(Last updated on May 21st, 2021)
Want to know the 12 Principles of Animation From Disney? You have come to the right place!
The delightful world of animation. From Disney to Pixar to Studio Ghibli, what makes animation work so fantastically well and bewitch us with movement and color? Let’s dive into the world of animation, defining the twelve rules that truly make it work like a charm.
We will be using the twelve rules defined by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas from their book, “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.” We will also be exploring the history of animation, animation styles, and great films to jumpstart your animation journey, one frame at a time.
Where did animation begin? First, we need to go way back to the beginning. The first animated film with sound was “Steamboat Willie” by Walt Disney, produced by Walt Disney Studios in 1928. The short film’s star, Mickey Mouse, would go on to be an icon that captivated audiences worldwide, jumpstarting the brand of Disney.
The 1930s through the 1950s would go on to be the Golden Age of American Animation, marked by the rise of Disney, MGM, Warner Brothers, and Fleischer. We would meet popular cartoons such as Betty Boop, Popeye, Donald Duck, and more.
The next huge milestone was the creation of the first animated feature film, “Snow White.” Walt Disney brought a revolutionary approach to this genre, creating complex characters that audiences invest in emotionally, using universal themes and nostalgic fairytales to win over the hearts of a massive audience.
From the 60s to the 80s, there would be an explosion of animated work. Animated TV shows and movies would continue to grow in popularity, popular work such as The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Pink Panther, and more. In 1987, the famous Simpsons came to be, currently holding the title as the longest-running American sitcom.
In 1995, Pixar changed the animating game, creating “Toy Story,” the first fully computer-animated film to date that grossed over 300 million worldwide. Instead of animators painstakingly drawing each and every frame, CGI animation allowed creators to create sets and characters, puppeting them to animate within the scene. This film production created the backbone of the CGI-animation model, a system that would continue to grow in efficiency into the animation powerhouse that it is today. After the success of this film, we got classics such as “Up,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” and more.
In addition to hand-drawn animation and 3D-CGI work, there is also anime, stop motion, and rotoscoping animation. Japanese anime dates back to 1917, starting from rudimentary shorts and building into the TV shows and films we know and love today. Stop motion is the art of taking individual photographs for each frame of a film, using the painstaking process of moving characters and set pieces by hand to create animation.
Lastly, rotoscoping is the art of tracing live action in order to create an animated film, a technique used in many traditional animations. A modern twist on this technique is “Loving Vincent,” an animated film created entirely out of oil paintings, each frame traced from a live-action video.
Animation is daunting and incredible. Let’s dive into the techniques that make the work come to life. The best animators not only give you inviting characters and storylines but capture realism in an enticing way.
The 12 Principles of Animation
If you’re an aspiring animator, you’ve probably heard the spiel about going back to the animation basics, starting with the twelve rules of animation. Why are these rules highlighted again and again? These principles established by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas help new animators create realistic, relatable work that mimics real-life movements while making room for creativity. By mastering these principles, you will create a foundation that will make your work visually appealing and work in the eye of the beholder.
Rule 1: Squash and Stretch
This rule is one of the most important on the list, giving your characters the illusion of gravity and weight. To picture this action, imagine a rubber ball being tossed in the air. As it flies towards earth, it becomes thinner, stretching vertically. Once it hits the ground, the shape flattens, widening from the static shape.
Using contrasting changes of shape gives the characters the feeling of flesh and bone and the shape movement. Without this, the character looks stiff and lifeless.
For this example, the beach ball retains its normal shape when it’s at the top of the throwing arc. As soon as it starts to gain speed and head towards the ground, the shape narrows in width. Finally, after the ball hits the ground, the ball widens, flattening.
Rule 2: Anticipation
Anticipation prepares the audience for the main action, expressed as an opposite movement before the main one. For example, a figure may drawback before a sneeze or pull a bat back before swinging to hit the baseball. Most real action contains anticipation, therefore making its incorporation into animation necessary.
Here, in this example, the lion crouches down before leaping upwards in the air, a downward-back movement before jumping up and forward.
Rule 3: Staging
Staging your animation is similar to staging a scene in a theater. You want to make sure your animation draws focus to the right moments. You want the scene around the main movement to complement the focus, not distract. There should always be one clear main action.
Camera angles also make a huge difference to aid storytelling. Closeups, establishing shots, and medium shots all convey different messages and emotions.
Here, this image is a closeup of a character, showing her in a vulnerable moment.
Rule 4: Straight-Ahead Action and Pose-to-Pose
Straight Ahead Action and Pose-to-Pose are drawing types used by animators. Straight-ahead action is when the animator draws each frame consecutively from point A to B. Pose-to-pose is when the animator draws point A and B first, then finishes the animation by drawing the frames in-between. Typically, drawing in the straight-ahead method will give you more fluid, realistic motion, while pose-to-pose will give you more drama.
When you work pose-to-pose, you can catch bigger movement mistakes more easily, dictating the main actions that the character makes. When you do straight-ahead action, the movements are less planned and more spontaneous. However, using this technique can lead to fixing more errors and redoing sequences down the line. Most animators master and use both techniques in combination.
Here, the kids could be drawn in this example, either way, pose-to-pose or straight-ahead action.
Rule 5: Follow Through and Overlapping Action
When an object starts moving or suddenly stops, not every part of the object will start/stop moving at the same rate. Follow-through would be if an object on the character continues to move after the character has stopped moving. Overlapping action would be if different parts of the character moved at different rates, like wheels spinning faster than a train’s movement.
An example of follow-through could be if a character runs towards the edge of a cliff and suddenly stops, their head might continue moving forward in front of the rest of their body because it’s heavier and takes longer to slow down. Similarly, if the character slowly leans back, the arms might wiggle fast and dramatically, faster than the character’s body, giving you overlapping motion. Combining these elements gives you realistic visuals.
In this example, the woman’s scarf would flap wildly in the wind, much faster movement than herself. If she suddenly stops, the snowdrifts will be lighter and continue to move in a flurry after she skids to a stop.
Rule 6: Exaggeration
The magic of animation is that the rules of realism don’t always apply and can be stretched past realistic ceilings. In animation, you have the power to exaggerate or change natural action, making interesting choices with movement, object reaction, and more. That’s the magic of animation.
If a bird flew into a window, does it really go splat like a pancake? Does Wiley Coyote actually hang in the air before falling off a cliff? No, but it’s fun visually. You can push the limits. By drastically exaggerating movements and shapes, you can add comedy or drama to the scene.
In this example, the character looks extra stressed. The arm movements are exaggerated, with items flying everywhere, conveying agitation and anger.
Rule 7: Solid Drawing
Good animators learn anatomy, perspective, and drawing in a 3D space. Having this foundation helps keep the drawing consistent. Even if you do change the rules of physics in your world or exaggerate anatomy, it’s important to master the basics before breaking the standards. Incorporating perspective, light, and shadow will make your drawings look more professional and reduce bad drawing distractions.
Rule 8: Slow In and Slow Out
Realistic movement always starts and ends slowly because of the physics of acceleration. A car going from zero to thirty will take longer than a car going sixty to ninety. As an object gains momentum, it gets faster quicker. As an object loses momentum, it gets loses speed slower.
Rule 9: Arc
Objects should move with the pull of gravity. Therefore, a ball tossed in the air will move in an arc. Arcs can be fast or barely noticeable. Using them will create the illusion of gravity-based movement. Without arcs, your animations will look blocky and mechanical.
Here, in this example, the ball moves in an arc from start to finish, rising after being hit and falling once it loses all momentum.
Rule 10: Secondary Action
Secondary actions aid the central action of the scene. For example, if the main character leaps across the abyss between two buildings, landing on the roof, secondary characters below may point and lookup. Secondary objects reacting, secondary body language, and subtle movements all add to the animation’s finished visuals.
For example, in this scene, the King and Queen are the main focus. The horse wouldn’t do a big, drastic movement, but rather small movements like stomping hooves or wagging its tail added natural movement without being a distraction.
Rule 11: Timing
The art of timing means correctly timing the animation so that the rhythm matches natural movement or the action you’re trying to convey. The number of frames for a given action will translate into the speed of the movement. More frames for a set distance are slower, while fewer frames equal faster action.
If a character is reacting to something in the scene, timing is crucial to convey the emotion and reaction. If one character tells a joke, the other character needs to grimace or laugh at the appropriate moment.
Here, the characters are having a snowball fight. The snowball hitting the second character has to be timed with their reaction to getting hit.
Rule 12: Appeal
When creating an animation, all of your characters should have appeal. Meaning they should be interesting characters visually and emotionally to the viewer. Audiences want dynamic, interesting characters with personalities, wants, and desires. Generally, good-looking characters with defining features play out the best.
While it’s hard to quantify exact measurements, creating great characters is aided by thorough character development.
Bonus: Frame Rate
Frame rate is defined as the frequency of frames per second for a film. Early animated features are 24 frames per second. Animated television shows typically animate on twos or uses 12 frames per second, creating less smooth animation. Nowadays, animation can be as high as 60 frames per second! This change is a big reason why computer-generated animation has become a more popular animation technique, cutting down on drawing time immensely.
Those are the twelve rules of animation. These rules are foundational, bringing an animator back to the basics of animation and teaching the importance of believable movement while also emphasizing creative play. With the basics and creativity at your side, you can create characters with personality, movement, and style.
Animation takes shape in many forms and styles. Here, I will go over the most common:
Traditional Animation: This type of animation is drawn by hand, frame-by-frame. Traditional animators drew the character on plastic cell blocks, then painted each one individually. After the character animation was finished, the characters would be overlayed on a painted background image.
Examples of Traditional Animation: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “Peter Pan,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Aladdin.”
Japanese Anime: This type of film is a Japanese animation style aimed at both adult audiences and children. Japanese anime is deeply embedded in Japanese culture, originally used as a propaganda tool in the 1930s and broadened into the world of popular entertainment, post WWII.
Examples of Japanese Anime: “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Your Name,” and “Grave of the Fireflies.”
Stop Motion: This video animation comprises a series of photographs that make up the feature animation film. In between each photograph, animators physically move the characters on the set in tiny increments, creating the illusion of movement. Puppets, toys, and Claymation are all used to create stop motion.
Examples of Stop Motion Animation: “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Coraline,” “Anomalisa,” “Chicken Run,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” and “Isle of Dogs.”
3-D Animation: The first computer animation feat was Toy Story by Pixar. This film was a feat of modern animation, now one of the most popular choices of animation to the chagrin of die-hard traditional animation lovers. While traditionalists love hand-drawn 2D animation, the expense and time required to make it is a huge production drain.
Examples of 3-D Animation: “Up,” “Finding Nemo,” “Toy Story,” and “The Incredibles.”
Rotoscoping: Rotoscoping is a technique that has been used in many movies, including traditional animation such as “Sleeping Beauty,” “Peter Pan,” and more. The technique is when animators trace over live-action video frame by frame. This technique has been used to aid animators in traditional hand-drawn films and has been the main animation technique of an entire film.
“Loving Vincent” is a movie made entirely of oil paintings, employing over 100 artists and taking over five years to come to fruition! The film was originally shot as a live-action film. Each frame was frozen and then traced and painted by artists worldwide to create the oil-painting video masterpiece.
Examples of Rotoscoping: “Loving Vincent” and “A Scanner Darkly.”
Clearly, there are many types of animated films, each technique with its own setbacks and challenges. Any technique, when mastered, can convey a captivating story.
Top Animated Classics
You’ve learned the basics of animation, the history, and styles. So, what should you start watching? Here are few recommendations to jumpstart you into the world of animation. If you would like an even more comprehensive list, check this out: https://www.newsweek.com/100-best-animated-films-all-time-according-critics-1567891
Beauty and the Beast
Type: 2-D Animation
Created By: Disney
A Disney classic that tells the tale of a cursed, arrogant prince and his castle, doomed to be enchanted forever if they can’t break the curse with love. The monstrous beast takes bookish Belle from the neighboring town prisoner in exchange for her father, saving him from his clutches. The film has gorgeous music and exciting visuals, wowing the audience with dancing plates and dazzling ballrooms, wooing you with a tale of love.
The Lion King
Type: 2-D Animation
Created By: Disney
Simba, the heir of Mufasa the Lion King, is exiled after his father is killed in a stampede, a plot dreamt up by the evil Uncle Scar looking to usurp the throne. The Lion King is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, using the central conflict of the play. The film won for best original song and best score at the Oscars.
Type: 2D Animation/Anime
Created By: Studio Ghibli
A masterpiece in story and animation, combined into a compelling tale surrounding the adventure of a twelve-year-old girl trapped in the land of spirits. This anime film is a Miyazaki Studio Ghibli creation. Some of the best moments of the film are where nothing happens at all. Take note of these magical moments of reflection, pulling you even deeper into a fanciful world.
Type: 2D Animation/Anime
Created By: Studio Ghibli
Another Studio Ghibli anime creation, Ponyo, follows the wild story of a goldfish Princess who desperately wants to live in the human world, befriending a human boy, Sosuke. Magical chaos ensues as her distraught father, Fujimoto, tries to get her back. The colors and animation are dazzling, wowing the audience with beautiful imagery of the sea, storms, and sea spirits’ magic.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Type: Stop Motion
Created By: Laika
Young Kubo accidentally awakens a vengeful spirit, igniting a journey where he fights the Moon King to save his family and discover the mystery behind his fallen samurai father. The film’s art took inspiration from origami, and Japanese ink wash painting, and woodblock style. The story is captivating with rich art, filled with gorgeous colors and beautiful visuals.
Type: 3D Animation
Created By: Pixar and Disney
When toys are left alone, they come alive. Here, we follow Woody, the favorite toy of a little boy named Andy. When a new toy, Buzz Lightyear, comes to town, Woody becomes consumed with jealousy and, in an effort to get rid of Buzz, accidentally gets them both lost. Desperately, they try to get home before Andy moves away, possibly leaving them behind forever.
Type: Rotoscoping / 2D Animation
Created By: BreakThru Productions Trademark Films
This film follows Armand as he goes to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother Theo. The plot thickens as the ensemble questions and reveals the circumstance behind Vincent’s death. Loving Vincent is a unique film that was shot live-action then translated frame-by-frame into oil paintings by dedicated artists looking to bring this captivating film to life.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Type: Stop Motion Animation
Created by Touchstone Pictures and Skellington Productions
This spooky musical film, dreamt up by the legendary Tim Burton, follows Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown. After becoming bored with frightening people in the real world, Jack stumbles on to Christmastown and plots to take over the holiday. The film is nightmarish, imaginative, and pushes the limits of visual storytelling.
Those are all the movies I have to get you started on exploring the vast world of animation. Clearly, there are many films not included in this list. I recommend finding a genre you like and explore. Animation is rich in variety and contains endless creativity.
That is all the basics of animation, from history to techniques, and even an example list to get you started. Animation is an artform, ready to test your creative limits and push boundaries in the world of storytelling.
Frequently Asked Questions
The 12 principles of animation guide the animator by teaching them the foundations of animation physics, creating realistic movement. When you apply these 12 principles, your animation will look more realistic and visually pleasing.
The 12 principles of animation came from the book “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation” by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. They were the chief animators from the early days of Disney to their retirement.
The first principle of animation is squash and stretch, the widening and narrowing of an object as it speeds up and makes contact with the ground. Using this technique gives your character weight and gravity.
The squash and stretch principle’s purpose is to give the illusion of gravity and weight with your characters. Using this technique visually reflects weight for the viewer.
Anne is a filmmaker and writer with a passion to bring stories to life. She has created several short films, specializing in stop-motion animation. Anne has over eight years of filmmaking experience, and she is always ready to share her knowledge with other creators. She started her company Anne Gets Creative in 2020.
Anne is extremely familiar with many Adobe programs: Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, After Effects, Premiere, and Audition, to name a few. She has also worked with other programs such as Procreate, Canva, iMovie, and Final Cut Pro. She always strives to give the best software reviews, researching diligently so her readers don’t have to.