Exaggeration can be one of the most enjoyable principles to put into your work because with it you can push your character rigs to the limit and create animations that are more appealing. A lot of exaggeration will create more stylized cartoony work or and a little will add more realism into your animation. As an animator it's up to you to determine how far you want to push your animations.
What is exaggeration?
Exaggeration is one of the 12 principles of animation which were created by pioneers of animation in the 1980s to help others create animations that followed the basic laws of physics. Exaggeration means pushing movement further to add more appeal to that action. While by its very nature the term suggests excess, even realistic animations without exaggeration can feel boring and lifeless.
As an animator, you'll work with video reference in most of your shots when trying to find interesting posing and timing that is grounded in realism. But what you see in your video reference doesn't always work well in your animations, and that is where exaggeration can come into play.
Why is exaggeration important?
One of the greatest things about animation is the ability to create something that goes beyond the movements of real life and this can result in some very interesting animation that brings a whole new feeling to the viewer. Let's face it; a human's movement is not always the most interesting thing to watch, and exaggeration let's you make something potentially much more interesting and fun to watch because you don't see it everyday.
Using exaggeration to break the rig
You might be wondering how can you exaggerate something when you must work within the limitations of the character rig, but you shouldn't be afraid to push a rig beyond its limits. Rigs can be broken, and what looks strange for one frame of animation will often be unnoticeable when played back at full speed. Test the rig you have, find the poses that are just on the cusp of breaking the rig, and work around your limits to see how you can break the rig to your advantage.
How far is too far?
As mentioned earlier, exaggeration can be something as small as pushing the timing of an action by a couple frames or as broad as your character becoming completely compressed just before a jump. Bear in mind that a lot of exaggeration will usually create a cartoonish effect.
That being said, there should be some type of exaggeration in any shot you do, even if it's simple timing or spacing exaggeration. You'll usually know when you've gone too far, but a great rule of thumb is if you notice when playing back your animation that your rig is broken for more than 1-2 frames you've probably gone too far. A longer break will become noticeable to the viewer. Similar to the principle of squash and stretch, you want to feel it rather than see it.
At the same time, in some cases of very cartoonish animation, you may choose to allow your rig to be broken for more than 1-2 frames, as long as it fits the animation style you're going for.
Exaggeration in pose
Pushing your poses is one of the best ways to exaggerate your animations. Exaggerating poses can help sell the weight of your character, the weight of an object, and overall will create something more interesting to look at.
As mentioned before, what you see in real life isn't the most interesting and doesn't always translate well to animation. Sure, there are times when you've matched the pose exactly as you see it in your reference and it works, but most of the time you will want to find places where you can push your posing. This can be something as simple as extending the arms out further during a walk or more noticeable like in the images below.
Here is a great example of how pushing the poses can make your shot go to the next level. The point of the animation is to have the character pick up a heavy object. Sure, the poses above get the point across, but they could be even better!
In this example, the key poses have been pushed, to make the object feel heavier. The exaggeration also creates something more interesting to look at.
Exaggeration of timing
Exaggerating timing is another way you can help sell the weight of your character and create appeal. Typically when you're animating, you're following closely with the video reference. But often you'll want to push the timing because a perfect imitation of reality can result in very floaty and dull animation.
When you exaggerate the timing of a character's jump, for example, it will make the character feels much heavier. It exaggerates the impact of gravity even without changing any poses. Simply exaggerating the timing a few frames can breathe more life into the character.
Now that you have a better understanding of exaggeration, and how it can be implemented, try using it for your next project. If you want to dive even deeper, check out on of Pluralsight's courses on character modeling with a tool like Maya.