The 12 Principles of Animation: How the Classics were Made

Beginning in the late 1920s, the affectionately named Golden Age of Animation paved the way for the cultural phenomenon we know and love today. Many of the classics were made during this time, including Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Bambi. We owe thanks for these classics to Disney’s Nine Old Men, the term even Walt Disney had for Disney’s early core of animators. Without them, Western animation as an industry would be sorely lacking.

Understandably, many animators today view the work of these animation legends as an ideal to strive toward. So much so, in fact, that a colloquial “animation bible” has been drafted detailing the main techniques the Nine Old Men used.

These techniques are known as the 12 principles of animation. This list, distilled into 12 points by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas in their book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, has accompanied animators worldwide.

Despite the age of these principles, and the development of technology from their creation, Frank and Ollie’s 12 principles of animation remain at the core of any good animation work. For complete beginners to animation veterans, the 12 principles of animation provide an excellent foundation upon which to build an animated masterpiece.

What are the 12 principles of animation?

The 12 principles of animation encompass every aspect of the work. While the animation is, of course, the main focus, it is only a single part. For a true classic to be created, the story, audience reaction, timing, and so much more must be perfect. Let’s break down how the 12 principles of animation guide animators to this goal.

1. Squash and stretch

Squash and stretch is the principle that grounds objects and characters in reality. It shows an object’s mass, flexibility, and, most importantly, its reaction to the world. For example, suppose an animated ball is hurled at a wall. This principle states that it should be stretched in order to signify its speed, and squash once it hits the wall.

Although this principle aims to make objects and characters seem plausible, not something alien or uncanny, it doesn’t mean replicating the real world. Effective employment of this principle will exaggerate reality while not distorting it beyond recognition.

2. Anticipation

Once again, realism is essential here. Anticipation helps prepare the audience for what will happen next – particularly a major action. To achieve this, an animator will leave breadcrumbs, including smaller build-up actions to prepare the audience for what is to come.

Let’s envisage our animated protagonist at a public swimming pool about to jump off the high-dive, having never done it before. Chances are, he is going to be feeling nervous and needs to prepare first emotionally. We often don’t consider just how much all of these anticipatory considerations contribute a distinct richness to the animated world.

It means that your characters automatically become much more than generic automatons populating the scene: they know things and feel things like sentient beings, avoiding situations that could cause pain and gravitating towards that which delights them.

A great deal of this principle, more so than the others, comes down to the animator’s ability as a storyteller.

3. Staging

If you are acquainted with the French term mise-en-scene, you’ll already have a good understanding of this principle. It refers to the orchestration of on-screen elements and how the director uses this space to get specific messages across and accent the main action as it takes place. The same consideration can be applied to animation.

With a carefully crafted frame, you can direct the viewer’s attention to be exactly where you want it, without them realizing that they are being guided. Eventually, the viewer may recognize the craft that has gone into this principle: everything must be expressed clearly and in a manner that can be retained later on.

To achieve this aim of clear expression and the retention of a message, nothing should be wasted. Every action characters take should be with a goal, whether to convey an emotion or to advance the plot. Similarly, as movement is key to gaining and retaining attention, the movement of background characters and objects should be kept to a minimum, unless it serves a purpose.

4. Straight-ahead action and pose-to-pose

This principle refers to the approaches to drawing and to the creation of the storyline. Generally, animators opt to use a blend of the two methods, though it isn’t impossible to use them independently of each other.

Straight ahead action: this is undoubtedly the most lengthy process of the two. Straight ahead action requires each individual frame of the animation to be drawn in sequence. While this takes as long as it sounds, it results in much more realistic and fluid movement, making for some truly stunning scenes.

Pose to pose technique: this approach involves the use of keyframes. Keyframes are precisely that – frames that are integral to part of the animation. Usually, keyframes are the start and endpoints of a movement, with the middle parts being completed later. This makes for wildly exaggerated movements, transitioning from one pose to the next in an engaging, if not entirely realistic, way.

5. Follow through and overlapping action

This principle can be most readily applicable to character-based motion.  

Nothing stops all at once. When people move naturally, the weight of their limbs and how loosely they are associated with the trunk of their body will both be readily apparent. Overlapping action describes the movement of the various parts of the body as a character moves in a scene. For example, if a character is running, it shouldn’t be only his legs that move, unless you aim to portray a robot.

However, upon stopping, there is some residual movement before a complete standstill. Inertia will act on an object, for example, hair flowing past the character, before joining them at a dead stop. This is usually described as a follow-through.

While only a minor detail, it’s important to remember that it is exactly there where the devil resides. They might be overlooked in production, but on the big screen, such details won’t be missed by an audience. If left in the animation, such mistakes will detract from the overall quality. For a more in-depth overview of this concept, check out our article on Walking Animation.

6. Slow in and slow out

As it sounds, slow in slow out is the concept of gradually building up momentum, then gradually dispersing it. In animation, this tends to take the form of including more frames at the start and end of a character or object’s movement, resulting in much more realistic and convincing movement.

7. Arcing

Movements that are affected by gravity follow an arcing path, as dictated by the laws of physics. As this applies to a great many movements, this principle should be kept in mind when animating.

Take throwing a ball as an example. The act of throwing the ball will follow a curve, in order for the ball to gain the necessary momentum. Similarly, the ball will arc in the air, ending its journey with a number of increasingly smaller arcs. In order to create convincing movements, it is vital to keep this principle in mind.

8. Secondary action

Just as side characters exist to support the main characters and add more depth to the story, so too secondary actions exist to support the main action. Consider an argument as the main action. In order to be convincing, a range of secondary actions must be present. This includes facial expressions, gestures, agitated movements, and so on. While it is important to ensure these secondary actions do not outshine the main action, forgoing them altogether will result in a bland, unconvincing scene.

9. Timing

Though it might seem obvious, timing is key to creating good animation. This is true in two ways. Firstly, you should carefully time the story beats and dialogue within your animation. Poorly timed comedy or an off-beat series of events will subject your audience to narrative whiplash, making your animation tough to follow and enjoy.

Secondly, you must time the actions of your on-screen elements well. Characters should react naturally, in time with any stimulus. For example, an insulted character shouldn’t wait too long to show a reaction; else, it leads an audience to become disconnected from the events unfolding on the screen.

There are exceptions to this rule, however. It can be bent to good effect when creating a scene disconnected from the usual expectations of time. A dream sequence, a fevered nightmare, or a divine experience are all instances where time can be bent creatively, to the benefit of the animation as a whole.

10. Exaggeration

While animation should reflect reality, it should aim to ground the work to the extent that enables an audience to understand and follow along. The reflection should be similar to that of a novelty mirror, rather than a direct one-to-one representation of reality.

We see reality each day; it isn’t new to us. Part of what makes animation entertaining is how it can put a new spin on what we see in the real world. To this end, though your animation should make clear what is on screen, it should hold a creative spark, something exaggeration can help with. If you were to simulate reality, what would be the point of creating an animation?

11. Solid drawing

Unsurprisingly, drawing and sketching are skills integral to animation. Therefore, it’s crucial you get them right. Great sketches act as great planning, while high-quality drawings create characters and objects with realistic, convincing physical attributes and proportions.

That said, it isn’t necessary for you to brush up on your art skills personally. You can choose to outsource the work to a professional third party, if capturing the human essence on canvas isn’t quite your area of expertise.

12. Appeal

This principle of animation is the tie that binds the whole package together – your work should be appealing to those that view it. Don’t waste time on flat characters, or ones that require the fourth dimension to perceive clearly. Instead, rekindle the flame of childlike wonder in the hearts of your audience. Create an enchanting world, interesting characters, and creative creatures, then litter your animation with the lot. Make your work a refuge from the tedium of reality.

Final thoughts

So ends our breakdown of the 12 principles of animation bequeathed to future animators by Disney’s animating goliaths. They are tried and tested, having produced many of the classics you doubtless remember, classics remembered fondly by millions around the world. While the 12 principles of animation aren’t the only concepts to keep in mind, employing them in your work is sure to give your animation the foundation it needs to become a masterpiece.

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