What Are the 12 Principles of Animation?

Discover the key foundations of animation! Learn the 12 principles that bring characters to life in this essential guide. Start animating today!

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Every profession has fundamental principles that must be mastered to become sufficient within the field. Animation is no different. These 12 basic principles, including those specific to digital animation and realistic character animation, are crucial for your development. So, make sure to bookmark this post!  

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the pioneers of animation in the early 1900s, developed these principles that are still relevant today. They essentially serve as the animation laws of physics for creating realistic motion. 

History Of The 12 Principles Of Animation

Have you heard of the Nine Old Men? Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, and others were among Disney’s core creators responsible for Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and many more famous movies and shorts. They are Disney legends and their animations will be forever remembered as classics.

Of the Nine Old Men, Frank and Ollie created the 12 principles of animation. Their guide became an essential mastery list for all aspiring and established animators. Though they were made in the 1930s, the 12 principles were first published in 1981 in their book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.

The 12 principles have been a staple for Disney animators ever since their inception. Most animators around the world subscribe to these principles, and rightfully so. Look at how amazing Disney animation has become partially because of the principles!

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The 12 Animation Principles Explained

The history of animation is vast and intriguing. But let’s get into each specific principle so you can continue your journey as a successful animator. 

12 Principles of Animation

1. Squash and Stretch

Gravity, an influential force in our real life that imparts a sense of weight, holds significance. Squash and stretch in animation enable us to perceive the effects of gravity on animated creations, creating an illusion that resonates with our perception. By expanding (stretching) and compressing (squashing) characters, the illusion of weight and natural movement is achieved. Pixar’s Day & Night serves as a remarkable exemplification of this principle.

 👉Check this example of squash and stretch in animation

2. Anticipation

12 principles of animation - anticipation

This principle, which includes the illusion of movement and the use of extreme poses, is what transforms a book into a captivating page-turner. It provides your audience with a sense of anticipation, even when they may not be certain about what lies ahead. You accomplish this by strategically dropping hints throughout your storyline. For a remarkable demonstration of anticipation, I recommend watching Hercules.

 👉Check this example of anticipation in animation

3. Staging

Staging is setting the scene. Imagine watching a play where the characters are playing baseball, but the stage is set up like a bathroom. That needs to be clarified and will confuse the audience. Beauty and the Beast illustrate staging wonderfully.

When you’re staging, you must ensure that the scenery matches the context of the shot.

  • Colors: In the evening, you might use a lot of dark blue tones, whereas the morning may call for bright warm tones.
  • Lighting: A character in an open field should have brighter lighting than one under a tree.
  • Speed: Walking animation might have a slower-moving background compared to a running character.

 👉 Check the example of staging in animation

4. Straight Ahead Action & Pose-to-Pose

This is a two-in-one principle that addresses the drawing process in animation. Drawing out all of your scene’s frames by frame is called straight-ahead action. Pose-to-pose is when you only draw the key frames and fill in the rest later.

For more fluid, realistic movement, consider straight-ahead action composition. This approach makes the most sense for action scenes. However, more dramatic scenes are best composed with the pose-to-pose method. This is because the relationship between the characters and the stage is far more relevant here.

 👉 Watch Cinderella to see how this principle is implemented.

5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action

Follow-through and overlapping action are closely related techniques that bring the laws of physics to the animated world. For example, long flowing hair keeps moving after the person turns their head. This is follow through.

Overlapping action, similar to how a rubber ball behaves, explains how different parts of a thing move at different speeds. For example, you can see this is a tree swaying in the wind. The tree’s trunk may move ever so slightly while the branches and leaves wave more frantically.

👉 See how follow-through and overlapping action is used in animation

6. Ease In, Ease Out

12 principles of animation - ease in, ease out

This animation technique focuses on the time it takes to go (in) and stop (out). A common statistic shared about race cars is their 0 to 60 time. This is the time it takes for a car to go from 0 mph to 60 mph. Depending on the speed, a car coming to a full stop takes time as well.

The laws of physics are skewed in the animated world, of course. However, the more you take ease into account, the more realistic the movements will be.

 👉 Watch the example of ease in, ease out in animation

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7. Arcs

Due to the influence of gravity, objects in motion through the air tend to follow an arched trajectory rather than a straight line. This natural action allows for sufficient forward movement while gravity exerts its downward pull. To achieve greater realism, animations should incorporate implied arcs, following the inherent circular paths dictated by gravity’s influence.

👉 Check this example of arcs in animation

8. Secondary Action

To bring your animation to life, add a secondary supporting action. For example, when people walk, their arms sway in the same rhythm as their feet. Walking (movement of the legs and feet) is the primary action while swaying arms is the secondary action. You might add a head bob or bounce as well. With all the wind action in Pocahontas, it’s the perfect movie to study secondary action.

👉 Check this example of secondary action in animation

9. Timing

This principle, known as correct timing in character animation, revolves around the meticulous creation of frames for each action. By increasing the number of frames, the fluidity of the action is enhanced, lending a greater sense of realism. Moreover, precise timing imparts the illusion that the animation adheres to the laws of physics. The Incredibles masterfully employs timing adjustments, striking a harmonious balance between playfulness and realism.

10. Exaggeration

Adding a touch of exaggeration can transform a mundane animation into something captivating. Incorporating elements of dramatic movement can infuse intrigue and hold the viewer’s attention. However, caution must be exercised to avoid excessive exaggeration, unless it aligns with a deliberate and distinct stylistic choice. In such cases, consistency becomes key, ensuring that the exaggeration is consistently applied throughout the animation.

11. Solid Drawing

All animation, including 3D animation, is fundamentally rooted in 2D. By skillfully incorporating shadows and highlights, flat objects can create the illusion of depth and simulate a 3D appearance. This technique, known as solid drawing, is dedicated to capturing the essence of three-dimensionality and imbuing the artwork with a lifelike quality.

12. Appeal

This isn’t solely determined by cheerful or pretty appearances. The appeal in animation extends beyond superficial qualities and encompasses the believability, likability, and ability to evoke empathy in animated characters. The integration of facial features plays a significant role in their overall appeal, while their seamless integration into the broader narrative further enhances their allure.

👉 Check out this example of appeal in animation

Tips On Applying The 12 Principles 

The 12 principles of animation, essential for achieving realistic animation, go beyond mere rules to be skimmed through once or twice. Instead, they demand frequent revisiting and review throughout your projects. Treat them like a valuablechecklist, and make sure you’ve considered all 12 in your animation.

Choose a movie to study and point out some of the instances of each principle. We recommend keeping a journal that you can reference later for inspiration and guidance.

Also, peer review is for more than just science. Ask other animators to check your work and have your mentor take a look as you progress. In Animation Desk, you can easily share your animations with other creators to get feedback that’ll help you bring your creations to life.

Ask others to check your work. Ask your peers or a mentor to look at your project as you go. 

How Animation Desk Can Animate You   

You can practice the 12 principles of animation frame by frame in our app! Animation Desk is an easy-to-use animation software where animators create animations, cartoons, and animatics. Then, you can explore hand-drawn 2D animation using your phone or tablet. Showcase your creativity, whether you’re a seasoned animator or a beginner.

Animation Desk has pre-built animation templates, clips, and photos to help beginners get their feet wet. Our intuitive interface guides you through basic animation processes for all kinds of animations.

Experienced animators can capture ideas on the go right in the app. Animation Desk supports various export formats and is a powerful tool for professional storyboards and sketches. If you haven’t already, download Animation Desk Now!

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