‘The 12 Principals of Animation’ or ‘What a Bunch of Old Guys from Disney Can Teach You’

9-10-2012 Posted by: andrewedennis

Many of you may have heard at one time or another about how Walt Disney was a mediocre artist, truthfully he may have been, but he did have an eye for talent and the wits to take advantage of a difficult financial time. To Disney, the great depression meant the opportunity to hire up some of the most talented and promising recent graduates of the nation’s finest art schools. This core group of “9 Old Men” as they would later come to be known pioneered the uncharted depths of animation.

They took the skills of draftsmanship and analysis they had learned as traditional artists and began to study motion. As Disney grew and began to hire more artists, these nine were tasks with training the new animators. Over the years, their lessons and notes were assembled together and to this day forms the basis for all modern animation efforts be they 2 or 3 dimensional. One of the lasting lessons is the 12 principals of animation; 12 key elements that should be present in every animation one creates.

  • Squash and Stretch: A mass should always retain its volume; that is, when something is compressed downward, it expands outward from the sided. When an object is stretched, it narrows. At these key moments of compression and tension, an object possesses the most energy. This is the key to lifelike, energetic movement.
  • Timing: Heavier masses take longer to move than lighter ones; the timing will tell the viewer how dense something is. The way and object speeds up or slows down is the clearest way to communicate just how heavy it is, or strong your character is.
  • Pose to Pose vs. Straight Ahead Action: Most people start out thinking about animation linearly, and will naturally do a straight ahead method of animation, the next frame being based on the last. Pose to pose animation is a great time saving tool that has you focus instead on the key moments in your animation, then fill in the details later.
  • Follow Through: Every main action still has energy left in it, even after the action is finished. When a pitcher throws a baseball, his hand keeps dropping, even after the ball has left his hand. The way a character finishes an animation is a good indicator of attitude
  • Anticipation: The opposite of follow through, anticipation is the priming of an action, the windup before the pitch. It is in the anticipation that energy is built up, and then released in the action.
  • Secondary Action: These are any actions that follow the main action, like hands swinging when walking. Any time a primary action occurs, think about all of the things that will be affected by it. A long eared character like Bugs Bunny is a fantastic example of how secondary actions can add believability and personality.
  • Arcs: Almost all motion happens in an arc. The more linear the action, the more mechanical and artificial it appears. Arcs establish the mood and rhythm of an animation, they drive the pace. Always keep an eye on your major arcs.
  • Ease In & Ease Out: Similar to timing, any animation should build up speed, and then reduce speed till it comes to a stop. Starting and stopping shouldn’t be instant unless being acted upon by an external force. The larger and heavier the thing, the more time you need for speeding it up and slowing it down.
  • Solid Drawing: This is giving your figures depth; avoid silhouettes that blend seamlessly with each other. Keep your animations from being exact mirrors of each other on the left and right side. This might seem like a no brainer if you are producing 3d animations, but this just means you have depth to work with, don’t waste it.
  • Exaggeration: Photo-real shouldn’t be your goal, hyper-real is better. People know they are looking at an animation, so you need to exaggerate the movement to make it convincing. Exaggerate features, exaggerate perspective. If you want to make something perfectly real, just film it. Animation lets us make things that could never be real.
  • Appeal: The physical appeal of your character will decide how an audience or player responds to that character. In general, we as humans want to see nice things happen to nice looking things, and ugly things happen to ugly looking things. The appeal of your character will decide how much the audience will empathize with them.
  • Staging: An old theater term, staging is all about setting up the shot. You could have the best animation in the world, but without the proper camera angle, no one will know. Use your perspective on the scene to establish the mood. Whether it’s a formidable foe towering over our hero, or a stark flat front perspective of two people sitting awkwardly on a couch; staging sets the mood.

Obviously this is just a brief overview of a subject you can spend a life time studying, heck; I could go on for days about staging alone. Of all of the lessons the pioneers at the early days of Disney left us perhaps the most important is ‘never stop learning’. The animation crew in the golden age of Disney had no peers, there were no challengers to their quality of animation until the late 70s; but they still kept pushing the envelope. So let that be your takeaway, be you artist, programmer, or designer; never stop learning, never stop pushing yourself a little bit farther, never be afraid to try something you have never done before; after all, it worked for Disney.


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