Discover Disney’s 12 Principles Of Animation
From Cinderella (1950) to The Lion King (1994), we all have a favorite Walt Disney movie.
And while it’s easy to get lost in the magic of their stories, we don't often take the time to consider how these iconic animated films were made.
Animation is a complex process that requires imagination, skill, and patience. In the case of early Disney movies such as Snow White (1937) and Fantasia (1940), each frame was drawn by hand by an animator in a traditional studio.
This is mind-boggling when you consider that most Disney movies are made at 24 frames per second—that’s 24 individual drawings for each second of footage!
What makes a great animated movie, and how come they're so captivating?
The secret is that Disney animators founded a list of basic principles years ago to help new animators create fantastic yet believable animations.
To produce more realistic movements in their movies, Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas came up with the 12 Principles of Animation. The purpose of these rules was to help animators create characters and objects that moved according to the laws of physics.
Johnston and Thomas also figured out how to convey a character’s emotion through movement, which revolutionized the art of animation.
The basic principles were published in their 1981 book, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, which is often referred to as the “Bible of Animation.” Today, both traditional and digital animators use these principles as a guide when creating their work.
So, let’s dive into how the 12 Principles of Animation work and look at some Disney movie examples.
Squash And Stretch
"Squash and stretch" is considered to be an essential basic principle of animation.
It’s used to give an animated character or object the illusion of weight, gravity, mass, and flexibility.
This is best illustrated with a slightly elastic object like a rubber ball. As it falls, it elongates or stretches, and once it hits a surface, the ball is very briefly compressed or squashed before it bounces back to its original shape.
In some animations, this movement is exaggerated to show the gravitational impact on objects or characters. The level of exaggeration depends on the material and speed of the animated element.
In Disney’s Hercules (1997), the animators used squash and stretch to emphasize the movement when Hercules and Pegasus head bump each other. Notice how their faces flatten when they collide!
When applying squash and stretch to create a sense of weight in an object or character, always make sure to keep its volume consistent. When you stretch something, it should get proportionately narrower and taller, and when you squash it, it should get wider and shorter.
The object or character shouldn't get bigger, smaller, or lopsided unless there's a difference in scale or shape taking place simultaneously.
In animation, anticipation is used to prepare the viewer for a certain action or movement.
For example, a person throwing a ball would pull their arm backward before throwing it, and a person jumping into the air would need to bend their knees first.
When animators create anticipation, they use extreme poses in their characters or objects to create a more realistic illusion of movement.
Sometimes anticipation will be shown in three or more movements, for instance, when a character crouches forward, then pulls their arm back as they wind up, and only then throws the ball.
Below you'll see a scene from Disney’s Bambi (1942) where Thumper folds over before reeling back in laughter. The first pose creates anticipation for what will happen next.
The purpose of staging is to direct the viewers’ eye to the most important part of the scene and distract them from other secondary elements. Staging makes the purpose of the scene unmistakably clear.
Staging is pretty broad and covers many elements of animation. It can be achieved by placing a character at the center or in line with one of the thirds of the frame, cleverly using light and shadow, paying specific attention to timing, or keeping the surrounding details and motion to a minimum.
Staging is affected to a large extent by the background or setting. Even though we don't often pay attention to backgrounds when watching animation (which only shows how effective the staging is), the backgrounds are frequently sketched out in the planning stage before the animations are drawn.
You can also create effective staging through the clever use of perspective and props. It's all about leaving clues for the viewer and leading their eye to the relevant areas.
Think about what you're trying to convey: is the character exceptionally hungry? You can show this by zooming in to their stomach grumbling, then lead the viewer to watch the character walking to their fridge, opening it, and seeing that it's completely empty.
Adding a spiderweb and maybe some stains, or even broken fridge shelves, will emphasize the fact that the character hasn't had food in the fridge for a very long time.
Another staging trick used in cartoons is the addition of text: you can add a little sign inside the fridge that says 'empty' or 'out of order'.
This is exactly what staging is about.
In Fantasia (1940), the Disney animators put the focus on Mickey Mouse as he conducts an orchestra by literally putting him on a stage. They also use a subdued background and dramatic lighting to frame the character.
Straight Ahead Action And Pose To Pose
When drawing an animation sequence, there are two ways to approach it: “straight ahead” and “pose to pose.”
For animators who want to achieve a fluid, realistic movement, the straight-ahead technique is best. This involves creating action at a steady speed by drawing each frame from the beginning to the end.
The straight-ahead animation drawing technique is especially well-suited when the animator has a good sense of what the ending will look like and can then work back from there. It's also a really good technique for creating organic actions such as a flower blooming, cloud movement, fire, or an explosion.
Below you can see the "colors of the wind" blowing through Pocahontas' hair. A natural sequence such as this one probably would have been done using the straight-ahead animation technique.
The pose to pose technique involves drawing keyframes for the start, middle, and end of an action, and then filling in the interval frames afterward.
When drawing an animation using the pose to pose technique, you would start by drawing the main poses, called "keys". Then, you'd draw the "extremes" of each key (the most exaggerated or dissimilar poses before reaching the keys) and finish by adding the breakdowns in-between.
Pose to pose drawing gives the animator more control over the movement of the object or character. It allows them to plan the action, systematically add more frames to speed up or slow down the movements, and increase the dramatic effect of the motion where needed.
Follow Through And Overlapping Action
Usually, not all parts of an object or character will move at the same rate.
The terms “follow through” and “overlapping action” refer to two different types of movement.
Follow through occurs when certain parts of an animation drag behind and continue to move when a character or object has already come to a standstill.
For example, the hair or clothes of a character will probably be the last part of them to start animating and the last part to settle after a movement is completed.
With follow through, a character's appendages (the last parts to move) also lose momentum and move back into place – as they would in nature.
Follow through gives life to complex characters. Unlike a rubber ball that is made of one kind of material, a character is often made up of several different 'textures' – bones, muscles, fat, skin, hair (or fur), clothing, jewelry, etc. All of these textures act differently and should be animated accordingly.
Overlapping action is pretty similar to the idea of follow through, but refers specifically to the offset of the delay in movements of the character appendages.
Overlapping action happens when different parts of a character or object move at different rates. For example, a running character’s legs and arms would move at a different speed than their head.
Disney often uses the follow through technique to add a comedic effect to the scene. This point is illustrated below, showing Genie from Aladdin (1992) making an exaggerated facial expression. Watch how his hair is the last part of him that stops moving and how it adds to the overall expression.
Slow In And Slow Out
Imagine a person running and then stopping. They would start slow, pick up momentum, and then slow down again before stopping still.
Very few things in life move at a constant pace, because of friction, gravity, and other forces. If you want a motion to look graceful and natural, you'll start at a slower pace and gradually build the speed.
In animation, these types of natural movements are achieved by drawing more frames at the beginning and end of an action sequence.
The speed and smoothness of the action sequence will be determined by the number of frames you add to the beginning and end, as well as the space between each drawing.
Below you'll see a scene from Peter Pan (1953) where the children bend their knees, jump up, and then leap off the clock arm and fly into the night sky. Notice how they start slow but then pick up speed when in flight.
Animators should stick with the laws of physics when trying to achieve movements that mimic real life.
Most natural actions tend to follow an arched trajectory, whereas a mechanical movement would move in a straight line or square.
The arc technique can be applied to a natural action such as moving a limb by rotating a joint or a thrown object. For example, when you throw a ball, it follows a natural arc as it goes up and down due to the rules of gravity.
When things rotate around an axis, this principle also helps the animator calculate the correct placement of the object or character at any given point in the trajectory. It will also help the animator fill in a "smear" when a rapid movement occurs.
The arc principle is also closely linked to slow in and slow out since these two principles work together to give animated characters or objects natural, progressive movements.
See the below scene from Pocahontas (1995) showing a wave of her arm in an arc movement as her shoulder rotates. Notice how her elbow moves in a slightly different arc shape than her hand and forearm.
Adding a secondary action to a sequence supports the main movement and gives the characters more life.
Secondary action is sometimes confused with follow-through and overlapping action, but it's not the same. It's also not the same as staging, although it's linked.
Secondary actions should not distract from the primary ones, but they should subtly add more dynamism to the scene.
For instance, if the character is going somewhere and they're feeling very sad, the primary action would be walking. The secondary action could be limp shoulders and arms that are slightly bobbing up and down while the character is walking. Another secondary action could be wiping away a tear.
In the example below, Marie from The Aristocats (1970) walks by Berlioz (the primary action), while her tail comically brushes in front of his face as she snubs him (the secondary action).
When applying the principle of timing, animators look again to the natural world and observe the laws of physics.
At the beginning of this article, we mentioned that each second of animation contains 24 frames. If you had to make a drawing for each frame, you'd be drawing on 'ones'. This creates a more detailed animated sequence.
If you had to make a drawing for every second frame, you'd be drawing on 'twos', every third frame, 'threes', and so forth. Drawing on twos is most common since it creates a smoother action and cuts the amount of work in half.
Animators can control the speed of an object or character by considering the number of frames in a sequence. The more frames the animator draws, the slower the movement will appear.
For example, heavy objects react differently to forces than lighter ones. When a heavy object is moved, you'd probably draw on ones, whereas a super light object like a feather could be drawn using only a few frames.
Using the correct timing allows you to create more realistic movements. Understanding timing is also helpful in conveying a character's mood, personality, and reaction.
In the example below, the Disney animators convey the weight and fluidity of Dumbo’s gigantic ears by using clever timing.
Many of the previously mentioned animation principles can be applied to create more realistic movements.
However, too much realism can take away from the charm of animation. That’s why it’s good to exaggerate some dramatic movements and character expressions that would not usually be possible in nature.
Exaggerating motion can help to make a scene a lot more exciting and dynamic. Disney is famous for its over-the-top sequences that create emotional scenes.
Below, the Little Mermaid (1989) swims up while a group of fish dance and swirl around her. Certain parts of the scene mimic real-life movements in nature, such as the mermaid’s tail (it mimics a fish tail).
However, the sequence is exaggerated with a sweeping motion to look more theatrical. This creates a totally captivating and memorable moment.
When creating an animation, the drawing process can be incredibly tedious.
But that doesn't mean that the quality of each frame should suffer. To be a great animator, you must be a skilled artist, too.
Disney's "solid drawing" principle means that animators should understand the basics of sketching three-dimensional shapes to visually convey their weight, balance, light, and shadow.
Drawing with perspective is also key. Otherwise, the characters might look flat and uninteresting. This is why classic animators would have studied the anatomy of objects and people before creating the cartoon versions.
Walt Disney drew from life when creating his characters, and it's a well-known fact that Disney animators attended life drawing classes to keep developing believable and enchanting characters.
The solid drawing principle isn't only about being able to draw from life. It's about having a thorough grasp of three-dimensionality so that you can create characters and objects out of solid shapes to make it easier to draw them from any angle.
"Having good hand-drawing skills also will be a stand-out factor in your portfolio for those getting ready to apply to college or jobs." – Lyndsey Vincent, Interior Designer & Former Disney Imagineer
The last animation principle is "appeal." This involves being able to animate a charismatic character that resonates with the audience.
To appeal to viewers, a character doesn't necessarily need to be likable, like a Disney Princess or a cute animal. They could also be a villain or a monster – as long as they're interesting to look at.
Some of the most memorable animated characters are those that captivated an audience with their wicked ways – think of Scar from The Lion King (1994) and Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmations (1961).
To make a character more interesting, you should consider certain features. For example, Disney villains often have exaggerated square jaws and pointed eyebrows, while sympathetic characters like Mulan below have round faces and wide eyes.
It's amazing how the magic of animation can be wrapped up in a few simple principles. Animation is not just about making two-dimensional drawings appear as though they're moving – it's about creativity and story-telling through an art form that requires skill, talent, hard work, and a lot of patience.
Now that you know the 12 Principles of Animation, you’re probably feeling inspired to try drawing your own frame-by-frame films. Do you have some interesting character ideas or a story you've been dreaming of turning into a reality?
Look at what's around you, study how things work and how people move and don't stop sketching. It's also essential to work with other artists and animators to get feedback on how to keep improving your work.
With daily practice, you'll be able to bring your imagination to life through animation.
Try to draw people and objects in simple shapes like circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles, then draw these as 3D shapes with perspective in mind. Once you've got the hang of this, draw your characters from all angles to understand how they would look as they move through space.
You can practice character poses using pen and paper, but you can also use Vectornator to sketch out your keyframes. Our intuitive vector design software has been created to feel as natural and easy as drawing in a sketchbook!
Plus, in Vectornator, you’ll find document templates suitable for video already in the app. There are templates set at 720P (HD), 1080P (FULL HD), 1440P (2K), and Ultra HD (4K). Simply choose the best one for your project and start drawing!