Creating the illusion of movement with a series of images is called animation. Although the idea is hundreds of years old, only in the last century has it become a true industry. Numerous companies and individuals make massive amounts of money creating, marketing and selling animation.

If you’re hoping to create such pieces yourself, start with the 12 Disney principles of animation. These animation basics give you a framework for design and execution that can take a story idea to an entertaining piece of art.   

The Story Behind Animation Principles 

Animation concepts have been around for hundreds of years, starting with circular “magic lanterns” in the 1600s. Animation has always been a window into something more fantastic than we could create in the real world.  

Perhaps the most famous and influential animations come from Disney’s short and feature-length animations. The style is unmistakable and the stories almost always include an element of magic. 

After decades in the business, Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas wrote a book called The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. In it they outlined 12 elements of animation that are still considered foundational in the industry. 

12 Principles of Animation for Creating Animated Characters

Animation has changed a lot since Johnston and Thomas wrote their book, but if you learn these rules of animation, you’re well on your way to understanding what makes the craft great. 

1. Squash and Stretch

As flexible objects move in place or through space, they change shape. Think of a ball falling to the ground—it will stretch downward the lower it gets, squash side to side upon impact and stretch upward as it bounces back up. Or imagine a human face, which squashes and stretches with different expressions. 

In animation, squashing and stretching tend to be exaggerated for theatrical effect. However, it’s important to balance the ratios of squash and stretch against each other to keep things realistic enough to suggest gravity, weight and mass.  

2. Anticipation

Providing a sense of what’s about to happen isn’t only for dramatic effect; it makes animated action and interaction more realistic. 

Consider concepts of momentum, inertia and equal and opposite reaction when a character is about to throw something or jump in the air–they couldn’t do those things without pulling back their arm or bending at the knees. You can also think about what characters see, and allow them to react to someone or something about to come into frame.  

3. Staging

Your goal is to pull the viewer in and get their eye to move toward certain characters and objects in a scene. Staging is the art of placing everything where you need it to make that happen, and using various design techniques to keep focus on the action and reduce distraction. 

Beyond placement, staging is about lighting, camera angles, facial expressions and what you put in the foreground and background. 

4. Straight-Ahead Action and Pose-to-Pose

You have two options for how to approach your animation drawing process. You can choose one, or use both to get the exact look you want. 

  • Straight-ahead action is when you animate from beginning to end, drawing each frame between major poses. The result is a fluid, realistic look for your final product. Straight-ahead action is ideal for fast, action-packed scenes. 
  • Pose-to-pose is when you draw only the main poses into keyframes, and then fill in the action between them. The result is consistent proportions and realistic timing. Pose-to-pose is ideal for slow, emotional scenes.   

5. Follow-Through and Overlapping Action 

Individual characters’ various parts don’t always move at the same rate. For example, a person’s hair moves differently than the rest of their body, and tree branches and leaves sway more than the trunk. Follow-through and overlap are different aspects of these ideas. 

Follow-through explores how some parts of the body keep moving after the person stops. If a running character comes to a halt, their hair and arms will move just a bit longer than their legs. Overlapping action explores how body parts move at different rates. If a character is going to kick something, their hip and thigh will move more quickly than their shoulders, but slower than their foot.   

6. Slow In and Slow Out

Also called “ease in, ease out,” slow in and slow out addresses accelerating and slowing down. As objects build or counter momentum, going from stopping to moving and then stopping again, they change their speed more rapidly. 

To show this in animation, you’d add more frames at the beginning and the end, when the acceleration and slowing down happen. 

7. Arc

In the real world, things often move in an arc–a ball flying through the air, or a person waving their arm. The faster an object moves, the flatter the arc, while slower objects have a greater turn. Keeping this natural progression in mind helps animation appear more fluid and realistic.  

One trick to keeping your frames in an arc is to lightly pencil the trajectory onto your drawing surface (and erase it later). Timing and speed are very important in an arc, and getting them wrong can result in a blur. Of course, you could choose to create a blur for stylistic reasons, as animators for the Looney Toons and The Simpsons have done.  

8. Secondary Action

Rarely is only one thing happening at a time. A person swings a leg while sitting and chatting. A billiard ball bumps others on the table, making them roll away into the background. The swinging leg and bumped billiard balls are secondary actions–adding to a realistic scene without distracting from the primary action. 

Not only does secondary action bring life to a scene; it also gives specific personality to individual characters. One swings their arms wildly while walking, another subconsciously twirls a finger in their hair. More than just realistic looking, the characters act like real people.   

9. Timing

Ensure your animated setting makes sense to viewers by observing the laws of physics. Characters should move at the speeds they do in real life, taking their size and weight relative to those around them into consideration.

Timing is controlled by the number of frames between major poses, and how the frames are spaced out. Imagine you’re animating a ball rolling from left to right, working with 24 frames per second. If you make 24 frames for the roll, it will take one second. More spacing between frames means the item will move faster, and the spots where frames are closer together will be slower.  

10. Exaggeration

While realism is important for overall believability, exaggeration keeps animation fun and exciting. You can exaggerate a lot or a little, but sprinkling it in separates your animation from live action.

One well known animated exaggeration is the jaw drop. If a character is shocked or sees someone they find highly attractive, they drop their jaw lower than would be possible, sometimes all the way to the floor. Though, even a slightly exaggerated jaw drop can provide a fun effect.   

11. Solid Drawing 

All the consistency and effects in the world won’t be enough if the drawing isn’t good to begin with. Your characters need to demonstrate weight, balance, gravity, volume, light and shadow, whether you’re working in two or three dimensions. And if your world doesn’t operate on the laws of physics, be consistent with whatever laws you’ve created. 

Be sure to avoid “twinning” in your characters. The two sides of their body should never be perfectly symmetrical in structure or function, as that makes them seem less real and interesting. 

12. Appeal

You must make animated characters appealing. Not that they have to be likable—villains need appeal too. Interesting personalities, sweet or scary faces, pretty or mysterious places and a balance of relatability and complexity give your work what it takes to draw viewers in. 

You can’t follow a formula to achieve appeal, but good drawing and design, consistency, respect for physics and a bit of exaggeration will go a long way toward an appealing animation.  

Kickstart Your Animated Character Design Adventure 

Animation has come a long way since Steamboat Willie, but the 12 principles are tried and true. Anyone looking to get into animation needs to understand them in theory and practice.

Skillshare offers a range of classes in animation, from animation software (like getting started with Blender) to adding personality to animated objects. Learn techniques, refine your style, and, most importantly, have fun!   

Written by:

Katie Mitchell