Breathing Life into Animated Objects

In several of the most recent, previous posts, we’ve considered how stories can be plotted in a variety of ways around narrative events that take the characters in the story on an emotional journey (and hopefully take the audience with them on that emotional journey too!).

So how can an animator create a character that the audience comes to identify with on a physical level, as communicated to the the audience through animation?

The Twelve Principles of Animation

Although the techniques for doing much of the hard work of animation have been revolutionised by digital media, the pioneering work in ‘traditional’ film animation done by Walt Disney and Disney Studios on how to animate characters in a lifelike way still holds good today…

So for example, if you were to search for “principles of animation”, you’re quite likely to come across references to “the 5 principles”, or “the 12 principles”, or even “the 28 principles”. Most commentators, however, would go with 12 – the twelve principles – as developed by a core team of animators from Disney Studios in the 1920s and 1930s.

The principles refer to a set of techniques that describe how the characters might move from scene to scene as characters:

  1. Squash and stretch
  2. Anticipation
  3. Staging
  4. Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose
  5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action
  6. Slow In and Slow Out
  7. Arcs
  8. Secondary Action
  9. Timing
  10. Exaggeration
  11. Solid Drawing
  12. Appeal and Character Personality

If you’d like to listen to a brief (15 minute) summary of what constitutes each of these principles, try this Introdution to Cartooning: Principles of Animation presentation.

If you prefer the written word, I’ll be drawing on “Applying the 12 Principles to 3D Animation” by Tito A. Belgrave and “The 12 Principles of Animation (annotated for stopmotion by Mike Brent)” to try and characterise these principles. My summaries of the principles are very brief though, so if you would like to learn more, please see either (or both) of those references for more detail.

If you find any short movie examples of any of the principles, or create one yourself, please link it back to this post – over time, I’d like to be able illustrate each of the principles with “found” resources from the web…or the Digital Worlds’ readership… ;-)

Squash and stretch

If you bounce a rubber ball, it squashes up as it hits the ground, and then it stretches out, as the first 10 seconds of this high speed movie clip demonstrate:

Although the squash and stretch effect can be exaggerated, it is important that the “mass” of whatever is being transformed is preserved. For example, if you are animating a bouncing rubber ball using clay, you would not add or take away any of the clay as you record each frame.


Before a character performs an action, it should physically “wind up” to perform that action. Anticipation draws the attention of the viewer, so that they focus on a particular area of the screen and prepare themselves for something to happen there. The classic example is of throwing a ball, in which the character draws their arm back in a possibly exaggerated way, before performing the action. Without anticipation, you have surprise – or maybe even an unnatural looking action. Suspense draws on a slightly different sense of anticipation, in which the viewer has an expectation that an action is will occur, but they are not sure where or when.


Staging refers the set – or setting – of the scene, and the way in which it is portrayed. Staging is an important element of all the dramatic arts, from theatre, set design and stagecraft to film cinematography. In animation, staging a scene is likely to involve “set design”, “lighting” and choice of camera angle and other camera techniques (close-ups, slow-motion etc.), as well as visual composition of the scene in much the same way that a photograph is composed.

Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose

Straight-ahead action refers to a production technique, such as stop motion animation, in which a scene is captured in frame order – for example, using motion capture or a dynamic computer simulation. Pose to pose refers to the key frame technique of animation, in which certain key frames, or poses, are drawn first, and then in-between frames are added that “move” all the elements from one pose to the next.

Follow Through and Overlapping Action

Follow through refers to the way a character behaves whilst completing an action, and can often be used to communicate a character’s feelings about that action or the likely consequences of it. In the case of throwing a ball, the action continues after releasing the ball, both in terms of how the character’s arm moves, but maybe also their facial expression as they realise how good their throw was. Overlapping action relates to the follow through behaviour of ‘secondary’ features, such as the motion of hair or clothing. The main focus is on the motion of the arm, but this must be dressed with overlapping action to make it look real.

Slow In and Slow Out (aka Ease in, Ease Out, or Acceleration, Deceleration)

Most actions start slowly and end slowly. If you think of a car, it doesn’t go from 0 to 60 instantaneously, nor it is likely to stop immediately from traveling at any speed. Slow in and slow out models this acceleration and deceleration.


Most things don’t move in straight lines. if you throw a ball, it doesn’t fly horizontally for a bit, then drop vertically down. Gravity acts on it all the time, pulling it in a downward arc. For body parts, if you swing your arm round, your hand doesn’t describe a square shape – it follows a circle, an arc, centred on your shoulder.

Secondary Action

Secondary actions are the incidental actions that make things look more realistic and may add to the anticipation of an action. For example, our ball thrower might be playing with the ball in their hands, or bouncing it from one hand to another, before actually performing the main throwing action. The movement of hair or clothing, or body twitches and facial gestures, are often likely to count as secondary action.


In its simplest form, timing refers to the choice of when an action is started and how long it takes to perform. Many comedians are highly rated not just because of (or even in spite of!) what they say, but the exact moment at which they choose say it…


Exaggeration can be used to focus attention, and stress a particular action. Exaggeration can also be used to develop character, as for example in the case of a caricature.

Solid Drawing (Solid Modeling)

Getting the drawing – or computer model – right. Whatever you’re animating should be a solid drawing, well crafted and executed and apparently capable of responding appropriately to the physics of the world it is performing in.

Appeal and Character Personality

The characters should appeal to the audience. They should be able to provoke an emotional response and also demonstrate their own “emotions” through their actions and gestures.

Putting (Some of) The Principles into Action

Hopefully, uncourse readers will start linking back resources that demonstrate the twelve principles back to this post – so keep checking back to see any new links/comments below! (Remember, you can always subscribe to the comments feed using an RSS feed reader…)

In the meantime, the following page has an excellent walkthrough of how to create a bouncing ball animation, illustrating along the way the principles of Squash and Stretch, Timing/Spacing, Solid Drawing, Slow in/Slow out and Arcs:

Animation Tutorial: The Bouncing Ball

Why not have a go at making your own simple bouncing ball animation, full of stretch and squash goodness?;-) You don’t even need a computer… remember the flip book in Making Pictures Move? ;-)


2 Responses to “Breathing Life into Animated Objects”

  1. 1 Tony Hirst April 10, 2008 at 11:18 am

    The Pencil application – for Macs, Linux and Windows – looks like an ideal way in to creating your own ‘drawn’ animations:

    Well worth a look if you fancy trying your hand at drawn animation.

  1. 1 Friday Fun #7 Try Your Hand at Animation « Digital Worlds - Interactive Media and Game Design Trackback on April 11, 2008 at 12:42 pm

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