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Drawing Magic: Animation Hints From Disney Greats

     For most of the 1900s, if you wanted to be an animator, there was no better source than the Disney studio. The men who'd created Snow White and Dumbo became famous; Walt referred to his original group as his Nine Old Men, and the name stuck. Two of the men, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, eventually wrote a book called 'The Illusion of Life', which outlined their 12 animation rules. If you're an aspiring animator, it's a must-buy; but here is a breakdown of the first four principles to get you started.

Squash and Stretch

The first principle is commonly known as "Squash and Stretch." When animating a figure in motion, it's important to give the figure the appearance of having concrete weight; squashing something horizontally or stretching it vertically gives the illusion of redistribution of that volume. In a simple animation of a bouncing ball, it makes the motion appear more dynamic; subtle uses of squash and stretch are vital for realistic constructions, making them seem more life-like. But it's always important to keep the volume of the object consistent; if a ball stretches out when hitting the floor, it must also squash down correspondingly.


One of the most incredible aspects of the human mind is its ability to see and interpret tiny visual cues and movements subconsciously. It's something that we rarely notice until it's gone; even if the particular issue can't be identified, we know something is off. This includes things like a basketball player bending his knees before a jump, or a character looking towards the object they're about to interact with. The principle of anticipation comes in at this point: animators must remember to include these anticipatory movements when working on their characters, as it helps to make everything seem more realistic. Of course, anticipation can be omitted without warning for a comedic surprise gag.


The principle of staging is just as important in animation as it is in live-action films. Animators appropriate the visual language that we have become used to due to traditional film work, and although they use no camera, they still create convincing narratives. An idea must be staged in an unmistakably clear way, to make clear what is important in a scene and this concept is something that Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas emphasized. This means more than just placing the characters inside the frame; animators can work with light and shadow, with angles of the "camera", and adjust movements in order to convey what's important.

Straight Ahead Action vs Pose to Pose

If you've never animated a sequence in your life, how would you go about doing it? An initial drawing can be created and then frame-by-frame animation can sequentially follow? Or would you instead draw out the big and important parts, and fill in the rest later?

Both techniques have drawbacks, but they're both extremely useful. Drawing a sequence start to finish, or 'Straight Ahead Action', results in a very fluid illusion of movement, but it's tough to maintain the right proportions of the characters. Sketching out the desired high points of a scene and then filling in the rest solves the proportional problem, and is better for dramatic scenes. Animators usually use a combination of the two.

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Posted on 2012-08-02, By: *

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