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Engage Your Audience with Secondary Animation

Jacob Richardson and Ryan Plummer

Add life with animation's greatest principle, secondary animation! Let's take a peek at this magic motion design technique.

Have you ever stepped back to take a look at your animation, only to find that something was missing? You've reviewed it over and over again, but for some reason it's not "popping" and it's frankly a little boring... You my friend, might have a secondary animation problem.

If you're looking to add another level of polish to your work, secondary animations are going to save your life. This principle was actually coined by Disney animators in The Illusion of Life. Over the years the principle has developed into a go-to technique for motion designers to add some extra 'pizzazz' to their projects. But that begs the question, what is secondary animation?

We reached out to professional motion designer Jacob Richardson to help us explain secondary animations in a super fun way. So, without further delay let's dig into your new favorite skill...


Below is a short video tutorial of Secondary Animation in-action. You're going to start to see Secondary Animation all over the motion design and animation world.



Secondary animation is any additional animation that emphasizes the main action to create more dimension or personify a character. Secondary Animations are added into your scene to emphasize an action, movement, or even sounds.

Let's dig into the concept a little more.

First, visualize that you're animating a car driving down the road, and the car is the main focus of the animation. To add context to how fast this car is driving you would utilize additional scene elements like wind, speed lines, or a trail of dust that the tires would kick up.

This example from Evan Abrams shows how Secondary Animation can give weight and life to a character. You'll notice how the chicken's comb on the right adds life to the scene through the follow-through of the secondary animation.

If there is a way to show a reaction between your main subject and the world it's living in, add it in there. Is it really windy? Maybe your character's hair needs to reflect just how windy it is. Is it raining? Add in some ripples on the ground to show the velocity of the droplets instead of the rain simply disappearing.


Not only does secondary animation provide context, it also helps make the viewer experience richer. In comic books, the use of onomatopoeias help deliver life-like examples for our mind to translate what's on the page into an experience you can relate to. The same goes for secondary animations.

When you implement secondary animations to your scene, you're delivering an opportunity to add to the visual experience of your main action/character. For example, by adding impact particles, you're helping the audience understand the weight of an object. This is really useful if you need to show that multiple objects vary in mass. The viewer then translates what you give them with their past real-world experience.

If you're looking to lead the eye, try starting an initial animation that points the viewer in the right direction. For example, if you and I were talking and I pointed to a car you would react to my hand movement by following my hand gesture. The direction my finger was pointing would help you arrive at the intended subject.

Here's an interesting breakdown from Alan Becker on Secondary Animation in a Character Animation context.

Observation of humans, animals, man-made objects, nature and much more through sight, touch and hearing have already laid a foundation for your audience. Your job is to help your animations extract that experience by adding queues through secondary animation.


Creating secondary animations are helpful, but what are some ways you can get started implementing this into your workflow? Here is a small list of easy secondary animations wins:

  • Wavy hair
  • Speed lines
  • Ripples
  • Impact Particles
  • Dust
  • Reflections

There's probably an infinite number of ways to add secondary animation to your projects! When you're animating just ask yourself "How can I engages the viewers senses more?" and you'll be on your way to master this principle.


If you're looking to learn more practical animation skills I would highly suggest checking out Animation Bootcamp. In this course you'll learn principles that can help you make your animations smooth as butter. See what secondary animations you can spot in this Animation Bootcamp final project!

Best of luck incorporating secondary animations into your workflow. Be sure to share your secondary animation artwork with the community on Twitter or Instagram!

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