12 Basic Principles of Animation: The Foundation For All Motion Work

Basic Principles of Animation for Motion Work

Animation is so much more than drawing characters, adding movement, and recording voice overs to be put on top. For it to be successful, the actions should be careful, precise, and realistic. However, despite the emergence of computer technology, producing animation works still proves to be a struggle for many animators around the world.

Fortunately, in 1981, Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston published a book entitled, “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.” Often referred to as the bible of animation, this book provides a solid foundation for the craft. It addresses every animator’s concerns about real-world physics, character design, and emotional expression. And while this list of best practices was originally intended for traditional animation, it is still applicable (and very relevant!) to today’s digital era.

So if you want to create compelling animated videos and campaigns, it’s a must to understand these 12 basic principles of animation which were outlined in “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation” book.


12 Basic Principles of Animation Explained


1. Squash and Stretch

Considered to be the most important principle of animation, the squash and stretch principle gives your characters and objects the illusion of gravity.

Think about how a rubber ball may react when tossed into the air—it should naturally stretch as it travels up and down and squish once it hits the floor. However, it’s entirely up to you if you want it to be exaggerated for comical effect or realistic for life-like animations as this principle allows you to do both.

Tip: When using the squash and stretch principle, it’s a must to keep the volume of the objects consistent.


2. Anticipation

People in real life don’t just move without warning. For instance, if they were to jump in the air, they should first bend their knees. Likewise, when throwing a punch, they should wind up their arm. 

Without this particular principle of animation, the actions of your animated characters would look very awkward and unnatural. Anticipation helps prepare the audience for what’s about to happen in your scene and makes it more realistic.


3. Staging

Staging in animation is similar to the concept of composition found in an artwork.

Painters use motion to guide the viewers’ eyes to the most important aspect of a scene and keep their attention away from less significant elements such as the background. Like a painting, animators should also utilize staging in their animated works to direct the viewers’ focus on what is relevant. This particular principle of animation also helps artists eliminate unnecessary details in order to avoid confusion.

Did You Know? Aside from the composition, animation also accounts for lighting and angles in order to achieve the best look.


4. Straight Ahead Action and Pose-to-Pose

Straight ahead and pose to pose action are principles of animation that refer to two different approaches when drawing animated characters.

Straight ahead action is used if you want to achieve fluid and realistic movements. It does so by drawing the characters frame-by-frame from start to finish. In contrast, pose to pose action allows you to increase the dramatic effect of motion as you can just simply add the beginning frame and the end frame. The computer will help you fill in the other frames needed in-between the scenes.

But no matter how much these two principles of animation differ, they are now often combined to achieve structure and spontaneity in characters’ movements.


5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action

The follow through animation principle refers to the concept that when a body in motion stops moving, some parts will come to a standstill at different times. For instance, when a woman clad in a dress suddenly stops running, the parts of her dress will still continue to move because of momentum.

On the other hand, overlapping action is the fact that separate parts of an object move at different times. An example of this is when a person walks, his arms and legs do their own opposite things and are rarely in perfect sync.

These two basic principles of animation ultimately help you create realistic animated characters.

Tip: When animating abstract objects, you should incorporate this particular principle of animation in order to avoid stilted and robotic motions.


6. Slow In, Slow Out

In this principle of animation, you can slow down a particular action by adding more frames at the beginning and end of a sequence. In contrast, you can speed things up by removing a few frames in between the scenes. This principle is similar to how a car starts and stops—it starts to move slowly before gaining momentum and speeding up. Then the opposite will happen when the car brakes.

This principle of animation brings more life and realism to your characters as it emphasizes the gradual speed up and slow down of a particular action.


7. Arc

This basic principle of animation stresses the importance of sticking to the laws of physics when working on an animated work.

This is due to the fact that real-life objects always follow an arc or path when moving rather than straight lines. As such, it’s just appropriate that your animation reflects these particular movements to increase the realism of the action.

Thankfully, with today’s access to numerous animation software, you can easily apply this principle as it allows you to set motion lines.


8. Secondary Action

Secondary actions support and emphasize the main action going on within a scene. This basic principle of animation adds more dimension to your characters and objects which can make your animated work seem more life-like.

It’s similar to the follow through principle—when an object moves, other parts of the object also follow this action.

Tip: Use secondary actions in a subtle way so that they emphasize the main action and instead of taking away attention from it.


9. Timing

In the slow in and slow out principle of animation, adding frames to your animated work slows it down while removing them speeds up a scene. So if you move an object more quickly or slowly than its natural movement speed, the effect would not be believable.

That’s why it’s essential to use proper timing so you can control the mood and the reaction of your characters and objects. This principle of animation simply refers to the number of drawings or frames required in a given action.

Tip: It’s recommended to play around with the timing of animated works (it’s an imaginary world after all!) but make sure to pace it accordingly.


10. Exaggeration

If your animated videos have no exaggerated element at all, you might as well produce a live-action video. Too much realism makes animated works appear static and boring. In order to avoid this, you should incorporate exaggerated elements into your work for a more dynamic action that can instantly hook your target audience.

Just take the Tom & Jerry cartoon as an example. One of the reasons why it’s so successful is the fact that it has the right amount of silliness the viewers want. 

With that being said, the key to using this particular principle of animation is using the exact amount of exaggeration as too much can appear very unrealistic and unprofessional.


11. Solid Drawing

An understanding of the basics of drawing is essential to animation. You should have knowledge of drawing in three-dimensional space with a solid background on form and anatomy, weight and volume, and light and shadows. 

This principle of animation talks exactly about these rules of perspective that one should follow in three-dimensional space. But even when you’re working with 2D animation, you should still think about a character or object’s depth.


12. Appeal

Give your characters or objects appeal so people can remember them. You can consider enlarging the most attractive feature of your character or try clothing him with stylish garments. For instance, Disney’s Mickey Mouse is usually known for his big, circular ears so even if you just see his silhouette, you’ll immediately recognize that it’s him. Another example is Cinderella’s gown. In the animated film, the Disney princess is mostly clad in rags but what the people actually remember is the beautiful blue gown that she wore in the ball.

There’s really no guaranteed formula to get this particular principle of animation right as everyone has a different standard. With that being said, you can still make your character appeal to the audience by giving him a unique look and personality. After all, nobody wants to watch an animation that is boring and dull.


ALSO READ: 22 Animation Styles and Techniques to Use for Your Campaign


In order for animation to be successful, the audience must connect with the characters and relate to them. This is only made possible by making animation realistic yet dynamic at the same. These 12 basic principles of animation provide a solid foundation in achieving such, ultimately helping you create animated works that move audiences.

Need help in creating compelling animated videos? Mustasa Republic, a reliable video production company in the Philippines, offers both 2D and 3D animation services. Our years of experience in the industry, as well as our passion for the craft, is the driving force behind our successful works. Let us help you create your next animation project by calling us today! 

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