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Understanding the 12 principles of animation.

The 12 principles of animation are an invaluable guide for all animators. Leading Disney staff members boiled down their approach to create the fundamentals of animation.

Here, we explore the history of these essential animation principles and look at each step in more detail.

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Man sitting at a table with art supplies sketching on a piece of paper.

History of the 12 principles of animation.

The 12 principles of animation were introduced by two animators at Disney in 1981. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas included them in their book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, published that year.

These principles of animation are based on the work of animators at Disney since the 1930s, when they strived to produce realistic animations of cartoon characters. The principles were used to create the illusion that Disney’s characters followed the basic laws of physics. Abstract issues were also covered - including emotional timing.

Animation may have evolved in the decades since The Illusion of Life was first published, but the fundamentals remain and the 12 principles of animation still apply in all kinds of areas, from films to web design.

Follow each step and you’ll be able to create animation that makes the viewer believe your creations are living, breathing creatures - just like those created by Disney animators through the years, which include some of the most popular animated characters of all time.

Let’s take a close look at each principle.

1. Squash and Stretch.

Arguably the most fundamental of the 12 principles of animation. Squash and stretch is applied to give a sense of weight and/or flexibility to objects or even to people. Animate a simple object like a bouncing ball - as it hits the ground, you can squash the ball flat and widen it.

Although exaggerated, this animation is grounded in reality, because it creates the illusion of the ball being distorted by an outside force - just like in real life.

You can apply squash and stretch to more realistic animation, too. But keep in mind the object’s volume. If the length of the ball is vertically stretched, its width must contract horizontally.

2. Anticipation.

Use anticipation to add some realism when you want to prepare your audience for some action. Consider what people do when they prepare to do something. A footballer about to take a penalty would steady themselves with their arms or swing their foot back ready to kick. If a golfer wants to hit a golf ball, they must swing their arms back first.

Close up of person about to hit a golf ball on the tee.

Anticipation doesn’t just have to apply to sporty actions. Focus on an object a character may be about to pick up or have a character anticipating somebody’s arrival on screen.

3. Staging.

When considering staging, you’re in the role of a film or theatre director. You need to think about where you’re putting the camera, what it’s focusing on, where the ‘actors’ will be and what they’re going to do. Whether they’re fun cartoon characters or realistically drawn people, staging matters and is sometimes underestimated.

You want your audience’s attention to be on the important elements of the story you’re telling and avoid distracting them with unnecessary detail. With a combination of lighting, framing and composition, plus ensuring that you remove clutter, you’ll be able to effectively advance your story.

4. Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose.

Straight Ahead and Pose to Pose are in a sense two principles in one, each concerning different approaches to drawing. Straight ahead action scenes involve animating each frame from beginning to end. Do this to create a fluid illusion of movement for action scenes, but not if you want to create exact poses with proportions maintained.

With pose to pose, animators start by drawing key frames and they fill in the intervals later. Because relation to surroundings and composition become more important, this approach is preferable for emotional, dramatic scenes. As Disney films often involve dramatic and action scenes, their animators would often adopt both approaches.

With computer animation, the problems of straight-ahead action are removed as computers can remove the potential proportion issue. They can also fill in the missing sequences in pose to pose.

5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action.

These two movement-based principles combine to make movement in animation more realistic and create the impression characters are following the laws of physics.

Follow through concerns the parts of the body that continue to move when a character stops. The parts then pull back towards the centre of mass, just like with a real person. Follow through also applies to objects.

Parts of the body don’t move at the same rate and overlapping action demonstrates this. For example, you could have a character’s hair moving during the momentum of action and when the action is over, it continues to move a fraction longer than the rest of the character.

6. Ease In, Ease Out.

This animation principle is also known as ‘slow in and slow out’. In the real world, objects have to accelerate as they start moving and slow down before stopping. For example, a person running, a car on the road or a pendulum.

Graphic of a car on the road driving into the sunset.

To represent this in animation, more frames must be drawn at the beginning and end in an action sequence. Ease in, ease out adds more realism to your animation and will help the audience identify and sympathise with your characters.


7. Arcs.

In real life, most actions have an arched trajectory. To achieve greater realism, animators should follow this principle. Whether you’re creating the effect of limbs moving or an object thrown into the air, movements that follow natural arcs will create fluidity and avoid unnatural, erratic animation.

To keep arcs in mind, traditional animators often draw them lightly on paper to use as reference and to erase when they’re no longer needed. Speed and timing are important with arcs, as sometimes they happen so quickly that they blur to the point they’re unrecognisable.

Of course, this is sometimes done deliberately, to give the impression of something unrealistically or amusingly fast. This is known as an animation smear. Chuck Jones, one of the greatest animators of the 20th century, was an expert at these. He was behind one of the first examples in a short for Warner Bros in 1942. Jones only used it to save time, but liked it and would return to the trope for many animations in the Looney Tunes series. It's still used today in The Simpsons.

8. Secondary Action.

This principle of animation helps emphasise the main action within a scene by adding an extra dimension to your characters and objects. Subtleties, such as the way a person swings their arms while walking down the street, give colour to your creations and make them appear more human.

Providing they don’t take attention away from the main action, secondary actions can really bring a scene to life.

9. Timing.

As in real life, animation is all about timing. Get this principle right and it grounds your animation in realism, as everything will appear to follow the laws of physics. Think about the size and weight of your characters in relation to what and who are around them. A lightweight person or object is going to react quicker to being pushed than a heavy one.

To get your timing right in animation, get your number of frames or drawings right. As with the ease in, ease out animation principle, the slower the action, the more frames or drawings you’ll need to add.

10. Exaggeration.

This is a fine art and one that Disney animators are experts at. Many of the 12 principles of animation are grounded in realism and this is no exception. However, if you totally avoid exaggeration, animation can often be too real and is in danger of looking dull.

Disney believes that exaggeration should be true to reality to an extent, but made more extreme - often pushed just beyond the realms of realism, to make their characters pop and add fun to their adventures.

A classic trope and great example of exaggeration in animation is the jaw drop. When a character is surprised, shocked or falls in love at first sight, animators often don’t just show a slightly stunned, open-mouthed expression. They get their point across by showing their character’s mouth dropping way beyond realism - often literally to the floor.

11. Solid Drawing.

Solid drawing in animation is one of the more difficult principles to get right, especially in traditional animation. This is because you need to make your creations feel 3D and give them weight and volume. Art classes are useful to give you deeper knowledge of weight, balance, gravity, light, shadow and more. In The Illusion of Life, Johnston and Thomas warned of the danger of creating ‘twins’, where characters would appear lifeless because their left and right sides were exactly the same.

Aerial view of basic graphic cityscape.

12. Appeal.

The last of the 12 principles of animation is one of the most important. In film, TV and theatre, directors want their actors to have charisma. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a hero or villain - the characters should be interesting enough to make viewers want to know how their story develops.

Animators should give all their creations appeal, whether it’s a cute caterpillar or a dragon hell-bent on destruction. There is no real formula, though a good idea for giving a creation the ‘awww’ factor is to make their face round and childlike. Heroes often have strong, angular and symmetrical features.

Bruno Madrigal in Encanto (2021) is a great example. At the start of the film, Bruno is the mysterious black sheep of the family, cast out by his family. The audience are supposed to think may be the film’s bad guy, so he’s portrayed as a shadowy figure, hunched over and his eyes can’t be seen. Once his niece Mirabel meets him and discover he’s not how he has been portrayed, his full face is unveiled and he suddenly looks a lot more sympathetic, with wide eyes and a less threatening demeanour. Bruno’s appeal switches as the role of his character does and the animators do a great job.


12 principles of animation: FAQs.

Why are the 12 principles of animation important?

These principles of animation are important because combining all 12 helps ground animation in the real world.

The sky is the limit when it comes to using your imagination, but you also need to consider gravity and other laws of physics. Failure to do so will make animation much less believable and your audience won’t care about what happens to your characters, whether hand-drawn or 3D.

Who invented the 12 principles of animation?

Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas were the men behind the principles. The duo were two of Disney’s famous Nine Old Men (even Walt Disney himself would call them this). This group were the studio’s core group of animators.

In 1981, Johnston and Thomas released a book called The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. The Nine Old Men had been using the principles for decades, but this was the first time the outside world were made aware.

Close up of person drawing an animation storyboard with a pencil.

What are the types of animation?

There are five main types of animation:

  • 3D - computer generated imagery (CGI) is used to create characters and the worlds they inhabit. This is the most common method in modern animation.
  • Traditional - also known as cel animation, hand-drawn and 2D. This is the original method of animation, dating back to the 19th century.
  • Stop motion - involves physically moving objects, often made with clay, one frame at a time.
  • Motion graphics - animated graphic design that brings text and images to life.
  • Vector - a more modern version of traditional, using 2D graphics.