Top 5 Principles of Character Animation

Animation used to be perceived as just the way we, humans, created cartoons. But now it’s much more than that. It’s no longer limited to cartoon industry only, it’s everywhere: video games, movies, advertising, explainer videos, websites, mobile and web applications — you name it. It’s a wonderful and, at the same time, pretty popular form of art. Something that makes me tick. Cause you know what? Animation is what I do every day.

I’m a motion designer at Zajno where I’m happy to do what I enjoy doing. I animate logos, create animated illustrations for websites or applications, as well as work on videos. But since animation is not only my job, but also my hobby, I spend a lot of my free time on it too.

I’m a big fan of old Disney cartoons, and I’ve always wanted to know how to work this kind of magic. Maybe even learn to do it myself. So a couple of years ago I took an interest in traditional, hand-drawn animation. An idea hit me, so I just opened Photoshop and started drawing straight ahead. I didn’t have a clear idea what key frames were at that time, nor of extremes. Thumbnails? What are those? All I wanted was to sit down and just do it. The only sure thing for me was to use ease-in and ease-out. Well, since I already had some experience in motion design at that time, it’d be kind of weird not knowing about ease-ins and outs.

All in all, it took me about 3 weeks to create a 26-second video. Pretty long, huh? Well, I was a rookie, I knew nothing of what I would end up with, nor what colors I would use. In other words, I made all the mistakes one should avoid while creating an animation. However, it wasn’t that bad in the end, considering it was my first try. I did my best with the skills and knowledge I had at that point. By the way, here is the result:

My first hand-drawn animation

The best thing about my first attempt was that I realized where I stood. First, I understood that classical animation was where my interests truly lay. Second, it was clear I lacked some theory and practice to create quality animation. This experience kickstarted me, so I began to look for a way to hone my skills. And I found it. Where there’s a will there’s a way, you know. It was an online course in traditional animation that I started with. My mentor worked at Disney Studios for over 10 years. He was the one to teach me 12 basic principles of animation, how to create characters, what techniques to use and other tricks of the trade.

The best thing about my first attempt was that I realized where I stood. This experience kickstarted me, so I began to look for a way to hone my skills.

Today my main focus is learning character design as it’s still one of the skills that I’d like to evolve. Having learned lots of tips and tricks from various sources, I’d like to share some of them with you.

1. S-curves or Line of Action

This principle is not only used in character design, but also in photography. It helps make the character’s pose look natural. The curve goes through a character’s body, directing its every move. Without this curve character’s moves would be abrupt and twitchy, like those of a robot. However, it’s well-known that a character should flow from one pose to another so that the move looks slinky and smooth.

2. No Parallel Lines

There’s nothing parallel in human body. Almost everything goes from narrow to wider and vice versa, just like a forearm or a leg, which is wider at the hip and then narrows down towards the ankle. The same goes for palms. It works for animals too, as well as for other living creatures, really.

3. Asymmetry

When creating a character one should avoid symmetry. The old Disney masters used to check each other’s characters for symmetry. Because sometimes it’s hard to see your own misdoings. There should be no symmetrical arm/leg/finger position in a pose. Because this creates an unnatural look. The character doesn’t give the three-dimensional feel that way, it’s flat and it seems it can fall down any second, just like a cardboard cutout.

4. Silhouette

The silhouette must be “readable”. Owing to a clear-cut silhouette our eyes can easily see the movement. The silhouette must be also recognizable. For example, if they showed you Mickey Mouse’s silhouette, you’d guess it on the first try, there can be no mistaking about this character. The same goes for Baloo from The Jungle Book and for all the others iconic cartoon characters.

5. Unity & Drawing through

The character must be integral. It shouldn’t be oversaturated with details. It has to be balanced in terms of design and also attractive, even if it’s the world’s worst villain. Each shape should smoothly blend into another creating a complete, flexible figure. Besides, one should always keep the volume in mind and draw through. Even if we don’t see the character’s shoulder, we have to draw it in the sketch to make sure the arm “grows from the right spot”. Here’s a good example of drawing through and of using S-curves too:

These are the main principles of character design one should always remember and stick to. They help me a lot in creating smooth character animations. Hope they’ll serve you well too.

P.S.: If you liked this article make sure to clap — as a newbie writer it means the world to me!

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