Animation Principles

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I gave a talk to a group of non-animators about my take on the principles of animation. It may not be what’s on everybody’s list but I approached it from the point of view of “What can’t I do without?” Although I’m not posting the clips I showed to illustrate my points, I still think this outline is a worthwhile read. Also, keep in mind that this is just the outline for the talk I gave so forgive the brevity, please.

I’ll add each item to this page as they are posted.

  • Planning
  • Posing
  • Squash & Stretch
  • Anticipation
  • Timing
  • Drag & Overlapping Action
  • Arcs
  • Secondary Action
  • Exaggerration


  • Ask yourself: "What would I like to see on the screen?"
    • Give people their money's worth: "If I were paying good money to see this, what would I expect?"
    • Imagine in your mind: "the ideal version of this shot" and aim for that
    • Entertainment
      • It's the relationship with the audience that makes entertainment work because:
        • They have an expectation and it's our job to give it to them in an unexpected way
          • Applies to all forms of storytelling and animation is a part of that
          • If you have a shot of someone picking up a box and it's done exactly like you'd expect, there's no entertainment
          • The movie Jaws (or any great movie) is an excellent example of this:
            • As the audience we know there's a shark and the expectation is obvious – the humans will win (at least we hope). Then why is it entertaining and why don't people just walk out before it's over when we know WHAT will happen? Because they want to see HOW it happens. That's the part they can't predict. That's where we have to be creative, surprising, inventive, and original. When's the last time you heard someone say "Oh you've got to see that movie, it's so predictable!" This is how we should approach every aspect of a film – from the story, to the indiviual acts, to the sequence, to the scene, all the way down to the individual shot.
    • Three types of reactions according to philosopher Arthur Koestler – HA! HA!, AHA!, & AAH!
      • HA! HA! (humor) we laugh when we unexpectedly see the same thing in two frames of reference (there's "the expected in an unexpected way" again)
        • In it's broadest sense – this is why jokes are funny
        • First frame of reference: “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas.”
          Second frame of reference: “What he was doing in my pajamas I have no idea.”
      • AHA! (insight, discovery) combining two different things so that the sum is greater than the parts
        • This is why mysteries are so popular – they provide built in insight
      • AAH! (self-transcending) lose yourself in an experience; when you find yourself transported to another frame of existence
        • Some movies get to this point, but not most. These are the moments that have the greatest effect on people.
        • Some animation moments I can think of where I lose myself in the movie:
          • The dwarfs crying in Snow White
          • The Beast's transformation in Beauty and the Beast
          • When the Iron Giant says, "Superman"
          • When Dumbo flies
          • Gollum arguing with himself
          • Mufasa's death in The Lion King
          • Moses discovering the burning bush in Prince of Egypt
          • The chase in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
          • For me, all of Peter Pan
      • To me, every moment should be one of these three
        • If a shot doesn’t accomplish one of these, or at least lead to one, I question whether it is worth anyone’s time.
        • What they all have in common is that they allow the audience to feel smart. This is one of the most powerful tools in making movies, when the audience feels like they've made a connection between two seemingly unrelated ideas. It happens all the time and if the filmmaker has laid in all the clues in a sneaky (not obvious) way, it engages the viewer and keeps them hooked. The audience is actually participating in the film instead of it being hand delivered to them.
    • If you can imagine what you want to see, half your work is done
      • Picture it in your head – close your eyes and see the edges of the screen, the set, and what the character is doing. It takes practice, but it's a skill that can be developed.
  • Thumbnail – they don't have to be works of art, they are just a map
    • They are your storytelling poses (key poses of the shot)
    • Work out the best poses and, if needed, how to get from one pose to another (breakdowns)
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