Animation has come a long way since the days of hand-drawn caricatures in the early 1900s. One of the most important milestones in animation history is the development of the 12 principles of animation by Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas in their 1981 book The Illusion of Life.
The 12 principles are a set of guidelines that help animators create fluid, realistic motion.
Understanding these core principles of animation is the logical place for any animator to start. These were established in the 1930s at Walt Disney Studios as they began producing animated features. Written for 2D animators, these concepts also apply to 3D animators. They are a guide to creating the illusion of real life through movement and character in a real-world using the physics of movement and principles of anatomy.
Below, we outline the 12 principles of animation.
Example of squash & stretch from a flour sack assignment by CG Spectrum student Jenny Mariel Duncan
1. Squash & Stretch
Squash and stretch examine how an object changes shape by forces acting upon it. This first principle deals with how to animate weight and volume, best described by a bouncing ball that appears stretched while falling and squashed once it hits the ground.
Anticipation is a small movement that precedes a larger one. It is a subtle clue that a major event is about to happen. Think of a character squatting before taking a leap into the air.
Staging, as the name suggests, sets the scene in a clear way that avoids confusion. The audience’s attention is directed towards what is of greatest importance in the scene. You will place your main characters and main frame of action center-stage in the scene.
4. Straight Ahead versus Pose-to-pose
This principle refers to the drawing process of 2D animation. However, these terms are also useful for creating 3D work. Straight ahead means drawing frame by frame the animation from beginning to end. Pose-to-pose means drawing a few key frames and then filling in the intervals. Most animation software will fill the gaps in a pose-to-pose setup for you.
5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action
Follow-through and overlapping action articulate the tendency of different parts of a body or an object to move at different speeds. Think of a runner skidding to a halt.
6. Slow In and Slow Out
Slow in and slow out refers to the gradual acceleration and deceleration of objects when moving from point A to point B. This principle is also called ease-in and ease-out or easing.
Example of arcs from the film Klaus, animated by CG Spectrum mentor Alfredo Cassano (Image source)
Arcs describe the curved motion of objects. The laws of physics create a curved trajectory of moving objects. A skilled animator will animate in arcs and not in straight lines. Think in terms of parabolas.
8. Secondary Action
Adding a secondary action to the main action adds dimension and depth to a scene. The principle of staging comes into play when creating secondary action as they should not distract from the main action but enhance it.
Timing is controlling the speed of an action by the number of drawings or frames assigned to its articulation. In essence, more frames are used to create slower action and fewer frames for faster action. This is a skill that takes a lot of practice to master. Correct timing is crucial for creating emotion, mood, and the reaction of the character animation.
Example of exaggeration from CG Spectrum student Bianka Farago
Exaggeration involves drawing a subject in a heightened or extreme way while still maintaining its reality in nature and the world. Disney were masters of this device, using it effectively to bring 2D objects to life.
11. Solid Drawing
Solid drawing sets down the laws of perspective in three-dimensional space. This refers to anatomy, weight, balance, light, shadow, depth of field, etc. Practice drawing objects from various angles so you understand their 3D presence.
Example of appeal from animation by CG Spectrum mentor Todd Jacobsen (image source)
Appeal is the subtle art of giving your character charisma and allure, making them compelling to watch. These can be expressed in a broad range of ways that you will develop with practice and will help to define your style.
Understanding and practicing these 12 Principles will be your starting point in how to make 2D and 3D animation.
Ready to put the 12 Principles of Animation into action and take the next step toward becoming an animator for film and games?
At CG Spectrum, we offer comprehensive animation courses taught by industry experts using industry-standard tools. Whether you want to study 2D or 3D animation, our courses start with the 12 principles of animation, progressing to more complex tasks as your skills improve. Your animation mentor will be there to guide you throughout, offering personalized feedback on your work, industry insights, and technical tips to ensure you are equipped with the skills to help land a job in the industry.
CG Spectrum is an online animation, VFX, digital painting, and game development school that brings the industry to you. Whether straight out of high school, changing careers, or upgrading skills, our goal is to help you build the job skills and confidence to pursue your dream career in film and games. Get more out of your education with world-class career training and mentorship from leading film and game industry experts.