Animation Principles

figure drawing
Animation principles
animation process

Distorted movement
The above systems of observing and capturing movement are useful for
animators but only in so far as they inform the animation process rather than
dictate it. If followed too closely these techniques severely limit the possibilities
of animation. As noted above, it is not possible to transcribe the whole of the real
world in an image. Choices must be made, things must be left out and short-cuts
taken. The questions of what to leave out and what short-cuts to take are the key
creative decisions in animation. The
Consider two basic principles of animation: instability of line and
exaggeration .
As a general rule, to add life to a drawing, the identity of line should be unstable.
The unstable line implies movement, breath, what we know to be life-like (see
exercise 1 of Part 1). It follows from this that lines and shapes in animation
should be expressive and dynamic. In addition, the ability to read movement
works best if the movement is exaggerated. The most common form of this
exaggeration is known as ‘squash and stretch’. This is where a shape is distorted
to indicate the impact of gravity and energy. It is very important to remember
that when distorting a shape or form, the volume should be maintained in order
to maintain the illusion (continuity of volume). For example, if a round shape is to
be elongated or stretched, as in the image below, it must also become thinner. If
it is to be squashed then it must become wider.

A particular application of ‘squash and stretch’ is known as ‘anticipation and
overshoot’. When a movement is about to begin and the shape or object has
been stationary prior to this, it is a convention of animated movement that the
first frame of the movement actually moves in the opposite direction of the
movement as a whole (the ball above is about to reach upwards but the first
frame will have the ball compress downwards a little in anticipation of the
upwards movement). Including a frame or two of anticipated movement adds to
the illusion that the movement is ‘self-motivated’, it also allows the viewer’s eye
to momentarily register that a movement is about to take place – so that it can
be the point of focus and viewed without being missed.

Animation is a process and the malleability of time is its primary material.

‘Time is what prevents everything from being present all at once’ Henri Bergson. The animator seeks to control at what pace, rhythm and direction things appear.

“What happens between each frame is much more important than what exists on each frame” Norman McLaren, Computer Animation
It is not the image, drawing or shape of each frame that matters in animation, rather it is the difference between the frames that generates the illusion of movement in animation.

It is the animator’s ability to control and play with these intervals between frames that matters. It is important to think in terms of intervals, rates of change and flux, rather than thinking in terms of still images or compositions.

Key Resources
  • You Tube
  • OCA Moving Image 1: Animation
  • Howard Wimshurst YouTube channel and tutored courses on Animator Guild
  • Proko – A channel which specializes in teaching observational figure drawing.
  • FilmMaker IQ – So much of Animation is linked to Film Making. This channel is a fantastic resource for film makers of all kinds.
  • Striving for animation – for those who are specifically focused at working in the Japanese Anime industry, this channel gives excellent advice and training.


  • Animator’s survival kit – Widely considered to be the cornerstone book for animators
  • The Illusion of Life – This covers the principles of animation in a lot of depth as well as being a valuable insight into classic Disney-style animation and drawing.
  • Drawn to Life – Another good book for learning animation and drawing
  •  Framed Ink – A fantastic book on dynamic composition
  • Framed Perspective – A lot of people get hung up on perspective. If you are one of them, this book explains it very well and gets pretty advanced in book 2.
  •  Force: Dynamic life drawing for animators – This book helps you to understand gesture – getting energy into your drawings!
  • Directing the Story – Highly recommended. Explains very simply how to tell a story with drawings – it shows you that you don’t need to have mad drawing skills to be able to convey a compelling story.
  • Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain – For breaking bad drawing habits and learning to draw what you see.
  • Atlas of the Human Anatomy – contains good pictures and diagrams if you want a deep dive into anatomy and proportions.
  • Color and Light – an inspiring book which teaches all about colour and lighting for artists.

Animation techniques


In traditional animation when an object, character or scene is at rest it is not still or motionless, it ‘boils’. Boiling is the term used to describe an animated effect in which the outlines or surface of an otherwise still character or object are made to wiggle or quiver in drawn animation. This is achieved by the looping together of several tracings of the same image (usually between 3 to 8 drawings). Boiling movement is used to sustain the illusion of movement in the animation overall and provide the impression of life or liveliness.

Questions about boil

  • What ‘boil’ technique is used? Why do the lines move and what elements, if any are allowed to be still?
  • Does the pace of the boil emanate throughout?
  • What emotional or narrative purpose does the use of boiling serve? Does it make for a more lifelike effect or is the boil deployed humorously?
Frame rate

It is most common in animation to draw on twos, this is both because drawing on ones is double the amount of work and because working with twos lends a smoother appearance to slower actions, avoiding unnecessary jitter that can accompany shooting on ones. It is generally thought that working on twos adds a particular liveliness to a fast action rather than working on ones, which can make an action appear more leaden.

Cycle, loops and layers

Cycles can loop, oscillate, or even appear to be stationary. The use of cycles is often motivated by economy because it saves on drawing time. But the type of cycle that you use also make up the meaning of your film.

Looped cycles are most commonly employed on particular layers within a frame. Sergei Eisenstein described this layered looping within a frame as ‘vertical montage’:
“The simultaneous movement of a number of motifs advances through a succession of sequences, each motif having its own rate of compositional progressions, while being at the same time inseparable from the overall compositional progression as a whole” Sergei Eisenstein, Eisenstein Volume 2: Towards a Theory of Montage (London: BFI Publishing, 1991)

  • ‘Dumbland’ (2000), David Lynch purposely used cycles of animation to represent the breakdown of social structures depicted in his film.
  • Francis Alÿs, Jordan Wolfson and Owen Land work extensively using loops to communicate meaning.
  • Katie Dove’s Luna, 2013
Eye trace

All animation is an exercise in applying the principle of ‘eye trace’. This is a principle of film- making in general but one that is essential for the illusion of animated movement to work. ‘In The Blink of an Eye’ by Walter Murch, (1995) sets out the principle that the viewer’s eyes will focus on a particular position on the screen and editors exploit this to allow less jarring edit when one shot follows another by ensuring that the action or image is located in the same part of the screen.This is also known as ‘registration’ in animation. A keen awareness of eye-trace allows the animator to play with the audience’s expectations and surprise them. The registration protocol was developed for hand-drawn animation to ensure that each subsequent drawing uses the same co-ordinates so that the illusion of movement between frames is not interrupted. In other animation the registration is looser and is intended as such to draw attention to the variation that ‘eye trace’ allows.

Do more research on using photographs

Technical note: resize and don’t overload software, particularly on iPad.

Animation Steps and Principles

Animation Steps
12 cel animation principles

from Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson:
2) anticipation and leading attention, can have multiple levels
3) Staging/exaggeration/sequencing to make things clear
4) straightahead/pose to pose drawing
5) Follow through and overlapping action
6) slow in slow out
7) arcs
8) secondary action
9) timing
10) exaggeration
11) solid drawing
12) appeal


Norman McClaren

Smooth versus flow

Difference between fluid animation and smooth animation:

  • Smooth is about the frame rate – how many new frames occur per second of animation.
  • Flow is about the gesture of the drawings, the arcs, the drag and follow through of a movement.

To get smooth animation, you just need to draw plenty of in-betweens until all of your animation is on 1s
Flow is more complex to get right than smooth.

Stick animation

See also Ross Bollinger: pencilmation

Howard Wimshurst

Animator Guild:

Animator Guild: