Character Animation Fundamentals: Squash and Stretch

So in the previous two articles you've learned about the principles of Timing and Spacing, and Overlapping Action. Now it's time to dive into Squash and Stretch, the principle that is relatively easy to implement, but very difficult to implement correctly. Squash and Stretch is often a principle that is closely related to the "cartoony" style of animation, while this is certainly true, it's important for you to know, early on, that squash and stretch isn't necessarily about making your objects or people feel like boneless squishy goo, but rather to help your animations become more readable. In this article, we are going to look at all different forms of squash and stretch, to the extremely cartoony style, to the more realistic interpretations of it. You'll also learn how to think about it in your own animations, and how to add squash and stretch to a very basic exercise, the ball bounce with squash and stretch.

What Is Squash and Stretch?

In essence, squash and stretch is there to give more exaggerated movement to characters or objects. It is quite literally, the squashing and stretching of objects. Squash and Stretch can be used to show more force on impact or even to help show anticipation as well as show acceleration. Squash and Stretch is typically the principle thought to only be used in more cartoony styles of animation. While you'll certainly find it heavily used in old Warner Bros. cartoons it's a principle that can be found in every animation ranging from the stylized to the realistic. It helps make animations feel more natural and appealing, and squash in stretch is actually an integral part of reality. To give you a basic example you can watch the video to see two ball bounces, the one on the right has no squash and stretch, the one of the left does. This is a very exaggerated example, but the ball on the left has more life to it than the one on the right. One very important thing to keep in mind is that squash and stretch doesn't create great animations, it still very much so comes down to the timing and spacing to create appealing and natural movements. Squash and stretch can often be seen as the finishing touch on an animation that can really breathe that extra bit of life into it. If you notice, the ball on the right is still a ball bounce that is animated well, and feels natural. If the bounce didn't have the proper timing and spacing setup, simply incorporating squash and stretch doesn't suddenly make it a great animation. That's something very critical to keep in mind, the animation needs to have a strong foundation before squash and stretch should be considered.

Is Squash and Stretch Bad?

The principle of Squash and Stretch actually has quite a bit of controversy surrounding it. Despite it being likely the more "well known" principle of animation it isn't always shown in the best light. While it was described "By far the most important" of the 12 principles in the Illusion of Life many of the other pioneer animators have shown their disdain toward the principle, like Richard Williams as a principle that is used far too often, and sometimes used to cover up bad animation. It certainly isn't a principle that should not be used, because it's extremely important to your animations, it's just that it needs to be used in the right way. Many animators have said that you can easily get just as much life and appeal in an animation without having to make everything feel like a water balloon. One of the ways this is done is simply implementing the principle of squash and stretch differently. In many actions humans take there is some form of squash and stretch, while it certainly isn't as pronounced as something like the bouncing ball animation, it's still there, and when it's implemented correctly it can breathe more life into an animation.

How Do You Use It in Realistic Animations?

So how can a principle that involves squashing and stretching something be incorporated into a more realistic animation? Well, squash and stretch can be seen in more subtle actions in everyday life that you might not consider being squash and stretch until you really examine it closer. Take a person jumping for example; there is actually a lot of squash and stretching going on in that action. While their body may not be literally squashing like it would on a bouncing ball, it's still there. As the character bends down, that is the squash position, as they jump up they are completely stretched out, as they come back to the ground they stretch out again, and finally squash down on the impact. The principle of squash and stretch is all right there. You don't necessarily need to literally deform the body to get the same feeling across.

You Want It to Be Felt Not Seen

A very critical part of squash and stretch is that it should be felt rather than seen. This of course, can depend on the style of animation you're going for. If you want something to be extremely cartoony, then by all means the audience is going to see it. With more realistic styles of animation, however, squash and stretch should be felt rather than seen. Meaning, you can have the squash and stretch happening very quickly over a few frames, so its there, but it's not something that is overtly obvious. Take someone quickly turning their head from the right to left; this can be a great area to incorporate squash and stretch. Over a few frames the face and head can squash down during the turn. Because it's happening so fast, it's something that's felt but not seen. In the example above, the head turn on the left incorporates no squash and stretch, the one on the right does. The one on the right obviously has so much more fluidity, life and appeal to it, and it makes the face feel natural. In this way, you're literally squashing and stretching different parts, but it's happening over just a few frames so that it's felt, but not seen. Take a person raising their hand quickly to wave at someone, their hand and fingers can actually stretch out during this fast transition, over just a few frames.

Where Can You Implement It?

So how can you figure out where to implement squash and stretch into your animations? Well, a great way is to study reference. Look at real life actions, and examine how we move. A very key area where squash and stretch can help is in facial animations. A person's face is extremely malleable, just try moving your jaw around, and take notice to how your face is deforming and squashing and stretching in all different areas. As someone blinks, the eye lids compress and the brow squashes as well. It's extremely subtle, but it's there. It's important that you don't think of squash and stretch as just a principle to implement into extremely cartoony animations, because it's just as vital in more realistic animations as long as it's used in a more subtle capacity.

Video Tutorial: Adding Squash and Stretch

In this quick tutorial we're going to walk you through the process of implementing squash and stretch to a very basic ball bounce. The key here is to learn how to properly incorporate the principle into your animations, and making sure that your animation first has a strong foundation in timing and spacing before turning to squash and stretch. You can download the ball rig here:Ball_Rig
Now that you have a strong understanding of squash and stretch look for areas you can implement it into your own animations. Remember, you can make it very prominent and exaggerated, or incorporate it so it's felt rather than seen. In the next article we are going to learn about the principle of anticipation.