Animation as we know it has been around since Horner invented the zoetrope in 1834. Since then animators have developed a set of rules that help us to draw viewers into the world we have created. From Disney classics to the latest stereoscopic 3D productions, we’ve plundered them all to find the 12 key techniques you need to master to be a top-flight animator.

Some of these rules are based on real-life physics, and others on observations and reactions. They provide a set of invaluable ‘tricks’ for animators that have been proven to work in almost every situation.

Here we’ll discuss 12 rules or key aspects of animation and use examples of character animation to explain them and how they can be applied. Note that these same principles can be applied to motion-graphic design just as effectively.

1. Squash and stretch

This jumping rabbit is a good case of squash and stretch. As it lands, it squashes down, and as it jumps, it stretches along the arc shown

One of the most important aspects of animation is the squash and stretch rule. For an object to move convincingly, it must ‘give’ when external forces are applied to it. Factors that influence motion include gravity, directional force and the mass of the object, as well as the surfaces it comes into contact with.

Take a bouncing ball as an example. As the ball hits the ground, gravitational force, which depends on the mass of the object, makes it come to blows with the surface, and this will cause the ball to squash. Obviously a softer ball (for example, a beach ball) will squash and stretch a lot, whereas a cannonball will hardly squash and stretch at all. But perhaps what you didn’t know is that the ball will also stretch slightly as it falls and rises. Stretching is kind of like the reflex action that comes before and after squashing.

Going back to our bouncing ball example, the only time the ball should look perfectly round is at the top of each arc. You can use squash and stretch techniques to convey an object’s density and mass.

Exaggerating squash and stretch can often add to the comedy value of your animations. Walt Disney discovered that exaggerating these real-life physical reactions made for much more effective animations – think of the way Tigger (right) moves when he bounces. That takes us nicely to the next important rule of animation: exaggeration.

2. Exaggeration

The man in the first image is drawn from a low angle, exaggerating his feet. His smoking hand appears less important as it on his far side. The second figure is drawn from above and his feet are further from the viewer. The smoking is much more noticeable because it is closer to the viewer

Exaggeration is a method of emphasising something to increase its significance or draw attention to it. In animation, we use it to emphasise whatever key idea or feeling you wish to portray.

For example, imagine you create a character who is smoking a cigarette while dancing. The action to exaggerate is the one most relevant to the scene. If the animation’s purpose is to illustrate the joys of dancing, it is the dancing that should be exaggerated. If, however, you want to focus on the fact that the character is smoking (perhaps it’s an anti-smoking ad), you would make him smoke in a very ostentatious way, with his feet making only tiny movements. By exaggerating the right elements, you can guide the viewers’ eyes and give them the message you wish to convey.

Using our bouncing ball example again, if we squashed the ball by the correct amount, the animation would probably look a little weak. You would hardly see the squash at all because it would be too slight and would happen too quickly. Exaggerating the amount of squash and stretch, and the pause when it touches the ground, will make the animation more dynamic.

To sum up, good use of exaggeration can make an animation come to life. To make it really work, choose the most important element of the scene, and apply exaggeration only to that. Think carefully about the different elements that can have exaggeration applied to them: movement, facial expressions, squash and stretch, bounce and timing. By exaggerating one of these elements, you can draw the viewer’s attention and make sure nothing is missed.

3. Staging

In this scene from Rio, the toucan’s motion to the right of the screen (bottom) is emphasised by a previous lean to the left (top)

Staging the animation means setting the scene – attracting the viewer’s attention and focusing it on a particular subject or area of the screen before the action takes place. You must remember that the viewers don’t have the luxury of knowing what is about to happen in your animation, so if something moves very quickly, they may not have time enough to realise what is going on.

This is why it is necessary to set the scene for them. Doing so can also set up a mood or feeling that you want the viewer to understand before the action takes place. Examples of this would be having the subject move suddenly to attract attention, colouring or lighting your subject in such a way that it stands out from the rest of the scene, or using music or sound effects to capture the viewer’s attention.

4. Anticipation

Anticipation can also be used to direct the attention to part of the screen, and it is often intermingled with staging. However, there are differences that make it a rule unto itself.

Some anticipation occurs naturally. For example, imagine a mouse is about to hit a cat over the head with a mallet. The mouse has to physically pull the mallet back before plunging it down; the pulling back of the mallet is the anticipation moment. By exaggerating this moment, you can let the viewer know what is about to happen.

There are other anticipation tricks that aren’t so natural but are useful nonetheless. For example, in the old Road Runner cartoons, when the coyote falls off the cliff, he hangs in the air for a second or two before plummeting to the ground. Without the dramatic pause, the viewer would not have time to register the coyote’s very fast fall to Earth. These pauses are rare moments of stillness in animation, and they can be used to make an action really stand out.