Animation is a fun and rewarding art form, but it does take a little know-how and a lot of effort to produce. In this article I will outline some basic knowledge as well as some free programs that will help you on your journey into animation!

Animation Basics

Key frames- Show the main actions in the sequence
Breakdowns- Show the actions between the Key frames
Inbetweens- Fill in the gaps "in between" the breakdowns and key frames
Framerate- The number of frames per second, 24fps is standard for animation.
2s, 3s, and 4s- the spacing between frames. The closer to 1 the more smooth the animation, the closer to 4 the more jagged the animation. (4s are the easiest for beginners because you only have to make 6 frames per second)
Lip sync- Matching mouth shapes with the audio- very difficult! Make several sound free animations before trying this!
Layers- Layers are your friends. Each layer is independent of the others, so you can isolate static layers from animated layers.
Onion Skin- shows the prior and next frame(s) to help the animator position elements correctly on the current frame.

Animation Software- Pencil 2D

Pencil 2D is a free animation program for traditional style animation. You have to draw and color each frame, and the program will hold that frame until you draw a new one.

Here is an excellent tutorial series to help you get started with Pencil 2D.


Plan out your animation assignments using the first frame of a Bitmap layer in a color that you are not likely to use in the animation. This layer will be hidden before you export your animation. (click the dot to the left of the layer name to toggle visibility)

If you plan on using the bucket tool to color in your animation, then use the brush tool to draw it. 3px is a good brush size regardless of the tool you use. The brush and bucket tools work really well together, but don't use too much feather on the brush!

If you are going to color in your animation by hand, use the pen tool at 3px, and create a new layer beneath your line work and create a duplicate frame on that layer for the color. You can use the brush tool with a larger diameter to color in your project quickly.

The first method is faster, but the second method is cleaner. So you should try both and decide which is worth your time and effort.

Assignment #1- The Bouncing Ball

Make a short animation of a bouncing ball using Pencil 2D.

  • Make 1 bitmap layer for the background.
  • Make 1 bitmap layer for the ball.
  • I recommend using the paintbrush and bucket tools for this project.
  • Get all your line work done BEFORE you add color. (the onion skin won't show after you add color!)
  • To make the animation loop, end the bounce 1 position before your starting position
  • Animate the top of the bounce on 2s and the rest on 4s to show the effect of gravity.
  • Export the finished animation as a .gif
  • You may want to watch the 1st segment "Squash and Stretch" in the 12 Principles video below before you begin

12 Principles of Animation

Animation has been around for a long time, and the pros have figured out the best way to do it. They have compiled this knowledge into the 12 Principles of Animation. In this video you will learn all 12 principles, don't worry if you don't remember all of them all the time. I would come back and review this video as you need to when you make your own animations.

Assignment #2- The Wave

To explore the principle of "Anticipation" make a character wave at the camera.

  • This animation can be as simple as a stick figure.
  • 1 bitmap layer for the background
  • 1 bitmap layer for the body
  • 1 layer for the arm (this will simplify how much you have to draw to complete the animation)
  • Use the paintbrush tool and bucket tool (if you want to use color).
  • This assignment can be done entirely on 4s.
  • Show anticipation by making the arm move toward the body before raising for the wave. The same can be done before the arm lowers after the wave.
  • Export the final animation as a .gif

Assignment #3- Staging

Have a stick figure react to a ball entering the scene.

  • This animation can be as simple as a stick figure and a ball.
  • 1 bitmap layer for the background
  • 1 bitmap layer for the body
  • 1 layer for the head (this will simplify how much you have to draw to complete the animation)
  • 1 layer for the ball
  • Use the paintbrush tool and bucket tool (if you want to use color).
  • This assignment can be done entirely on 4s, however, the ball will look better on 2s.
  • Show staging by off setting the action of the ball with the reaction of the character.
  • You will definitely want to plan this out on a separate layer that you will hide before exporting your project!
  • Export the final animation as a .gif

Assignment #4- Straight Ahead vs Pose to Pose

Create an animation of a hopping ball with a tail. Once you have the ball hop the way you like it (pose to pose) then add the tail using straight ahead animation. If you are feeling particularly ambitious you could also add ears and arms. (We'll cover this more in Assignment #8)

  • This animation can be put together in as little as 3 drawings. The ball, a squished ball, and the tail. (Duplicate the current frame or copy/paste these 3 drawings as many times as you need to to create the finished product.) 
  • Use 1 layer for the background, 1 for the ball, and 1 for the tail. 
  • Make sure the tail is below the ball so you don't have any overlap issues. 
  • To rotate a selection, press and hold Ctrl, then click and slide the mouse across the selection until you get the angle that you want.
  • Export final version as a .gif

Assignment #5- Follow through and overlapping action

Make our ball character skid to a halt, but have the tail show follow through, add ears or dust for overlapping action.

  • Same set up as Assignment #4.
  • Add an additional layer for the dust.
  • Dust looks better with a little shading, so you may want to do 2 colors.
  • Other additions to add for reality is shading on the ball and tail, and shadows.
  • Export final version as a .gif

Assignment #6- Slow in, Slow out

Bouncing ball with progressively lower bounces.

As the ball reaches the top of a bounce add additional frames to make the ball slow down naturally like gravity is pulling on it. This is also the case when the ball collides with an object and comes to a stop.

Assignment #7- Arcs

Head turn from right to left.

On your planning layer draw the shape of the head on each side of the frame, then a slow downward arc between the two of them. This will help your head turn to look more natural. In the example above, notice that the character closes his eyes as he turns his head. This helps the audience know that something is about to happen, in this case the head turn.

Assignment #8- Secondary Action

Your first walk cycle.

The classic example of a secondary action is the hands of a walk cycle. The main action is the walk, but the movement of the hands opposite the legs help to sell the movement as a true walk. In addition they help communicate to the audience what is happening. For example in the animation above the hands are light and bouncy so the character appears to be happy. If the arms were held straight down and the head was tilted forward, it would come across as angry. If his arms were flailing above his head it would show fear, and we would probably want the main action to be a run rather than a walk.

Here is some additional help to get you started on a walk cycle. 

(For additional practice on secondary actions, add a blink or foot tap to the wave animation from Assignment #2 to make it feel more alive.)

Assignment #9- Timing

Do the same animation with 2 different timings.
Move key frames around to see how timing affects movement.

In the two examples above the first animation is done on 4s. The second animation is done on 2s. As you can see the turn feels a lot longer and it looks a little jittery in the second animation where the first one looks pretty sharp. A third pass could be done to get a balance between the two, using 2s for the beginning and end, and 4s for the middle giving the overall animation a dynamic look. (Slow in and slow out from Lesson 6.)

Assignment #10- Exaggeration

Throwing a ball

In the first example we are showing what happened, our character threw a ball. In the second example we added extreme positions to exaggerate what is happening and it comes across as more natural than the first example. Try this out yourself by having your character perform an action, then "Save As" to create a new file and exaggerate the action. 9 times out of 10 the exaggerated version will look better than the original.

Assignment #11- Solid Drawing

Character design Part 1: The Floursack

The floursack is a common animation practice character to get you used to drawing characters that could exist in 3D space. Tricks of the trade include never going to a complete profile with your characters, always show both eyes. Do a floursack short scene. You can find lots of examples on Youtube. Here is one of them:

Assignment #12- Appeal

Character design Part 2: A Character that is easy to animate

This principles has two parts to it. First the character has to be interesting enough to catch the viewer's attention. Second it has to be easy to animate, or you will never finish your project. In my first animated short (see The Secret of Knowing below), I started off with some pretty complex characters, but by the end I had simplified them enough that I could animate them quickly. The problem that I came across is that there are major consistency issues throughout the film. you will notice some sections the characters look completely different from the rest of the piece. Figure this out before you start so that you don't have this issue in your project.

The best advice I have to accomplish this is to draw your characters A LOT. This will tell you if they are easy to draw or not. For "likability" show several different versions of the same character to different people and see which one they like best. You may have to strike a balance between what is appealing to the audience (looks good) and what is appealing to you (easy to animate).

Final Project: Animated Short Film

Plan Your Animation

Now that you have explored the basics of animation software and animation principles, you can begin building your own animated short film! This can be anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

First you need to draw out a storyboard. This can be done right in Pencil 2D on every 16th or 24th frame. The end result will look something like this outtake from Disney's Frozen II.

It is very important to get your storyboard correct, so stick to these drawings on 16s or 24s until you get everything hammered out. It will save you a lot of time later by getting these key frames correct now.

When you think you are ready to move on from the storyboard/animatic to individual scenes, I recommend using reference video to help you plan everything out. Here is a clip from Nickelodeon showing how the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender used reference video to help the animators capture gestures and facial expressions.

Next draw the breakdowns on 8s, then inbetweens on 4s, and you have a rough animation! If you want the motion even smoother, do a second round of inbetweens on 2s.

Background- CC0 and GIMP

Just as a play or movie cannot be performed without a set of some kind, you need to decide what background you are going to use for your animation. If it is a particularly long animation, you may need multiple backgrounds.

There are a lot of free resources that you can use online. If you search for CC0 or Public Domain images, these can be used without crediting the original creator. Or if you would like to draw your own background image, GIMP is an excellent free painting/image editing program. 

Only animate what is necessary

Now that you have collected/created your sets, you need to decide what is actually going to be animated in each scene. This will save you a LOT of time. By only animating certain movements like eyes or arms, you can draw the body one time on its own layer, and focus the rest of your efforts on the animated movements. More complex movements may still require some body movement, but you don't have to redraw the body over and over again to get those small movements. Draw it on a separate layer and make small adjustments as needed.

Sound- Audacity, Youtube Audio Library

If you want to add sound to your project, you can get free audio tracks from the YouTube Audio Library (some will need attribution), or record your own using a free program called Audacity. Audacity is also an audio editor, however I prefer mixing my audio in Blender once my project is ready to be edited.

Put it all together- Blender

If you are making a longer animation, it is actually easier to create shorter sequences in Pencil 2D then edit those clips together using Blender. Blender is a 3D animation and modeling program, but it also has a terrific video editor. Here is a short crash course on the Blender video editor. For a longer series showing all the features Blender has to offer, see this video series: Blender Playlist

The final product should be something to show off and be proud of! Great job!

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