The Principles of Animation

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The Principles of Animation


Combine the principles to create your own style

The Principles of Animation are the fundamental building blocks of character animation, or animating any object. They are the principles that breath life into character performance and make it appealing and believable. All professional animators who work on any feature film, TV production, games or any high quality animated production have a strong understanding of these principles and they continuously practice to improve their understanding of them.

When I was in school, we all had a the principles listed on a paper taped to our monitors. While your animating and after you have done rough pass, frequently check the list, almost like a check list to make sure you’ve included the appropriate principles in the appropriate places.

When I have the pleasure of teaching animation to first year students, I like to make some analogies to help them understand how animation principles are used and how important they are. I’ll do this on the very first day before we dive into the explanation of each animation principle. In brief, it usually goes something like this:

The Principles of Animation can be compared to other art forms in which you have to learn a fundamental skill set to create the art…

The Principles of Animation Compared to Martial Arts

In animation, we first learn each animation principle one or two at a time (like individual movements in a form of martial art) and then later combine them to create an animation style (or style of martial art). Remember the Original Karate Kid? Wax-on/Wax-off! Two simple movements to block a punch or kick. Moves are combined to create fluid motion.

The Principles of Animation Compared to Music

Of course to learn music and become a great musical artist, you need to learn the notes. You can’t really make any good music with one or two notes. Similarly to animation, even a ball bouncing requires three animation principles to convincingly convey the action. But full on character acting requires all the principles in concert with each other.

That’s Right, Even Food!

You can even draw a comparison to the culinary arts. Consider different ingredients (principles) and styles of cuisine (styles of animation).

Animation Styles

One of the things that I love about working on TV series, is the variety of animation styles that I have the pleasure of learning. I like the challenge and change of pace.

When you first start to learn animation and you begin to successfully use the principles for character acting, new animators will have a personal style that just tends to present itself once the animation starts to come together in coherent readable actions. Which is a beautiful, and very individual thing. However…

Even though there are different styles of animation, the Principles can be used and modified to adhere to any style. In fact, one measure of a good animator is the ability to quickly learn new animation styles for any production they are hired to work on. The director (film or series) usually is the individual who will decide what the style of animation will be. Sometimes in agreement with the Animation Director and/or the creator of the project. For example if the story derives from a book or game.

It’s also important to understand that when your working on any production it’s not your property, you’re in fact being paid to perform a service to help realize a story that belongs to someone else. As I’ve mentioned before, animation is a skilled trade. You are trading your animation skills and talent for money.

I have conducted interviews in the past and I know that studio recruiters (animation supervisors/directors etc..) are looking for demo reels that demonstrate a strong understanding of the principles. Not just an understanding, but the principles being used in a clever and creative way. Your work should have an strong overall appeal and, like other art forms evoke some emotion to the person watching.

Frank and Ollie

The 12 principles of animation were first publicized by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in their book “The Illusion of Life”. Here is a quote from chapter 3 “The Principles of Animation”. Frank and Ollie are referring to how the principles of animation were developed in the 1930’s, a short time before production of Snow White began…

As each of these processes acquired a name, it was analyzed and perfected and talked about, and when new artists joined the staff they were taught these practices as if they were the rules of the trade. To everyone’s surprise, they became the fundamental principles of animation.”

As animation educators, we’ll carry on the tradition. These are the fundamentals that you will learn as an animation student.

Below is a list of the 12 original principles listed in the same order as in “The Illusion of Life”. In the book, each principle has at least a whole page of amazing explanation (which I highly recommend you read). For this post I’ve included my own simplified explanation of each:


Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston cameos in “The Incredibles” and The Iron Giant”. Both films directed by Brad Bird

1.Stretch and Squash
4.Straight ahead and pose to pose
5.Follow through and overlapping action
6.Slow in and slow out
8.Secondary Action
11.Solid Drawing



Stretch and Squash:

StretchAndSquash1The deforming of an object or character, usually when it comes in contact with the ground.
Stretch and squash is used to convey a feeling of weight. The degree of stretch and squash used on an object communicates it’s physical make up and degree of flexibility. This technique is heavily used in a more cartoony or exaggerated style of animation, but it should be considered in all animation. How much stretch and squash used depends on the style of animation.







Antic_wille exaggeration
Also known as an Antic. This is a special pose that occurs before the main action. For example, the character moves back before they move forward. Anticipation should be used in most of a characters actions; the larger the movement the larger the antic. A smaller movement or subtle action calls for a more subtle antic.







staging2This principle applies to how characters are posed (silouetted posing) and how you position the camera, characters, props and everthing in the scene so that all the visuals are clear and uncluttered. “The presentation of an idea so that it is completely and unmistakably clear” (Jonston and Thomas, “The Illusion of Life).






Straight ahead and pose to pose:

Pose2PoseStraight ahead animation is animating frame by frame, one after the other. (like you would in a flipbook). Stop motion is done this way. Hand drawn effects are also usually animatedStraight Ahead_waterpour Straight Ahead. When we animate pose to pose we are defining extreme poses, then in-betweening. This allows you to plan the performance. In today’s animation industry, most animation is done using software that will take care of the in-betweening so we can focus on everything else.



Follow through and overlapping action:


Occurs as a result of secondary action, when the main action of a character stops or slows down, any kind of flexible dangling part or extremity of a character lags behind or continues to swing after the main action and eventually settles. Overlapping action first starts with follow through or lagging motion then poses begin to overlap themselves. Overlap is used to animate flapping actions. The usual examples are a tail wagging.




Slow In, Slow Out:

slow-in-and-outAlso called Ease In, Ease Out. This is a technique used to “cushion” the animation when going into a pose or coming out of a pose. Start slow or stop slow. It’s achieved by adding more in-betweens that “favor” or are closer to the pose that you want to cushion. Often used to avoid any hard or sudden stops, or instead of an Overshoot.






arcsThe default Path of Action for any motion. The breakdown poses define the shape of a motions curve. For example, a characters body movements will be in a swinging/arcing motion rather than a linear, point A to point B movement – a “Breakdown Pose” between A and B will give you a curved or arched Path of Action.






Secondary Action:

Secondary-ActionThe follow through, overlapping action, bobbing, swinging, etc. Motion that will occur on a dangling flexible part, or extremity of a character. It’s secondary to the main actions.





This is the number of frames (or in-between drawings) needed for an action to occur, or the number of frames between poses. We can control how fast and slow things happen with timing in our animation. Slow in, Slow out is a common way of timing animation. Good timing in animation feels right, looks energized, lively and has appeal.



Exaggeration MikeWazowski
ExaggerationIn animation we often exaggerate the actions so that they “read” well. Clowns, mimes and stage actors do this. It means that the acting of a character is made as obvious as possible for the audience by pushing poses farther than you would see in real life; to achieve this we exaggerate the timing and poses to a certain degree; enough to give the performance charm and appeal.




Solid Drawing:

This principle mostly applies to traditional animation but is transferable to digital animation in regards to good models in 3D animation, and well thought out poses. In digital 2D software such as Adobe Flash or Toonboom Harmony, the characters are drawn and built. They are often designed on paper first, then drawn in the software with a tablet or cintiq and animated similarly to paper cutout animation. There is some drawing that occurs during the animation process for new parts such as feet, hands, torsos in order to get the desired poses.



Appeal_dalmatiansAppeal simply reffers to all aspects of animation having a Appeal_Wall-Ehigh level of appeal and charm to a general audience. If all animation principles are used skillfully, in appropriate places and creatively then animation will be appealing to view.








It’s been a long time since the principles of animation were first developed and animation has come a long way, here are some other things that modern animators keep in mind when they are working. I would say these should be added to the list of animation principles:


Silhouetted Posing:

Staging_Silhouettes1Something to consider when setting key poses of a character. Making sure that the pose has some negative spacing and “read” well. When setting poses, animators will consider if the pose would look appealing as a silhouette. For example, you would make sure that arms and other extremities are not crowded in front of the main torso.






Line of action and S curves/C curves:

C-CurveAnother aspect to consider while posing characters. A line can be drawn through a characters’ general pose. It’s adds appeal to a pose when the character is posed in a C curve or S curve formation. During animation, characters can switch poses from C to S or opposing C curve poses.








Weight and Balance:

Sometimes the character your animating may have to lift or carry a heavy object, or stretch to reach something. A character can be very large and heavy or small and light. A heavy character would move more slowly than a small/skinny/lighter character. Even in more common actions we have to keep this principle in mind. To “sell” the visual, or make it look believable we need to have an understanding of weight and balance. This principle goes hand in hand with timing.


Arc_DragWhen a part of a character lags behind. For example, adding some drag on the hand as the arms swings or can be used as part of secondary action. Usually occurs right before follow through. The object drags back right before stopping and following through.










Overshooting a pose means to go past the resting pose and come back to it. It’s generally used for quicker movements and is to emphasize momentum, difficulty to stop moving because the character was moving so quickly. For example, if a character were to quickly through their arms up in the air you would first create an anticipation pose, then create a pose with arms up but stretch the body and arms so that the hands go higher than the resting pose (this is the overshoot), then snap back to the resting pose with arms raised.



The Principles of Animation become second nature to experienced animators, it does take time to learn how to apply them well. If you are starting out, it will come slow at first. Studio experience will bring speed. Sometimes the rules can be broken, but only in very special circumstances. The general public has been seeing animation principles in animation since the 1930’s. And whether they/we realize it or not, this has become the expectation for what defines high-end/high quality animation.