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The Principles of Animation

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Traditional principles are still the foundation of cutting-edge digital animation. Art director and industrial designer Duane Loose covers the 12 basic design principles that govern animation-and helps you see these in action.
This article is excerpted from 3D Studio Max 3.0 Workshop.
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The Illusion of Life—Disney Animation, by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, is considered to be the Bible of animation. Traditional and digital animators at one time or another have learned the basic principles of animation articulated so clearly by these two pioneers of animated feature film.

In Chapter 3 of their book, they outline 12 guiding principles of animation that grew out of the processes discovered during their animation work at the Disney studio. Here’s what they had to say regarding the principles they discovered:

The animators continued to search for better methods of relating drawings to each other and had found a few ways that seemed to produce a predictable result. They could not expect success every time, but these special techniques of drawing a character in motion did offer some security. As each of these processes acquired a name, it was analyzed and perfected and talked about, and when new artists joined the staff they were taught these practices as if they were the rules of the trade. To everyone’s surprise, they became the principles of animation.—Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, quoted in The Illusion of Life

Frank and Ollie list and describe the principles they helped to discover and articulate to guide their work; I encourage you to find this book and study Chapter 3 in depth. These 12 principles, with variations in how they are named and described, can be found in many books and online resources. With the advent of digital animation, they have become even more important, and many digital animators have incorporated these principles into their work. I encourage you to do the same in your max animation work.

Animation Principles in Practice: The Bouncing Ball

The principles of animation and the max tools used to create animation are best learned while you are actually creating an animated object. A traditional basic animation exercise is to animate a bouncing ball. This simple example contains many of the important concepts and tools you’ll use repeatedly as you become more proficient in your max animation work. So, open max and save a new file as BouncingBall.max to use as you complete this part of the workshop.

Create the Ball and Ground Plane

Animating a bouncing ball might seem simple at first glance; a ball and a ground plane for it to bounce against are all that are needed to set up the model for animation. Follow the next steps to create the ball and the ground plane for this exercise.

  1. Change to the top view and create a sphere with a radius of about 40 units. Change its name to Ball and move it to Absolute: World Coordinates: 0,0,15.

  2. Make a box, 850 units square, with a height of 0, centered underneath the sphere at Absolute: World coordinates: 0,0,0. Name this box Ground Plane, and change its length and width segments to 8. The Top and Right view of the box and sphere should look like Figure 1.

Figure 1 Animating a bouncing ball so that it looks as if it were really bouncing is a deceptively difficult animation task. Getting it right will teach you almost everything you need to know about the general principles of animation.

Create a Target Camera

Animating this ball will be easier if you use a consistent point of view to look at the animation as you develop it. Creating a camera in the shot will establish that POV.

  1. Zoom out a little in the Top view and press G to turn off the grid. Click on the Lights and Cameras tab panel, and select Target Camera. A target camera has two parts: the camera itself and its target. Click to create the camera object, and then drag in the viewport to create its direction and target, as shown in Figure 2. Let go of the mouse button when the cursor is right over the ball object.

  2. Figure 2 Creating a camera is similar to creating any object in max. You can adjust the position of the camera and its target after you have created them by using the transform commands in the orthographic views or by using the camera viewport navigation tools.

  3. Change the perspective viewport to Camera view, and use the Dolly navigation tool to dolly in on the ball; then use the Truck tool and the Orbit tool to adjust your view to look like Figure 3.

Figure 3 Targeted cameras always look at their targets; when you use the camera viewport navigation tools, the camera target stays locked in place as the camera location relative to the target is adjusted.


The navigation tools for the camera view aren’t all that different from the perspective view; they’re just named following the camera movement conventions: Dolly for Zoom, Truck for Pan, and Orbit for Rotate. Use max’s online help for more information on controlling your camera viewport navigation.

Change the Animation Length

The last step in the setup process is to change the frame length for this shot from the max default of 100. Click on the Time Configuration icon and change the length to 315, as shown in Figure 4. That’s all for the shot setup; save your work.

Figure 4 Changing the frame length to 315 gives you some length to work with while you are developing the animation. Always give yourself more room than you think you’ll need at the beginning of rough animation. You can refine the shot frame length later.

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