12 Principles of Animation: What Are They? And Why Do They Matter?

12 principles of animation

Animation is a powerful tool to hook the attention of your target audience and communicate your ideas in an engaging way. From the earliest Disney animations – Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, and Lion King, to mention a few, we have seen how these iconic animations have stolen our hearts and driven home the point that has lived in our memories for many years.

There is no doubt that animations are powerful and captivating communication mediums. By stringing sequenced images and creating the illusion of life, animations can make a long-lasting impression on the audience. They serve as an extensive medium to communicate your ideas with your clients – which is why you must know and understand the 12 principles of animations.

In this blog, you will learn more about the 12 basic principles of animation that you can apply to your following animation projects.

A Brief History of Animation

In the earlier days, animations were initially used for entertainment purposes. Dated back to 1908, Émile Cohl created the first fully animated film, Phantasgomaria, which allowed for more animations to be released by Disney animators. Disney animations created more buzz and publicity for animations when they started to produce their own.

Disney’s first fully animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, captured the hearts of global audience. They soon became experts in the field of animation by creating more realisitic videos with emotions and real-time characters that make you think the characters are human even when they are not.

Subsequently, two of Disney’s best animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, 1981 created a design document, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, a book generally regarded as the bible of animation. This book contains 12 principles of animation that give animators and motion designers the principles that they can apply across all kinds of animation.

These principles serve as a guideline to help animators create characters and animations that make your viewers believe that the characters are living, breathing creatures – like the ones created by Disney animators over the years. Although these principles were initially provided to help animators make better traditional cartoons, however, these principles apply to marketing animations.

Four Main Types of Animations

An animation is an art form that uses life drawings, characters, images, and motion to create a story or image. It manipulates still images to make them appear as moving images.

Many animators use animations to create a character, tell a story, or drive a result. They can be combined with other media types, including still images, icons, or video footage, to create an existing effect.

The four main types of animations include the following:

  1. Promotional graphics are mainly used to create awareness about a product, service, or initiative.
  2. Explainer graphics are mainly used to educate viewers about critical concepts, products, services, or processes of utmost importance to the people.
  3. Emotive graphics, as the name implies, are animations created about particular topics or causes to elicit an emotional response from the viewers.
  4. Animations overlay adds data visualization, icons, illustrations, or text to the animation to convey information.

Know more about types of animation.

12 Principles of Animation

Here are the 12 animation principles you can apply to your animations and how to use them to produce a compelling storyline and get your message across.

1. Squash and Stretch Animation Principle

what are the 12 principles of animation

When applied correctly, the squash and stretch principle is highly regarded as the most critical animation principle that gives animated characters the illusion of flexibility, mass, gravity, and weight. This principle can be better understood using the image of a bouncing ball when thrown into the air.

The ball stretches, and the force of its motion squashes or flattens the ball when it hits the ground, and it stretches again as soon it takes off. The idea of all this is to emphasize the path of the motion. The squash and stretch animation principle also applies to real-life elements or characters. For example, it can create a stretched-out smile, blinking eyes, or a surprised or scared look.

This principle is used to make animated characters more realistic. However, remember that if the elements are vertically stretched, their width must contrast horizontally.

2. Anticipation Animation Principle

The anticipation principle prepares viewers for the main action that an animated character will be performing. It is mainly used to add realism in preparation for action – simply put, it makes the character’s action more realistic. For example, a golfer about to hit a golf ball will swing their arms back first before charging to swing the ball. Likewise, a footballer about to play the penalty shot will swing his leg back before kicking the ball to the post.

The anticipation principle creates realistic movements – making the animated character movement look human, realistic, and alive. Therefore, it would be best to consider what the animated character is about to do and how real people look when performing similar activities.

Although this principle is not only applicable to sporty actions, you must only use it when the character is about to perform a realistic action.

3. Staging Animation Principle

12 basic principles of animation
Darvideo Animation Studio

This design principle is gotten from the theatre to the stage, the layout of the stage, and the placement of characters for storytelling and effect. It places you in the role of a film or theatre director. Using this application, you must consider where you put the camera, what it focuses on, where the actors will be, and what they will do.

It would be best if you also determined whether the characters will be cartoon or realistically drawn. The staging principle puts objects closer to the viewer to gain more significance, while objects far away from the viewers are less critical and faded into the background.

Staging aims to draw the viewer’s eye to a particular graphical area or the essential elements within the scene and reduce distractions from other unnecessary details. It combines lighting, framing, and composition, effectively removing clutter to advance the story.

4. Straight Ahead Action and Pose-to-Pose Animation Principle

12 principles of animation examples

Straight-ahead action and Pose to Pose are two-in-one principles describing different drawing approaches to make the animation more realistic and convincing. The straight-ahead principle involves drawing an action frame by frame from start to finish and is an excellent option for animations that require fluid, unpredictable, and realistic movement to maintain exact proportions.

On the other hand, the pose-to-pose principle involves drawing an action’s starting and ending point and using a computer to fill in the intervals later. It is best suited for emotional and dramatic scenes. Many Disney animators often adopt these two approaches to include a dramatic effect and action scenes

They mostly use computer animation to remove potential proportion issues in straight-ahead action while filling the missing sequences from pose to pose.

5. Follow Through and Overlapping Animation Principle

the 12 principles of animation
Lip Sync and Character Animation

These two principles are movement-based, combined to make movement in animation more realistic and create the impression that animated characters follow the law of physics. In addition, the follow-through principle is used to make the action look more fluid by using the concept that makes other parts of the characters follow through when a body in motion stops.

For example, if the character wearing coat runs, even when his movement stops, the coat and hair might still be moving before it eventually stops. Aside from the animation characters, this principle also applies to objects.

On the other hand, overlapping action makes different parts of objects move at different rates to keep them from looking too robotic. Instead of making all body movements move in sync, as with the case of follow-through, overlapping action makes them move differently to be more realistic.

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6. Slow in and Slow out Animation principle

who created the 12 principles of animation
Darvideo Animation Studio

Like follow-through, the slow in and slow out movement principle makes the animated movement look more fluid. Also known as Ease in and Ease out, Slow in and Slow out illustrates the possibility of objects and elements to start moving and slowing down before stopping.

This animation principle creates the illusion of speed by adding more frames at the beginning and end of an action. In addition, slow-in and slow-out animation tech

niques add realism to animations and elicit empathy and connection between the audience and animated characters.

7. Arc Animation Principle

12 principles of animation definition

Animators use the Arc Animation principle to achieve greater realism since most real-life actions have an arched trajectory. This principle follows the law of natural movement to look real; for example, if an animated character throws a ball in the air, the arc movements follow natural arcs to create fluidity and avoid unrealistic, unnatural, and erratic animation.

In traditional animation, animators often draw them lightly on paper for reference and erase them later when it no longer is needed. Essential elements of this animation technique are speed and timing.

It is used to give the impression of something unrealistically fast and also refers to an animation smear. Chuck Jones, one of the excellent animators of the 20th century, was an expert at using the arc principle.

8. Secondary Action

12 principles of animation with examples
Darvideo Animation Studio

This principle of animation focuses on adding extra dimensions or details to characters or objects to make them appear realistic and lifelike.

For example, when a character is running fast, they need to show signs of panting, sweating, or blinking when talking to other characters – it simply entails showing the humanistic nature or elements of the animated characters.

Aside from the character’s action, secondary action also involves adding more colors to the environment or background to make them appear more real. Overall, secondary actions are used to create engaging characters.

9. Timing

12 principles of animation list
Darvideo Animation Studio

The timing principle is used to work on the pacing/speed of an animation clip to make it look more realistic. In addition, getting this principle right makes your design appear to follow the laws of physics regarding the characters’ weight, size, agility, and personality (in the case of facial expressions).

You might have to combine this principle with the slow in and slow out principle to get the number of frames or drawings right.

10. Exaggeration

12 principles of animation staging

Since the majority of the 12 principles of animation are grounded in creating a realistic animation, having the characters appear too real can be a problem, which is where the exaggeration principle comes in.

Exaggeration involves making the Disney characters a bit over-realistic to give life and pop to the characters and, importantly, to draw the viewer’s attention to that uniqueness.

Animators achieve exaggerations by adding more colors, proportions, or patterns to the animation to make it stand out or elicit the viewer’s emotion. An example is exaggerating the character’s eyes to show their emotions or making them open their eyes or mouth wide when shocked or surprised.

11. Solid Drawing

12 principles of animation timing
John Hannimation Blog – WordPress.com

This principle draws on the solid geometry technique. It accounts for three-dimensional space and is often described as one of the most challenging principles to get right, mainly because you need to give the animated characters weight and volume to make them feel more real.

Understanding the solid drawing principle and taking art classes can help you gain a more profound knowledge of weight, balance, gravity, light, and shadow.

However, in the Illusion of Life, Johnston and Thomas warned about the danger of creating Twins or characters whose left and right sides are identical.

12. Appeal

12 principles of animation solid drawing

The appeal is the last of the 12 principles that focus on making the animation look attractive, visually appealing, and compelling enough to make anyone watch.

This mainly includes giving the animation characters all the creation appeal from the beginning to the end in an exciting way that makes viewers interested in learning more about the character and story.

While there is no rule on how appealing each character and animation should be, you must ensure you create an “aww” factor for viewers.


The 12 principles of animation are a guide for animators, motion designers, and filmmakers looking to create fundamentally sound animation work.

These principles consist of Squash and Stretch, Anticipation, Staging, Straight Ahead Action and Pose-to-Pose, Follow Through and Overlapping Action, Slow in and Slow out, Arc, Secondary Action, Timing, Exaggeration, Solid Drawing, and Appeal.

Using all these principles will help you create more realistic motion and animation for your films, web design, and other forms of media.


1. What are the Types of Animation?

There are five main types of animation: traditional animation, two-dimensional (2D), three-dimensional (3D) animation, Stop-motion animation, and motion graphics.

2. Who invented the principles of animation?

Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas were among Disney’s famous Nine Old Men, and both created the book called The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation in 1981 to share the animation knowledge and experiences that they have been using for decades.

3. Why are the 12 principles of animation important?

They are important because it combines all 12 animation techniques for drawing key frames and considers gravity and other laws of physics to create more realistic animation. Importantly, it also identifies different practical ways of drawing animation.

April 3, 2023
10 min read
11 reads

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