Techniques to create more engaging animations

In this article, we explore 16 animation techniques to make your work more engaging. It usually doesn’t take much to get it right, but the devil is in the details and a single edit can make your animation memorable.

11 days ago   •   10 min read

By Gwénaëlle Dupré
Photo by Eric Masur / Unsplash

Introduction

You pour your heart and soul into crafting an animation, only to find the final result feels... well, a bit bland. It moves, it looks alright, but the spark is missing. The sequence needs some more work, maybe some suggestions from colleagues or a supervisor.

Inversely, look at your favorite animated show, and try to notice what makes it so attractive you don’t feel time passing. Is it the plot, the voice acting, the music, the depicted emotions?

In this article, we explore 16 animation techniques to make your work more engaging. It usually doesn’t take much to get it right, but the devil is in the details, and a single edit can make your animation memorable.

This list isn’t exhaustive, so don’t hesitate to share more with us in our Discord community of 1000+ animators. Without further ado, let’s dig in!

1. Overlapping Action

Take a character jumping. In real life, the legs push off first, then the torso lifts, and finally, the head follows. Overlapping action replicates this by animating different body parts at slightly offset timings. Some parts initiate the movement (leading the action), while others react with a delay (following the action).

Source: animost.com

Overlapping action mimics the way our bodies move. By animating body parts with independent timing, you create a sense of weight, momentum, and fluidity that static, perfectly synchronized movements lack. It can be used to emphasize a character's emotions and intentions. A character with a lagging arm after throwing a punch conveys exhaustion, while exaggerated hair flicks during a run showcase excitement.

  1. Identify the Leading and Following Parts - Break down the action into its core components. Which body part initiates the movement? Which parts react with a delay due to inertia or weight?
  2. Stagger the Timing - Animate the leading part first, followed by the parts that react in sequence. For example, in a jump, animate the legs pushing off the ground before the torso rises.
  3. Consider Weight and Momentum - Heavier body parts will naturally lag behind lighter ones. Use this principle to create a sense of physicality.

2. Snappy Animation

Snappy animation is a technique that injects dynamism into your characters by creating a strong contrast between slow and fast movements. Imagine your character striking a powerful pose, holding it for a beat, and then transitioning quickly and decisively into the next action. This "snap" between poses grabs the viewer's attention and emphasizes the impact of the animation.

The sharp contrast between slow and fast movements keeps the audience hooked. They're drawn in by the anticipation building during the held pose and then surprised and delighted by the snappy transition. Snappy animation allows for a more exaggerated portrayal of emotions. The held poses become moments for the character to express their feelings clearly, while the snappy transitions emphasize the intensity of those emotions. By emphasizing key poses, snappy animation makes the action easier to follow for the viewer. The audience can clearly see what's happening on screen without getting lost in a blur of movement.

Snappy animation can be found in a variety of styles, from classic cartoons like Looney Tunes to modern anime. Look for moments where characters hold a powerful pose after a punch or strike a dramatic silhouette during a jump. These quick transitions between poses are hallmarks of snappy animation.

3. Breaking Joints

Have you ever wondered why cartoon fight scenes can feel so much more dynamic than their live-action counterparts? It's because of a technique called "breaking joints"―exaggerating the bend and movement of limbs to create a more visually appealing animation.

Breaking joints essentially means pushing the natural range of motion for a limb or joint during animation. This can involve extreme bends, stretches, and twists that wouldn't be possible in real life. Instead of a standard arm extension when a character throws a punch, the animator might exaggerate the elbow bend and forearm twist to create a powerful and exaggerated arc.

4. Fish Eyes

Another technique to consider is the fish-eye pose, where the eyes are positioned further apart than usual.

The fish-eye pose is a powerful tool for comedic effect, surprise, or even fear. It disrupts the natural eye placement, instantly grabbing the viewer's attention.

Source: Naruto

5. Settle

The final moments of an animation can be just as impactful as the grand opening: a well-executed settle, the brief animation frames used to ease an action into a rest pose, add a touch of realism.

A bouncing ball wouldn't come to a complete stop instantly. There'd be a slight wobble and a final compression before it settles still. This subtle movement is what a settle captures in animation.

Abrupt stops look unnatural. Settles bridge the gap between movement and stillness, mimicking the inertia of real-world objects. A clear rest pose signifies the end of an action. Without a settle, viewers might be left confused about whether the movement has truly finished. This can be particularly important for fast-paced animations where clarity is key.

6. Overshoot

Take the example of a bouncing ball again: as it hits the ground, it compresses slightly before launching back up. This momentary overshoot adds a sense of weight and responsiveness to the animation. Overshoot is the act of an animation element temporarily exceeding its final resting position before returning smoothly.

As long as you keep it subtle, overshoot adds a touch of pep and energy to your animations. It conveys a sense of momentum and weight, making even simple movements feel livelier and more engaging.

7. Animation Layer

Think of animation layers like transparencies on an overhead projector. Your base layer lays the foundation, typically containing the main movement of your animation. Secondary layers are then added on top, introducing subtle details and flourishes.

Imagine animating a dog fetching a frisbee. The base layer would show the dog running (primary movement). A secondary layer could be used for the dog's tail wagging (subtle, independent action). With layers, you can easily adjust the intensity of the wag or even swap it out for a panting animation – all without affecting the core running motion.

Considering all the possible dimensions of an apparently simple movement adds depth to your animation.

8. Moving Hold

Engaging animation doesn't just rely on flashy movement; it also needs moments of stillness that feel alive. This is where the concept of a moving hold comes in.

A moving hold is a technique where a character appears to hold a pose, but with subtle, almost imperceptible movements. This slight animation keeps the character from looking frozen or lifeless.

For example, when a character clenches their fist, you could add a slight tremor in the hand to suggest simmering anger. The movement should be barely noticeable like slight breathing motions, weight shifts, or involuntary twitches, yet effective in conveying purpose.

9. Rhythm

Rhythm is the result of timing, spacing, and intensity:

  • Timing is the speed at which objects or characters move within a scene. Fast movements create a sense of urgency or excitement, while slower movements can build tension or emphasize a particular detail.
  • Spacing involves the distance between objects or characters throughout their animation. Wide spacing can create a sense of isolation or emphasize the scale of an environment, while closer spacing can build a feeling of urgency or connection.
  • Intensity refers to the power or force behind an action or gesture. A forceful punch will have a different rhythm than a gentle wave, and this difference can be used to convey a range of emotions and ideas.

Consider a scene of a character running towards a cliff edge. The animation might start with slow, deliberate movements as the character builds up speed, gradually increasing the timing and intensity to create a sense of urgency. Just before reaching the edge, there could be a dramatic pause, followed by a quick jump or desperate scramble for safety. Each element of this scene, from the initial slow build-up to the final burst of movement, contributes to the rhythm.

Effective rhythm helps direct the viewer's attention to specific parts of the scene, ensuring they don't miss important details. Carefully timed pauses or slow build-ups can create suspense and anticipation for the next action. The rhythm of an animation can directly influence the emotions it evokes. A fast-paced, jerky movement might suggest fear or panic, while a smooth, flowing movement could portray calmness or grace.

10. Smear Frames

A smear frame is a duplicated or heavily stretched version of the previous or next frame, strategically inserted for just a single frame. This creates a blurred effect that emphasizes the swiftness of the action.

Source: The Simpsons

Real-world movement isn't perfectly crisp. Our eyes perceive a blur during rapid motion. Smear frames mimic this natural blur. This technique truly shines when you want to showcase extreme speed or force. Imagine a superhero streaking across the screen or a powerful punch landing – smear frames can amplify the impact and make the movement feel more impactful.

11. Accents

Just like actors emphasize key moments in a performance, animators can use accents to make specific parts of their animation truly shine. Accents are deliberate deviations from the standard animation style or pacing:

  • Exaggerated movements or expressions - Think wide-eyed surprise, a dramatic leap of joy, or a character's jaw dropping in disbelief.
  • Shifts in color or lighting - A sudden burst of brightness to highlight a key moment, or a character bathed in a different colored light to create a distinct mood.
  • Changes in animation style - A brief switch to a more cartoony style for a humorous moment, or a shift to a more detailed, realistic portrayal for dramatic emphasis.

They act like a visual spotlight, ensuring the audience focuses on the accented moment while effectively communicating joy, fear, anger, or any other emotion you want viewers to feel. A well-placed accent can prevent the animation from becoming predictable and keep viewers engaged.

12. Attitude

Character attitude is the underlying emotional state and personality that guides a character's actions and reactions. It encompasses their confidence level, temperament, and overall approach to the situation.

When viewers understand a character's attitude, they can empathize, anticipate, and connect with them on a deeper level.

Attitude drives a character's choices and reactions, propelling the narrative forward in a natural, engaging way.

When you animate, you should always have a clear picture in mind of the type of attitude the character has to better perform the scene!

13. Silhouette

While it might seem like a basic black-and-white image, a silhouette is used to check the clarity of a pose: by reducing the character to its essential form, you can easily identify if an action is readable or if the body language is conveying the intended emotion.

Source: Animator Island

14. Reference

A reference is the use of live-action video footage shot specifically to inspire your animation: animators act out the scene themselves, film it, and then use that footage as a guide for their animation.

Live-action footage provides a wealth of information about human body mechanics, weight distribution, and how clothing interacts with movement. Studying references helps you create animations that feel natural and believable. They also allow you to capture key poses.

15. Balance

Balance refers to the visual distribution of weight in your animation. Make sure it's believable.

If you draw a line through the center of your character, a balanced pose keeps most of the character's mass on one side of that line to create a sense of stability and prevent your characters from looking like they're about to topple over.

A well-balanced animation feels more natural and believable to the viewer. Even when characters are jumping or performing acrobatics, a sense of weight distribution helps us understand the forces acting on them. If a character is leaning too far in one direction, it can be unclear what they're about to do next.

16. Use Verticality

Our natural world is full of towering trees, majestic mountains, and sprawling landscapes. But in animation, relying solely on flat horizons can leave your scenes feeling, well, flat. By incorporating vertical elements, you create a sense of dimension and draw the viewer's eye into the frame.

Studio Ghibli, renowned for its breathtaking animation, is a master of using verticality: take a look at any Hayao Miyazaki film, and you'll see towering trees reaching towards the sky, characters traversing layered landscapes, and buildings that stretch upwards. This wasn't by accident. Miyazaki himself was heavily influenced by the work of French animator Paul Grimault, whose film "Le Roi et l'Oiseau" (The King and the Bird) is a prime example of how verticality can be used to create stunning depth in animation:

Don't be afraid to fill the frame with elements like towering trees or buildings in the foreground or background. This creates a sense of layering and draws the viewer's eye deeper into the scene. Instead of a single-level landscape, create environments with different heights. Think rolling hills, bridges connecting elevated areas, or characters climbing structures. This adds complexity and visual interest. Use camera movements that pan upwards or downwards, showcasing the scale of your environment. Play with perspective to emphasize verticality.

Conclusion

And that's a wrap. Hope you learned something!

Capturing the audience's attention is key, and it's often the subtle details that elevate an animation from ordinary to extraordinary.

Great animation takes inspiration from the real world. Whether it's the way a bird takes flight or the subtle shift in a person's posture that conveys nervousness, studying real-life movement helps imbue your animations with authenticity. This authenticity, in turn, fosters a connection with viewers.

Don't be afraid to experiment with different techniques, try new software, and push your creative boundaries. The more you practice, the more comfortable you'll become!

Make sure to come say hi in our Discord community of 1000+ animators and share your tips!

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