Animation Tip: Phrasing


These marvelous story sketches of Dumbo and his mother by Disney story maestro Bill Peet lay out all the action and emotions. Such poignant storytelling requires nearly perfect animation – animation that is sophisticated, layered yet unmistakably clear.

In the words of Disney great, Ham Luske:

In your work, the thought comes first — think, see and feel before you begin to draw… never make a movement or gesture without a reason.

The key thing I believe Luske was saying is that, first,  you have to have an idea to start — something to grab on to before making any attempt at expression — and second, that the expression of any such ideas must be in the form of physical action. There really is no other way to animate.

Sure, there’s a trendy movement towards subtlety in animation now, owing heavily to the dominance of ideas from live action and from directors/supervisors who are demanding more realism. But remember, it’s movement that conveys ideas in animation not talking heads.


My Dinner with Andre might be an acclaimed film, but it’s hardly visually-arresting, and mimicking such limited visual activity, for the most part,  should be avoided in animation.

Phrasing is the effort to present ideas through a series of movements. Well-planned and expertly-transitioned phrasing makes for animation that is both entertaining, beautiful and natural – you’re convinced of its believability while awed by its beauty.

Complete stillness fails in animation and especially in 3D where the technology is “too perfect”. Pixels freeze, as the character, and the light that catches it, fail to register “aliveness.” If there’s one good thing about motion capture data, is that it reveals how much movement actually exits even when a character is “still” — there is movement in non-action except that it’s just really small. Good phrasing consists of a carefully planned series of actions and non-actions that make the scene feel textured and well-balanced. In the words of master animator, Eric Goldberg:

“This pattern of movement should serve two purposes; one, to make a visual equivalent of the highs and lows found in the actor’s delivery (and) two, to express visually the thought behind the spoken words.”

The delicious introduction of the genie in Walt Disney’s Aladdin. The sharp display of timing, shape change and rhythm, make this scene a great precursor to the style of movement that would dominate the film’s humor and energy. Animation by Eric Goldberg.

Again, the focus is on finding the right visual representation of ideas through movement. After all, animation is essentially about controlling how shapes look and how they move. Those are very tangible, physical elements being used to create performance. It really is a simple as that, for such are the tools we are limited to. As an animator, neither the story nor the voice that drives the performance belong to you. Both context and content have been provided. You simply have to play the part (and do it justice).

A clip from an ABC special on the late Robin Willams, and his marvelous contribution to Aladdin’s genie.

That, of course, means that you not only have to plan well and know what you want, but you must also have a strong understanding of forces — for physicality is all about forces. In the words of Eric Larson, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men:

“Action is a manifestation of force – something caused it. This we must understand before we can interpret it in our drawings (animation).”

In general, when laying out your action, it’s good to time less activity at the start of your actions/phrases and express the high lite of the performance towards the end. This way, the dominant idea reads clearly and more powerfully. Nothing gets lost, in priority or presentation. Do this, and you will have performed your duty.

Michal Makarewicz’s animation of Syndrome from Pixar’s The Incredibles, is rhythmical, textured and fun. Watching it repeatedly you can see how he builds the energy and anticipation for the final release of expression at the end, syncing perfectly with Jason Lee’s excellent voice acting. (To see more of the artist’s work, visit here.)

When there are multiple ideas in a shot, or when the scene is particularly long, find ways to expand the variation of highs and lows in emotion and the use of visual movement, in both 2d and 3d space. Use the layout, use the screen space, take advantage of the time you have to present your ideas by easing into space and time in some areas while punching into others, giving the work texture and a varying crescendo of peaks and valleys.

Variation is essential because audiences today, unfortunately, lose interest quickly. Work to alter paths to and away from camera, as well as within the broader 2D layout (frame of the camera). The best animators make use of such visual (and virtual) space astutely to create depth, impact and texture.

More Eric Goldberg genius; this time we see a fine textural display of setting up tempo, exit and re-entry of forms, showcasing the quick and magical transformations of the character.

A scene should set up and play out like a beautiful little tune or a short theme park ride with varying speeds, ups and downs, moments for rest, anticipation and excitement. Even naturally gentle and quiet scenes have their changing levels of visual energy. The key is giving the animation weight, both physically and emotionally.

Beautiful compilation of the various stages of animation used in Blue Sky Studio’s Epic by the ever-talented Jeff Gabor . The thought, phrasing, and layering of ideas and action he puts into his artistry make him one of the best in the industry. (To see more of the artist’s work visit here.)

Phrasing can be a simple or complex concept. The idea is to give the audience as fulfilling a ride as possible regardless of its length or level of energy. When executed well, phrasing is a great way of adding complexity without confusing things and taking away from the central message of the shot.

 (Correction: Author’s apologies to Michal Makarewicz for incorrectly giving credit of his Ratatouille shot to John Kahrs in the original posting.)