The 12 Principles of Animation

annotated for stopmotion by Mike Brent


Anybody who's studying animation should learn these principles. They were developed by the Disney animators in the early years, when they were basically forging the artform that we know today as animation. They're the ones who figured out how to make things look alive, how to make characters seem to be thinking and reacting rather than just moving around like automatons. If you've done your first few webcam tests and were delighted to see lumps of clay or scraps of foam and wire move around onscreen, but you want to know how to make it come to life, then these principles are the key. They need to be memorized, absorbed and meditated upon endlessly, the way a Monk ponders the meaning of life. You should always have them clearly in mind when animating, and when planning your shots. Often just by thinking about (for instance) anticipation and follow-through, you can easily create a lively scene from what would otherwise be a rather dull shot. I guarantee you all the really good animators know these principles, even if not by these names. In time they should become second nature, so you don't have to always think consciously about them but they're still guiding all your decisions.

Keep in mind, they were working in cartoon animation, which has its own specific attributes, some of which are a little different from stopmotion, but much of which are the same. Because we're dealing with actual 3 dimensional puppets and objects rather than flat drawings on paper, a couple of the principles need to be taken with a grain of salt. Notice I didn't say you can forget about them... the idea underlying each principle is still of utmost importance, but they must be modified... you need to consider the broader meaning and decide how it can be applied to what we do. Example... principle 11 is Solid Drawing (or good drawing). Obviously, not something we need to trouble ourselves about, right? Well, I think you can get at the chewey center of the idea by translating it into good fabrication. Alrighty then, this in mind, I'll go ahead and post my slightly modified version here for easy access, but afterwards I'll provide links to some other sites that list the principles, each of which has a slightly different explanation or approach to them. It's a good idea to look at them all and compare and contrast to get a fuller understanding. I'm also providing a link to a page full of wonderful animated quicktime examples that demonstrate most of these principles in action, a great thing to be able to see! (That you can't get from a book). But, if you truly want to deepen your understanding of animation, I give my highest possible recommendation to the book from which these principles have been drawn... Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's The Illusion of Life. This massive tome was written by some of Disney's legendary 9 Old Men, the greats who pioneered the artform and brought it to trembling life.


1) Squash and Stretch

2) Anticipation

3) Follow-Through and Overlapping Action

4) Arcs

5) Ease-In and Ease-Out

6) Timing

7) Secondary Action

8) Exaggeration

9) Staging

10) Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose

11) Solid Drawing

12) Appeal

This one applies primarily to clay animation. It could be used with other kinds of puppets/objects, but only if they're made from the right materials and can be manipulated properly. The concept is this... when a rubber ball hits the floor, it squashes out - it flattens a little. Then when it bounces back, it will stretch, or elongate slightly. This principle affects flesh as well as rubber, and can be used to make things look very comical or very realistic, depending on how much exaggeration you use. It took a while for cartoon animators to realize that, when an object squashes and stretches, it must maintain the same mass, or it just doesn't look right. This is easy if you're working in clay, because you're actually using a solid mass! But generally speaking, if you're animating in foam latex or any of the more traditional materials other than clay, you won't really be concerned with squash and stretch much.

One of the biggest problems in beginner's animation is that it's often hard to tell what's going on, because things all seem to happen at the same time and characters just do things suddenly for no apparent reason. Anticipation is the answer to this. Example: if a puppet is just standing there and suddenly his arm flies out and he throws something, the viewer was probably looking at whatever the current point of interest is, and was caught off gaurd. By the time they look at the new action, it's already over! And now something else is happening off on another side of the screen! The way to draw attention to the action that's about to happen is through anticipation. Have your puppet do a wind-up, like a pitcher on the mound. First you want to stop all other actions or at least minimize them so they don't cry out for attention, and then draw attention to your puppet by having him go into the classic windup motion (or a different variation of it). It can be quick - maybe just a simple matter of pulling his arm back slightly - or if you're doing a comical film it can be drawn out and really played for laughs, but it leads the viewer's eye to the puppet before the action occurs and prepares him for it. There are times when it's best to not use anticipation... but that's a case of every rule having its exceptions. First you should learn the rules, and then you'll know when and how to break them.

Follow-through is the countermeasure to anticipation. It occurs after an action, and is the direct physical result of it. Personally, I think I would have grouped Follow-Through with Anticipation, and put Overlapping Action with Secondary Action, but alas, I didn't create the list. For Follow-Through, lets continue using the example of a man throwing a ball. Wow, that ball has sure got a workout so far, hasn't it? After releasing it, his hand won't just stop dead, it will continue in its arc a little ways. Actually his entire body will continue in its action, though that might be very subtle. Even if it barely shows in the animation, you should be aware of it when animating and getting the feel of follow-through into the puppet or the object.

Now Overlapping Action is one of those things that, as written by the Disney guys, applies primarily to drawn animation - because it's generally done in several passes by the artist(s). First they'll draw in the major forms of the body and get the main action (let's say that windup and throw again); and then they'll come back over those drawings, and do a second pass, drawing in the smaller forms like flowing hair or loose clothing that will sort of drift and follow the major forms of the body in their arcs. And while a stopmotion animator can't go back and add in secondary actions after already shooting his major pass, you can still keep the basic idea of secondary, smaller forms in mind and think about how they would follow along. Differnt parts of the body will start and stop in sequence too... for instance, a man winding up for that pitch might start by only moving his arm, then his shoulders get into it, and then his torso, and pretty soon his entire body is winding up.

Everything in nature will tend to move in arcs. The main reasons being the jointed nature of the skeleton - and gravity. Because the skeleton (of any creature that has one) is a system of jointed forms, those forms (arms, legs, what have you) will rotate around the joints in a series of arcing motions. Hold your arm out in front of you and bend the elbow... see if you can even force it to move in anything other than an arc! Not gonna happen folks! Knees and hips and shoulders are the same, and the spine is a series of small joints, all of which have arcing motions. Walks are full of arcs... the body moves up and down as well as forward, so the head and every other part will describe a series of arcs.

As for gravity, if you throw something it will tend to arc up toward its high point, and then arc down toward the ground. The Disney dudes basically decided that everything looks better if it all moves according to arcs, so be warned! Straight linear movement is a no-no! Well, unless you want to use it that is, but you better have a good reason! Like for instance, if you're animating something mechanical, or want a character to seem robotic.

Also alternately known as Slow-in and Slow-out, or Acceleration and Deceleration. Whatever you call it, it refers to the tendency things have to start and stop moving gradually. Example; a man is going to sprint (he got tired of playing ball I guess, or maybe he hit a home run). He doesn't just hit full speed instantly and then stop on a dime - unless he's the Roadrunner! He'll build up speed gradually and then slow down gradually at the end. The same applies to any object set in motion... a car, a bird, or even a bouncing ball. This one applies equally to ANY type of animation, and is described quite well in all the versions of the 12 Principles, so no need for me to go into any more detail. Let's move on, shall we?

This one is a bit hard to pin down. It can't really be described in a simple way like most of the others can. It's something that you'll be constantly struggling with, trying to come to terms with and use to your advantage. I'm not sure what to say about timing here... it's not really different in stopmotion than any other form of animation, but it is one of the most crucial elements. When it's wrong, you'll know it. When it's right, you'll know it. You can break it down into essentially 2 categories... physical timing and theatrical timing. Physical timing refers to the actual motions required to perform an action, while theatrical timing refers to the pauses and the emphases added to make it dramatic.

Secondary Actions are little movements that aren't essential but that help to add meaning to an action. Example: a boy is lifting a sandwich up to his mouth to eat it. If he licks his lips along the way, it adds a shade of meaning to the action. Hence this is a secondary action. Again, this is something that a cartoon animator or a CGI animator will add in on a second pass after getting the major action just right, but in stopmotion we'd need to think it through and execute it all in one single pass, since stopmotion is what's referred to as STRAIGHT-AHEAD animation. Secondary Action isn't necessarily in response to the physical action itself, but is more of a theatrical or character-based action, used to clarify mood or motivation or to convey personality.

This depends largely on what kind of animation you're doing. If it's realistic you might want to keep exaggeration to a minimum, but obviously for something more crazy or comical you can really go nuts. And it refers not just to the way puppets and props are made, but to the action itself... like that windup we discussed earlier. Exaggeration is a good way to add emphasis to certain movements and thereby draw attention where you want it. Filmmaking (including animation of course) is basically the art of directing the viewers' attention where you want it, and all of these principles are tools that help you do that. Which brings us directly to the next principle...

Most of the other principles have been written about mainly in animation books, but Staging is really not animation-specific. It's a director's tool, used in all kinds of filmmaking and stagecraft. As an aspiring animator, it behooves you to study the greater aspects of filmmaking in general. Staging is one aspect of Cinematography, which is the art of using camera angle, camera movement, lighting, composition, placement of figures and etc to direct the viewer's eye. I tried to find some good information about it online, but wasn't successful... maybe you can do better. But probably a better way to study something as in-depth as Staging is through books. The best one I know of for this is Film Directing: Shot by Shot by Steven Katz. To put it basically, staging means composing your shots so that the action is clear... so nothing gets lost and the viewer can easily tell what's going on. If your friends watch your films and after a while they get that 'What stinks?'look on their face and say "I don't get it.... what's going on?" Then maybe you need to work on your staging.

This one is really biased toward cell animation or CGI, since stopmotion by its very nature is always straight ahead animation. What this means is that you must start at the beginning of a shot and progress through it straight ahead, one frame to the next, with no going back and no jumping ahead - no second pass (unless it's in post production to add effects). Pose to pose is keyframe animation, as it's done in the cartooning world and in CGI, where the key animator draws the key frames (the most important frames) and then assistants will fill in the in-betweens. At times we all think it would be nice if we could do this as stopmotion animators, but it really can't be done that way, and probably that's a good thing. It's one of the things that separates stopmotion from the other animation disciplines and makes it more of a performance art. When you're into a shot and things start to get out of hand, you can try to get it back under control or you might have to scrap the shot and start over, or possibly use the beginning of it and insert a cutaway shot to cover the bad frames or something. But you can't just delete a bad frame and insert a new one (unless it's the last frame you shot!).

Ok, this is a bit tricky. As I mentioned in the introduction, solid (good) drawing doesn't apply in stopmotion, but we can try to keep to the spirit of the concept by changing it to solid fabbing (fabricating). And don't feel that I've necessarily got it completely right here (don't ever assume that!)... use your own judgement. What does it mean to you? The Disney artists meant something along the lines of 'skillful drawing based on life drawing lessons and lots of practice'. These guys would draw all day long, even though their jobs consisted of drawing they would find the time to do caricatures of each other and little sketches for ideas etc as well as attending classes designed to strengthen their draftsmanship. But bear in mind the Disney credo consisted of very realistically drawn characters. Well, they were exaggerated of course, and not exactly like any real animals, but they were always based closely on life studies of animals and people and landscapes. But don't take it to mean only realistic fabrication.... of course there's room for all kinds of crazy stylization! But it applies to practice and study in sculpting (which can benefit from drawing skills actually) and in making lots of puppets and props and setpieces (assuming you make your own that is). I also take it to mean good fabrication in terms of everything working well. Your animation can only be as good as the armatures you're using, if they're poorly put together and don't work well then you're not going to get good animation out of them. They also need to be well covered, meaning whatever you use for an outer skin should function well and look good. But I haven't really thought deeply about this one... so definitely use your own judgement.

Sort of speaks for itslef really. Appeal can mean different things to different people... you might find rotting corpses appealing (hey, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride was pretty much of a hottie!) or maybe you're more into flowers and unicorns. But at any rate you should try to make your work appealing. If people start looking at their watches a few seconds into one of your animations, maybe you need to work on your appeal.

Definitely be sure to check out these quicktime examples of the principles at Animated Cartoon Factory. Once each clip loads you can pause it either by clicking on the pause button or using your space bar, and then go through frame by frame forward or reverse by using your left and right arrows. This can be done with any QT movie, a good thing to know if you want to study somebody's technique.

A good list at Billy Salisbury tutorials with some good descriptive text and a nice little intro about how the principles apply in CG animation (and how overlooked they tend to be there, at least outside of Pixar).

Carrin Perrons listing aimed largely at creating simple web animations but using the same principles. Another apparently very old site, but everything on this one is intact.

Film Directing: Shot by Shot by Steven Katz. A very good book about staging your shots, aimed at live action filmmaking but most of it is completely applicable to animation.

The Illusion of Life The classic, the original masterpiece on animation written by some of Disney's famed 9 Old Men. If you're serious about learning to animate like a master, this is a must! The principles are presented in greatly expanded form, with loads of elaboration by some of the world's finest animators, including Walt himself.

The Animators Survival Kit by Richard Williams. After the Illusion of Life, this is probably the next best book available on the subject. Williams was the lead animator on Roger Rabbit, and spent many years studying extensively under many of Disney's original 9. He does a great job of passing on their wisdom, and this book has an almost ridiculous number of walk cycles in it! Essential stuff.

Notes from the 9 Old Men on Animation Meat.These are downloadable PDF files. Right click (control click for a Mac) on the links to download them to your hard drive and read at your leisure. Very extensive notes from the geniuses I've been raving about all through this chapter. I believe these are largely taken from the Illusion of Life (don't quote me on that).


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