Learn how 2D animation can bring images to life and add that “wow” factor you need to take your video projects to the next level.
Clean and compelling 2D animation offers a unique, creative and sometimes more efficient way to tell a story or explain a concept. Animated elements add extra flair that can help capture your audience’s attention and drive them to take a specific action, whether that’s making a donation, inquiring about a service or scheduling an appointment with your organization.
“Animation can help transform complex concepts into understandable, engaging visuals that are much quicker for the brain to process than words alone,” says Yakkety Yak Post Producer Emily Waters. “This deeper visual understanding not only increases a viewer’s interest and attention span in the moment, it also helps them remember visual elements [like branding] in the future and return to further engage with your content.”
Ready to kickstart your animation strategy and create dynamic video content that will delight and amaze your audience? We asked our video team to give us their top 2D animation tips and cover some of the key principles of animation to keep in mind when you’re just getting started.
The 12 Basic Principles of Animation
In 1981, Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas outlined 12 basic principles of animation that collectively serve as the foundation for bringing art to life on screen. Although technology has expanded what is considered possible in animation, the following principles still guide 2D animation everywhere.
1. Squash and stretch. The goal of animation is to make 2D drawings feel lifelike. The squash and stretch principle gives drawn objects weight and volume by shortening and widening them, much like a bouncing ball.
2. Anticipation. Almost all movement starts with a thought. As a principle, anticipation helps build up to the main action of an animated scene. Without it, the action won’t seem realistic to the viewer.
3. Staging. Just like in other forms of content, in animation the main idea should be completely clear. Staging is the principle of keeping only relevant visual elements and eliminating anything nonessential so a viewer stays focused on the main action.
4. Straight ahead and pose-to-pose action. There are two ways to draw out a scene: straight ahead or pose-to-pose. In straight-ahead animation, the scene is drawn frame by frame from beginning to end. In the pose-to-pose style, animators start by drawing a few key frames and then fill in the intervals.
5. Follow through and overlapping action. These principles make animated movement feel more real. Follow through refers to movements that follow naturally after an action is completed, like stilling the body after running. Overlapping action involves animating parts of the same character—including hair, limbs and clothing—to move at different speeds.
6. Slow in and slow out. Most natural movements don’t happen instantaneously—they are preceded by a visible buildup of motion and followed by a progressive slowing down. Applying these pre- and post-action stages to animations makes them feel more realistic.
7. Arc. Most lifelike objects follow curved paths, not straight lines. Implementing arcs in animation increases realism.
8. Secondary action. In real life, it’s rare for only one thing to move at a time. Animated scenes appear more lifelike and compelling when they include additional secondary actions to support the main action. Pro tip: Secondary action(s) should emphasize and complement the main action—not overwhelm it.
9. Timing. This principle indicates the number of frames used for an action. More frames result in slower action and fewer frames in faster action. Good timing is critical to ensuring an action looks real and natural.
10. Exaggeration. This principle is all about style. Without exaggeration, 2D animations may come off as dull, static and lifeless. Keep a careful balance: Remain true to reality, but embellish and enhance to liven up the two-dimensional world.
11. Solid drawing. Animators should understand the basics of drawing and follow the rules of three-dimensional space. Anatomy, weight, balance, light and shadow are crucial when designing lifelike animations.
12. Appeal. Engage your audience with appealing animations. This doesn’t necessarily mean making them physically attractive or even likable—but your animations should be intriguing, interesting and real enough for the viewer to get attached.
Basic Steps for 2D Animation
Keeping the 12 basic animation principles in mind, it’s time to dive into the actual animation process. From our video team’s recommended beginner animation software to preparing a storyboard, these tips and tricks will help you create a 2D animation that will impress and engage your audience.
1. Set yourself up for success with a storyboard.
When you first start an animation project, put together a storyboard. Remember, animation is not the same as graphic design. Although the two go hand-in-hand, a video producer or animator should rely on a graphic design expert to prepare the blueprints for the animation before putting the project into motion. Without a solid plan and a script to follow, it will be much more difficult to figure out the best principles to apply to your animation.
A storyboard essentially serves as the visual structure for the project. You can find storyboard templates online or create your own. A good storyboard will include the video’s title and purpose as well as a place to put each shot number, graphic or b-roll footage, suggested video clips, or overlayed text and any corresponding audio.
2. Choose your animation software.
The right animation software will give you a range of tools and capabilities that can make (or break) your project. Canva is a great place to cut your teeth and test out the basics, especially if you’re animating a GIF or very short piece. However, if you plan to keep animating, you should invest some time in learning how to use Adobe After Effects, where the magic truly happens.
It takes time to learn any new software or design tools. For a quick crash course on a specific animation technique, you may be able to turn to YouTube for advice. But for more in-depth, professional guidance, use Udemy—they have a breadth of detailed animation classes that serve as a guide to animating.
3. Start every animation with still images.
Once you have your storyboard and animation plan in place, it’s time to start the actual animation process. Pro tip: Don’t do any animation until you’ve created the entire layout as a still image. Animation principle number 11, solid drawing, really comes into play here. Your images should have depth and feel lifelike even when they’re still on the page. This will make it easier and more natural to add movement later.
4. Keep your animations organized.
As you tackle the project, create assets—things like background images, characters, shapes, etc.—and animate them in groups. For example, if every asset has the same zoom or push animation applied to it, do all these animations together. This saves time, increases efficiency and keeps things organized. Then sequence the assets by choosing what goes first and pulling the others down the timeline. This process will help you ensure that everything falls into place at the correct time, creating natural and realistic animations.
Upgrade Your Next Video Project With 2D Animation
If you’re looking for inspiration before you jump into the planning stage of your first animation project, watch a few videos that use 2D animation. This is a great way to see how the 12 basic principles of animation work together to create a compelling story, and it can give you ideas for how to use these principles in your own project.
For example, our video team leaned on several of the animation principles above to introduce our Content Strategy Sessions service. The animated elements emphasize the key messages of the video, but they also double as transitions that capture the viewer’s attention by weaving each step of our Content Strategy Sessions together. Put what you’ve learned to the test and see how many of the 12 animation principles you can spot!