The illusion of life - or why you should animate flour sacks

The book The Illusion of Life tells the story of the beginnings of Disney Studios and the development of their animation process. What exactly made Disney's style unique? It is one of the books you have to read if you are interested in animation - not just animated drawings, but also if you are into 3d game animations. Here are some key points from the book:
  • Animation is not just timing, or just a well-drawn character, it is the sum of all factors named. What you as an animator are interested in is conveying a certain feeling you happen to have at that particular time. The response of the viewer is an emotional one, because art speaks to the heart. Our tools of communication are the symbols that everyone understands because they go back before mankind began talking. 
  • The animator is the actor in animated films. But animation is harder than acting. In animation we start with a blank piece of paper. Out of nowhere we have to come up with characters that are real, that live, that interrelate. We have to work up the chemistry between them, find ways to create the counterpart of charisma, have the characters move in a believable manner, and do it all with mere pencil drawings. 
  • Start the film with something the audience know and like. This can either be an idea of a character, as long as it is familiar and appealing. It can be a situation everyone has experienced, an emotionally reaction universally shared. But there must be something that is known and understood if the film is to achieve audience involvement. The mystery radio programs are good at this, using voices and sound effects that reach out to you. The broadcasts are projected through symbols into your imagination, and you make the situation real. It is not just what you hear, it is what the sounds make you believe and feel. It's not the actor's emotions you are sensing anymore - they are your emotions.  
  • For a character to be real, it must have a personality, and, preferably, and interesting one. The audience should identify with the story situation, and the best way is through a character who is like someone they have known. There should also be a change in the initial action that will enable the animator to show more than one side of this personality, like from concentration to rage.
  • Key animation principles:
    • Don't confuse them. Keep it simple.
    • Too much action spoils the acting.
    • Mushy action makes a mushy statement.
    • Say something. Be brave.
    • Why would anyone want to look at that?
  • Walt Disney himself was actually not a good animator. Animation was developed far more by the animators themselves than by Walt. But this advancement would never have occurred without Walt. Without Walt's drive, it is doubtful that any of the animators would have tried so hard or learned what to do.  
  • The best way to know if your animation is good is to test it on a real audience. 
  • Attitude can be achieved with the simplest of shapes. A flour sack is often used to illustrate this (the shape will change but the volume will always be the same). This idea is used by animators today as well as you can see if you click on this link:

  • The fundamental principles of animation are:
    • Squash and stretch. What you are animating should change shape, as in the flour bag example.
    • Anticipation. Before what you are animating is doing something, it should be shown what you are animating is about to do.
    • Staging. The audience should clearly see what you are animating.
    • Straight ahead action or pose to pose. This is about how you plan the animation. In the first case you make it up as you go, and in the second case you first create key poses and then fill in the animation between the poses. 
    • Follow through and overlapping action. This is about the end of the animation. The idea here is that things after a movement don't come to a stop all at once, some parts of the character may stop later. And you also have to make sure it merges with the next animation. 
    • Slow in and slow out. The focus should be on the key parts of the animation, so a character should move slowly into the key position, and then move slowly away from the key position, and then fast between the key positions. Too much of this will produce a mechanical feeling, so you have to analyze the actions more carefully if that happens.  
    • Arcs. The movement of living creatures will follow arcs and not straight lines.  
    • Secondary action. The main idea of the animation can be amplified by adding a second animation, such as wiping away a tear. 
    • Timing. Each inbetween frame between the same extreme key frames gives a new meaning to the action. No frames inbetween can mean that the character has been hit by a large force, while more frames can mean the character is sneaking. 
    • Exaggeration. Realism is not the goal because it's sometimes difficult to understand if a character that is "realistically" sad is sad. But if you exaggerate and make a sad character sadder, the audience will easier understand that the character is sad. One animator at Disney made an animation so exaggerated that he thought he would get fire, but Walt loved it. 
    • Solid drawing. You should learn to draw as well as possible before starting to animate. The better you can draw, the easier it is to animate. 
    • Appeal. The audience should obviously enjoy what you are animating. 
  • Norm Ferguson, one of the animators and who gave Pluto his character, had no formal art training, which was good because he was not following anatomy and drawing rules. One of the other animators said "He doesn't know that you can't raise the eyebrows above the head circle, so he goes ahead and does it and it gives a great effect."
  • Always analyze and observe. One of the animators could simply not stop observing how the real world worked. This is one of the reasons Leonardo da Vinci became a good painter - he always brought a notebook with him and he could even invite people to his house to easier observe them. 
  • As said before, realism is not the goal. Great fiction is art and invention, not duplicated reality: 
    • Things should happen faster than in real life.
    • You want to make things more interesting and more unusual. 
    • The actors should be more rehearsed than everyday people, opening a door should be as simple as possible.
    • The actors thought process should be quicker and their uninteresting progression from one situation to another must be skipped. 
  • Every animator has ups and down. To find inspiration again you can look at magazines and at drawings by animators whose techniques is different from yours. Every animator is also making mistakes. "Everybody knows that! I shouldn't make a mistake like that. It's just because you always forget something! I ought make a sign and stick it up in front of me on the desk so I never make that mistake again."
  • People love to see thinking characters. You should do this by changing the expression of the character.  
  • If you want to make great animations you should observe and study and make your characters different and unique - instead of cloning a similar character over and over again. No two scenes should ever be alike and no two characters should ever do something the same way. Frequently, some animator will animate not something he has observed, but something he has memorized that some other animator has done. 
  • When animating you should avoid writing what you will animate, you should draw what you will animate by making a storyboard. 
  • Extreme action is best illustrated by minimizing background elements, and other things that would draw attention away from the action. 
  • One quick look is all the audience gets - keep it simple, direct, like a poster; it must sell an idea.
  • If you are stuck, you can act out the seen yourself or have someone do it for you. Disney animators had assistants who acted out scenes, so they could see how the scene looked and determine the best angle for drawing it.
  • It takes 1.5 years to learn the basic fundamentals of animation and another 5 to 6 years to be at all skillful. 
  • Every animation is a new animation. Someone outside the studio once stated that it was easy for Disney to make a film now that they had done so many. Their reply was: "On every picture, you're in a learning process. It's not so much an application of professional knowledge as constantly learning. It is always new, or it had better be. On each film, you start from scratch, make the mistakes, pick yourself up time and time again, yet never give up. You must keep your belief in the picture and your faith in yourself. For a picture to end up good, it must be treated like it was the very first one you ever made."
  • It's important that the background is the background. There should be nothing behind the animated figures that distracts in any way. Too much detail, busy shapes, eye-catching forms are all confusing; too much color, too much dark and light pattern, colors that conflict with the figures are all disturbing. 
  • At the end of a cartoon movie, it's common to see how the camera zooms out and pulls up, showing more and more of the sky. The reason the camera is pulling up is because it was difficult to animate how the character became smaller and smaller, so they had to remove the character and instead show the sky.
  • To make you animation feel alive you have to add sound. Sometimes you have to add sound to something that doesn't make a sound. Disney had to test several alternatives before they found the sound of a spider web shimmering with dew and the sound of a magnet. 
  • When using photos and video as reference, you can't always copy what you see. A work of art is never a copy. For it to have meaning to people of many generations and cultures, it must have the personal statement of an artist. Michelangelo's famous statue of David would be a strange looking character if you met him walking down the street. According to this source, David's:
    • Upper-body and head are bigger on purpose, to account from viewing his statue from afar and from below.
    • Right hand is bigger than the left, probably to draw attention to the stone as a symbol of his courage and physical power.
    • Eyes are not looking in the same direction.
  • When learning to draw anything, it's important that the artist go to the source. If Disney artists were going to animate a fox, they would try to get a real fox to study - photographs and videos are not enough. They could even use animals that had been found dead, although not all were interested in study the animal after a few days as the body had started to decompose. Nothing matches the learning that comes from feeling an animal's bones and muscles and joints, to discover how they are put together and how far they can move in any direction. You also have to study what attitudes and actions are unique to the fox. What makes this animal a fox?
  • Some animations are difficult to draw, such as the antlers belonging to a deer. What the animators at Disney did was to either film it and then trace it on the paper, or build an antler model, and trace it by having the antlers behind a piece of glass.
  • Avoid dialogue. Instead you should use an expression, action, sound effect, or music. The audience wants to see what is going to happen and the dialogue should only fortify and sharpen the story and personalities. It is not enough if the character is saying it's angry - you also have to show it so the audience if also feeling that the character is angry.  


  1. As per my research animation is not just timing, or just a well-drawn character, it is the sum of all factors named. What you as an animator are interested in is conveying a certain feeling you happen to have at that particular time.


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