of motion graphics though.

11. Solid Drawing. When you have an object or a character on screen, it needs to be immediately recognizable, and immediately believable. If you turn the image into a silhouette, it should still be clear what the image is. The most iconic animated characters have the most well defined silhouettes (you would know the shape of Bugs Bunny or Spongebob Squarepants even if the shape was all you saw). On top of that, the image needs to look believable. If you animate a character standing, your viewer needs to understand that the character’s feet are planted firmly on the ground. You don’t want them to look like they’re hovering above the sidewalk (unless, of course, they’re a ghost. Even in animation, there are exceptions to most rules.)

12. Appeal. Your animation has to look good. Appeal is what draws the viewer to continue to watch; it’s the overall look and feel of the piece. If it isn’t appealing in one way or another, why would anyone watch?

So there we have it. Frank and Ollie’s 12 principles of animation. 12 things that every animator knows by heart, and 12 things you might be on the lookout for next time you’re watching your favorite Disney movie (or favorite Bullseye animation).