All about animation: from history to the 12 principles

Rules to create the magic of moving objects and characters


The term “animation” refers to the process of designing and drawing sequences of images, which, through their rapid succession, create the illusion of movement in the viewer.

The modern entertainment industry makes extensive use of these techniques, not only for movies and television, but also for presentations or multimedia videos on the web.

And, in step with the evolution of technology, the mode of operation of the animator has also changed: if once he was forced to put himself at the drawing board to patiently realize one frame at a time, today he must be able to to master all the tools offered by the software, which have opened new frontiers in his work.

Depending on the technique used, therefore, we have come to distinguish different types of animation including: the traditional (or “cel animation”, from the name of the acetate sheets on which the various frames were individually drawn), the 2D one, the 3D, motion graphics and stop motion, (made with physical models instead of drawings).

But everyone must respect the sacred twelve principles that have been valid since the time of the first Disney cartoons. We’ll list them all, one by one.

History of animation

Identifying the very first animation of history is a more complex task than it might seem, because it depends on the definition given to this word.

After all, we said that animating simply means creating the illusion of movement through the rapid succession of still images.

And if we start from this assumption, then we can trace this technique back to thousands of years ago: to the Stone Age rock paintings showing animals in action, whose images were superimposed in different positions to make them appear in the running, when they were looked at the flickering torchlight.

Then, over the centuries, the technologies have naturally been refined: in the nineteenth century the first devices were born, the so-called kinetoscopes, fenachistoscopes or zoopraxiscopi, which allowed to animate the images drawn on disks or films that were rotated by hand.

In practice, the forerunners of modern cinema projectors.

And it is with the era of the movies that animation took the forms with which we know it today.

The first pioneering experiments in the creation of animated short films date back to the beginning of the 20th century (an important example is “Gertie the dinosaur”, from 1914), while the first feature-length film created with traditional animation techniques is “El Apòstol”, a cartoon animated by political satire made in 1917 in South America, 70 minutes long (with a reproduction frequency of as many as 14 frames per second!) and which also achieved a fairly successful audience

To change forever the history of the world of animation, however, was obviously the birth of a small studio based in Los Angeles: Walt Disney Studios.

Within a few years, Disney created his first sound cartoon (“Steamboat Willie”, 1928), the first in color (“Flower and Trees”, 1932), and finally the first feature film (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, 1937).

To reach the next fundamental turning point in the history of animation we must make a leap to 1995: the date in which Pixar developed “Toy Story”, the first animated film completely realized in computer graphics, which started the exponential growth of the CGI animation of these years.

Today this has become one of the real gold mines of the film industry: animation is in fact the genre that guarantees more profit margins (52%, according to a recent research by the Japanese group Nomura, compared to 40% of action, 30% of the dramatic ones and 22% of the comedies).

The 12 principles of animation

    1. Squash and stretch (schiaccia e allunga) 
      It is considered the fundamental principle because, when applied, it gives to the characters or to the animated objects the illusion of gravity, weight, mass and elasticity. The reaction must be the same as a rubber bouncing ball when it is thrown into the air: as it moves up or down, it stretches, and when it hits the ground, it crushes. Of course the focal point is the volume, which must always be kept coherent: consequently, an object that stretches must also become thinner, and on the contrary when it squashes at the same time it widens.
    2. Anticipation (anticipazione)
      To make the action more realistic, the viewer must be prepared for what is about to happen. For example, it never happens to see a person jumping without first bending his knees, or throwing a ball without first pulling his arm back: it would not only look unnatural, but even physically impossible. In the same way, an animated movement without its anticipation appears to be off and lifeless.
    3. Staging (messa in scena)
      Like an actor performing on stage, even an animator is responsible for drawing the viewer’s attention to the crucial parts of the scene. In other words, you have to keep what matters in the center and the less important objects in the background.
    4. Straight Ahead & Pose to Pose (azione diretta o da posa a posa)
      There are two ways to manage an animation, each of which has its advantages and disadvantages, so much so that they are often combined with each other. The direct action is to draw a frame at a time from beginning to end, and is the best choice if you are looking for a smooth or realistic movement. With the technique to pose to pose, however, you draw first the initial frame, then the final one and some key frames in between. Only then will you go back and complete the rest: in this way you get more control on the scene and you increase the dramatic effect.
    5. Follow through (inseguimento) e overlapping (sovrapposizione)
      When an object moves, not all of its parts move at the same speed, and when the movement stops, not everything stops at the same time. For example, if our character runs from one side of the scene to another, the arms and head will move at a different pace from the head (this is the overlapping action) and, when it stops, the hair will probably continue to move for a few frames after the head is blocked (this is the pursuit).
    6. Slow in e slow out (rallentamento in entrata e uscita)
      The best way to understand this principle is to think about how a car accelerates or decelerates: the change from zero to one hundred kilometers per hour is not immediate, but it takes some time to reach cruising speed, just like when presses the brake pedal the car does not stop immediately, but gradually. By carefully monitoring changes in the speed of objects, our animation can be made more credible.
    7. Arcs (curve)
      The animation must respect the laws of physics. So, when you throw a ball into the air, you have to take into account its natural parabola, the trajectory in a curved line that will follow because of the Earth’s gravity.
    8. Secondary action (azione secondaria)
      It serves to support or emphasize the main action, and to give greater depth to our animation. For example, we refer to the slight movement of the hair while the character walks, or to a simple facial expression that can make you understand what you are thinking.
    9. Timing (temporizzazione)
      This principle also aims to apply the laws of physics observed in the natural world to animation. If you move an object too quickly or too slowly, in fact, this action will not be credible. Instead, by using the times correctly and consistently, it is possible to communicate certain characteristics or reactions of our objects or characters: for example, something that moves more slowly will be perceived as heavier.
    10. Exageration (esagerazione)
      It’s okay to be realistic, but not too much! If you exaggerate, our animation could appear static and boring. Some exaggeration added here and there makes our characters or objects more dynamic: therefore, do not be afraid to push yourself, from time to time, beyond the limits of the possible. A bit like what happened to the actors of the silent cinema that, without being able to count on the dialogues, but on the contrary having to transmit all the emotions only through facial expressions, they were often forced to excessively accentuate their acting, expressions and body gestures.
    11. Solid Drawings (disegno solido)
      Never forget the basic principles of three-dimensional design: shape, anatomy, weight, volume, lights and shadows. Even in this case we can push beyond the limits of realism, but we must remain consistent: if in our animated world the doors wobble or the perspective is deformed, this situation will remain for the entire animation, otherwise the sense of continuity.
    12. Appeal (attrattiva)
      The characters, objects and the world in which they live must attract the attention of the spectator: therefore their design must be easy to read and pleasant to look at, and their personality interesting and charismatic. There is no single scientific formula to realize this principle, but here lies the art of the animator.