Understanding the 12 Basic Principles of Animation

By Michael Jones

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Behind every fantastic piece of animation are relatively essential elements that come together to become artwork. Understanding the fundamentals of all great animations can help you create great, eye-catching content for people to enjoy. Look below to help with understanding the twelve basic principles of animation that you can use when working on your craft.

What Are the 12 Basic Principles of Animation?

How do you bring the essence of realism to a medium so fundamentally otherworldly as animation? That has been a dilemma for animators since the medium’s beginning, with some opting to go far outside of our reality, others trying to be as lifelike as possible in their work, and many individuals working in between. The twelve principles seek to explain the critical concepts of animation that work together to make viewers believe in what they see.

The twelve basic principles are as follows:

  • 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
  • Appeal

Brief History

Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, both Disney animators, established the twelve basic principles of animation in their 1981 book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. The ideas build on the work of earlier Disney animators in their effort to create more lifelike animations from the 1930s forward. These principles are a bible for all subsequent Disney animators, and their impact spread outside the company to animators from all walks of life.

Squash and Stretch

The Squash and Stretch principle of using a contrasting transition of shape from a squashed position to a stretched pose or vice versa to provide a sensation of fleshiness, elasticity, and liveliness in animation. It was deemed the most significant by its original creators. A lack of squash and stretch causes the action to be rigid or stiff. Animators can use squash and stretch to bring inanimate objects to life by making them appear flexible.


You use Anticipation to inform the audience that significant action will occur while making the action seem lifelike. These usually take the form of smaller movements that signify a much bigger movement is to come. A golfer winding up before they hit their ball or a superhero pulling their hand back before a punch are two examples of Anticipation at work.


Staging dictates where your characters are in the scene, where you place items, what the camera sees, and where things move. That involves directing the audience’s attention to precisely where it needs to be at the right moment and clearly presenting the idea the artist is going for onscreen.

Straight Ahead Action and Pose-To-Pose

Straight Ahead Action is the process of sketching a scene from start to finish frame by frame, whereas Pose-to-Pose is the process of the animator planning out the action using a few essential frames and then filling in the gaps. Straight Ahead Action has the advantage of generating a smoother motion; however, the problem is that it’s challenging to plan ahead, and you can easily misjudge measurements. It’s simpler to keep consistent with Pose-to-Pose, but you lose some fluidity in the movement.

Follow Through and Overlapping Action

The concept of Follow Through refers to the notion that loosely connected parts of a body or object will keep moving even after the character has come to a halt. Overlapping Action helps show how distinct portions of a person or thing move at different speeds. According to the original inventors, a character may have a coat or long ears, and these parts would continue to move ” or “follow-through” after the figure had stopped moving. Another example is that while one part of the body halts, another, like their head, may overlap or continue the primary movement before also coming to a stop.

Slow In and Slow Out

Slow In and Slow Out defines the propensity for objects to come to a standstill or progressively begin a movement gradually. When animating anything moving from a stop, this concept states that the object’s spacing must slowly grow or widen until it reaches a certain speed. When that object returns to rest, the spacing gradually reduces until it reaches zero. At this time, the spacing becomes essentially constant.


When you throw a ball up in the air or flip a coin, those objects move in an Arc that follows the motion from beginning to end. The path of a moving object should be fluid due to its inertia unless an external force disrupts it. A smooth Arc is aesthetically appealing, but an unintentionally fractured Arc can diminish the movement’s believability.

Secondary Action

A Secondary Action occurs as a direct result of another action. Secondary Actions are crucial for generating intrigue and giving the animation a genuine richness. When you tilt your head with long hair and a hat on, your hair and hat will turn on their own as an illustration of Secondary Action.


Timing in animation is the duration of an action from start to finish. Timing has two purposes: it allows you to generate movement that follows the rules of physics, and it adds depth to your animations. You can use mass, scalability, emotion, and more to construct timing.


Exaggeration means staying faithful to reality but presenting it in a more feral, extreme form. It refers to the extent to which you implement many of the other concepts together. Exaggerating your posing can effectively convey the weight and size of your character or an object, as well as making your scene more visually appealing.

Solid Drawing

Solid drawing is an animation concept that uses volume, weight, and balance to make a 2D image appear three-dimensional and convincing. You can break down virtually all objects into cubes, spheres, or cylinders, which you can use to create almost anything you can conceive.


Appeal combines all of the above and adds something extra to achieve a presentation that people find enticing. It can be subjective, but you generally know it when you see it. Your animations should be graphically pleasing, whether they are beautiful and cuddly or monstrous and repulsive. They should have a visual flair that is distinctive and pleases the eye.

You can use this guide for understanding the twelve basic principles of animation as a tool in your artistic arsenal to help you craft unique creations. For anyone who wants to start or further their animation knowledge and skills, MoGraph Mentor offers the best 3D and 2D animation training around. Don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions about our classes and workshops.

Understanding the 12 Basic Principles of Animation


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