Friday, October 15, 2021

Applying Disney's 12 Principes of Animation to Writing


Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here. Recently I came across an article that described Disney's 12 principles of animation and as I was reading over the list I was making mental comparisons to how they might apply to writing as well. So today I thought I’d document those thoughts and share them with you.


These principles of animation were first introduced by animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas in their 1981 book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. Through examining the work of leading Disney animators from the 1930s onwards, this book shows how Johnston and Thomas boil their approach down to 12 basic principles of animation.

So here they are, along with my writer takeaways.

1. Squash and stretch

This principle states that an object’s mass remains constant no matter how much pressure or tension is applied. So when you stretch something it gets thinner and when you squash it, it gets wider.

My writer takeaway: You need to really understand who your character is at their core, regardless of what image they project.  

2. Anticipation

This principle applies to the fact that you should prepare the audience for action. If you’re going to have a character leap you should show that character bending his knees first.

My writer takeaway: Foreshadowing is important. This goes to that old adage that states if you’re going to shoot somebody in scene 7 make sure you show the gun in scene 3. Foreshadowing is an important device to build tension and suspense, it makes your reader keep turning the pages to see what is going to happen next.


3. Staging

The purpose behind this principle is to direct the viewer’s attention to what is of greatest importance. This can be done by placement in frame, by the use of light and shadow and/or by the angle and position of the camera.

My writer takeaway: Not only is description important, but which elements you chose to describe and the emphasis you place on them is key as well.  When using description it is important to identify what you want to describe, why, and what response you want to evoke from the reader


4. Straight-Ahead Action and Pose-to-Pose

This principle states that the artist has two ways to handle drawing animation. The first involves drawing start to finish frame-by-frame resulting in fluid, realistic movements. The second method has the artist draw the beginning frame, the ending frame and then the frames for some of the key motions in between the two. This allows for a little more control in building the dramatic effect in the movement of the character or object

My writer takeaway: There is no one right way to approach writing your scenes. Whether you write linearly, hit the high spots first or approach them in some other fashion, as long as you have command of your process you can pull your reader in and keep them turning the pages then you’re on the right track.


5. Follow through and overlapping action

This has to do with following the laws of physics. Not everything on an object or body will move at the same rate, nor will they stop at the same rate. For instance when a runner stops, their hair or clothing may continue moving.

My writer takeaway: It was a little more difficult for me to find a writer takeaway from this one, but what I finally decided was to liken this to the fact that not every character’s arc will follow the same trajectory or have similar timing. And your character arcs will contribute to but not necessarily follow at the same speed or path as your story arc.


6. Slow in and slow out

This refers to the principles of acceleration and deceleration. Most objects need time to accelerate and decelerate to and from a stop. In the world of animation this is depicted by having more drawings near the beginning and ending of a particular action.

My writer takeaway: The set-up portion of a story will require more focus and detail than the rising and falling action of the middle. And to a lesser extent, this may also be true of your wrap-up at the end.


7. Arc

Most objects follow a specific path or arc when they are in motion. Deviating from this projection without a valid reason makes the movement seem erratic rather than fluid.

My writer takeaway: The events and action from one scene to the next should follow a logical path. This doesn’t necessarily mean expected or predictable (that would be boring!) but when something unexpected does happen, the reader can see how it logically followed from what came before.


8. Secondary action

This principle states that by adding secondary actions to the main action (e.g. adding swinging arms or whistling when a character is walking) helps to add more realism and dimension to the primary action. However, the secondary action should never diminish the primary one.

My writer takeaway: Secondary characters and subplots are wonderful ways to add context, dimension and color to your story, but they should always remain just that – secondary.


9. Timing

This principle refers to the number of frames dedicated to a specific action sequence which affects the visual speed of that action on film and how realistic that action appears. In animation, timing helps to establish mood, reaction and personality.

My writer takeaway: It’s important to have your protagonist(s) front and center for the majority of your story (a high number of ‘frames’) so that they remain the stars of your story and are not usurped by the secondary cast.

10. Exaggeration

This principle refers to the fact that a perfect imitation of reality can make an animation look static and dull. Adding in just a bit of exaggeration in form or motion adds interest  and makes the piece more dynamic.

My writer takeaway: As writer’s we don’t want to depict a perfect imitation of reality either – no trite everyday dialog or depictions of the kind of coincidence that often occurs. By paring things down, focusing on your core story and characters you can provide your reader with the best experience

11. Solid drawing

This principle states that before you can succeed in animation, you need to know the basics of drawing, including three dimensional shapes and forms, light and shadow, anatomy in motion and the proper use of symmetry and asymmetry. Consistency in the design of the world being depicted is also important.

My writer takeaway: This one should be obvious – know your craft, the basics of good storytelling. It’s okay to break the rules but only if you understand them first and are subverting them for a reason.


12. Appeal

This principle states that the animated character have something that appeals to the reader, a power to captivate or draw them in. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are sympathetic, villains can also have a strong drawing power.

My writer takeaway: Make certain your story’s characters have the power to engage your readers. Cardboard characters that are one-dimensional, whether all good or all evil, or characters that are too passive or too bland give your reader nothing to engage with, no one to root for or against.

And there you have it! My writer takeaways from Disney’s 12 essential principles of animation. What do you think? Have you heard of these principles before? Do you agree with my takeaways or would you have interpreted any of them differently?

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  1. Interesting. Thought I would not have thought about. But would love to win.

  2. Winnie, you never cease to amaze me. This is great stuff. Thank you!

    1. You're quite welcome Mindy, glad you enjoyed it.

  3. This is great, Winnie! And a keeper post for sure (I'm pinning it to my Seekerville Pinterest board!)

    I ran into #10 this morning - that realism will get me every time. My main character, Emma, had just finished a conversation with Cal, the deputy, through the driver's side window of his SUV. She was standing in the driveway, and then he was supposed to drive away.
    My first draft saw the scene through Emma's eyes - Cal started the engine, put the car in gear, backed up to make a three-corner turn, then drove out into the street.

    My revised paragraph was much simpler - Cal drove away. How boring was that first draft? Does the reader really need to see the entire picture?

    I'll be re-reading this post several times.

    Thanks, Winnie!

    Even though the first draft was realistic,

  4. Glad you enjoyed it Jan. And I'm totally guilty of that one too, I tend to over describe the mundane and it absolutely slows everything down.

  5. Winnie, I know nothing about animation and loved reading these steps! Facinating!

    You mentioned the following: "The set-up portion of a story will require more focus and detail than the rising and falling action of the middle." That's so true and is exactly what I've been thinking about for my next blog post. The first three chapters take me so long to write, and I return often to those beginning pages to add details or to rework the prose. Rarely, do I spend as much time on any scene farther into the story. Evidently, I'm not alone in spending a lot of time on the set-up!

    Thanks for a great post!

    1. Hi Debby. You are definitely not alone. The opening is the portion of the story I keep going back to over and over as I'm writing. As I learn more about my characters and their GMC the more I keep tweaking the opening pages

  6. This was an excellent blog! I enjoyed reading your comparisons!

  7. This is excellent, Winnie. It really helps me visualize the skill of writing.

  8. I loved this! Learning to write novels meant checking out lots of books from the library, but I also learned tons about story structure and development by watching the special features on many of the Pixar movies. The ones on the blurays are the best, and the ones on Monsters University are my favorite for storytelling tips.


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