Animated Video Production

How to Spot Professional Animation: A Guide to Articulation and Key Frames

Shawn Forno 11.16.2017

While it might look like magic, the best professional animation is really just meticulous attention to detail. When animators care about every single frame and master Disney’s classic 12 Principles of Animation, the results are smooth, realistic animation that people live. The most convincing animated videos use techniques ranging from “squash and stretch” and “arcs” all the way to character appeal. However, this post will take a closer look at one of the most basic yet overlooked aspects of animation — articulation and key frames and how they affect the timing and smoothness of the animation. Don’t panic. It’s not that technical.

We’re just going to slow things down a bit and examine how an animation gets from one frame to the next, and how those in-between frames say everything about the tone and the story. Before you make your next animated video explainer video or full-length feature film, learn how to spot a professional animation from the rest.

What is Animation?

To understand the importance of articulation choices and how they relate to key frames and the overall look and feel of your animation, you have to understand a couple of basic animation concepts. Like live action films, every second of an animated video is really a collection of dozens of individual frames. In a film camera these frames go by at a rate of 24 frames per second (fps), and online most animations are timed to change at the same rate. That means every single second of movie is made of 24 complete images that progress fast enough to look like fluid movement. How quickly an animator makes objects on screen move through these hundreds of frames every few seconds determines the look and feel of the animation.

Basically, the more frames it takes for something to happen, the smoother the animation looks. And while it’s usually ideal for an animator to make every action as smooth as possible, sometimes that’s just not feasible. Budget and time constraints don’t allow an animator to use thousands of frames to make Bugs Bunny cross the street. It just takes too long to mimic life-like action in most cases. No, instead, animators rely on several animation techniques.

Professional Animation Hack: Smears

The first animation technique is called a “smear,” and it’s one of the original animation hacks from legendary animator Chuck Jones (Warner Bros.). This technique basically uses one single “smeared” frame of animation to fudge over all the individual frames of a fast action that an animator would normally have to draw.

animation smear

The result is a blur of action that viewers’ eyes interpret as movement. It’s a time saver and in the hands of a master like Chuck Jones it lead to the development of the Warner Bros. cartoons so many people grew up with. The other way to accomplish smooth transitions and actions is what animators call “key frames.”

Articulation: More Key Frames = Smoother Animation

If every second of animation is made up of 24 frames per second, all of those frames can’t be “important” moments. Your eye just doesn’t register images that quickly. No, instead of spending time and energy drawing 24 perfect frames that will just fly by, animators create “key frames” (often called “key poses”) to show action happening on screen. These frames are literally frames that are key to the action being drawn — and let other animators (or computer software) fill in the surrounding frames with…less than perfect animation or the bare minimum movement to get the point across. IdeaRocket Creative Director and Founder Will Gadea puts it succinctly:

“Articulation is how much detail there is in the movement. How many drawings for a particular amount of time on screen. Quality animation is all about detail and movement.”

Basically, the more key frames per second, the better (and smoother) the animation looks. The fewer key frames, the more choppy and cookie cutter it looks. Picture Scooby Doo and Shaggy running. Not every part of each character moves on every frame, in fact the animation is so jagged that it’s easy to see that their heads and bodies stay perfectly still while their arms and legs do the (very repetitious) moving. Each time Shaggy and “Scoob” do something different—like come to a stop—the animation changes. That’s a key frame.

professional animation articulation

This image actually employs low key frame density and smears for a super blurry frantic feel. More key frames per second means better articulation for every action and smoother animation. There are a tons of other factors that go into professional animation, but key frame frequency and articulation are at the top of the list. To help you spot articulation, we’ve come up with a few examples of articulation in animation on a scale ranging from highest to lowest. Once you can spot what separates the best from the rest, recognizing professional animation is a breeze.

High Articulation Professional Animation: Disney Films

It’s no surprise that Disney animated films have the highest articulation. They literally wrote the book on animation. “Disney is the gold standard of animation,” claims Gadea. Part of what makes Disney so much better than the rest is their commitment to high articulation animation. Gadea goes onto explain that quality. “Disney animation is all done on ‘the ones and twos,’” referring to the frequency of key frames (or key poses) occurring either every single frame or every other frame. That means practically every single frame of animation in a Disney feature-length animation is a key frame. That kind of quality shows, but professional animation takes time and money.

Snow White, Disney’s first full-length animated feature (and the first truly animated feature length film) took nearly five years to produce. This gargantuan task required the skills of over 500 animators and crew and produced nearly 2 million sketches, although the final run time only contains about 160,000 individual frames.

Quality animation with high articulation takes incredible time, skill and money. Walt Disney spent over $1.4 million to produce Snow White in 1937. That’s not adjusted for inflation. He spent over $1 million dollars. During the Great Depression. For a cartoon. Disney could have cut corners, but their commitment to “articulation on the ones and twos” set the stage for dozens of critically and commercially successful blockbusters and a brand new multi-billion dollar industry as the leader in animation for most of the next century. Not bad.

Average Articulation Professional Animation: TV Cartoons

Animated television shows are a far cry from full length Disney feature films (just look at Scooby Doo). The animation of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s are particularly guilty of cutting down on key frames to keep up with production timelines, but thanks to shorter animations (11 minutes is the new standard), and the rise in computer assisted technology key frames and articulation are making a comeback in television animation. Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, is a great example of an animated show that pays attention to articulation and quality animation. Each second of the roughly eleven minute episodes features smooth animations full of fluid movement, point of view shifts and the key frame frequency that lets your mind relax and enjoy the show.

While the key frames don’t occur in every single frame, every other second is still really good. The animation in Adventure Time is smooth and more stylized than schlocky animated tv shows from a few decades ago. Articulation leads to immersion. Animators on hit television shows (with bigger budgets) can add more key frames per second, and thus make more realistic animation. Although Adventure Time does experiment with fewer key frames to give the show a hint of an anime feel, which brings us to our final entry on the articulation scale…

Low Articulation Professional Animation: Anime

I love anime. However, anyone who’s watched Dragon Ball Z can tell you that it’s not the smoothest (or quickest) animated show. Production budgets for anime are typically lower than other animations, and turn around time is extremely high. Some shows even release episodes in a season before the final episodes are finished. Talk about a time crunch! When that happens, key frames are usually the first things to go.

In this type of animation animators will let whole seconds go by without changing more than a few key frames. The action is slow and drawn out with long slow pans of the (static) environment, close-ups of a barely moving character, or a handful of easy to draw recycled key frames. One of the best examples is a flapping mouth when a character talks. Anime animators typically use key frames every third or fourth frame to capture the main action. However, background objects, and even some main characters are often drawn in key frames as low as 6 fps. It’s cheaper and easier to do, but looks stitched together with choppy cuts and unrealistic motion.

While anime is a style adored by millions, and the long slow pans are “epic,” the end result is typically poor quality animation. Fewer key frames means less articulation, and more jerky, less realistic motion on screen. Sorry, Goku.

High Articulation Anime: Studio Ghibli

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Animators and audiences alike revere Akira for its meticulous care and craftsmanship. Studio Ghibli has been making some of the most moving animations for years (both technically and emotionally). The difference between DBZ and Studio Ghibli is largely a matter of key frames. One of the best examples of slowing down to create realistic moments happens when Miyazaki animates Chihiro putting on her shoes. “It’s those little magic moments that convince you that this is not an imaginary world. This is real.”

Professional Animation: Articulation and Key Frames

Animation is a lot more than “just cartoons.” Hundreds of hours go into every minute of animation. And the harder an animator works, the less you can see their hand in the final product. Keep an eye out for key frames and smooth articulation in your next animated video, because people notice when you cut corners. When it comes to animation, more is usually better.

Shawn Forno

Shawn Forno is a massive Studio Ghibli fan who does content marketing. In that order. Find his other writing and extensive travel blogging here.

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