Principles of Animation – Planning

From time to time between ‘casts (believe me, it’s a lot faster to write than to cut a show) I’ve decided to start posting some animation notes I’ve collected/written for myself over the years. I won’t commit to how often or in-depth this will be, but it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, right?

I’ll start with some notes I put together for a talk I gave about the fundamentals of animation. They may not be the same as someone else’s list, but they are the things I wouldn’t animate without. Rather than just dump them all at once, I’d rather post one at a time and hopefully you’ll have a chance to read through them and add thoughts or ask questions.

Here’s my list of the can’t-do-without Principles of Animation:

    Squash & Stretch
    Drag & Overlapping Action
    Secondary Action

This list isn’t a how-to, and it’s certainly not all-inclusive. It’s more of a “how-I-think-about” these principles.

It’s an outline for a talk, so, as you’ll see, the notes are fairly brief. I’d love to hear what you think about these things, and I’ll try to clarify whenever it’s not totally explained in the outline. Although I’m not posting the clips I showed to illustrate my points, I still think this outline is a worthwhile read. And, of course, I want to learn too, so if you have something to add or take away, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Eventually these principles will all be compiled on one page. For now, here’s…


  • 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)
  • 22 Comments on “Principles of Animation – Planning

    1. Clay, could you give a few examples from movies with the AHA! factor, I guess I didn’t understand what you mean.

      and thanks for sharing your notes with us πŸ™‚


    2. The AHA! moment is one of discovery or revelation. When the audience puts two pieces of information together and realizes a new truth. As a lot of animation likes to spell things out, I don’t have many examples leaping to the rescue.

      In Beauty and the Beast after everyone has returned to being human, the French maid walks by Lumiere and teases him with the duster. We never saw the duster turn into the maid, but we make the connection. This is a AHA and HA HA.

      In The Lion King when adult Nala stalks and chases Pumba. Simba stops her and she pins him. Our minds race back to when they were young and we know it’s her, probably even before the characters on screen realize it.

      In The Iron Giant, Hogarth is waiting in the woods for the robot to appear. He takes a bunch of photos including one of himself. Later we see the photo and the robot is captured in the background. We realize that he was watching Hogarth all along. Not a huge one, but it works for me.

      If you want to look at AHA on a far subtler scale, consider any scene when you learn something about a character. In Robin Hood Prince John is asleep, sucking his thumb, and saying, “Mother.” We take these clues and conclude that he’s a mama’s boy.

      Like I said, not every scene will be one of these moments (HA HA, AHA, AAH), but they should all have some value, meaning they provide some piece of information that will lead to one of these moments. They also don’t need to hit you over the head. All of these moments will come in varying degrees. The point isn’t to strictly fit every shot into a category, but it is to realize that any amount of screen time, whether it’s in a short or a feature, is valuable and should have a purpose. If you keep this in mind as you’re animating, you may find that your work will be more entertaining.

      Anyone have any thoughts on this?
      Or can anyone think of more examples?
      Anyone think this is hogwash?

    3. This is awesome!

      I was especially struck when you mentioned the self-transcending “AHH!” moments. I remembered all those moments you mentioned and the flutter I felt in my stomach when I first saw them. I’m sure a lot of us go into a movie observing and critiquing everything from a technical aspect; cinematography, dialogue, all that fun stuff (at least I do). It’s such a magical moment when all those thoughts fade away and you truly lose yourself in the movie.

      Ahh, it seems so easy when picking those moments out of our favorite movies. ;D Now how to inspire that feeling in our audiences!

    4. One of the best Ahh moments for me is when Moses divides the Red Sea in “Prince of Egypt”. When I saw that shot in a trailer sitting in a theater I got goosebumps. When I saw it in the context of the film I was blown away. Another is the final shot of Monsters Inc. when Sully gets to see Boo again.
      An Aha! moment that comes to my mind: Seeing Syndrome in the Incredibles and realizing it’s Buddy before Mr. I does.
      Great stuff, Clay. Keep sharing. πŸ™‚


    5. Thanks for the comments Nilah and Keith.
      I love seeing other people’s examples of these. Those are great Keith. We’ve got to do our best to make more of these moments in our work. It can be looked at as more of a Story issue, but I think as animators we can apply these principles to individual shots in how the characters behave. Of course, the Ahh is always the hardest to get, but I think on a shot level, that happens when the character seems undoubtedly alive and all we are concerned about is how they feel or what they will do next.

    6. hi,

      simply great! best read in a long time!

      arent these moments aimed towards a certain kind of film? many films work without the first and second moments.

      also, do you think that those also apply to short films, which aren’t as dependant as feature films what concerns dramaturgy and structure?


      aah! moment: the cat climbing and balancing on the window in pinocchio and all of “on the edge of the world” by konstantin bronzit.

    7. Hi Johannes,
      I think that these moments apply to any form of storytelling. For me the word entertaining doesn’t just mean that the audience will smile. It means that the viewer is engaged and wants to see more. They could be crying their eyes out, rolling laughing in the aisles, shrinking in fear – it’s all good.

      I can’t think of any films that don’t use any of these moments. Any time something strikes the audience as amusing or funny – HA HA. Whenever information is revealed and the audience starts to infer meaning from it – AHA. To be sure, some movies have more or less of each moment and they are often combined with each other.

      As far as short films go, at least in the more successful ones, I think these moments are not only required, but they must be stronger than in longer films since there is less time to explain what’s going on. Isn’t it more efficient (and better) to give the most vital pieces of information and let the audience decide what it means, or set up a joke so that when it happens the viewer doesn’t see it coming but undoubtedly makes the connection between what they expected and what is given and sees the humor in it? That’s the point of me bringing this up – it’s allowing the audience to process the information and experience the moment. We’ve all heard it a thousand time and I’ll say it again, “Give them what they expect, in an unexpected way.”

      Pick any movie you thought was awful and I think you will find moments that failed in this respect. Was the humor not smart enough, or too obvious? Was everything explained as though the audience was too dumb to get it on their own? Or was all of it so vague that the connections didn’t make sense or went over the audience’s head? Or in the worst way, were you thinking of all the other things you could be doing instead of sitting in this theatre?

      A sequence that excels in all three of these moments for me is Captain Hook convincing Tinkerbell to reveal Pan’s hideout. He plays the piano in an unexpected way, which makes it funny. His change of expressions reveal his brewing temper and his attempts to hide it, revealing more than what is being said. The whole thing is so alive, and animated so beautifully, that it’s hard for me to even analyze it because every time I start watching it, I get lost in it all and find that it’s just so damn enjoyable, I forget that I’m supposed to be studying. This is the roughest explanation of this sequence and it doesn’t do it the justice it deserves, but I think it at least points toward why it is so entertaining.

      All right, now I’m feeling like a broken record, so sorry for that. For old time’s sake, here’s the point – MAKE IT ENTERTAINING!

      By the way, I’ve never seen the film by Bronzit. Do you know where I can find it?


    8. hi!

      yes, i do agree. the problem i have is: i think that one can (ab)use these moments to camouflage a weak plot and MEANING of the movie as a whole.

      what about the plot?

      i recently read this quote by spielberg:

      “[When asked about being conflicted whether to make more artistic films, or more commercial films] “All the time, but when you have a story that is very commercial and simple, you have to find the art. You have to take the other elements of the film, and make them as good as possible, and doing that will uplift the film.”

      thats exactly what i mean: all those moments can be used to make the film better although the story is commercial and simple. thats a bit weird i think.

      best regards,


    9. Great stuff Clay… really interesting way to look at planning a shot… i’ll definitely be adding that type of thinking into my planning and whenever i watch a movie from now on..

      i want to make sure i understand them:
      HA HA! – Mr. Incredible working out… but he’s lifting trains…
      AHA! – Us knowing that Dory had found Nemo… Dory couldnt remember who he was… definitely a kids screaming at the screen “It’s Him!” moment
      AAH! – Snow White in the forest with the eyes…

    10. I hadn’t expected this much conversation, but I think it’s great. First let me say that I don’t start a shot and ask myself, “Now is this a HAHA, or an AHH?” I presented the idea because it’s a concept that I think is very useful as a stepping off point, or at least a way to keep my mind in the sphere of “why is this shot worth animating?” Sometimes I’ll get a shot that doesn’t grab me and asking myself why it’s there can lead me to what should happen in it.

      All I can say to that is that a LOT of the time as animators we don’t control the story and our only input is on the HOW, not the WHY. So given the choice of making it more entertaining, or as Spielberg might put it, “finding the art,” versus matching the animation to the level of the plot, I’d hope we always choose the former. It can be a task sometimes to pull meaning out of uninspired shots, but hopefully (as has been most of my experience) the really lame stuff is identified before it gets animated. If some thing you work on ends up being a polished turd, at least you can say, “See that polish, that’s mine.”

      Your AHA example works from the point of view of Dory, but I’ve been approaching these from how the audience experiences the film, and in this case there isn’t much question who everyone is. I would say, though, that it is moving into the AAH territory since people are so caught up in the story and characters by this point that they can’t help but yell at the screen. Just a quick AHA from the same film is when all the fish swim down into the net of the fishing boat to free themselves. Nemo doesn’t say, “Hey, I learned this in an aquarium in an dentist’s office,” but Pixar respected us enough to let us make the connection on our own.

      Just to be clear, the AAH is like a sigh, not a startled yelp. So, for you, if when you’re watching Snow White in the forest and you feel lost in the moment, then yes, I’d call that an AAH! moment.

    11. Great insight. All of these moments are what truly matters for the viewer. For me they are definetely the heart of the story, and I will try to apply all these lessons into my future animation. AHA! I’ve learned something!

    12. Other suggestions using The Little Mermaid,Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas:

      Ha Ha: – nearly ever scuttle scene – thinks that he knows every thing about humans, but doesn’t even know what one looks like….. (boat scene especially)

      Ha Ha / Aha: Ariels Grotto Sequence – learn and discover ariels true feelings, humerous names for objects ect and sabastian in background…..

      Aha: “Belle (reprise)”- the one with Belle on the hill singing….. you get more of an insight into her desires… it is sang in the first song… but here there is alot more emphesis on her wishes and wants from life, rather than her backstory….

      Aah: The last sequence of Pocahontas (the running scene) – you just hope that she makes it to the cliff on time to say good bye one more…. it is a combination of the swelling music- gives me goosebumps!

    13. totally agree with emma about the farewell sequence in Pocahontas. It’s even more intense if you watch the 10th Anniversary edition.

      another AHH moment is the Part of your World reprise segment in The Little Mermaid

      HA HA could be all of Les Poissions

      AHH can also be felt when Dory finds Nemo.

    14. This is great!
      Never looked at a film in these ways and I think from now on I will never NOT do it! πŸ˜€

      I’m not an animator, but there has always been a very strong interest in movies (not only animated) and I think it’s “the AAH” that fascinates me.

      I’m studying to become a painter and I think your approach is interesting for paintings, too. There are “single images” in all of these categories, even though AAH is probably the most common. I think one can use this info to make single pieces (as opposed to moving scenes) stronger, more narrative, captivating, entertaining and comical, when one is thinking of these three guys: HA HA!, AHA!, AAH!

      Your podcast really get’s me very very much interested in animation!
      Thank you,


    15. wow, awsome people.. hi, im pierre famador from philippines. i really love animation. i read some of your opinions and tips.. im so happy to have this site. it really help us for our carrer..

      thank animation podcast . . .


    16. Fascinating to see the connections between the writing process and the creation process of animation. I’m visiting here and commenting as part of Blog Day! I may be back. thanks.

    17. great blog clay… i have understood there can be so much of HAHA moments… a few AHA moments… but there may be jus one or two… but really appealing AAH.. moments in a film
      also i would like to know… wat exactly is the element, that creates a AAH.. moment… is it the story or is it the screen play or is it the character’s acting part? im sure all is required to create that moment.. but which is the dominant element in a film which creates the Aahh.. moment..

    18. Hey everyone, hi Clay!
      This is SO interesting. I’m looking over my 3 scenes that I’m working on and trying to apply this to them and the characters. The script is set as is the actors’ dialogues (the WHAT as you mentioned Clay) and here I am, working out the HOW. Together with part 2 of James Baxter’s interview this makes for some interesting exercises and challenges.

      I think one of the funniest HA! HA! things in movies is unexpected relationships, how people act to each other. That’s what really gets me going in Woody Allen films. Not just the truths of the relationships between people – which is great fun to create and capture in animation and to watch, like Mrs and Mr Incredible’s relationship – but also unexpected ways people treat each other in subtle (and not so subtle) glances, shoulder reactions, turning away ever so discreetly from someone they don’t like and so forth. People watching simple put. That’s some fun stuff beyond straight out jokes and gags. Like in Tangled between Maximus the horse and Flynn (the hero) which had the theatre roaring with laughter, including myself, but which also created one of the strongest relationships between the all the characters in the film.

      One of my greatest Aha! moments as an audience was (spoiler warning!) that the shrink was dead at the end of Sixth Sense. Half of me felt like a sucker for not seeing it coming but the other half of me was overjoyed for the pure entertainment of that twist.

      I love the question that Nishaanth puts: What exactly is the element that creates AAH moments? For me, its escapism. To fully, without comprise, immerse the audience in the essence of the subject matter – visually, emotional, editorially etc. When the film–makers manages to capture the reality of the characters, their story and their world (to quote Pixar) so fully but one can’t help get lost in it all. Examples that worked for me: Amadeus, The Mission, Monsters Inc, RAN, The English Patient, Jungle Book and so forth. But for me there also has to be solid, sincere relationships between the people in the story. If the relationships don’t work between the actors (animators and voice talent in animated films) then the film won’t get me to the AAH moment. Up for example didn’t do it for me because I didn’t buy into the relationship between the old man and the boy scout. Same in Bolt because the relationship between Bolt and Penny, Bolt’s owner, wasn’t solidified no matter how much she loved Bolt and missed him.

      Bolt had great HAHA! and a few AHA! (especially the AWESOME helicopter design, but that’s a visual AHA! not a story AHA! for me πŸ™‚

      Anyways, AWESOME material Clay and everyone that wrote these wonderful inputs. Brilliant inspiration. Now I need to get back to my animation and push those inter-character subtle relationship clues that layer in the “MA” between the “CLAP!” as Miyazaki would put it (according to an interview I heard, not that I know him in any way!).

      L8ter anim8ters!
      Leo of Sweden

    19. Hi Clay – I’m loving this series!! I just about start it up any time I need inspiration. You are an excellent interviewer!!

      Anyway- In the last few months I’ve started to ask myself ‘What would this shot look like if it where in a Disney/Pixar movie’ … so I am delighted to see your note about ‘what would this look like in its ideal form?’ – which is basically the same thing to me. I’ve started to really see the value and importance of developing visualization skills, and I see you are on the same page so that confirms it for me. πŸ™‚ Thanks again for this podcast!