Disney’s 12 Timeless Principles of Animation

Ani­ma­tion is essen­tial­ly an opti­cal illu­sion- a series of still pho­tographs that cre­ate the impres­sion of move­ment. Though Win­sor McCay pio­neered ways of mak­ing draw­ings move, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men were the ones who per­fect­ed it. While mak­ing Snow White and the Sev­en Dwarfs, not to men­tion count­less shorts in the 1930s, this team of ani­ma­tors devel­oped 12 basic prin­ci­ples that exag­ger­at­ed the laws of physics to best bring these images to life.

The prin­ci­ples came to define Disney’s look and became part of the lan­guage of ani­ma­tors every­where. Every time you see Wiley E. Coyote’s eyes bulge to the size of water­mel­ons at the sight of a falling boul­der, Olaf the Snow­man from Frozen stretch dur­ing a sud­den stop, or Tig­ger crouch­ing down before a pounce, you can thank these prin­ci­ples.

Frank Thomas and Ollie John­son, two of the nine old men, pub­lished the prin­ci­ples in their book Dis­ney Ani­ma­tion: Illu­sion of Life. Jason Kot­tke has post­ed a real­ly groovy (ani­mat­ed, of course) video illus­trat­ing the 12 Prin­ci­ples. Check it out above. And if you need fur­ther review watch this oth­er ani­mat­ed video. The prin­ci­ples, them­selves, appear below.


This action gives the illu­sion of weight and vol­ume to a char­ac­ter as it moves. Also squash and stretch is use­ful in ani­mat­ing dia­logue and doing facial expres­sions. How extreme the use of squash and stretch is, depends on what is required in ani­mat­ing the scene. Usu­al­ly it’s broad­er in a short style of pic­ture and sub­tler in a fea­ture. It is used in all forms of char­ac­ter ani­ma­tion from a bounc­ing ball to the body weight of a per­son walk­ing. This is the most impor­tant ele­ment you will be required to mas­ter and will be used often.


This move­ment pre­pares the audi­ence for a major action the char­ac­ter is about to per­form, such as, start­ing to run, jump or change expres­sion. A dancer does not just leap off the floor. A back­wards motion occurs before the for­ward action is exe­cut­ed. The back­ward motion is the antic­i­pa­tion. A com­ic effect can be done by not using antic­i­pa­tion after a series of gags that used antic­i­pa­tion. Almost all real action has major or minor antic­i­pa­tion such as a pitcher’s wind-up or a golfers’ back swing. Fea­ture ani­ma­tion is often less broad than short ani­ma­tion unless a scene requires it to devel­op a char­ac­ters per­son­al­i­ty.


A pose or action should clear­ly com­mu­ni­cate to the audi­ence the atti­tude, mood, reac­tion or idea of the char­ac­ter as it relates to the sto­ry and con­ti­nu­ity of the sto­ry line. The effec­tive use of long, medi­um, or close up shots, as well as cam­era angles also helps in telling the sto­ry. There is a lim­it­ed amount of time in a film, so each sequence, scene and frame of film must relate to the over­all sto­ry. Do not con­fuse the audi­ence with too many actions at once. Use one action clear­ly stat­ed to get the idea across, unless you are ani­mat­ing a scene that is to depict clut­ter and con­fu­sion. Stag­ing directs the audi­ence’s atten­tion to the sto­ry or idea being told. Care must be tak­en in back­ground design so it isn’t obscur­ing the ani­ma­tion or com­pet­ing with it due to excess detail behind the ani­ma­tion. Back­ground and ani­ma­tion should work togeth­er as a pic­to­r­i­al unit in a scene.


Straight ahead ani­ma­tion starts at the first draw­ing and works draw­ing to draw­ing to the end of a scene. You can lose size, vol­ume, and pro­por­tions with this method, but it does have spon­tane­ity and fresh­ness. Fast, wild action scenes are done this way. Pose to Pose is more planned out and chart­ed with key draw­ings done at inter­vals through­out the scene. Size, vol­umes, and pro­por­tions are con­trolled bet­ter this way, as is the action. The lead ani­ma­tor will turn chart­ing and keys over to his assis­tant. An assis­tant can be bet­ter used with this method so that the ani­ma­tor does­n’t have to draw every draw­ing in a scene. An ani­ma­tor can do more scenes this way and con­cen­trate on the plan­ning of the ani­ma­tion. Many scenes use a bit of both meth­ods of ani­ma­tion.


When the main body of the char­ac­ter stops all oth­er parts con­tin­ue to catch up to the main mass of the char­ac­ter, such as arms, long hair, cloth­ing, coat tails or a dress, flop­py ears or a long tail (these fol­low the path of action). Noth­ing stops all at once. This is fol­low through. Over­lap­ping action is when the char­ac­ter changes direc­tion while his clothes or hair con­tin­ues for­ward. The char­ac­ter is going in a new direc­tion, to be fol­lowed, a num­ber of frames lat­er, by his clothes in the new direc­tion. “DRAG,” in ani­ma­tion, for exam­ple, would be when Goofy starts to run, but his head, ears, upper body, and clothes do not keep up with his legs. In fea­tures, this type of action is done more sub­tly. Exam­ple: When Snow White starts to dance, her dress does not begin to move with her imme­di­ate­ly but catch­es up a few frames lat­er. Long hair and ani­mal tail will also be han­dled in the same man­ner. Tim­ing becomes crit­i­cal to the effec­tive­ness of drag and the over­lap­ping action.


As action starts, we have more draw­ings near the start­ing pose, one or two in the mid­dle, and more draw­ings near the next pose. Few­er draw­ings make the action faster and more draw­ings make the action slow­er. Slow-ins and slow-outs soft­en the action, mak­ing it more life-like. For a gag action, we may omit some slow-out or slow-ins for shock appeal or the sur­prise ele­ment. This will give more snap to the scene.


All actions, with few excep­tions (such as the ani­ma­tion of a mechan­i­cal device), fol­low an arc or slight­ly cir­cu­lar path. This is espe­cial­ly true of the human fig­ure and the action of ani­mals. Arcs give ani­ma­tion a more nat­ur­al action and bet­ter flow. Think of nat­ur­al move­ments in the terms of a pen­du­lum swing­ing. All arm move­ment, head turns and even eye move­ments are exe­cut­ed on an arcs.


This action adds to and enrich­es the main action and adds more dimen­sion to the char­ac­ter ani­ma­tion, sup­ple­ment­ing and/or re-enforc­ing the main action. Exam­ple: A char­ac­ter is angri­ly walk­ing toward anoth­er char­ac­ter. The walk is force­ful, aggres­sive, and for­ward lean­ing. The leg action is just short of a stomp­ing walk. The sec­ondary action is a few strong ges­tures of the arms work­ing with the walk. Also, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of dia­logue being deliv­ered at the same time with tilts and turns of the head to accen­tu­ate the walk and dia­logue, but not so much as to dis­tract from the walk action. All of these actions should work togeth­er in sup­port of one anoth­er. Think of the walk as the pri­ma­ry action and arm swings, head bounce and all oth­er actions of the body as sec­ondary or sup­port­ing action.


Exper­tise in tim­ing comes best with expe­ri­ence and per­son­al exper­i­men­ta­tion, using the tri­al and error method in refin­ing tech­nique. The basics are: more draw­ings between pos­es slow and smooth the action. Few­er draw­ings make the action faster and crisper. A vari­ety of slow and fast tim­ing with­in a scene adds tex­ture and inter­est to the move­ment. Most ani­ma­tion is done on twos (one draw­ing pho­tographed on two frames of film) or on ones (one draw­ing pho­tographed on each frame of film). Twos are used most of the time, and ones are used dur­ing cam­era moves such as trucks, pans and occa­sion­al­ly for sub­tle and quick dia­logue ani­ma­tion. Also, there is tim­ing in the act­ing of a char­ac­ter to estab­lish mood, emo­tion, and reac­tion to anoth­er char­ac­ter or to a sit­u­a­tion. Study­ing move­ment of actors and per­form­ers on stage and in films is use­ful when ani­mat­ing human or ani­mal char­ac­ters. This frame by frame exam­i­na­tion of film footage will aid you in under­stand­ing tim­ing for ani­ma­tion. This is a great way to learn from the oth­ers.


Exag­ger­a­tion is not extreme dis­tor­tion of a draw­ing or extreme­ly broad, vio­lent action all the time. Its like a car­i­ca­ture of facial fea­tures, expres­sions, pos­es, atti­tudes and actions. Action traced from live action film can be accu­rate, but stiff and mechan­i­cal. In fea­ture ani­ma­tion, a char­ac­ter must move more broad­ly to look nat­ur­al. The same is true of facial expres­sions, but the action should not be as broad as in a short car­toon style. Exag­ger­a­tion in a walk or an eye move­ment or even a head turn will give your film more appeal. Use good taste and com­mon sense to keep from becom­ing too the­atri­cal and exces­sive­ly ani­mat­ed.


The basic prin­ci­ples of draw­ing form, weight, vol­ume solid­i­ty and the illu­sion of three dimen­sion apply to ani­ma­tion as it does to aca­d­e­m­ic draw­ing. The way you draw car­toons, you draw in the clas­si­cal sense, using pen­cil sketch­es and draw­ings for repro­duc­tion of life. You trans­form these into col­or and move­ment giv­ing the char­ac­ters the illu­sion of three-and four-dimen­sion­al life. Three dimen­sion­al is move­ment in space. The fourth dimen­sion is move­ment in time.


A live per­former has charis­ma. An ani­mat­ed char­ac­ter has appeal. Appeal­ing ani­ma­tion does not mean just being cute and cud­dly. All char­ac­ters have to have appeal whether they are hero­ic, vil­lain­ous, com­ic or cute. Appeal, as you will use it, includes an easy to read design, clear draw­ing, and per­son­al­i­ty devel­op­ment that will cap­ture and involve the audi­ence’s inter­est. Ear­ly car­toons were basi­cal­ly a series of gags strung togeth­er on a main theme. Over the years, the artists have learned that to pro­duce a fea­ture there was a need for sto­ry con­ti­nu­ity, char­ac­ter devel­op­ment and a high­er qual­i­ty of art­work through­out the entire pro­duc­tion. Like all forms of sto­ry telling, the fea­ture has to appeal to the mind as well as to the eye.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Walt Dis­ney Car­toons Are Made

Don­ald Duck Wants You to Pay Your Tax­es (1943)

Walt Dis­ney Presents the Super Car­toon Cam­era (1957)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

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