Believable Exaggeration

Learn how to apply the animation principle of exaggeration whilst maintaining believably natural looking motion.

I was recently asked a question by one of my students who wanted to know how to apply the concept of exaggeration without compromising the natural feeling of the movement.

I thought this was a really interesting question and something that would be valuable to share for others to learn from.

How to approach exaggeration

A 3D render of a fish

Exaggeration is one of the 12 Principles of Animation defined by Disney animators and passed on to the world in the book “The Illusion of Life”. Applied successfully, it can make your animation far more interesting and entertaining to watch.

Whilst it is easy to grasp the basic concept of exaggeration, it can be far trickier to know which elements to exaggerate, to what degree, and when exactly to do it.

Obviously the degree of exaggeration that you apply will always depend upon the style of animation that you are working in. A fish that is supposed to appear photorealistic, and be composited seamlessly with live action footage, will have almost no exaggeration, whilst it is possible to go quite far with a more cartoony style.

I like to think about exaggeration in animation in much the same way that I approach character design. In both cases it’s about caricature. Figuring out which elements to draw attention to through exaggeration whilst balancing that with physical believability.

Exaggeration in Character Design

Character designs of fish

When I’m designing a character based upon an animal, my first step is always reference. I study the real animal so that I understand all of the key features and characteristics which make it identifiable. Working from multiple references is useful here as it enables you to understand the elements that vary between individuals versus those which are consistently found in a certain species.

Identifying the key characteristics of the species helps me to know what to maintain in the final design. I can then exaggerate individual elements to quite an extreme degree whilst the species remains identifiable.

Again, the degree to which elements of the design are exaggerated is linked to the intended style and personal taste.

Exaggeration in Character Animation

Motion can be broken down in exactly the same way. By analysing reference you can get a feel for what is natural.

Taking the example of the fish, how does it use its fins and when? Does it make short fast darting movements or is it slower and more confident? Once we know what is normal, we can exaggerate those elements.

The range of motion of the fins or the spacing that we use when they move might be exaggerated, but we would still move them at the appropriate times to help the fish turn, rise, or fall. A naturally nervous fish might be animated in a way that is even more extreme with very rapid darting movements.

We can also exaggerate other elements to bring out a certain personality provided that we always layer in some of the natural traits of the species to give believability.

One thing to be careful with when pushing for more extreme levels of exaggeration is to still maintain an element of physical believability. With the example of the nervous fish, if it simply pops from place to place it will feel quite unnatural. If appropriate anticipation is combined with some subtle ease in and out, it will provide a believable sense of acceleration, deceleration, and drift to the otherwise very rapid movements.

The sweet spot

The key to successful exaggeration is always going to be found in balancing the natural and unnatural in a way which feels believable and consistent with the style of the animation. The more you practice, the easier it will become to find the sweet spot which feels both entertaining and believable.

Further study

If you’d like to learn more, my “Into the Ocean” classes are a great place to start.

Into the Ocean: Character Design Essentials will get you started with designing your own simple characters for animation.

Into the Ocean: Character Animation Essentials provides the perfect opportunity to put into practice all of the suggestions I’ve made about exaggeration, balanced with natural, believable, motion.

Inbetweens by Into Animation

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