Nocturnal Motion Design
May 23 · 6 min read

We started noticing a trend with our clients: The better they understood motion design lingo, the quicker we were able to collaborate and solve their problems. So to help reduce the widespread, “huh?” in meetings like ours, we compiled a quick list of the top ten motion design terms that can help you stay ahead of the confusion, ask for what you really want, and avoid costly misunderstandings when providing feedback.


1: Layers

Each visual element of any animation lives on its own individual layer. And each layer contains multiple properties that can be animated (such as opacity, position, rotation, and scale). Sometimes layers are interlinked dynamically that make them extremely difficult to change after approval. Other times, layers are independent and relatively simple to change.

A typical motion designer’s project file. This part of the animation has 42 layers. Most animations have multiple parts. It’s not uncommon for our projects to have 800 layers per video.

2: Keyframe

This is a term to describe how each property of an animation is recorded in our animation software. If you want a box to move from screen left to screen right in five seconds, you set a keyframe for the box’s position on the left side of the screen at zero seconds, and then you set a position keyframe for the box on the right side of the screen at five seconds. The computer will calculate the position of the box between zero and five seconds on it’s own.

Each layer has multiple properties that keyframes can be applied on. Some projects can get hundreds of keyframes per layer. If a projects has 200 layers each with 100 keyframes, making changes to the animation towards the end of a project can become very costly.

3: Overlapping animation

This is important: Good animation should overlap. A visual shouldn’t wait for the previous one to complete before it can start. Think of a hand reaching up for a cup on the top shelf. You wouldn’t rotate your shoulder, and then once the shoulder was done rotating, bend your elbow, and then rotate your wrist — unless you’re a primitive robot. All these actions are overlapping and happening at the same time. Good animation reflects real life. Not primitive robotic life.

4: A beat

Sometimes you need a little breathing room in your animation. To communicate this, tell your designers you want to “leave a beat” — or in other words — a brief pause so the viewer can digest what they’re seeing on screen.

5: Easing

This term refers to how visuals begin to accelerate and decelerate. When an animation feels unintentionally jerky, it’s because it has little to no easing. If the stops are abrupt and you want it smoothed out say to your motion designer, “Pls use more easing. Kthnxbye!” We’ll know what to do.

This is a video that quickly showcases the term “easing”. The top square has the most amount of easing and the bottom square has no easing (also known as linear keyframes).

6: Z-depth

This term refers to leveraging the 3rd dimensional axis. X-axis is left and right. Y-axis is up and down. Z-depth (the Z-axis) is nearer to and farther from the camera. By cleverly employing all of these axes, a limited 3d-world can be created. Hello, Sims family!

7: 3D vs 2.5D

This one is big because it’s probably the most common mix-up we hear. Lots of times when a client asks for 3D animation, what they really want is 2.5D animation. Didn’t know there was a world between 2 and 3D? You’re not alone, so here it goes: 3D animation is a full immersive environment where the camera can orbit object and see all of it’s different angles. In 2.5D animation, if you orbit the camera around an object, all you’ll see is a paper thin edge. The object has no actual volume. Whereas 3D animation is very time consuming and expensive to create, 2.5D animation added with some clever trickery, can be a very good solution. Simply put, 2.5D employs the use of a third positional axis but without having actual 3D properties besides Z-depth. Already lost? This might be explained best by viewing the example below.

A quick video we put together that demonstrates the differences between 2D, 2.5D, and 3D animation.

8: Parallax (parallaxing)

In 2.5D animation, this is what happens when multiple layers are distributed in Z-depth and a camera moves through the scene. Basically, it’s how we create a sense of depth in animation by speeding up items closer to the camera, and slowing down the ones farther away. Imagine driving on the highway and seeing how quickly the trees on the side of the road leave your field of vision as opposed to the clouds off in the distance. Using parallaxing is a quick way to make your animation feel more dynamic with minimal additional cost.

This example is quick but notice how the background elements like the school and mountains are moving slower than the trees? Parallaxing.

9: Adobe Illustrator vs Adobe Photoshop (vector vs bitmap images)

Adobe Illustrator creates art files that are vectors. Adobe Photoshop creates art files that are bitmap. Vector images are mathematically based and allow for infinite scaling. A vector image can be made at the size of a stamp, but can be scaled to the size of a billboard while still retaining nice sharp clean edges. A bitmap image made at the size of a stamp can only be scaled about 20 percent before it gets blurry. A billboard would have no hope. Vectors are more flexible for animating if you’re not sure what scale you want your image to be. If later you decide you’d like your animated character to be 200 percent larger, it’s a pretty quick change if the image is vector. If it’s a bitmap image, you’re looking at a costly re-build. How we avoid this hidden cost when working with bitmaps is by creating larger than necessary artwork and working with it at smaller scales inside of the animation software. The artwork will still lose a small amount of fidelity when scaling down, but only a small amount. If the animation studio is in charge of creating assets for the video, let them worry about this. If you’re passing assets off to be animated, let the animator know whether they are vector or bitmap so they can create the storyboards factoring in potential scaling issues.

Tip: Be sure to ask if future unforeseen change requests to the artwork will mean additional costs

10: Rendering

This is the phase of animation when we package up all the layers, animations, lights, cameras, effects, music, voice over, and other goodies into a neat, playable video format. As a motion designer animates, they’re generally looking at their work at a smaller format than the final video output to keep the computer from stuttering the playback. Depending on the intensity, rendering the compiled final video may take anywhere from a handful of minutes to days. Animators can really only give you an estimated render time because there are so many factors such as computer specs, software specs, and what type of animation is being rendered. Which is why we prefer morning delivery times opposed to EOD (gives us the night hours for wiggle room), but that’s just us.

Hopefully this explanation of motion designer terms will help you save time and money. If you’d like to see these terms in action — or if you’d like to get in touch for anything else — you can visit our website:

(and if you’d like to have a handy formatted PDF of these terms for quick reference, you can enter your email address at the bottom of our website for a link to download the document.

Copyright © 2019 NOCTURNAL, LLC, All rights reserved.

Nocturnal Motion Design

Written by

Motion Design // 2D & 3D Animation, Motion Graphics, VFX, Compositing

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