No one person or animator sat down and came up with the famous Twelve Principles of Animation, not even Walt. It was a collective effort through years of trial and error – analyzing when and why something read or worked better than something else. It wasn’t until 1981, 44 years after the first animated motion picture was released, that Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston – two of Disney’s Nine Old Men – published The Illusion of Life and gave formal name to these principles.
Credit should be given where credit is due however: it was Walt Disney himself that was the main proponent of redefining animation and pushing his artists to break new ground that would become the industry and artistic landscape we now live in.
It’s important to note that none of the principles stand in isolation from each other – you don’t use either one or the other. They are meant to combine and complement the others at the same time to create a successful and engaging animation.
For the sake of illustrations and examples, I’m going to use the fantastic 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille, but by no means are these principles only utilized in Disney or Pixar films – they are used in movies, tv shows, web animations, motion design venues – basically anywhere great Animation is appreciated over mere Movement.
Let’s jump right in…
Due to the name, this is one of the most common principles new artists confuse. It does not refer to waiting for the action to start! Walt used to refer this more aptly as Aiming – it is all about broadcasting thought, intent and directing the viewer’s eye and focus.
Anticipation is used to prepare the viewer for an action that is about to be performed. There is nothing more important than readability; you don’t want the viewers to wonder what just happened remove them from their suspension of disbelief.
There are many obvious examples, such as a pitcher winding up to throw a ball, or a bow being pulled to fire an arrow, but there are constant, more subtle examples happening constantly throughout good animation. It is the reverse action of the one about to follow.
In certain situations, Anticipation can also be omitted completely before a strong action. This produces a feeling of surprise in the viewer, and can often add comedy to a scene. This is often referred to as a Surprise Gag (a great recent example of this is the horse Maximus in Disney’s Tangled quick-punching Flynn Rider at the end of a sequence).
Anticipation is not limited to the character performing the action. One can direct attention to another action or object – for example, a look or gesture (possibly off-screen) will direct us to something happening out of our focus area, or even indicate to us to an object that the character might be about to pick up.
Anticipation can also imply thought, because it shows that the character intends to do something and that they are not just moving from one position to another.
Most actions (with the exception of mechanized movement) have some sense of anticipation, and the bigger or dramatic the action, the bigger the preceding anticipation.
Speaking of mechanized movement, you almost never see Anticipation in non-sentient robots or Heads-Up Displays. As such, the less Anticipation, the more science fiction.
Anticipation can be very subtle – the weight shift from one leg to another before starting a walk or the intake of breath before a sigh – but the inclusion of this small detail adds a great deal of life to animation.
From Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson:
Almost all real action has major or minor anticipation such as a pitcher’s wind-up or a golfers’ back swing. Feature animation is often less broad than short animation unless a scene requires it to develop a characters personality.