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The Secrets of Animation: An Exploration of the Guiding Principles behind The Secret of Kells

August 22nd, 2014 by Kelly Lin

Whether your interests lie in CG or stop-motion, traditional 2D or puppetry, there’s a famous set of 12 Principles used throughout the medium to give all these forms the illusion of life. Popularized by Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, the goal of these principles is to cultivate believability and style. Let’s examine their use in the Hulu Summer Film School selection, The Secret of Kells.

The Secret of Kells tells the story of Brendan, a young monk in search of a legendary crystal that he can use to complete the Book of Kells.

1) Squash and Stretch - Squash and stretch is the extending and compressing of a character’s body to create the illusion of weight and volume. In this scene, squash and stretch is used to establish how two of Brendan’s mentors, Brother Tang and Brother Assoua, are different not only in height but also in the way their bodies move to form expressions.

2) Anticipation - Animators use anticipation to prep the audience for a forthcoming action. In this scene, Brendan pulls the quill back in anticipation before touching it to the book to make the line.

3) Staging -  This is the concept that every pose or action that a character takes should clearly communicate a character’s goals, attitude, mood, or reaction. Compare these images of Brendan from different scenes. Notice how each pose is different from the other and expresses a clear emotion. If you were to make a silhouette of the character’s pose, you would still be able to tell that these are distinct poses.

4) Straight Ahead & Pose-to-Pose - More related to process than product, this principle highlights the two major methods of animation production: straight ahead and pose-to-pose. Straight ahead animation is popular in stop-motion animation. In this process, the animator will animate one frame at a time in chronological order. Pose-to-Pose involves creating key poses and then adding the in-between “filler” later.

Pose-to-Pose: To animate this scene from The Secret of Kells, animators first developed these key poses for Brendan and his mentor, Brother Aidan and then passed the scene on to other animation studios in Brussels, Belgium, Brazil, and Hungary to fill in the action between these poses.

Straight Ahead: By contrast, on their 2012 feature, ParaNorman, stop-motion animation company LAIKA employed the straight ahead production process, moving their figures ever so slightly, taking a picture, and repeating again.(This gif is a time-lapse of how the animators from ParaNorman were able to make Norman come to life.)

5) Follow through, and Overlapping Action - Follow through is the concept that when a character stops running or performing an action, their body parts stop moving different times. This one is kinda difficult to see, but if you look closely you’ll notice how when the magical forest fairy Aisling jumps, her body stops on a rock but her hair continues to move a couple frames after.

Tied to the concept of follow through is overlapping action. This concept posits that when the body is in motion, certain parts will inevitably move faster than others. In this scene, take note of how the philosopher Colum-Cille’s arm holding the cane moves at a faster rate than the rest of his body.

6) Slow-In and Slow-Out - The more frames of an action there are, the slower the action will seem. The less frames of an action there are, the faster the action will seem. Thus when animating an action scene, animators will add more drawings to the beginning parts of the action, less towards the middle, and more again towards the end, creating the effect of a slow-in and a slow-out. In this scene, notice how the action seems to slow down when the bell is at the highest and lowest portion of its arc and speeds up when the bell is in the middle of the arc.

7) Arcs - Almost all of life’s actions have a slightly circular flow to them. Thus animators will often animate actions with an arc trajectory. Sometimes this principle can be exaggerated to add appeal to a character, as in this awesome curvature animation on Aisling’s hair!

8) Secondary Action - This is an additional action that helps to supplement the main action of a scene. For instance, in this scene where Brendan is walking, the movement of the character’s legs and feet are the main action while the movement of the character’s arms, head, and subtle body motions make up the secondary actions of the scene.

9) Timing - By incorporating more or fewer drawings into the range of an action, an animator is able to mimic the laws of physics to create either slow and smooth movements or fast and crisp movements, as seen here.

10) Exaggeration - Exaggeration involves broadening your character’s facial features, poses, and expressions to add greater understanding to their movements. As a result of the principle of exaggeration, it is pretty clear to the audience that this goose is terrified!

11) Solid Drawings – This principle posits that the basic ideas related to traditional drawing should also be applied to the animation space. This character sheet shows how the artists designed Brother Aidan’s cat Pangur Ban, taking into account the various poses that the character would assume and the perspectives at which it might be depicted.

12) Appeal – This concept is hard to pinpoint but easy to identify. Simply put, appeal relates to the idea that images should be able to craft a connection with their audiences. This does not necessarily mean that the image has to be cute and cuddly, but rather that the actions on screen will spark the interest of the audience. In The Secret of Kells, the filmmakers use a variety of different setups and textures to spark the interest of the audience, including this beautiful triptych set-up.

By employing the 12 Principles of Animation, The Secret of Kells is able to achieve not only believable characters but also a compelling story. To learn more about the process that went into creating The Secret of Kells, visit The Secret of Kells official blog and wiki page.

Additionally, be sure to visit the Hulu Summer Film School page to learn more about Animation and view the full film (for FREE!).

Last comment: Jan 24th 2017 3 Comments
  • Kelly Lin says:

    Thanks for the clarification, David.
    I’ll edit the article to reflect these changes accordingly!

  • Interesting article , beautifully illustrated , but a few points to clarify from the opening paragraph: “there’s a famous set of 12 Principles used throughout the medium to give all these forms the illusion of life. Developed by Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, the goal of these principles is to cultivate realism and style.”

    The goal is not “realism” , but believability . The ’12 Principles of Animation’ were not invented or developed by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas , though they certainly contributed to the refinement and codifying of those principles. Reading ‘Disney Animation : The Illusion of Life’ by Thomas & Johnston it is clear they give most of the credit for developing these principles to animators such as Hamilton Luske, Fred Moore , Bill Tytla, Art Babbitt , and Norm Ferguson (and even that view is more Disney-centric than is necessary, since there were in fact developments in the art of character animation happening outside of the Disney studio, though perhaps never as systematically as at Disney)

  • Annie T. says:

    I literally just finished reading about the 12 principles in “The Illusion of Life” for my animation class, logged into Facebook, and lo and behold the link to this article was the first thing in my newsfeed. I was having a bit of trouble getting some of the concepts, but this really made it click. Thanks so much!