Expertise in timing comes best with experience and personal experimentation, using the trial and error method in refining technique. The basics are: more drawings between poses slow and smooth the action. Fewer drawings make the action faster and crisper. A variety of slow and fast timing within a scene adds texture and interest to the movement. Most animation is done on twos (one drawing photographed on two frames of film) or on ones (one drawing photographed on each frame of film). Twos are used most of the time, and ones are used during camera moves such as trucks, pans and occasionally for subtle and quick dialogue animation. Also, there is timing in the acting of a character to establish mood, emotion, and reaction to another character or to a situation. Studying movement of actors and performers on stage and in films is useful when animating human or animal characters. This frame by frame examination of film footage will aid you in understanding timing for animation. This is a great way to learn from the others.

Even though you probably already know this, let’s start with the most basic stuff:

• Film runs at 24 frames per second.
If you shoot your animation on “one’s”, (that’s one drawing for every frame), you’ll need 24 drawings for every second of screen time.
48 for 2 seconds,
72 for 3 seconds,
96 for 4 seconds, (the average length of scene)
120 for 5 seconds,
144 for 6 seconds,
168 for 7 seconds,
192 for 8 seconds,
216 for 9 seconds, and
224 for 10 seconds.

If you shoot your animation on “two’s”, (that’s one drawing every two frames), you’ll need 12 drawings for every second of screen time. This is how most animation is done.
24 drawings for 2 seconds
36 for 3 seconds,
48 for 4 seconds, (the average length of scene)
60 for 5 seconds,
72 for 6 seconds,
84 for 7 seconds,
96 for 8 seconds,
108 for 9 seconds, and
120 for 10 seconds.

Now if you say an average drawing for animation takes about 30 minutes to draw, give or take depending on how simple or complex the drawing is, a stick man like the one shown here might only take 20 seconds to draw, the character in the middle took about 2 minutes to draw and the one on the right took 45 minutes. This is from rough to final clean. We can then calculate how long it would take to complete each given length:

12 for 1 second, 6 hours to complete - 1 day
24 for 2 seconds, 12 hours to complete - 2 days
36 for 3 seconds, 18 hours to complete - 3 days
48 for 4 seconds, 24 hours to complete - 4 days
60 for 5 seconds, 30 hours to complete - 5 days
72 for 6 seconds, 36 hours to complete - 6 days
84 for 7 seconds, 42 hours to complete - 7 days
96 for 8 seconds, 48 hours to complete - 8 days
108 for 9 seconds, 54 hours to complete - 9 days
120 for 10 seconds, 60 hours to complete - 10 days
• A 30 second commercial (360 drawings) would take 1 person 30 days or 1 month.
• A 7 minute cartoon like a Warner Bros., Bugs Bunny cartoon (4320 drawings) would take 1
person 3 1/2 months to complete.
• A 22 minute saturday morning cartoon (14,400 drawings) would take 1 person 11 months
(non stop don’t forget)
• A feature film 1 hour 50 minutes long (72,000 drawings) would take 1 person 7 1/2 years
(2737 days).

So there’s a little dose of reality for those of you who think you’re going to produce an animated feature film all by yourself. Don’t forget, I’m not even counting storyboarding, layout, character design, soundtrack, editing, scanning, coloring (backgrounds and animation).

I’ve done a 2 1/2 minute animated short, (Me & Max in 2004), (limited animation mind you) from scratch in 6 weeks (that’s everything). I also did a computer animated short, (It’s Alive in 2002) about the same length in 9 weeks.

So this is all production timing, let’s get back to timing for animation.

Timing is based on the distance a line has to travel on screen and the number of drawings/frames it takes for it to do it.

In the first example here, a ball has to move from the first position in the field to the second position in the field. These are called the Key Poses. If the timing on this was to be fast we could put 7 drawings inbetween (all evenly spaced) and shoot it on two’s, the result would be the ball moving from point A to point B in 18 frames, that’s 2/3 of a second! That’s pretty fast.

Adding one drawing inbetween each of these drawings would slow it down to 26 frames, just over 1 second.

If we cut the distance in half but keep the same number of drawings, the ball will appear to move twice as slowly. Half the distance again and the ball will slow to four times as slowly as the first movement.

The basic equation here is Distance ÷ Time = Speed.

The greater the distance divided by less time equals faster speed.

The smaller the distance divided by more time equals slower speed.

Now, I know what you’re thinking here, “Thanks a lot for the equation, Einstein but how many drawings does it take for a character to pick a pencil up off a table?” The answer I always give for that question is, “58 million.” That’s right you heard what I said, 58 million!... if you want it to take 28 days of screen time. I don’t know how many drawings it takes for a character to pick up a pencil for goodness sake! It takes as many drawings as you think it should take.

A character could pick up the pencil in 3 drawings (a fast swish) or 24 drawings (2 seconds which is more realistic). It all depends on the type of character, the reason or motivation for them picking up the pencil and sometimes the length of the scene you’re given by the director. They might be trying to sneak it off the table by very slowly moving towards it and clawing it slowly off the table. They might snap at it quickly and then pull it slowly off the table or they might slowly move towards it and then snap it off. It all depends.

Now this might sound like a complete cop out but it’s not. Timing is not something that you’re born with, nor is it something that will just hit you one day. Timing is something that comes from experience. You have to try it and see how it turns out. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. At the time of this writing, I had just finished a scene of a character doing a “double take”. I did the primary keys and then the secondary keys for the anticipation and overlapping action. I thought I had the timing all figured out but when I shot it, it was way too slow. I changed the timing on it by shooting the middle drawings on one’s and it moved much better but there was still something not quite right. I pulled out two drawings and then shot it again, taa daa! It looked great. Experiment, trial and error, experience. Now I know, and knowing is half the battle... G.I. Joe!!

I know I’m joking around here but that’s the truth. You’ll hear similar stories from all sorts of animators both great and small.

This is going to sound stupid but, the key to understanding “timing for animation” is to have an understanding of what time is. A basic fundamental understanding of how long 1 second is, 2 seconds, 3, 4, etc. Being able to count out one second beats both audibly and in your head. This can help you as you’re performing a specific action that your character needs to do in a scene that you’re animating, to be able to count out the seconds can help you understand the timing. Your best friend in timing will be a stop watch. If you don’t have one - get one. I’m amazed at the number of students that I have had, who, after I’ve insisted that they get a stop watch to help them with their timing, just don’t do it. You can get a decent digital watch for about $20.00 these days, and if you go to a camera shop, they can usually get you a filmmaker’s stopwatch that breaks down the seconds into 24ths rather than 100ths. The students who eventually get one sing the praises of this miracle tool that they’ve found... how did they ever animate before without it?

If you don’t have one, get up right now and go buy one.

I’ll wait.

No, really. I’ll still be here when you get back...

You got one? That’s great. O.k. let’s move on now.

You didn’t get one yet did you? Man, oh man. I try. Lord knows, I try.

Here are some tips to help you with your timing:
• Act out the scene yourself.
• Time the action out in your head or USE THE STOPWATCH YOU JUST BOUGHT.
• Get someone else to act the scene out for you and time them.
• Act the scene out using a video camera and study the action and time it out.
• After you’ve acted the scene out several times and have a really good idea of what you want the character to do, thumbnail the key poses (both primary and secondary if you can).
• Draw a blank timing chart beside each key pose.
• Mark off how many frames you think each drawing should be.
• Pencil test your thumbnails using your rough timing.
• Watch this rough pencil test and make notes about what is working and what’s not.
• Make adjustments to the timing and reshoot it.
• Repeat these last two steps until it looks the way you want it to.
• Enlarge the keys to the final working size.
• Shoot a new pencil test.
• Watch this rough pencil test and make notes about what is working and what’s not.
• Repeat these last two steps until it looks the way you want it to.
• Clean up and inbetween.

Here is a tried and true list of some of the more basic timing that everyone uses as a rough guide:

2’s - Staggers and vibrations - a character shivering, a diving board up and down movement
4’s - A really fast run, a fast head shaking “no”.
6’s - A fast run
8’s - A normal run, a really fast walk, 1/3 beat (3 beats to the second).
10’s - Jogging pace, a quicker than normal walk.
12’s - A marching step, two steps per second, a run in which the high point is held slightly.
16’s - A typical walk cycle with an attitude.
18’s - A deliberate walk cycle.
24’s - A slow, tired walk or a sneak

A hold is used when you want the character to pause for a moment for a variety of reasons. Never hold a character for 2 - 5 frames. 2 frames is not really a hold as everything else is shot on 2’s. 3 frames will slow something down ever so slightly and can be used in rare instances... very rare. 4 or 5 frames looks like a mis-shoot. 6 frames would be the absolute minimum. You’d usually make this a moving hold so it doesn’t “freeze” the character. A moving hold is a trace back drawing of the drawing you want to hold on. You then shoot these two drawings back and forth for the length of the hold and the subtle differences between the two drawings makes the line move slightly giving it a life.

12 frames (1/2 second) is just about enough for a facial expression to register to the audience. 16 or 18 frames is enough if you can within the length of the scene. 24 frames or more is too long unless you want to do it for comedic purposes like an Oliver Hardy looking at the audience or the character incredulously looking at something off screen.

A slight hold in the middle of an action can draw attention, anticipation, or add tension to a particular movement within a scene.

Chuck Jones had the timing worked out to a science where the Coyote fell off the cliff away from the camera into a little spec then disappears momentarily then the puff of smoke appears. 12 frames was too short, 20 was too many but 14... 14 was the magic number.

As you mature as an animator you will build up a repertoire of timing rules for all sorts of actions. Then you’ll go and bend or even break the rules to suit the needs of the character and action of the scene. Different characters will have different timing depending on their motivation or mood. This is where the acting portion of the animator’s job kicks in.

Most animators are not actors at least not in the real world. We act within our minds and let this spill out onto the paper. So how does this happen? Don Bluth recently wrote in his book called The Art of Animation Drawing that a “Muse” comes to him. Gimme a break Don. That sounds like “the Force is with you”. It comes from a lot of conscious hard work. Drawing, drawing, drawing, and then more drawing. Working consciously on visualization exercises, studying films; both live action and animated - not just watching them - but really studying them - analyzing, trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t and why. Studying the movement of the actors, studying their mood, emotions and reactions to other characters and situations that they’re in. Going through these films frame by frame to see the timing. This stuff isn’t for someone who is going to rely on the Animation Fairies to come in and fix up their drawings for them... why not? ‘Cause there are no Fairies!!!

If you wanna get good at this, you’ve really got to work hard at it.

Sorry, did that sound like I was ranting? Sorry.

Follow Through and Overlapping Action

Back to Principles Index

Back to Book Index

Back to Homepage