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Basics of Traditional 2D Animation

Updated: Apr 27

Traditional 2D animation (or classical animation, cell animation, and hand-drawn animation) is an animation technique in which each frame is drawn by hand on paper.

Traditional 2d animation usually refers to animation hand-drawn on paper. An professional animator draws the characters, layout and backgrounds on paper. Each drawing in the animation would be different than the one before it and the one following it, creating the animation movement when everything is put onto film.

In the traditional 2D animation production process, animators draw sequences of animation on sheets by using drawing paper, pencil and the lightbox. An animator draws the key drawings using the characters layouts, animator draws enough of the frames to get across the major points of the action as per the storyline.

Traditional 2D animation based on 12 Laws

Traditional animation creation is based on 12 principles of animation much like the physics laws. Though the 12 basic principles were originally intended for the hand-drawn animation style, they still apply to computer animation of these days.

1. Squash and Stretch

The most important principle, “squash and stretch” gives a sense of weight and volume to drawn objects. It is best described with a moving character like a boy jumping from a tree, which appears stretched when falling and squashed when it hits the ground. Even slightly exaggerating on shortening and widening animated objects will give them that realistic feel.

Squash and Stretch

2. Anticipation

Almost nothing happens suddenly. as the action appears more realistic if the audience is given a clue of what happens next, anticipation is used to prepare for the main action of an animated scene.


3. Staging

The essence of staging is keeping focus on what is relevant, eliminating unnecessary detail, and avoiding any confusion. In other words “the clear and accurate presentation of any idea is staging,” so as the audience’s attention is directed to what is of greatest importance in a scene.


4. Straight Ahead

Action and Pose to Pose This principle matches two different approaches to the actual drawing process. One either draws out a scene frame by frame from beginning to end or starts with a few key frames, and then fills in the intervals (from “pose to pose“).

Straight Ahead

A combination of the two techniques is often used to create dynamic and dramatic illusion of movement. Most of computer animation tools assist with the principle by automatically filling in the missing sequences in transitions between key-frames.

5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action

Follow through” relates to parts of the subject that continue to move with inertia after a completed action. To achieve more realism make the same parts move at different speed with “overlapping action.”

Follow Through and Overlapping Action

6. Slow-Out and Slow-In

Or sometimes addressed as “ease in and ease out” the principle suggests that almost every movement needs time to accelerate and slow down. Your animation will look realistic if more drawings are added to the beginning and end of an action, emphasising gradual speed up and slow down, and fewer in the middle.

Slow-Out and Slow-In

7. Arcs

Arcs increase the realism of the subject’s action, as almost all lifelike objects tend to follow curved paths rather than straight lines.

Arcs Animation

8. Secondary Action

Supporting the main action with secondary one adds more dimension to the character animation and gives a scene more life. The principle of staging is very important in applying the actions correctly. Make sure secondary action emphasises the main action, rather than take attention away from it.

Secondary Action

9. Timing

Referring to the number of drawings or frames for a given action, correct timing is critical for establishing a character’s mood, emotion, and reaction. Simply put, use more frames to create slower action and less frames for faster one.

Timing Animation

10. Exaggeration

The classical definition of exaggeration, employed by Disney, was to remain true to reality, just presenting it in a wilder, more extreme form. As a perfect imitation of reality can look static and dull in cartoons, exaggeration is especially useful and livening for animation.

Exaggeration Animation Principal

11. Solid Drawing

Solid drawing considers an object following the rules of perspective in three-dimensional space. For an animator this means understanding the basics of academic drawing, anatomy, weight, balance, light, and shadow, etc. To benefit from it consider taking art classes and sketching from life even if most of your work is computer-assisted.

Solid Drawing Animation Principals

12. Appeal

Appeal reflects compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. The important thing is that the viewer feels your character not necessarily sympathetic, but always real and interesting.

Appeal Animation Principal

Traditional 2D Animation Process


The storyboard is the illustrated script of the film. It can be started in parallel with the design and the audio recording, but some studios may wait until the designs and the audio recording are locked.


Voice recording

The dialogue is also recorded from the script. The voices are often recorded outside of the studio. If there is dialogue involved in the project, the final version must be recorded soon enough to import it into the project before the animation. This allows the animator to do the sound breakdown and animate the mouth and expressions, as well as the storyboard that's required.

Voice recording


The design team will take charge of the character, prop and location design as soon as the script is locked. For a traditional 2d animation project, the designs can be done on paper or digitally. They are cleaned up, added to the model pack and sent to colour styling.

Design For Animation

character design for animation


For a traditional 2d animation production, the layout and posing step is very important to communicate the storyboard information very clearly to the animators. The layout contains all the information needed to complete the animation in the scene: background, overlay, underlay, and key poses (usually referenced from the model pack).

In both small and medium sized studios, background layout and posing is handled by the same person. The background layouts are done by one person or team and the posing by another. For the small studio with a limited amount of resources, the storyboard artist or the animator creates the layout and posing.

traditional 2d animation


Traditional 2D animation is done on paper. The animator receives the layout folder and uses the references to animate the scene. The animator will draw each frame of the animation or each pose of the character. If there is dialogue in the scene, the animator will follow the breakdown and animate the mouths and expressions.


The background artists usually work on painting the settings over which the animation takes place. The backgrounds are mostly done in gouache or acrylic paint, but some animations have used watercolour or oil paint backgrounds.

Background Design For Animation

Background artists follow very closely the work of the background layout artists and colour stylists, so that the resulting backgrounds are in harmony with the character designs.

Traditional ink-and-paint

At this point in the process, the colour models are ready and the drawings are scanned in and properly exposed. Using Harmony's optimised tools, the colourist can clean the scanned artwork and start applying colour to the different drawings. When the drawings are cleaned, as well as inked and painted, they are ready for compositing.

Traditional Ink And Paint

The ink and paint process is probably the longest digital step. It requires cleaning all of the drawings, inking lines and filling all of the colours on all drawings.

Computers and Digital Video Cameras

Computers and digital video cameras can also be used to help the animators in their work and make the whole process of traditional 2d animation production a lot faster and easier.

For example, doing the layouts on a computer is much more effective than doing it by traditional methods.

Top 10 Traditional 2D Animation Films & Short Films

Gertie The Dinosaur (1914)

Steamboat Willie (1918)

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937) (Disney animation studio first animated feature film)

Fantasia (1940)

Dumbo (1941)

Cinderella (1950)

Alice In Wonderland (1951)

The Jungle Book (1970)

The Little Mermaid (1989)

Aladdin (1992)

Traditional 2D Animation Courses

There are many institutions and collages, provide courses to study traditional 2d animation and even now days this study can be done online through some good online courses website like animation mentor, udemy, lynda and many more.


In traditional 2D cel animation and stop-motion animation, both fall under the same category of traditional animation which uses digital methods of filming. ... On the other hand, stop-motion animation (today's animation style) involves working with the physical models and objects captured one frame at a time on camera.

Motion graphics can bring statistical data to life, but animation can bring characters to life with emotional narratives, creativity, and artistic expression. Animation is more expensive. Motion graphics are usually easier to produce. It's a less complex form of animation.

Although the traditional 2d animation is preferred as primary animation techniques where the question arrives of quality and realistic feel in animation.

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