Intention Cues

Humans are terrible liars. Our body language constantly gives away what we are thinking and what we are about to do next. These are called intention cues and have landed countless criminals behind bars. For animators they are a treasure trove of gestures to sprinkle on your animation for extra believability. Learn how and when to use them here.

Intention cues – the other kind of anticipation

Every animator learns about anticipation pretty early on: For most motions, the necessary force has to be built up first (usually by a preceding motion in the opposite direction). This anticipation is not only a physical necessity, but also an intention cue for an action that is already in progress! This prediction quality of anticipation has always been a wonderful playground for animators. Take a typical zip run, for example: Because of the anticipation, we don’t even need to see the actual action.

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Or you could anticipate something and then finish it a little differently for humor.

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But we can also have fun with things way before the anticipation of the core action. Thinking about food is an obvious example: Just think about a delicious slice of cake that you will have during your next coffee break (come on, treat yourself!) and your mouth will start to water way before you actually go to the cafe. Some people then bite or even lick their lips – a very clear intention cue.

[WPGP gif_id=”3830″ width=”300″] Boy is he hungry… 4 signs for hunger: lip licking, belly rubbing, mouth opening and closing, mouth watering; 1 sign for aiming: closing one eye; and this delightful little head wiggle before opening the mouth

For a creative use look at this moment, where the intention cue replaced the anticipation:

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This is one of the bigger automatic reactions that can be evoked just by playing something through in our heads. Intention cues often sneak into our poses.

  • You lean forward or away depending on whether or not you want to interact with someone or something.
  • Do you see something in a store window that you would really like to buy? You might find yourself reaching out to it and touching the glass.
  • If you are nervous you may twitch a bit or blink more often.

Actually, you can and should be able to find some signs of intention in body language all the time. Your poses should go from one intention to another since inner motivations are the only reason why we move. If there is no incentive (no intention), we don’t move.

For this article let’s focus on signs of intention for a simple physical action.

Intention cues as preparation

The feet are the champion of giving away what we are preparing for. If we enter an unknown situation, they will spread apart for a stable stand. If we feel safe and relaxed somewhere, we might cross them to be more comfortable. If we want to leave a situation (let’s say you are talking to someone, but you have a meeting in a minute) they will point towards the nearest exit, so you are ready to go as soon as possible.

Feet give away intentions
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But my favorite intention cues include motion and can be worked in as secondary animation during a hold. A person unsure what to say will open and close his mouth as if trying out words, before actually saying something.

And policemen can tell you that people who are about to draw a gun or steal something move completely different than people without these intentions. The most obvious sign would be to have the hand at the handle of a weapon – maybe even loosen and tighten the grip finger by finger.

During my research I found this little gem in Dreamworks’ “Sinbad”. Before the guard can draw his sword he has to grab the sheath first. It’s details like this that take an animation from good to great… and we are not even talking about emotional acting choices here.

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This serves two purposes: 1. Believability through insider knowledge: Apparently, if a sheath is that loose it becomes a habit to stabilize it with one hand. To know about this you need to have seen someone with a similar outfit draw a sword, done it yourself or have a very, very, very detailed imagination. Things like this make it easier to believe that this is a real guard with real habits and experiences 2. Clarity in Storytelling: Because most of the actual anticipation is hidden behind the body, it draws our attention to what the animator wants us to look at (the sheath), so we don’t miss the moment when the sword is pulled out.

Intention cues as “rehearsal”

Many people do weak versions of motions that they are thinking about. Someone who is about to grab something might slightly open and close his fingers right before doing it. I have seen piano players moving their fingers while listening to music that they like to play. And even if we suppress all this, there is evidence that just thinking about a motion still makes our muscles twitch (e.g. if you hold a pendulum still from your hand and think left, the pendulum will start to move to the left).

Intention cues - preparing and rehearsing a motion
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An all purpose intention cue

One intention cue that I often use (even in low-budget productions that otherwise have no money for fancy secondary animation) is an extra facial expression or eye motion right before or starting with a bigger pose change. Let`s take a head turn, for example. Before we turn the head, we made the decision to do so for a reason (to see where a noise is coming from, to get a glance at someone we are attracted to, to face our enemy, etc). This reason can show in our face much faster than we can turn our head – at the very least the eyes will try to jump at something that we want to see way before the head turn is completed.

Intention Cue before a head turn
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Intention Cue before a head turn
Keep your eyes open

The best way to find intention cues to use for your animation is to observe and collect mental notes on what people are doing. Keep an eye open during movies or whenever you look around you at a cafe, on a train, and so on. We do them all the time! If they are completely absent in your animation your characters will appear stiff with no strong wishes, opinions and desires backing up their actions.

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If you like to shoot acting reference make sure to not focus on things like whether or not you are doing intention cues. If you are reflecting about what you are doing, while you are acting, you are not able to really become your character. If you really think and feel like your character you will do them. So it’s better to record your performance and analyze it later.

What are important/interesting/crazy intention cues you have seen? Please, after briefly hovering over the comment reply button with your cursor, click and share your thoughts with us!

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Aw, this was a really nice post.


the study of human psychology is a good minor to take for animators like this prooves.


This is a really useful post. I’ve been trying to add anticipation in my animations, but I guess I’ve been doing it differently. Going to follow this for now on!