Rhythm for Animators

Mickey Mousing

If you look at early animation from the 1920’s and 1930’s, you’ll see a lot of what came to be known as Mickey Mousing. Characters were mostly animated to the beat of music and what you ended up with was a lot of really even timing. Nobody really uses Mickey Mousing anymore unless they’re trying to evoke an old timey animation feel, but overly even timing is a trap people can still fall into if they don’t plan their shots effectively.


What I’m going to talk about in this post are mostly approaches to plan and break up your timing. But always keep in mind what you’re trying to communicate with a character. If you want to communicate a relentless action, maybe a constant rhythm makes sense. Think about Ravel’s Bolero.[1]

The entire piece is one long crescendo that beats you into submission with the same rhythms over and over again. If that kind of persistence is appropriate for your scene, consistent spacing might work for you.


The way I’m going to analyze examples here is to mark the Keys and Extremes of the actions with the notes or rests I talked about in part 1. In some cases, the action lines up almost perfectly but this isn’t an exact science. I’m going for the overall feel of the action not a precise count of how many frames pass between beats.[2]

Rhythmic Anticipation

One way to use a consistent rhythm is as a set up. In music, we call this a rhythmic anticipation. Create a situation where the audience expects a certain rhythm then give them something else. This works especially well for comedy.

Take a look at this clip from Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx (Golden Harvest, 1995).

The rhythm is utterly consistent through this sequence on the pool table. Even the beats where nobody is getting hit (the “rests” as I’ve notated it here) still maintain the same consistent spacing. But at the very end, he breaks the rhythm. We get an extra beat to wait for that final blow to fall (and he stretches it a little bit beyond that as well). That anticipation lets the audience catch their breath, see what’s coming and, consequently, feel a bigger release and sense of finality when that last hit comes.

Broken Rhythm

If you’re just looking to make the timing more interesting, you’ll want to break it up and make things more irregular. In music, we’d call this a syncopated rhythm. For furious action, you might be tempted to assault the audience with fast consistent rhythms. But without breaks for the audience to catch their breath, those scenes become incomprehensible. So, even for furious action, you want to give your audience space to understand what’s going on and you do this by mixing up long and short rhythms.

Take a look at this sword fight between Nanasi and Luo-Lang from the end of Sword of the Stranger (Bones, 2007).

There’s a nice combination of long and short, usually as groups of two with each exchange finishing on one big hit. The shorter rhythms let the action seem really fast, and the longer rhythms and breaks in the action keep it from overwhelming the audience.

Lest you think this approach to timing is only for people hitting each other, here’s a quick dialogue shot from The Incredibles (Pixar, 2004).

Notice that the timing of the animation and the rhythms used don’t correspond exactly to the rhythms of the voice over. If the body animation matches to precisely to the voice acting, you end up with the modern version of Mickey Mousing. Offsetting the two creates a more natural look and adds a layer of complexity. It’s the same idea as offsetting the arms from the body or the fingers from the arms.

A little bit of planning can help create a nice visual rhythm to your animation. In part 3 of this series, I’ll talk about using a nice visual rhythm to more efficiently punch somebody in the face.


[1] Alan Abel is the man. Just sayin.
[2] Not to mention, some of the examples might be 30fps converted from 24 or 25fps so, after the pull-down, the frame count is imprecise anyway!

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