The 12 Principles Of Animation and Why They Are Important

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Every profession has fundamental principles that must be mastered to become sufficient within the field. Animation is no different. These 12 principles are crucial for your development, so be sure to bookmark this post!

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the pioneers of animation in the early 1900s, developed these principles that are still relevant today. They’re basically the animation laws of physics.

What Are The 12 Principles Of Animation: Its History

Have you heard of the Nine Old Men? Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, and others were among Disney’s core creators responsible for Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and many more famous movies and shorts. They are Disney legends and their animations will be forever remembered as classics.

Of the Nine Old Men, Frank and Ollie created the 12 principles of animation. Their guide became an essential mastery list for all aspiring and established animators. Though they were made in the 1930s, the 12 principles were first published in 1981 in their book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.

The 12 principles have been a staple for Disney animators ever since their inception. Most animators around the world subscribe to these principles, and rightfully so. Look at how amazing Disney animation has become partially because of the principles!

The 12 Animation Principles Explained

The history of animation is vast and intriguing. But let’s get into each specific principle so you can continue your journey as a successful animator. 

Squash and Stretch

Gravity has an impact we, as living beings, can feel. Squash and stretch allow us to see that impact on animated creations. It’s an illusion we can feel. To achieve this, characters are expanded (stretched) and compressed (squashed), which gives the appearance of natural movement. Pixar’s Day & Night is a great example of this principle.

 👉Check this example of squash and stretch in animation


This principle is what turns a book into a page-turner. It gives your audience something to look forward to, even if they aren’t sure what that something is. You achieve this by dropping hints throughout your storyline. If you want to see an excellent implementation of anticipation, watch Hercules.

 👉Check this example of anticipation in animation


Staging is setting the scene. Imagine watching a play where the characters are playing baseball, but the stage is set up like a bathroom. That needs to be clarified and will confuse the audience. Beauty and the Beast illustrate staging wonderfully.

When you’re staging, you must ensure that the scenery matches the context of the shot.

  • Colors: In the evening, you might use a lot of dark blue tones, whereas the morning may call for bright warm tones.
  • Lighting: A character in an open field should have brighter lighting than one under a tree.
  • Speed: Walking animation might have a slower-moving background compared to a running character.

 👉 Check the example of staging in animation

Straight Ahead Action & Pose-to-Pose

This is a two-in-one principle that addresses the drawing process in animation. Drawing out all of your scene’s frames by frame is called straight-ahead action. Pose-to-pose is when you only draw the keyframes and fill in the rest later.

For more fluid movement, consider straight-ahead action composition. This approach makes the most sense for action scenes. However, more dramatic scenes are best composed with the pose-to-pose method. This is because the relationship between the characters and the stage is far more relevant here.

 👉 Watch Cinderella to see how this principle is implemented.

Follow Through and Overlapping Action

Follow-through and overlapping action are closely related techniques that bring the laws of physics to the animated world. For example, long flowing hair keeps moving after the person turns their head. This is follow through.

Overlapping action explains how different parts of a thing move at different speeds. For example, you can see this is a tree swaying in the wind. The tree’s trunk may move ever so slightly while the branches and leaves wave more frantically.

👉 See how follow-through and overlapping action is used in animation

Ease In, Ease Out

This principle focuses on the time it takes to go (in) and stop (out). A common statistic shared about race cars is their 0 to 60 time. This is the time it takes for a car to go from 0 mph to 60 mph. Depending on the speed, a car coming to a full stop takes time as well.

The laws of physics are skewed in the animated world, of course. However, the more you take ease into account, the more realistic the movements will be.

 👉 Watch the example of ease in, ease out in animation


Because gravity is constantly pulling on the surrounding items, things travel through the air following an arch. There’s enough trajectory for it to continue forward. However, there’s still gravity pulling it down. For greater realism, animations should follow an implied arc.

👉 Check this example of arcs in animation

Secondary Action

To bring your animation to life, add a secondary supporting action. For example, when people walk, their arms sway in the same rhythm as their feet. Walking (movement of the legs and feet) is the primary action while swaying arms is the secondary action. You might add a head bob or bounce as well. With all the wind action in Pocahontas, it’s the perfect movie to study secondary action.

👉 Check this example of secondary action in animation


This principle is about the number of frames drawn for an action. The more frames created, the more fluid the action is and the more realistic the action appears. Proper timing gives the illusion that the animation follows the laws of physics. The Incredibles plays with timing very well without losing realism.


Adding a bit of exaggeration can make a tedious animation more interesting. Over-the-top exaggeration could be too distracting unless it’s a distinct style. In that case, you should make sure the exaggeration is applied throughout the animation.

Solid Drawing

All animation is 2D. With appropriate shadows and highlights, flat objects can have the appearance of being 3D. That is what solid drawing is all about; providing the illusion of being 3-dimensional.


This isn’t about being cheerful or pretty. The appeal in animation is more about whether or not something is believable, likable, or worthy of empathy. How well the character fits into the overall story is part of their appeal, as well.

👉 Check out this example of appeal in animation

Tips On Applying The 12 Principles 

The 12 principles of animation aren’t rules you read once or twice and then go. Instead, go back and review them often throughout your projects. Treat them like a checklist, and make sure you’ve considered all 12 in your animation.

Choose a movie to study and point out some of the instances of each principle. We recommend keeping a journal that you can reference later for inspiration and guidance.

Also, peer review is for more than just science. Ask other animators to check your work and have your mentor take a look as you progress. In Animation Desk, you can easily share your animations with other creators to get feedback that’ll help you bring your creations to life.

Ask others to check your work. Ask your peers or a mentor to look at your project as you go. 

How Animation Desk Can Animate You   

You can practice the 12 principles of animation in our app! Animation Desk is an easy-to-use software where animators create animations, cartoons, and animatics. Then, you can explore hand-drawn 2D animation using your phone or tablet. Showcase your creativity, whether you’re a seasoned animator or a beginner.

Animation Desk has pre-built animation templates, clips, and photos to help beginners get their feet wet. Our intuitive interface guides you through basic animation processes for all kinds of animations.

Experienced animators can capture ideas on the go right in the app. Animation Desk supports various export formats and is a powerful tool for professional storyboards and sketches. If you haven’t already, download Animation Desk for Andriod in the Google Play store.

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