I discovered the twelve principles of animation—the keys to teaching the art of visual storytelling. The principles act as a roadmap, helping animators transform written scripts into living stories. Using these principles in my classes was transformative. We still learn about Photoshop layers and selection tools; technology in computer animation class is still important. But it’s no longer the central focus of my class because now, we have a story tell.
Warlyn C., He Is Rough Around the Edges but Has a Heart of Gold.Karyme E., turnaround photo, grade twelve.Samantha U., turnaround photo, grade twelve.Steven M., exaggerated character design.Roberto S., Skeleton Dance storyboard.Steven M., exaggerated character design.
My first year teaching high-school computer animation was a rewarding learning experience but, secretly, to this perfectionist teacher, it felt like a disaster. Never having taught high school before, or animation, I was out of my comfort zone. That summer, I familiarized myself with the software. Then I taught students about turnarounds and walk cycles, Photoshop layers, rotoscoping, gesture and figure drawing, digital photography, and more.
The basics covered, I introduced the concept of the hero’s journey and challenged students to create original stories using their newfound digital skills. In response, I heard crickets. Students had no idea what to do next. They had all the technology skills, so what was missing?
I analyzed the challenge of teaching visual storytelling and was forced to admit that no technology in the world could help an animator if they didn’t have a compelling story to tell.
What was the real problem? My students had written stories in their English classes for years. They already knew how to communicate verbally. Could visual storytelling be so very different? Was there a set of principles that could be taught? Perhaps there was a formula students could use, comparable to the structure of essay writing? I needed to find out.
The Craft of Animation
My answer came with the book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, animators at Disney during the Golden Age of Animation. First published in 1981, the book explains the craft of animation and the methods developed by Disney animators that enabled them to create such compelling and beautiful stories.
The Twelve Principles of Animation
In the book, I discovered the twelve principles of animation—the keys to teaching the art of visual storytelling. The principles act as a roadmap, helping animators transform written scripts into living stories. They are: (1) Squash and Stretch, (2) Anticipation, (3) Staging, (4) Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose, (5) Follow Through and Overlapping Action, (6) Slow in and Slow Out, (7) Arcs, (8) Secondary Action, (9) Timing, (10) Exaggeration, (11) Solid Drawing, and (12) Appeal.
Animator Alan Becker has a wonderful playlist on YouTube illustrating these principles and making them understandable to students (see Resources). Using these principles in my classes was transformative. We still learn about Photoshop layers and selection tools; technology in computer animation class is still important. But it’s no longer the central focus of my class because now, we have a story to tell.
Squash and Stretch
This year, we started by watching the 1965 Oscar-winning Chuck Jones animation, The Dot and the Line. Next, I taught students about principle one, Squash and Stretch. After identifying Squash and Stretch in Jones’s work, students created bouncing spheres that stretched while in motion and squashed upon landing.
I then challenged students to use Squash and Stretch to create a dot and line story with a beginning, middle, and end. Their work was wonderful. Everyone surprised themselves with their ability to weave a tale using such simple design elements (see Resources).
Next, I showed students Disney’s 1929 animated short, The Skeleton Dance. After screening Alan Becker’s tutorial on principle ten, Exaggeration, I challenged students to find examples of it in the film.
Next, I gave students a Photoshop file of a skeleton with all the body parts in different layers. They practiced rigging a sequence of virtual puppets and created their own dancing skeleton animations.
Then I challenged students to create their own skeleton dance stories (see Resources). The only requirements were that the story have a setting; a skeleton that comes to life; a clear beginning, middle, and end; and one other original character.
An original character? I guess we’ll need to do turnarounds and walk cycles like in years past. But this time, we’re doing it in the service of a story. We’ll need to use principle eleven, Solid Drawing, to make our characters appear three-dimensional. In previous years, I had apathetic students looking to be told what to do next, but now, I have motivated students brimming with ideas.
Rachel Wintemberg is an art teacher at Perth Amboy High School in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. RachWintemberg@Paps.net
Producing: Convey meaning through the presentation of artistic work.
Art teachers incorporate technology and new media into their lessons. Young students become subjects of historical American artworks through digital projection, elementary students create outer space-themed LED circuit-enhanced drawings, middle-school students research the art of printmaker Barbara Jones-Hogu and design posters with powerful messages, high-school students digitally illustrate food recipe layouts, and more.