The 12 Principles of Animation were originally introduced by ex-Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas in 1981, in their book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.
Now, don’t misunderstand. Most animators don’t sit there with a big book open titled ‘The 12 Principles of Animation’, following it carefully with their finger under an office lamp. Instead, they have the concepts ingrained in their minds and don’t need to follow a set of rules.
However, these principles cleverly outline the different kinds of movement animators can create for their objects or characters.
It’s a series of options you can choose from to make your animation look a certain way. For example, this could be very exaggerated (namely, ‘exaggeration’ animation – see below), or fairly realistic.
If you’re new to animation, these are must-knows for understanding the different ways it works.
However, it’s not helpful enough to simply read about the 12 principles. As a video production company, we (of course!) think watching a video is the best way to fully grasp something.
So, here’s a take on them we particularly love – Vincenzo Lodigiani’s The Illusion of Life:
After you’ve watched that, read on below for a more in-depth look into the 12 principles. Alternatively, we recommend watching each principle in turn and scrolling down to read about it in our post. Let’s get animating!
1. Squash and stretch animation
People often consider squash and stretch animation the most important of all the 12 principles of animation. Why? Because a huge chunk of what makes something look ‘realistic’ is its weight, mass, and flexibility.
The ‘bouncing’ example from The Illusion of Life is probably the best example of squash and stretch. It’s when an object changes shape when in motion. This is often when it comes into contact with another, like a wall or floor.
Crucially, when your object or character squashes or stretches you need to keep it at the same volume. Otherwise, it’s going to look really odd! For example, a character’s face can’t get bigger when they smile. It just needs to squash a little, but stay the same volume.
2. Anticipation animation
Anticipation animation basically hints at what’s about to happen to the viewer. For example, before a character falls over, they might stumble around or sway a little before gravity gets the better of them.
Anticipation animation exists in the 12 principles of animation because characters always have to think before any action. This is unless they’re completely shocked.
Anticipation has added benefits to your animation, because it gives the viewer an insight into your character’s thoughts. By extension, this helps to mould their personality.
The action that comes after the anticipation is always a significant one, such as a jump, fall or punch.
What’s more, the stronger the anticipation, the more exaggerated and fluid the action will be. Vice versa, if the anticipation is short and weak, the action is likely to be stiffer.
In addition, anticipation indicates how fast the upcoming action will be. However, you can also twist this to mislead the viewer into expecting something that doesn’t end up happening. For example, a tiny object your character is lifting actually being really heavy, or the opposite way round.
3. Staging animation
Staging animation is when the animator makes it completely clear what the idea is, or what you’re supposed to be looking at.
For example, a moving object in a group of stationary ones would be the clear thing to focus on in a scene. Another example of staging animation could be one character’s angry expression amongst a line of content ones.
Considering that second example, staging animation can be really effective in defining a character’s personality or mood.
4. Straight ahead action and pose to pose animation
This principle gives you two choices of how you are going to draw your movement.
Straight ahead action is when you draw your object or character’s individual positions from start to finish. This is more spontaneous than pose to pose and can result in surprises – not always good!
Meanwhile, pose to pose is a more measured technique. The animator first draws the key poses at the significant points in the action. Then they fill in the ‘in-betweens’. This often results in more accurate movement, but this depends on what you’re aiming for.
5. Follow through and overlapping action animation
Follow through and overlapping action animation essentially demonstrates how smaller actions work with the main action. When your object or character is moving, it’s not unlikely that a smaller object attached to them (such as a piece of clothing) will be moving in its own way too.
Follow through animation is when certain parts continue to move after a motion is complete. For example, when a character turns around, their hair may flip around after them.
Very similarly, overlapping action is simply when different parts are moving at the same time, but at different rates. For example, your character’s legs will move quicker than their head when they’re walking.
In the real world, big movements always come with smaller ones. Follow through and overlapping action animation helps a motion to look more lifelike.
6. Slow in slow out animation
Slow in slow out animation in the 12 principles of animation refers to how an object needs time to accelerate and decelerate when moving.
So, before an object accelerates in a frame, it needs to accelerate FROM something. This is the ‘slow in’.
When it leaves the frame, it slows back down. This is the ‘slow out’.
The animation will need more frames the slower the movement is.
If you need a further example of slow in slow out animation, think of a conker swinging on the end of a string. When it’s in the middle of its swing, it’s going its fastest. When it’s swung to each side, it slows down before gravity pulls it back.
7. Arcs animation
An arc is the visual path of an action from one extreme to another.
This is in the 12 principles of animation because it’s easier for things to get from A to B in arcs rather than straight lines. What’s more, arcs are usually more expressive, and therefore are more likely to be used in animation.
8. Secondary action animation
This is very similar to another rule in the 12 principles of animation: follow through animation. However, secondary action animation is when an action isn’t necessarily directly CAUSED by the main movement, but usually happens alongside it.
For example, if your character has just done a sprint, the secondary action might be drips of sweat coming from their forehead.
9. Timing animation
Timing gives meaning to movement. If something is fast, it can tell the viewer that the object or character is light and nimble. Opposingly, if something is slow, it might mean that the character is sad, or the object is heavy.
10. Exaggeration animation
This is the exciting one in the 12 principles of animation, because it’s only REALLY acceptable in animation. Exaggeration animation is what it sounds like: exaggerating movements to create more appeal, expression, and impact.
Sometimes, it isn’t always the right decision to keep a movement in proportion. To hammer home an idea or emotion, animators often use exaggeration animation. For example, we’ve all seen the classic ‘character 1 jumps and slams a big hammer onto character 2’s head’ scenario.
11. Solid drawing animation
Solid drawing animation is how animators draw ‘3D’ characters in a 2D space, paying attention to weight, volume, and balance.
Clever strokes of the pencil can make a character appear like it was rendered in a computer.
What’s crucial with solid drawing animation is that the animator is able to draw a figure from any angle. It’s an incredibly detailed process, which is why it takes great artistic talent to achieve. However, it results in a much more grounded and realistic portrayal of a character or object. This pays off for viewers.
12. Appeal animation
Like exaggeration, appeal animation is what it says on the tin. It’s making an animation appealing to the eye.
“What does ‘appealing’ even mean?” you cry. Yes, we know it’s often subjective. However, there are features that viewers generally like and feature in popular animations. For example, big eyes and symmetrical faces are often satisfying to look at.
In addition, ‘appealing’ doesn’t always have to be ‘cute’ or ‘lovely’. It means an interesting and captivating design that’s clear and memorable.
Think of appeal as visual charisma. You either got it, or you don’t – and you know when you do.
The 12 Principles of Animation set out an array of building blocks for animators to utilise in their work.
Not all of them have to be implemented at the same time – rather, they’re best practices. In other words, they guide you on how to create the best-looking animation.
Use this blog (and The Illusion of Life video) as a guide for your first animation. Think about real-life movement, and aim to imitate its complexities to the best of your ability.
The road to an animation may be rocky at first, but it’s worth it at the end when you have your super smooth result!
Recommended further reading:
Read more posts just like this on the Stada Media blog.