Welcome to the “12 Principles of Animation” blog series where we will embark on a multi-part exploration to unravel the magic behind Disney Animation’s timeless principles and understand how to apply them to the world of 3D art.
Animation, at its core, is about bringing life to characters and telling compelling stories through movement. Whether you’re a seasoned animator or just starting, understanding the foundational principles is your key to creating animations that will captivate your audience.
Navigating the Golden Age
If you hang around the animation community for even a short while, you will inevitably encounter a discussion on (or perhaps receive feedback regarding) the 12 principles of animation. So, what are they, and where did they come from?
In the Golden Age of Animation in the 1930s, as Walt Disney and his team navigated the uncharted waters of storytelling through this burgeoning art form, these pioneering animators faced the formidable challenge of breathing life into their creations.
Their quest was not merely to make characters move. That was straightforward enough. No, they wanted to infuse them with vitality. These characters needed to feel like they had a life of their own that transcended their two-dimensional canvas.
In their pursuit of this animation nirvana, this group learned many lessons through trial and error. As they expanded and brought new animators on board, these early leaders recognized an imperative need for a cohesive set of guidelines for the newcomers to follow and learn from.
The Birth of Disney’s Animation Principles
These guidelines could not just be rules to follow by rote, or bylaws unique to their studio production process and pipeline. Instead, they needed to distill the collective wisdom and experiences born of both the studio’s triumphs and missteps.
As a result, two of Disney’s legendary “Nine Old Men“, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, crystallized their hard-earned collective knowledge and experiences into these principles, which they documented in their seminal book, The Illusion of Life.
If you want to expand your animation skills, I highly recommend giving this book a read. In the meantime, I will attempt to distill them down to digestable chunks within this blog series.
The Universality of the 12 Animation Principles
So, are guidelines from the 1930s still useful in the modern age?
Although initially conceived for the realm of 2D animation, it turns out that these principles would prove universal and transcend their 2D boundaries. As technology advanced, and the animation world embraced the three-dimensional realm, it carried these principles with them.
Today, the essence of these principles is not rooted in nostalgia but rather in the enduring pursuit of bringing characters to life. Their continued applicability stands as a testament to the ingenuity and dedication of those early creators, and they serve as an ongoing guiding compass for animators.
Introducing the 12 Animation Principles
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, let’s briefly introduce each of the 12 principles. We will discuss each one in-depth in its own article.
Squash and Stretch: Characters must have weight and flexibility. In 3D animation, we achieve a similar effect through controlled scaling of a model mesh.
Anticipation: Building up to actions helps make them more realistic. This reflects how you perform movements in real life.
Staging: Clear presentation of an idea or action is crucial. Learn to optimize your scenes to communicate through more than just the dialogue.
Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose: These are the two main approaches to animation. The first builds from one frame to the next, and the second builds the start and end as keyframes before creating the in-between frames that connect them. Learn how to apply these methods, and when you might use one over the other.
Follow Through and Overlapping Action: Movement doesn’t just stop. Just as characters wind up with the anticipation principle, their action also has movement that follows the end of it.
Slow In and Slow Out: Because real things have mass, your animated ones must as well. Newtonian physics tells us that the heavier an object is, the longer it will take to accelerate or decelerate.
Arcs: Natural movements follow curved paths. Again, this is because of Newtonian physics (i.e. gravity).
Secondary Action: These are the character movements that convey subtle meanings that either reinforce the primary action or contradict it to communicate something else entirely.
Timing: The speed and rhythm of movements affect the emotions conveyed by the action.
Exaggeration: Subtly exaggerating movements beyond how they might occur in the real world can help emphasize actions and emotions.
Solid Drawing: Even in a 3D space, animators must consider the illusion of three-dimensional forms and perspective.
Appeal: Characters in 3D should be visually appealing and evoke emotions.
Conclusion, and What’s Next
In this article, I have laid the groundwork for an exciting exploration into how to make your creations feel alive, how to evoke genuine emotions, and how to tell stories that resonate deeply by using the acclaimed and timeless 12 principles of animation.
In the upcoming articles, we will delve deeper into each of the 12 principles, breaking down their significance and demonstrating how we can apply them within my animating program of choice, Blender.
Remember, animation is not just about movement—it’s first and foremost a medium for storytelling, communicating emotion, and creating immersive experiences. Whether you’re a seasoned animator seeking to refresh on the basics or a curious beginner taking your first steps, this series aims to be your guide to make artistry meet technology.
I created Graphic Art Quest to help bring more excitement, stories, and education into the world.
I did not follow a typical artist's path. I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M University where I did 3D engineering design using Solidworks. I have multiple minors, master's credits, and all kinds of certifications. I assure you, none of them are formal art training.
I'm about as unconventional as they come when it comes to the art world. Learn along with me as I create more adventures.