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Animation is Not About Movement

The 11 Second Club forum recently returned to normal service after a bit of buggy downtime, and I’ve been posting there a lot more since the fix. One thing that keeps springing up lately is an obsession with movement. Unfortunately what a lot of animators seem to be forgetting is: Animation isn’t about movement.

Animation is about story.

Don’t get me wrong, movement is necessary. Saying “animation is not about movement” is a bit hyperbolic. What sets animation apart from, say, comics or illustrations is indeed the movement. Unlike still media, animation moves. However the movement should not be your ultimate goal as an animator – the story should be.

If two characters are having a conversation over dinner, it will be more visually interesting if one of them is swirling their wine glass and taking a sip while the other is talking. That being said, if the conversation (story) has both being deeply engaged, it makes no sense to have one character acting this way. It does not fit the story. It’s not true to the characters.

You see, acting- movement in general- needs to be honest and true. It is not there just so you can cram a few extra arcs and secondary action in. These characters are (or should be) living, breathing creatures. Moving them for the sake of having something move on screen defeats the purpose. Your purpose should always be telling a story most effectively.

Lino DiSalvo, supervising animator on Tangled and Head of Animation on Frozen, recently made note of it this way on Twitter:

Lino DiSalvo on Animation and Acting
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You can certainly always push the “truthful” movement of the characters, and make it more appealing. The key is the mindset going in, and thinking first of that truthful acting vs. pretty (or cliche) movement.

If your characters can go through a scene without moving, because the story doesn’t require them to, you need to ask yourself if that story is best suited to animation. It might work just as well, or better, as a still illustration with text. And that’s completely okay. It might also need rewritten or reimagined, to suit the medium of animation. And that’s okay too!

Do not, whatever you do, move characters around because you think it would look cool.

The worst thing you can do is have characters acting insincerely, or moving for the sake of moving. You certainly want to entertain the audience, but if the story is compelling and the acting rings true then they WILL be entertained. Much more so than if you have arms and legs flying about just because you don’t want it to seem too boring.

How do you find the balance between moving in interesting ways and being honest in the acting? A lot of it comes from experience. You will find, as you practice, that you discover the right blend of action and sincerity. It takes time. The fastest way to get to that balance, of course, is to buckle down and practice.

Now is as good a time as any, just keep in mind: Animation is about story. Movement should enhance that story. Always.

What do you think? Do you find yourself getting carried away with movement for movement’s sake, and forget about story? How do you keep focused on the meaning behind the actions you’re animating?

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My entry in May had the frog character moving from left to right in a fixed frame, because I believed it was appropriate. I quickly discovered that he was moving into the female character’s space and therefore she would be FORCED to move right to left and that is not what I wanted.

So your point in the article is well taken and my animation could have been as strong, if not stronger, had the frog just stayed in place.

Thanks for the reminders! 😉

Josh K

Sorry, but you can’t define animation as just “story.” Books, comics, paintings, sculptures, drawings, and film have story too. That definition is too broad. Making broad statements like that distracts from what you are really trying to say.

Ferdinand Engländer

I see your point, generally I don’t like generalizations either, but I am not sure JK meant it that broad. He didn’t define animation as story, he wrote it’s “about story” and “the ultimate goal” (and indeed that’s the same in any other narrative medium).
I think why it need to be said in this line of argumentation is because animation has so much opportunity to distract from the story: Sound, motion, shaders etc. might make you focus on other things. For some of the examples you mentioned it’s so much more obvious: A book can have the prettiest design, but it’s the story that will make you keep reading. Same problem, different medium.
Honestly, I think it can’t hurt to see animation as just one member of the story family. Trying to define animation separated from film is a pretty difficult challenge already and many definition build artificial fences (like “oh and puppeteering is not animation because you can do it in real-time”) that – to me – doesn’t make any sense. And especially for issue in the article it’s really good to focus less on animationy things and more on sincerity that it shares with all the other members of the media family.


As a supervising animator I see this happen All. The. Time. I constantly have to remind the new hires that it must start with the internal and then and only then be about the movement. I think this is one of those lessons you learn as you improve and the oldest animators always seem to have that certain special quality in their work because they’ve long given up on trying to make pretty movements and just tell the story in a beautiful way.

Jordon H.

I think I also forget to remember this stuff when I am working. I get really caught up in the graph editor and making sure everything is silky smooth. Woops.


This is why I generally prefer anime over western animation. (Don’t worry, I love both, I’m not a weeb).