The 12 basic principles of stunning animation video

Do you wonder why some animation stands out? What makes them so great? In fact, there are 12 simple rules to follow to help you create a good animation. Applying these rules can make stunning animation, but fully understanding them can allow you to create a truly great animation.

The rules for great animation were introduced by the two famous Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, in their book “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation“. This was the first book published that established clear rules on animation, and it’s kind of a “Bible” for all modern animators.

I can really recommend this magnificent book as I own one myself. It’s originally written for hand-drawn animation, but the fact is that the principles apply for all kinds of animation.


Squash and stretch (via Wikimedia Commons)


Let’s talk about those rules, one by one.

1. Squash and stretch

Squash and stretch (via Wikimedia Commons)

This is probably the most important rule of animation: it refers to the natural deformation, weight and flexibility of objects. It’s a phenomenon we can observe in real life, watching a ball bounce, for example. If you apply a lot of squash and stretch, you’ll get a cartoon-type of animation, pleasing to the eye, often wanted in motion design video. This rule really smoothes the movement.

2. Anticipation

anticipation of a jump by Richard Williams

Anticipation is the rule of animation where you introduce a movement by another one. For example, a baseball player, before throwing the ball, will prepare for the action by moving his arm back (and in fact his whole body will take a special “pose”). This allows you to prepare your audience for what will happen next and get a more “realistic” impact. In motion design, for example, if you want to animate a rotating object, make a slight rotation in the opposite way just before the animation itself as if the object was preparing itself to rotate. This technique adds a lot.

3. Staging

Staging by ward kimball (Disney Animation)

A process that actors know really well: showing something in an explicit way on screen anddirecting the viewer’s attention on it to make the purpose of the scene really clear. The position from the camera and the orientation of what you want to show can completely change the understanding of an element. A good way to know if your staging is going to work is to imagine your scene as a silhouette. If you can understand the silhouette without knowing what’s inside, your message is going to work. This is obviously a technique that works very well in animation.

4. Straight ahead & pose-to-pose

Pöse to pose animation by Richard Williams

These are two different ways to animate something. “Straight ahead” animation is when you animate a character or something as it is moving, like when you move in real life, you animate it frame by frame, without a plan. On the other hand, “pose-to-pose” animation is when you begin by placing the most important states, or “keyframes” of your animation, creating the transition between two keyframes. That way, you have a preview of what your animation will look like without having to animate the whole thing. This allows you a lot more flexibility, if some pose has to be changed; you don’t have to re-do the whole thing. Nowadays, all animators work in “pose-to-pose”, and computer animation software allows us to be even more efficient as it automatically generates the “in-between” frames.

5. Follow-through & overlapping

follow through by Richard Williams

Overlapping (via AWN)

Follow-through and overlapping action are ways to give a more “believable” look to your animation. The overlapping action is the tendency for the different parts/elements of your object to move with different timings (e.g. the arms of a character are not animated with the same timing as its legs. Doing such a thing would give a really robotic-look to your animation, and that’s one of the most common problems with animations today). Also bear in mind the fact that some elements continue to move when the “main” one stopped. For example, when a character stops walking, his arms won’t stop at the same time than the feet. It is a kind of “afterwards anticipation”.

6. Ease-in & ease-out

ease in and ease out by Richard Williams

When you move your arm, it won’t move at a defined speed all the time. The movement is like a robot’s where it starts slowly, accelerates and then slows down to get to its final destination. It also allows us to emphasize the key-poses of our animation which in a way, gives more time for the viewer to see it.

ease in ease out curve

In After Effects or any animation software, you can easily control this with the animation curves.

7. Arcs

arcs by richard williams

Here we are talking about the trajectory of your animated element through time. An arched trajectory really helps when it comes to the realism and the impact of your animation, as the movement appears smoother and gentler.

8. Secondary action

Secondary action

It’s always good to add some secondary animation to your character/object. For example, a female character running will have her hair moving according to the speed of her run. Another is to imagine a bull with a ring in the nose. The ring is an independent object that deserves his own animations but are related to the bull’s face movement.

9. Timing and spacing

timing and spacing by richard williams

In my opinion this is one of the most important rules. Timing is the number of images it takes for an animation to move from one key image to another. This will set the rhythm of the animation and allow you to have some non-linear action. That will increase a lot the quality and generate more interest for your animation. Spacing is the difference between two frames. In other words, it’s the detail of the timing.

10. Exaggeration


When it comes to cartoon or non-realistic animation, exaggerating a movement will always bring more quality to your animation. It allows your object or character to not look static and fixed but fluid and with their own way of thinking.

11. Solid drawing

Solid drawing (the simpsons matt groening)

This is mostly applicable to 3-dimensional elements. I’m only talking about 3D objects, but every object has its own thickness, shape, reaction to lights and shadows. In traditional animation, this requires a lot of skills, but in CG animation, it is much easier to give life and importance to an object with for example, a simple drop shadow.

12. Appeal

Cloudy with a change of meatballs
Here we are talking about the charisma of your animation. If we we’re talking about an actor, we would refer to it as their acting ‘game’. If you want something to be positive, design it with the appropriate features: a smile, round shapes, light colors… and if you want to express a bad thing, use de-saturated dark and sad colors, mad eyes, spikes, triangle and square shapes.


Appeal well-e pixar

In conclusion

Those are great guidelines and important elements to keep in mind when you are animating something. Try to implement some in your work and you’ll see that you’ll get more attention from the audience.