The 12 Principles Of Animation Explained (With Videos)

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Got to thank Cento Lodigiani for the vid.


What Are The 12 Principles Of Animation and Who Created Them?


The 12 principles of animation are considered the fundamental aspects of creating movement and giving a character or object the illusion of life, by making it follow the basic laws of physics and help to tell a story through the movement itself.

The 12 principles are:

Looking online, I’ve noticed that there seems to be a slight misunderstanding about who invented the 12 principles of animation. A number of people say that it was two of Disney’s Nine Old Men – Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston – that created them in their wonderful and legendary book “The Illusion of Life”, but this is not strictly correct.

Frank and Ollie certainly codified the principles for the first time in the book, but the principles themselves were created by the animators at the Walt Disney Animation Studio in the 1930s (including Frank and Ollie), and then used to train new artists when they joined the studio.


1. Squash and Stretch


Squash and stretch is the most important of all of the 12 principles, particularly in feature animation, as it is the one that creates the illusion of mass, volume and elasticity.

It is also the principle that most helps to show the difference between a living and an inanimate object, and also to highlight what the object is made of.

You will find it very heavily used in animated feature films and tv series, but less so in realistic VFX or creature animation – however it is still there, just much more subtly used.

The key to successful stretch and squash is to maintain the volume of the object – e.g. if a ball squashes on the ground on impact, the shape will change but the volume (amount of air inside it) will remain the same…unless it bursts of course! 🙂


2. Anticipation


Imagine you’re going to jump into the air…what do you do before you jump? You crouch down or bend your knees right?

What do you do before you throw a ball? You pull your arm back ready in an action that lets everyone know what is about to happen.

This is in essence what is meant by anticipation in animation. It is about telling (or telegraphing to) the audience what is about to happen before it does, so that when the action actually does occur it is easier to read and to follow.

Without any anticipation, a character’s movements or expressions seem abrupt and unnatural, since few things in the real world ever move without some sort of anticipation however small.

It also makes the movement more interesting and adds character, and has been used in the theatre and pantomime for centuries.


3. Staging


This is the most general of the 12 animation principles but basically means the presentation of any idea or action so that it is completely and unmistakably clear.

It can refer to posing, camera angles, expressions, or a piece of acting – but whatever it is the intention of it must be clear to the audience.

In the same way that a great magician will guide the eyes and gaze of his audience wherever he wants them to go, the animator should be aiming to achieve the same thing in their work, and this is most achieved by paying attention to staging.

Always ask yourself if this is the best way to communicate the idea or story point that you are trying to.


4. Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose


This principle refers to the two ways of working in traditional 2d animation. Straight ahead means simply starting on the first drawing and working continuously all the way through a scene in a linear fashion, drawing after drawing.

Pose-to-pose means planning out the scene more methodically with key drawings of the important moments and poses and then filling in the gaps later on.

Some people argue about which method is better but at the end of the day it all depends on what kind of scene you are working on. Some scenes or actions that are particularly complex or staged in a certain way require you to work pose-to-pose, whereas others are better using straight ahead – like animating a piece of cloth or clothing.

Although computer animation is inherently non-linear, many computer animators still work in both these ways – but I would say with more work done in pose-to-pose as this works well with the inbetweening capabilities of modern software programs.

Stop motion, being linear, can only work in straight ahead animation.


5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action


Imagine a woman with long flowing hair running and then suddenly coming to a stop. Her hair will keep moving forward due to the inertia and momentum, and then eventually fall down and settle – this is follow through.

Or how about a person with a large belly jumping up and down, the loose fat areas of the belly will drag and follow the body but slightly later and then overlap – this is overlapping action.

Playing with the amount of follow through and overlap on a character is what helps describe to the audience everything about that character – what it is made of, its personality, how heavy it is, how flexible it is, etc.

Remember, nothing in real life comes to a perfect stop without any follow through or overlapping action, as they end up looking too stiff, lifeless and boring.

By combining follow through with other principles like squash and stretch, you can create some really wonderful effects.


6. Slow In and Slow Out


When a ball bounces on the ground, it doesn’t move in a linear way, with the distance between each frame being exactly the same. Rather it speeds up during its descent (slow out), then slows down while on the floor (slow in), before speeding up (slowing out) as it bounces back up.

Or think of a car going from a stop, starting up and then stopping again. It gradually speeds up when it starts, reaches its peak speed and then slows down before coming to a full stop.

By adding inbetweens and frames closer to each of the key poses of your action you give the effect of speeding up and slowing down. This helps to give a sense of realism to an action, but also to highlight certain poses to the audience and make them stand out more.

The secret is in the spacing of the action between the frames.


7. Arcs


Very few living things move in a straight line, but rather take a circular or arcing movement, even if it seems imperceptible. This is just a consequence of physics and the laws of gravity.

A head will never really thrust straight out and back again, but will take a small arc – lifting as it comes forward and then dropping as it goes back in.

Think of each of a character’s limbs as a pendulum. The pendulum swings in arcs, and so too do the human or animal limbs, just in a more complex way.

Even a bullet – if allowed to travel far enough – does not travel in a perfectly straight line but rather arcs and will eventually hit the ground.

Arcs will add complexity and realism to your animation.


8. Secondary Action


Not to be confused with overlapping action, secondary action refers to the other action or expression that complements the main one in a scene.

For example, if a character has a sad expression on his face that you want the audience to see, the secondary action of wiping away a tear should not conflict with the expression you want to convey to the audience – i.e. his hand that wipes away the tear should not cover the face and the all-important expression. If it does, then the secondary action overtakes the primary one and confuses the scene.

Another example is in a simple walk animation. The primary action is the movement of the legs, and the secondary action is the movement of the arms and head. The way that the arms and head move can help to accentuate the legs – for example, an angry character will stomp his feet and swing his arms with clenched fists as he walks.


9. Timing


This is the amount of time (or number of frames) an action takes, and playing with timing will greatly affect the visual quality of the final animation. Remember, film runs at 24 frames per second so how you use those frames is all important and the key to good timing.

For instance, a character can move its head from one side to the other, but depending on how long it takes (number of frames) for this action to complete will convey the kind of action of character that we want to show the audience.

If the head moves occurs in just two frames, it would suggest it has been hit by a massive force and nearly had it knocked off, in six frames it would suggest a communicative gesture (“over here!”), and twelve frames could suggest he is stretching a sore muscle in his neck.


10. Exaggeration


The key to great animation is caricature…it can be broad caricature or very subtle, but the essence is to take the reality and push the key moments to make it more interesting.

Whether the exaggeration is in the way the character walks, talks, eats, or expresses himself / herself, it should be done to make the action clearer to the audience.

Remember that animation is not simulation. Yes, it should be grounded in reality, but the key is to caricature the reality to extract the points of interest and make the action more enjoyable, funnier, more intense, etc.

Interestingly, this is seen in VFX animation where the desire is obviously to make things look as real as possible and not be so obviously caricatured as in cartoon feature animation. However, even if a character in VFX is animated to mimic exactly what the actor did in the reference footage, there is something flat about it…it is as if the human eye can instinctively tell when it is watching a real living breathing thing, and when it is watching an animated version.

Ironically, by adding some very subtle caricature and exaggeration to the VFX animated character, it actually looks more realistic than the tame “rotoscoped” version.


11. Solid Drawing


Of course, 2d animation relies on great drawing skills and a lot of practice to improve your artistic eye. Some animators wonder these days if this principle is still applicable…after all, most animation is done on a computer now.

However, drawing is still key – but also, this principle is really referring to the quality of the posing and really making sure that each and every frame is conveying the right weight, balance, energy and expression that you’re trying to convey through the scene as a whole.

For example, the classic error that beginning animators often make is called “twinning” – which is where one side of the character looks the same as the other side, i.e. both arms are at the same height and position like twins, as if there were an invisible mirror down the centre of the character and one side is a reflection of the other.

A twinned pose looks boring and a little unnatural as it gives a static feel to the character and doesn’t convey living energy and movement.


12. Appeal


Appeal doesn’t necessarily mean cute, but rather something that creates interest, something that draws your eye and just makes you want to look at it. The lines and forms communicate the character and personality of the thing, whether they are a good character or a villain.

Are your drawings or characters hard to read, clumsy or awkward? If they are lacking appeal then it will be hard to convey ideas to the audience and they will not enjoy watching it.

Appeal is one of the mystical things that are in all great works of art – hard to pinpoint exactly what it is, but we all know it when we see it…and often that is the best test. Show your work to others regularly and get their feedback – fresh eyes will have a new and different view on what you are doing and help you to get better and achieve appeal in your work.

After all, that is what the Disney animators did to develop the principles in the first place – always ask questions – can you add more squash and stretch? Can you add more weight and volume, yet still make it believable by sticking to the real world laws of physics and gravity?

If you want to find out more about the principles of animation why not check out my list of the best animation books here.


Why Are The 12 Principles Of Animation Important?


The 12 principles of animation are important because without them it is almost impossible to create any moving image that is interesting or believable since these fundamentals help to ground the character or object with a sense of reality. The Disney animators who developed them (with Walt’s help) really were geniuses of their craft.

So, even if you are animating a weird alien character that has no earthly parallel, it still needs to obey certain physical laws for the audience to believe in it. Sure, it can break a few of the principles but it can’t break all of them and still work.

Also, don’t forget that the 12 principles can be applied to ANY moving image to create interest and impact.

For instance, imagine motion graphics, web design or video editing without the principles of timing, secondary action and slow in and slow out.


Are The 12 Principles Still Relevant To Computer Animation?


Some folks wonder whether the 12 principles are still relevant today with computer animation…after all, the original principles talk about solid drawing, straight ahead action and pose to pose, and these are really referring to traditional 2d animation practices.

Well, the fact is that the 12 principles are absolutely relevant to computer animation and every other form – like stop motion and motion graphics.

Solid drawing may seem less relevant if you already have a model created and rigged in the computer, but the ability to see lines, forms and good posing is essential in CG. Anyway, many top CG animators are continually practising their drawing skills as they realise the importance of training their eyes to see good poses and form.


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