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The Twelve Principles of Animation

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The Twelve Principles Of Animation is a list of animation principles that came about during The Golden Age of Animation, being discovered and refined by the many studios of the time. Walt Disney, Looney Tunes, MGM and Fleischer Studios make the most notable usage of these principles.

The principles in question are:

  1. Squash and Stretch: Gives the drawings weight and flexibility while maintaining volume, making them look very organic and natural. The classic bouncing ball test is a perfect demonstration of this principle (among others) and is often used as an entry lesson exam for beginning animators. Squash And Stretch is not "cartoony" in and of itself (some realistic animation has been known to use it, albeit in a much more subdued form), but it can be, and is often, exaggerated for comic effect. This principle is usually avoided or downplayed in TV cartoons, save exceptions like Ed, Edd n Eddy, being perceived as "Too expensive", or, misguidingly, as "Too cartoony".
  2. Anticipation, Action and Reaction, AKA Antic: The preparation of what action is going to happen next. This allows actions to read for an audience, and it gives breathing room for the next action, so that the illustrated actions have contrast against each other and don't bleed together. For example, a baseball player readies his bat before he swings, or Donald Duck prepares to launch himself into a run. A classic example of an antic is demonstrated by this image. Antics not only provide readability for an action, but can also enhance them or be interesting in and of themselves — from something as typical as a lurch before a Wild Take, or as broad as a "Shrink Take" pioneered by Terrytoons animator Jim Tyer. Sometimes an antic can be avoided to add spontaneity to an action — an example of this would be a scene from the Bugs Bunny cartoon "Bugs' Bonnets", when, as "Indian Bugs", he snaps out his arms to grab Elmer's rifle, with no antic. Animator Bill Tytla added two more steps to complete this principle; "Action", and "Reaction", all three serving as his basic rules of animation — an example of the latter two steps would be Fred Moore's animation of Donald Duck about to swing a bat at a piƱata in "The Three Caballeros", where he anticipates, swings the bat and then abruptly screeches to a halt in mid-air.
  3. Staging: The presentation of an idea, scene, or action so that it is unmistakably clear, or directing the audience's attention to what is most important in a scene, what is happening, or what is about to happen. Only present one idea at a time to ensure your audience does not get confused and can register the presented idea clearly. This can extend from using negative spaces and broad gestures in your characters' movements and expressions, to as far as tailoring an entire background and layout around an action for the sake of clarity. Has close ties to the "Anticipation" principle. Timing also plays an important role in staging — Tex Avery for instance would have certain poses "held" on screen for a few frames, giving certain takes just enough time for the audience to read them clearly.
  4. Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose: Either drawing each frame in a linear sequence or planning key poses ahead of time and filling them in. A combo of those two things is sometimes used. Pose to pose can be good preparation (and a good work saver) for an animator, but if done carelessly, can rob an action of vitality. Straight ahead can easily add spontaneity to animation, but is often much more time consuming to refine after the work is done.
  5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action: Not all parts of the body move evenly together. Hard, bony parts move first, and the fleshy parts have to catch up — this is demonstrated in the cheek animation of the Dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For another example, when a character swings from a rope, the legs drag behind the body. Clothing also drags with movement.
  6. Slow In and Slow Out: A more specific variation of the Timing Principle — every object needs time to both accelerate and slow down and everything is either accelerating or decelerating. This helps out with spacing in animation, which is essential for life-like smoothness and keeping your animation from looking mechanical and weightless.
  7. Arcs: The lines of movement for paths of action, to make the movement feel natural instead of mechanical. Sometimes the arcs can be drawn out to aid the path of movement, with x marks dotting where the in-between drawings go.
  8. Secondary Action: An extra action that helps support the primary action (i.e., walking). For example, a man is whistling while he walks, or Doc the Dwarf's cheeks drag as he turns his head.
  9. Timing: Three versions:
    • The first is Physical Timing. This helps objects appear to have a believable, but not always realistic, sense of weight and mass to them. One efficient technique animators use to keep the timing of their characters consistent and believable is to time the walks or runs to the tempo of a metronome beat (i.e., 12x beat=a step after every 12 drawings for a normal walk, an 8x beat for a fast chase scene). This was universally used by all of the Golden Age studios; one notable example is its constant use by Bill Hanna in the Tom and Jerry cartoons, which was part of what gave the shorts their break-neck, but crisp timing.
    • The second is Theatrical Timing, used both in dramatic situations and comedy. This is developed through natural experience, or could theoretically be learned by studying live-action films — animators like Norm Ferguson of Disney and director Dave Fleischer of Fleischer Studios for instance applied much of their vast knowledge of vaudeville timing to their cartoons and animation.
    • The third is Musical Timing. Not unlike the metronome technique, this can help an animator to not only plan out their animation or even the entire cartoon, but enhance the feeling and mood of it in motion, thus giving it a sensible structure. This principle is generally disregarded by modern animators as predictable and corny save for use in musical sequences, but some animators like Genndy Tartakovsky and Danny Antonucci still use this principle to this day in any context they wish.
  10. Exaggeration: Distortion of the drawings from their real-life counterparts, be it in their designs or motion, often for comedic effect. Classic cartoon tropes such as Super-Speed, the Wild Take and the smear are some of many examples of this. Some of the animation principles, particularly squash and stretch, can be exaggerated for not only comedic effect, but to bring out more timing, weight, power and emotion in one's drawings, bringing a rich subtlety to animation that allows it to hold its own against live-action — the animation of Bill Tytla, Bob Clampett, Jim Tyer and Don Bluth for instance demonstrates this clearly. Exaggeration is not limited to motion either: it can likewise apply to not only the design and art direction of a show, but its subtext as well, such as in Ralph Bakshi's Heavy Traffic, which is a semi-autobiographical animated film, but features plenty of surreal visual hyperbole to put across the film's satirical undertones.
  11. Solid Drawing: Not "solid" as opposed to "fluid", nor necessarily realistic or detailed, but rather "solid" as in "geometrically solid": drawings made of pliable shapes that have visible mass and weight, which clearly occupy 3D space and can animate in a lifelike manner without looking flat or rigid. This essentially means having a mastery and proper understanding of drawing construction, perspective, form, anatomy and line control. Easily the most important of the principles, as it ideally allows the artist to draw and animate anything that comes to their mind — it is also highly encouraged by animators to learn to draw as well as possible before one should even consider learning how to animate. Disney films are commonly used as shorthand examples of solid drawing, such as Bill Tytla's animation of dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, or just about any animation done by Disney's Nine Old Men.
  12. Appeal: Easily the most subjective principle, this essentially means giving the characters, good or bad, some charismatic aspect to like about them. Solid Drawing and carefully balanced designs and shapes can be appealing in and of themselves, although there are certainly far more ways to find appeal than that. It can range from being merely pretty or cute to being sardonic or even eerie in its charisma. Animation artists with notably dynamic appeal included Fred Moore and Mary Blair for the cuter side, and Ward Kimball, Tim Burton and Ralph Bakshi for the more sardonic side of the scale.

All principles except 3 and 9-12 also pertain to the Disney School of Acting and Mime.

The Trope Namer is the Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, where the third chapter, the most famous part of the book, covers these principles. Canadian animator Norman Mc Laren also suggested his own variation of the basic animation principles; In his five part "Animated Motion" documentary, he says the three parts of animation fall under; "Motion", "Tempo"note  and "Change".

It should be noted that while Frank and Ollie's list covers a fairly good amount of the animation process, other Disney veterans like the late Walt Stanchfield suggested that there are actually a whopping 28 principles of animation, which are discussed in the two volumes of "Drawn to Life", which compile the thousands of notes taken during his acclaimed masterclasses. These principles are listed below:

  1. Pose and Mood
  2. Shape and form
  3. Anatomy
  4. Model or Character
  5. Weight
  6. Line and Silhoutte
  7. Action and Reaction
  8. Perspective
  9. Direction
  10. Tension
  11. Planes
  12. Solidity
  13. Arcs
  14. Squash and Stretch
  15. Beat and Rhythm
  16. Depth and Volume
  17. Overlap and Follow Thru
  18. Timing
  19. Working from Extreme to Extreme
  20. Straights and Curves
  21. Primary and Secondary Action
  22. Staging and Composition
  23. Anticipation
  24. Caricature
  25. Details
  26. Texture
  27. Simplification
  28. Positive and Negative Shapes

These lists of principles aren't universally followed, and it isn't even necessary to follow them to create "good" animation. They're simply the foundation that animators during the golden age found themselves using the most. The rules can deliberately be broken for artistic effect: the UPA style of limited animation is a notable example, trading fluid and three-dimensional drawings for flat and stylized ones. The animation doesn't reflect reality, but this isn't a bad thing, as it allows for emotion to be expressed in ways that strictly conforming to reality wouldn't. But it's important to know the rules in order to break them; UPA's style was created by former Disney animators who took the principles they were so familiar with and deliberately did the opposite. While the specifics may vary, there are clearly some underlying aspects that make animation fundamentally work, which is what the twelve principles ultimately express.