Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas first introduced “The 12 Basic Principles of Animation” in their 1981 book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. And while their primary motive was to help traditional animators create worlds and characters that more convincingly uphold the laws of physics, the dozen tenets set forth in the tome have also profoundly influenced contemporary 3D and computer animation.
To help visualize these principles, designer Brandon Mata created this short (animated, naturally) video illustrating all 12. Watch it now, then read on for a little more insight into each point.
1. Squash & Stretch
By squashing and stretching objects in your animation, you can make them appear flexible and affected by gravity. Maintaining ratios is key when applying this, as the volume of an object can never change if you’re accurately mimicking reality.
Think about the actions that occur before a particular movement or event, and replicate them to provide a sense of what’s about to occur. The crouch of a lion before a pounce, or the quivering of a branch before an apple drops are great examples.
Think about this in the same way you would as the director of a live-action film. Use staging to help direct the audience’s attention by avoiding unnecessary detail, blocking out your scene, and focusing on light and shadow.
4. Straight Ahead and Pose to Pose
Building out a scene frame by frame in a linear manner is known as “straight ahead action,” but you can also create a few frames at a time, then fill in the gaps later (“pose to pose”). Which you choose depends on what you’re trying to convey, but you’ll often want to employ a mix.
5. Follow Through & Overlapping Action
While a character or object may have stopped moving, parts of it may not. By minding this with “follow through,” a more realistic visual is created. “Overlapping action” takes into account that different parts of an object can move at different rates. Both of these are important to keep in mind for mirroring the natural world.
6. Slow In and Slow Out
By increasing the number of frames at the beginning and end of a movement, you can put more emphasis on those initial and final motions. Again, this will create a representation of actual movement that feels truer to the viewer.
Just as objects will follow a natural arc in real life, they should do so in your animation. When drawing by hand, mapping out an arc is crucial, but working with computers will of course make this much easier.
8. Secondary Action
This is another trick taken from live-action filming. People are rarely only engaged in one singular motion at at a time. Whether it’s shrugging their shoulders or playing with their hair while engaged in a particular activity, a good actor knows how to use their entire body, and your animated ones should too.
This is crucial in understanding a character’s mood or emotion, and it refers specifically to the number of frames for a given action. The fewer frames, the faster the action will occur, so make sure that each action you’re portraying plays out at the proper pace.
This is where animation can become truly distinct. By exaggerating certain features or aspects of reality, an animator is able to create their own unique world, while also presenting a compelling environment for the audience, who will be bored by too conventional of a take on what they see every day.
11. Solid drawing
A thorough knowledge of how three-dimensional shapes interact with each other and their environments will create the most believable animation. Johnston and Thomas advised against creating “twins” — characters with perfectly symmetrical left and right sides — as this is not an accurate representation of real life.
Appeal is the equivalent of what we would think of as charisma for actors, giving the viewer the impression that the character is real, compelling, and interesting. If your creations lack appeal, it can undermine all your hard work on every other point, so make sure you’re giving people characters they want to watch.