The Power of Posing


This poignant drawing by Ollie Johnston, shows that sometimes just a single pose can tell everything there is to know about a character and its situation. Production drawing from Disney’s The Rescuers.

For animators, the importance of posing can’t be overstated. It’s one of the key components that define this art form in terms of performance, appeal and story telling. Poses, fundamentally, should be thought of as a visual representation of an idea in the form of shapes. After all, animation is defined ultimately by the shapes and how they move. Hence the commonly heard expression that animation is all about pose and timing. But poses always comes first, everything else comes afterwards.

“The key part of action (needs to be) done first, ‘inessentials’ (are) added after the main action is completed.” – Bill Tytla

A marvelous, albeit short, arrangement of “key” drawings (shot mostly on 4’s) by Ollie Johnston from Walt Disney’s The Rescuers . You don’t need a lot of poses to define what you want to say – but everything you do say must be strong, clear and accurately define the energy of the scene.

The pose test is the ultimate expression of the importance of shapes. In such a test, animators aim to find the most expressive shapes that define:

a) the story (main ideas)

b) the emotion and physicality (inner and outer forces)

Therefore, there is first the need to find the correct, most basic expressions that define the skeleton of the scene – as defined by the key story poses – the ones you’ve identified via your thumbnail sketches and notes.


This beautiful page of thumbnails by Milt Kahl, done for Disney’s The Rescuers, was used to help find and define story poses, rather than animation poses, which aim instead to support and refine the stated expressions in terms of a more complete physicality. Story keys lay the framework for the entire scene, and need to be very carefully explored.

A note about the concept of posing. The key pose is not so much a static “pose” (for example, like what’s commonly glorified in fashion photography), but a moment in time that defines an idea. It is the common mistake of beginners to think that these keys are frozen. More often than not, key poses, especially in the blocking phase,  represent an area defined by a particular expression – an expression that may take, more often than not, a range of frames which will continue to progress or recede in any particular direction. In other words, major story keys, are often just place holders for a region of movement, that defines a singular idea. When any animation is complete, story keys, like any other key frames, often appear seamless among other frames that surround them.

A lovely animation test from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by the magnificent James Baxter. Notice how each key demonstrates excellent weight, beautiful flow and is loaded with personality and charm.

Only after the basic outline of your scenes are set up, can you, as an animator, begin to refine and clarify the physical path your character takes in order to best express those ideas. This is where you define the physical, visual path that your scene must show so that your ideas, can come across believably. The story (idea) is the goal, but the visual shapes and movement are the foundation (physicality). Or as Paul Rand said so clearly:

“When form predominates, meaning is blunted. But when content predominates, interest lags … the genius comes in when both of these fuse.”

Although timing and movement is as crucial in making any animation complete, it is the poses that ultimately define the ideas, much like a great photograph, painting or logo, can say so much even when idle. Your images, i.e.  your poses, should be so strong and clear that the content that you are trying to get across to an audience is unmistakable, even before the additional elements of form, that is, the use of time and movement, are added to the equation.


The differences between “story” vs “animation” keys. Story keys form the foundation of the shot. Individually, story keys may change as supporting animation keys are added.

In terms of working order, it’s always best to know and test those key story poses first. Only then can you fill in the rest of the framework so to speak. Since your story keys are the major pillars of your shot, your remaining animation keys serve more to accurately flesh out the rest of the structure – defining all those elements that make for solid and entertaining animation.

“Start by thinking like a comic strip artist – if you can develop the ability to encapsulate an expression of attitude in a single drawing (pose), then you’ve already gone some distance towards successfully communicating to your audience.” – Eric Goldberg

When it comes to poses, I personally like to simplify them – thinking of them as remarkably obvious statements of shape and form. In other words, they work, even without detail or polish, or anything fancy.

With minimal detail, Milt Kahl’s wonderful rough animation test clearly defines the joy, enthusiasm and spirit of its wooden-puppet hero, Pinocchio.

Poses should have all the elements that make for great visual presentation. Here’s a list of things to consider:

  1. Clarity of expression (idea)
  2. Unmistakable visual form (reads even without movement or sound)
  3. Balance (accounts for gravity and momentum)
  4. Staging (what’s the point of view?)
  5. Sense of movement and life (expresses/implies past, present and future action)
  6. Line of action (unifies form and energy)
  7. Believable construction (respect for anatomy)
  8. Line and form (interplay of internal and external form)
  9. Solidity in dimension (real depth)
  10. Solidity in weight (acknowledgement of forces)
  11. Absence of distraction, or disharmonious elements
  12. Appeal

While mastering each element is a monstrous challenge to any artist, such a checklist would be a great way to assess your work. Failure in any one of them risks making your animation anything less than spectacular.

True, there is a lot more to making great animation than ‘just’ posing, but aiming towards making more distinctive and appealing posing will give you a stronger foundation for the rest of your animation to build on.

“For it to entertain, it must capture… it must rivet you to the screen, (and) it must demand your attention. It must hold the audience.” – Glen Keane.

We conclude this post with a delicious collection of scenes by the always excellent Doug Sweetland.  A sequence of animation like this is defined by great posing and supplemented by marvelous execution of movement and timing.

Doug Sweetland’s character animation of the Pelican, from Pixar’s Finding Nemo, stands, in my biased opinion, as one of the best sequences in animation history. It defines all the elements that help distinguish this artform for its unparalleled combined expression of emotion, form, movement, and beauty.