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How Does Animation Work? | The 12 Principles of Animation!


From an outside perspective, animation can look complicated and it may be hard to imagine how it's done. But it really isn't that complex and can be better understood when broke down into pieces. Whether you're learning 2D animation or working in stop motion, these 12 principles can help you understand the fundamentals and can be applied to any form of animation!


The 12 principles of animation were introduced in the Disney book 'The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation' (1981), and these techniques have been incredibly useful to the animation industry since.


Before we jump in we want to recommend a book that we've mentioned numerous times in our blog posts: ‘The Animator's Survival Kit’ by Richard Williams. There is everything you need to know and more in this extensive animation book. From junior animator to veteran, this book is a go-to for animators of all levels.



'The Animator's Survival Kit’ (2001) by Richard Williams



Number 1: Squash and stretch

Squash and stretch is a very enjoyable part of animating! It consists of having a contrast of shape, be it person or ball, in a squash or stretch pose. It can be used when the ball makes contact on the ground, or when a person's face changes to shock; it gives the feeling of flexibility in animation, and without it movement can look stiff and unappealing. It can be used to the extreme in some animations, especially cartoons, to exaggerate movement and give life to a character.



'The Animator's Survival Kit’ (2001) by Richard Williams



Number 2: Anticipation

When a character is about to jump or punch they will prepare for the action; this is anticipation. Using anticipation in animation can help the audience understand what's about to happen or the character's thought process. Anticipation is an important animation principle as it helps to tell the story and without it animation can seem chaotic and too fast. Animating anticipation can also imply weight and thus adding life to your movement.



'The Animator's Survival Kit’ (2001) by Richard Williams



Number 3: Staging

Staging in animation is how everything is presented. You want to make sure you draw your viewers in by placing characters comfortably in the scene, and any important props are presented in a way to grab the audience's attention. Everything in a scene, background and characters, should complement one another and shouldn't distract the viewers' attention if its not important. Good staging in animation allows the audience to understand the characters' intentions and interpret any messages that are being presented!



'The Animator's Survival Kit’ (2001)

Advantages and disadvantages of Mixed by Richard Williams



Number 4: Straight ahead action and pose to pose

Straight ahead action and pose to pose are two different processes used by animators; and sometimes when used together it's known as mixed. When using straight ahead action, the animator will jump straight into the animation and animate frame by frame from start to finish. Using pose to pose however will involve a more planned approach, and will see the animator create some key frames before filling in the intervals. Using a combination of these processes becomes mixed, and according to Richard Williams himself, has very few disadvantages! Using either technique is fine, some animators may start out using straight ahead action then change to pose to pose, or vice versa!



'The Animator's Survival Kit’ (2001) by Richard Williams



Number 5: Follow through and overlapping action

Follow through and overlapping action are very fun to see in animation and is personally my favourite parts to animate! Follow through is used when parts of an object, or hair for example, continue to move after the character has come to a stop. Think of ribbons on a dress or the wings of a bird. Overlapping action is a little different, it sees different parts of an object or character move at different rates; one part starts and the others follow. Take a squirrel for example, it's tail will move at different times to it's ears and body and may be the last part to follow through. Using these techniques help create the impression of physics at work in animation, and can make character movement more fluid and interesting!



'The Animator's Survival Kit’ (2001) by Richard Williams



Number 6: Ease ins and ease outs

Using ease ins and outs in animation involves using more frames at the beginning and end of a motion; the movement starts out slow, then fast and back to slowing down again. Using this technique gives natural movement to a person or vehicle, as most moving things need a moment to speed up or slow down.



'The Animator's Survival Kit’ (2001) by Richard Williams



Number 7: Arcs

Arcs in animation help create smooth movement, as straight lines feel more robotic or stiff. In real life we move in arcs without realising, for example when we walk our arms swing forward and back to propel us forward; these follow the shape of an arc. It's important animation uses arcs to look realistic, as a bonus its also pleasing to watch!



'Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life' (1981) by Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston



Number 8: Secondary action

Secondary actions in animation are actions that support the main action of a character without distracting from it. For example, the primary action of a character might involve walking down a street, but adding in some secondary actions such as the character checking their watch or chatting on the phone adds complexity to the animation. These secondary actions help make the animation more interesting, as well as giving it a realistic touch!



'The Animator's Survival Kit’ (2001) by Richard Williams



Number 9: Timing

Timing in animation refers to how long an action takes between beginning and end, and can make animation more interesting and gives meaning to movement. It involves the number of frames between 2 poses; slower movements includes more frames whereas faster movements has less keyframes. Adjusting your timing can help show the weight of an object, for example animating a balloon falling will involve more frames to give it a slow fall, whereas a bowling ball is very heavy so it involves far less frames. Applying timing to character reactions can also have an affect. Fast movements may indicate excitement or terror, on the other hand slower movements indicate the person may be relaxed or tired. Experimenting with timing can be fun!



'The Animator's Survival Kit’ (2001) by Richard Williams



Number 10: Exaggeration

Using exaggeration in animation helps to push movement further and can add more appeal to an action or character. Think of the Tom and Jerry (1967) cartoons, both of Tom and Jerry's movements are constantly exaggerated as they fight one another. Their movements are fast and their poses are pushed to the extreme; allowing for very fun and comical animations! Animation with exaggeration also helps define a style; more use of exaggeration will give a cartoonish look, whereas using less will give you more of a realistic approach.



'The Animator's Survival Kit’ (2001) by Richard Williams



Number 11: Solid Drawing

Solid drawing in animation is what makes the character or object look believable and three-dimensional. In traditional 2D animation, characters would be drawn with enough depth, weight and balance to appear three-dimensional in a two-dimensional space. This helped characters to not only appear more believable but gave them stronger shape, mass and weight!



'The Animator's Survival Kit’ (2001) by Richard Williams



Number 12: Appeal

Appeal is known as a very important principle of animation, somewhat a combination of the other 11 principles. In animation, appeal is used to create interesting characters, objects and more that will be appealing to it's audience. Appeal in animation doesn't necessarily refer to the appearances of characters but more to do with their actions. By adding in exaggeration, follow through and other animation principles to a piece of animation it can become interesting and memorable, and thus appealing to an audience!



We hope you enjoyed reading through the 12 principles of animation. Practising these techniques will not only improve your animation but will make it much more fun!


If you want animation work that covers these 12 principles or are simply looking to get in touch then please don’t hesitate to send us a message or fill out the form on our website!