12 Principals of Animation

12 Principals of Animation – Summaries

The 12 Principals of Animation are essential in any animators survival guide and can be applied to all mediums within the industry, be it through traditional or digital methods. I was quite surprised to see how well these rules can be incorporated into both 2D and 3D, showing possibly, how similar these methods of animation actually are.  The twelve basic principles of animation were originally developed by Disney animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas in their 1981 book, “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.” (1981 Johnston,Thomas), otherwise known as the ‘bible of animation’. According to Disney/Pixar animator John Lasseter in (1987, Principles of Traditional Animation applied to 3D Computer Animation) He claimed that there was a demand from Walt Disney for animators to create more realism in their works, however some animators misread the message as realism instead or readability and believability. “It was apparent to Walt Disney that no one could successfully animate a humanised figure or a life like animal; a new drawing approach was necessary to improve the level of animation exemplified by the ‘The Three Little Pigs.'”

  1. Squash and Stretch

The first and possibly the most important of the 12 principals is ‘Squash and Stretch’ who’s purpose is to give weight to the person or object you are animating, this can be applied to almost every aspect of animation, complex or simple. Squash and stretch can be an excellent method of conveying personality and depth in a 3D environment, it can be exaggerated depending on the object in question. “Squash and Stretch – Defining the rigidity and mass of an object by distorting its shape during action” (Lasseter,1987) A common practice to use as an example of squash and stretch amongst animators is the movement of a bouncing ball, noting how unrealistic the bounce of a ball would be without adding volume and depth. Specifically in how the weight of a ball spreads as soon as it makes an impact with a surface, or how it stretches and elongates in mid bounce


2. Anticipation

This is used in order  communicate actions to an audience by helping them anticipate the next action, increasing believability with a more convincing performance, showing that there is a thought process behind a character or object’s movements. There is a strong degree of acting within this principal, deconstructing movements as simple as punching someone or jumping into segments of movements.There can be a number of anticipations embedded within a character’s action to add to the complexity of the sequence. “The amount of anticipation used considerably affects the speed of the action which follows it. If the audience expects something to happen, then it can be much faster without losing them. If they are not properly prepared for a very fast action, they may miss it completely.” (Lasseter,1987)

3.  Staging

This principal, similarly to anticipation, can be used to direct an audiences’ attention, focusing on the main plot point of the scene. (Johnston, Thomas 1981) defined it as “the presentation of any idea so that it is completely and unmistakably clear”. The main intention of this principal is to not allow the message of your animation to be lost in amongst a number of different elements of a scene, allowing it to still feel complex, but easy to read in a short space of time. Elements that can contribute to readjusting staging within an animation can involve light and shadows, placement of characters and camera positioning. “If a lot of action is happening at once, the eye does not know where to look and the main idea of the action will be upstaged and overlooked.” (Lasseter,1987)


4. Straight Ahead and Pose to Pose Action

The straight ahead action consists of drawing a scene from beginning to end, frame by frame where as pose to pose action selects the most integral key frames of the sequence before adding in more frames later. There are both advantages and disadvantages to both methods, frame by frame can provide some consistent and fluid movements, allowing the animator some artistic freedom. However this can provide some difficulty with the consistency of the animation and proportions if not constantly checked and resolved. Pose to pose allows for better planning of movements and is an easier method of maintaining consistency, however some say it lacks the fluidity of movement and freedom when compared to Straight Ahead actions. 3D animation I have experienced, relies on the pose to pose approach, especially when you plan out your keyframes on Maya, the programme fills in the gaps itself, that is why this principal could possibly apply more to the 2D approach. Most animators tend to find the happy medium of both Straight ahead and pose to pose by combining the two, so they can keep the artistic freedom from one, and the organised planning of the other.


5.  Follow through and Overlapping action

“The termination of an action and establishing relationship to its next action.” (1981 Johnston,Thomas) its This is a technique used to render movement more realistically, applying the law of physics to a character’s animation, for example how the weight of an object can effect the posture of a character. These can even be applied to how limbs and appendages such as the swing of someone’s arms and how the overlapping action can effect a character’s movement. Overlapping action can also be related to how body parts tend to move at different rates, much like how the arms and legs correspond with each other. “Perhaps a more important, overlapping is critical to conveying main ideas of the story. An action should never be brought to a complete stop before starting another action, and the second action should overlap the first.”  (Lasseter,1987)


6.  Slow In and Slow Out

This refers to the acceleration and deceleration of movement in order to provide more realism to an animation, in a traditional medium, this would be done by adding more keyframes at the beginnning and end of an action. It is one of the most important principles to achieving lifelike motion because without it, it would onl feel like the object is moving form point A to B without giving it any character. “Animators found that that by grouping the inbetweens closer to each extreme, with only one fleeting drawing halfway between, they could achieve a very spirited result, with the character zipping from one attitude to another.” (Lasseter,1987)


7.  Arcs

Most movement in animation has been known to move in arcs, it prevents stiffness to a motion and allows the path of action to appear more smooth, natural and gives the subject more character. Similarly to the purpose of most of these principals it encourages believability through movement. According to (1981 Johnston,Thomas) they define arcs as “the visual path of action for natural movement.” However such a principal may not be able to be applied to certain cases such as mechanical movements and machinery, any object that moves out of it’s natural arc can lose its fluidity. “In certain cases, an arc may resolve itself into a straight path, as for a falling object, but usually, even in a straight line action, the object rotates.” (Lasseter,1987)


8. Secondary Action

These aid in adding more complexity to the main action and result in a more lively follow through of an action, for example when someone is walking, it isn’t only their legs that are moving, but their arms, head etc. Their purpose is to not take away from the main action but to emphasise it, hence why for example, during dramatic movements, the facial expression of a character is shown first before following through with the movement. ” A secondary action is always kept subordinate to the primary action. If it conflicts, becomes more interesting, or dominates in any way, it is either the wrong choice or is staged improperly.” (Lasseter,1987) Although secondary action is not to be confused with an overlapping action as the movement does not intertwine, it serves separately as an action to support the main movement and add more dimension to the character.


9. Timing

Timing gives meaning to a movement, as I have stated previously, the objective for a character is not to get from point A to B, but to show that there is thinking and feeling behind a movement. It is critical for establishing a character’s mood, emotion, reaction and can effectively convey personality, just from the fact of how long it takes a character to carry out a movement, or the thought process behind it. It can also be used effectively to show the weight of a character and carry emotional meaning, however an imbalance can lead the audience astray. If a character takes too long or short of a time to carry out a movement, the audience may get distracted or bored, or they may not pick up on the action at all. “Proper timing is critical to making ideas readable.It is important to spend enough time (but no more) preparing the audience for: the anticipation of an action; the action itself; and the reaction to the action. ”  (Lasseter,1987)  Timing in a traditional sense can be resolved by the number of frames used within a movement, 3D I find gives a little less hassle through timing as it can be edited manually through the graph editor or other means.


10. Exaggeration

Exaggeration is one of my favourites out of the 12 principals, it takes an action that we would consider mundane and pushes and exaggerates it to become something more exciting. There are so many different methods of how an action can be emphasised and I’m a big fan of this method in 2D animation, particularly in how it has been carried out in certain anime.  The basic idea of this principal is to capture the essence of a movement  and make it appear more real and believable as opposed to real life. More so than readjusting the proportions and physics of an object to remain consistent with reality, it can actually mean the complete opposite. “The animator must go to the heart of anything or any idea and develop its essence, understanding the reason for it, so that the audience will also understand it.” (Lasseter,1987)


11. Solid Drawing

It considers the form of a character and if it can be implemented into a 3D space, meaning the animator must have a basic understanding of three dimensional shapes, anatomy, light, shadow, etc. We as a class have covered  the topic of Solid Drawing within life Drawing, making sure that the figure in question from shape and size, is distinguishable. The method of solid drawing also can be used in order to create a distinction among characters to prevent them looking too similar, as it gives the character form and could be envisioned from any angle within a 3D space. Construction is also an integral part of solid drawing, using specific shapes such as cubes and spheres more so than squares and circles.


12. Appeal

This principal can be mis-associated with making your designs beautiful and pleasing to the eye, when of course it can be the complete opposite and can still be considered appealing to an audience. It refers to a strong drawing who’s design is firmly readable, from a grotesque villain to a beautiful heroine, their personality should be visible before they even open their mouths. If you make a character’s design too complicated, it takes away from the character itself by overwhelming them, the same could be said if you design them so simplistically that the audience won’t have any indication of their personality. One phrase I found that had really made me think about how to approach drawing, by (Lasseter,1987) was “If each part of the body varies in some way from its corresponding part, the character will look more natural and more appealing. Likewise one side of a face should never mirror the other.”


  • Lasseter, John. Principles Of Traditional Animation Applied To 3D Computer Animation. California: N.p., 1987. Print.
  • Thomas, Frank, Ollie Johnston, and Frank Thomas. The Illusion Of Life. New York: Hyperion, 1995. Print.
  • Becker, Alan. AlanBeckerTutorials, 2015. video.

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