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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

Hulu Summer Film School Week 6: Animation

August 22nd, 2014 by Kelly Lin

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Picture this: A character sits at a table and takes a sip from a glass of water.

In the live-action world, this shot might take 15 minutes to set up and shoot. In the animation world, this seemingly simple action might take 3 months. Not only do the characters and sets have to be designed, rigged, and modeled, but the sound of the character drinking and putting the glass on the table has to be recorded; the movements of the character, the character’s clothes, the chair, and the water have to be animated, and don’t even get us started on if this scene were crafted in traditional 2D.

Welcome to the world of animation where artists begin with a blank canvas and from that blank canvas, they build a world. This week’s Hulu Summer Film School selections explore a wide variety of animation styles and how animators use their tools to create worlds that extend beyond our wildest imaginations.


Required Viewing: 

1) Sita Sings the Blues 

Director: Nina Paley
Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues” is a charming and unique collage of animation styles and narrative strands, that, when considered as a whole, exemplifies the ability of an auteur animator to pioneer her vision with near complete creative control. As a medium, animation offers the potential for a purer authorship than live action because it limits the contentious issue of sharing authorship across many different roles. “Sita” offers different tellings of the traditional Indian story of Ramayana about the troubled love between Sita and her neglectful lover Rama. Paley was eventually able to distribute the film through a Creative Commons license which let her use music that would otherwise be protected by copyright law (in one strand of the film, Sita sings Annette Henshaw songs from the jazz era). In addition to Paley’s role as narrative auteur, “Sita” becomes an intellectual embodiment of her artistic creed. Paley is an advocate of the free culture movement – best summarized by the title of her original song, “Copying Isn’t Theft.”
-Christopher Rowe

2) The Secret of Kells 

Director: Tomm Moore
The 12 Principles of Animation as illustrated through The Secret of Kells

3) The Muppets Take Manhattan 

Director: Frank Oz

Whether puppetry should be considered “animation” is a polarizing topic among film buffs, but there’s no denying that the form of theater performance is deeply rooted in the simplest concept of animation: Performers animate inanimate objects to tell a story. Just like in traditional pencil-and-paper animation, this effect is achieved not only through scenes that are “drawn” out, but also through the sounds and movements of the made objects to create an illusion that it is all real.

Operationally with Jim Henson’s puppets, one hand manipulates the head and mouth while another manipulates the hands and arms. Because of this, the puppets’ faces remain static so emotion is primarily expressed through tone of voice and arm movements. Through her powerful voice and aggressive arm movements, you can tell that Miss Piggy is tempestuous; Kermit is mild-mannered because of his permanent pensive eyes and soft movements.

Jim Henson’s “Muppet” characters are a definitive example of puppetry used in movies. In “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” the group of fuzzy, big-eyed characters hit the streets of New York City. With puppetry magic, these furry objects sing, dance, and feel sadness and happiness all while experiencing what it’s like working at diners, being broke, and having failed dreams in the big city.

-Sheila Dichoso

4) The Secret of NIMH 

Director: Don Bluth

A cult favorite of many established animators today, The Secret of NIMH draws on classical animation techniques to tell the tale of a field rat who seeks help from a colony of other rats to try to save her sick son. In many ways, the story behind the film is as compelling as the film itself.

Flash back to 1979. Disney Animation Studios was in production on The Fox and the Hound. Animator Don Bluth was dissatisfied with Disney’s increasingly computer-based modes of production and wished to revive the traditional animation techniques used by Walt Disney in the 1930’s. With a rag-tag team of sixteen other Disney animators, Bluth left the studio to form Don Bluth Productions. Their first feature was The Secret of NIMH. By placing a deeper focus on character body language and detailed backgrounds, Bluth’s team was able to create one of the most vibrantly animated films of all time and spawn subsequent Bluth features including An American Tale, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven.

-Kelly Lin

Supplemental Viewing:

5) Tatsumi

6) Alois Nebel

7) My Dog Tulip 

8) The Cat in the Hat

Extracurricular Links: 

1) CartoonBrew - The go-to destination for information on the latest news and trends in the animation industry. Be sure to check out their Animated Film Preview guide about the animated features getting released this year as well as their collection of the best student and studio short films on the web.

2) Monsters University Progression Reel – These days it takes a village to make an animated film. Watch this video to see just how many different teams touch the footage before it is released in its final form.

3) ParaNorman: This Little Light - If your interests lie in the stop-motion animation realm, then you’ll definitely enjoy this ParaNorman making-of video from the wizards at LAIKA about the extensive process that goes into the creation of a single prop from the movie, a little light. Watch the trailer LAIKA’s latest feature, The Boxtrollshere.

Visit the Hulu Summer Film School page to see full-length versions of our selections and explore past lessons.