The Little Things in Animation

Ringtail Animation

If you were to ask a layperson about what makes an animation good, they might say it needs to be realistic. They might say it needs to be smooth and clean. But those are the broad strokes. No animator aims to create something unnatural unless it’s the goal.

The real trick to animation is the little things. The little details or quirks in an animation that give them life. Because nothing is ever perfect, people don’t perform the same movement over and over identically. There are always little changes. A shifting foot there, a reaffirmed grip, a slipped stance, all of these little moments make an animation seem real and alive.

We spoke to some of our animators to get an idea of what makes a good animation great.


The Principles of Animation

To start, we always have to focus on the fundamentals. There are twelve principles of animation that were established a long time ago. These were the twelve rules that were followed religiously by the Disney animators. They’ve been added to and changed over time but they’re still here. And for good reason!

We’re not going to cover all of them, but you can learn more about the full set here! For now, let’s just have a look at the first four principles:


Squash and Stretch

This gives objects the feeling of gravity, weight, mass, and flexibility. Things squash on impact and stretch as they travel at speed. Think about how a person jumps in place. There’s a little squash as they crouch and prepare to jump. They stretch out as they get into the air. Then they squash again upon landing to soften the impact. We see the weight of a human throughout the whole process. Exaggerate it even further or understate it to give an object or character clear definition of weight, mass, and strength.



Our perception of movement is heavily influenced by the anticipation of it. Things don’t just fall, they teeter and wobbling over an edge. And running means dropping low to prepare to run or leap forward at a moment’s notice. Without some form of anticipation, it’s quite jarring to watch. Often the payoff to many actions is only as good as the anticipation. Sudden movement is often unnatural, but it can be used for certain effects, like comedy or to show a level of strength or speed.



Drawing the audiences’ eye is important. Staging means keeping the viewing attention on where it needs to be! This is both keeping composition in mind and using motion to guide the viewer to what’s important. Motion is given to items of import, things of lesser importance need to be still or minimal in movement.


Straight Ahead & Pose to Pose

Straight ahead is drawing or animation frame by frame chronological. Pose to pose means working on the first and last frames or keyframes and then filling the details in between them. Realism is often found best in straight ahead as you are working directly from the previous movement. Pose to pose allows more control and emphasis on actions as you already have the final frame in place. This means you can control the amount of emphasis on the motion.

As you can see, they all push ways to communicate to the audience what is happening. There is only so much that can be communicated visually at face value. These principles guide animators in communicating much more through smart animation.


Finding Little Details

Reference is everything for animation. And if you’re looking for the little things that make an animation realistic, acting out the movement is the best solution. If you need a very specific movement or there’s a lack of references, our animators will film themselves doing the action or speaking the lines.

A lot of the little details are grounded in reality, which is why those types of references work so well. Animating realistic physics and faces are two of the hardest things to do. Those are really where references will help, and it’s in the reference that you might find the detail to really sell the motion or aspect that needs communicating.

It’s in a real-life reference that you might see the detail that sells motion. For example, firing a rifle has your fingers gripping tight. Your arms and shoulders tense. But it’s while firing continuously, you see the soldier’s fingers readjust themselves. This might go unnoticed by many players or viewers, but it’s a huge detail in selling the weapon as truly powerful.

In movement, it’s just as subtle. When we lift our arms, it’s not a straight line. In reality, the little detail is that most of our movements are arcs and curves. Most living things move in arcs and swings, this is because we’re all joints and muscles. Keeping this in mind means much more realistic movements.

This is just a quick dive into the little things in animation. We hope it helped you understand the complexity and skill of animators in delivering flawless animations to our screens. If you’d like to utilise our quality art and animation services, get in touch!