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The 12 Principles of Animation

The 12 principles can be found at the root of all motion-based media. Animation students learn firsthand about these principles and how they might look in their work.

The 12 Principles of Animation is a group of key teachings for the professional animator. The list has served Disney animators since the 1930s and was outlined by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas in the 1981 book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. Many of these foundational ideas are still utilized in classrooms and studios around the world almost 40 years later. While technology and industries have evolved with new and different ideas being integrated into animation, the principles can still be seen in movies and web design today.

So what are the 12 Principles of Animation?

  1. Squash and stretch
  2. Anticipation
  3. Staging
  4. Straight-ahead action and pose-to-pose
  5. Follow through and overlapping action
  6. Slow in and slow out
  7. Arc
  8. Secondary action
  9. Timing
  10. Exaggeration
  11. Solid drawing
  12. Appeal

We caught up with Animation faculty Alex Salsberg to get his take on the Principles and if they play a role in the classes he teaches and his own animation work.

What’s your take on the 12 Principles?

While I don’t think they’re the only important things to learn about animation, I think the 12 Principles are a really good launching point, especially for students studying to be professional animators. I think they’ve stuck around for a reason, even if that reason is sometimes to “learn the rules before you break them.”

Do you have a favorite Principle?

I have a soft spot for “Slow in and Slow out”. When I got to college, I’d been animating, mostly self-taught, since I was a kid. I’d probably seen Slow in/Slow out in one of my books, but never really understood it. When it was finally taught to me, it felt like an incredible magic trick that took my work from “oh cool, my cartoons move” to “oh wow, my cartoons are alive.” My professor at the time was a former Disney animator and she made us chart our in-betweens, old school. I make my students do that too…they’re not happy about it but I think it’s helpful.

When did you first learn about the Principles?

I remember reading about them in a giant coffee table book when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until I had them demonstrated by animation professors right in front of me that I really started to understand them. I think once you know them, you start observing them in real life, like the overlapping action of someone’s hair.

Do you teach the Principles in your classes?

I’ve taught Principles of Animation II, so teaching them is usually pretty direct and academic: we study movement, watch examples, and I demonstrate before students create work that reflects what they’ve learned.

I also teach animation workshops to students of varying ages, from kindergarten all the way up through high school. It’s not important to me that they can name all 12 Principles. But I do think you can teach them some of the important ones subconsciously. I teach them timing through experimenting with stop motion, staging with cut-out animation, and show them how squash and stretch can really enhance a bouncing ball flipbook.

Students tend to respond more to the ones that visibly and quickly enhance their character’s movement, like anticipation or follow-through.

Learn more about the curriculum and other offerings from the Animation and Motion Media department at Lesley’s College of Art and Design.