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Hayao Miyazaki on Running
A lesson in animation timing.
Happy Thursday! In this issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter, we’re looking at the art of animated running.
About a month ago, something very cool happened on Twitter. A Los Angeles artist, Rebekah Machemer, shared a translated version of a small animation guide by Hayao Miyazaki that dates to the early ‘80s.
It went viral — and for good reason. If you’ve ever been swept up by the spirited running in Miyazaki’s films, you get the appeal. This guide lets you peek inside his head, at the moment when his career was just coming into its own. Step by step, he explains his theories about animating a character in motion. By itself, this is amazing.
But here’s the thing: it wasn’t meant to be by itself. Originally, these pages accompanied an essay that Miyazaki published during mid-1980, in a short-lived magazine called Monthly Animation.1 The book Starting Point 1979–1996, which has been available for years, collects this essay — but without the guide pages.
Thanks to Machemer’s hard work, it’s easy at last to read the essay and guide together. There’s a lot to learn from studying them as a unit: not just about the act of animating, but about art and animation as a whole. So, today, we’re doing just that.
The first rule of running, as Miyazaki made clear, is timing. It’s math. Initially, this is a little complicated to grasp.
To Miyazaki and his peers back then, there were only a few viable ways to time a run. For it to feel like real movement, it couldn’t be a jumble — it needed rhythm. Like Miyazaki once told a group of Ghibli trainees, swinging his arms in time, “It should be tat-tat-tat-tat, if drawn right.”
So, we’ll start with the simplest and most rhythmic example that Miyazaki gave in 1980. Using sketches of his character Conan from Future Boy Conan (1978), he showed not just how to time running, but how to draw it. See the illustration below.
The run cycle works this way. Across four drawings, Conan kicks out his leg (1), compresses himself “like a spring” (2), pushes himself forward (3) and swings out his other leg (4). When both legs leave the ground in the fourth drawing, that’s one complete stride. Then Conan lands on his other foot (5) and the process begins again.
Now the math comes in. Every four frames, Conan completes one stride. Since the animation plays back at 24 frames per second, this amounts to six strides per second. And there you have your rhythm.
As Miyazaki wrote, four-frame strides give you a run that feels fast and (because there’s a drawing where both of Conan’s feet leave the ground) looks light on its feet. It’s intense running that tries to cover a lot of ground in a short time.
That said, Miyazaki saw this type of run as situational. It’s not an efficient way to animate — it’s done “on ones,” with one drawing for each frame of film.2 In the low-budget world of Japanese animation, that made it too expensive to be useful, barring special cases.
For typical running, Miyazaki and his colleagues had a different strategy. He called it the “safest” and most standard rhythm of that time: the six-frame stride. Four strides per second. As soon as you see it, you recognize it — this thing was everywhere.
And it was pure economy. Miyazaki wrote that it took “just three poses” to animate an entire stride (seen below). He outlined it like this:
1. front leg energetically moves forward
2. the entire body compresses like a spring
3. the rear leg braces the body forwards (“up” pose)
4. kick upwards, same as frame 1 but with the opposite foot
This is a run drawn “on twos” — 12 drawings per second. Each drawing stays on screen for two frames. In the mathematical world of animation timing, that stretches three drawings out to six frames. And so you get the six-frame stride.
Miyazaki wrote that “this basic form yields a heavy, plodding type of running.”3 It doesn’t have the quick, light feel of the first example because it’s missing the frame where both of Conan’s feet leave the ground. But it’s efficient, and it has both rhythm and a sense of “power,” which made it a staple.
All of this raises a question: why did Miyazaki cut out the frame where Conan goes airborne? Why trade the lightness for a heavier feel? It goes back again to timing, and to math.
Animation is limited by time — there are only so many places to put a frame of movement, and each spot you pick gives the action a different vibe. As Miyazaki wrote, things start to get weird if you add the airborne pose to a six-frame stride. It doesn’t work for Conan:
Any mid-air frames would have to be inserted by cutting out the minimum necessities for the sequence — gathering up power, stretching and kicking up. When we do that, the power of the sequence diminishes and the running doesn’t appear very dynamic. Of course we could use this to show a child running in everyday life, but unfortunately there are hardly any specific examples of that for our purposes.
When Conan runs this way, he looks wonky: “there is only a minor change between frames 2 and 3, and because there isn’t any strong ‘up’ pose, this run has less energy/impact.” It only becomes compelling or believable when Miyazaki applies it to a young child in one of those everyday scenarios:
That’s one option out. But what about the other option — including a mid-air pose by extending Conan’s strides to eight frames (three strides per second)? It could work, but Miyazaki warns that it has dire consequences. It threatens to kill the intended action altogether:
If the picture of airborne feet is added [… while animating on] eight frames, the sense of gravity is lost, the power weakens and the rhythm disappears, making the run unwatchable. This type of running should work for scenes of light running in the daily life of adults or long-duration running by a trained group carrying heavy equipment.
While it can work for some purposes, it wouldn’t work for Conan’s run. It would make him feel lumpy, awkward. It doesn’t fit Conan’s age or character. “The rhythm of this run feels heavy,” Miyazaki notes, “so if you draw it with extreme poses it will become floaty and lose its energy.”
But, if you apply it tastefully to a grown man hurrying to work, it looks totally natural:
Back in 1980, Miyazaki saw these as the bones of animated running — the structures on which everything else rested. But the real art of this kind of animation came after this stage. These were just techniques, and simple ones at that.
As he wrote in his essay:
We use these basic patterns as a foundation from which to create variations. We create the kind of running that is demanded by the scene or that we want to express: whether it is serious or slapstick, normal or unusual; whether the character’s posture is heavy or light, fun or desperate, pursuing or being pursued; how old he is; how coordinated he is; and so on. If this is done well, the basic form ties it all together and gives the images cohesion.
Yet the reality is that in many cases the depiction of running is formulaic. It is a pity that so many animators assume that there is one set pattern for running. A pattern is just a pattern. The process of creating the pattern in the first place entailed careful observation and repeated trial and error until a standardized form of optical illusion was derived. But the “running” drawn by incorporating the pattern as is, without realizing that it is an optical illusion, results in dull, dry movement.
Miyazaki is a famous proponent of drawing what you see. Even back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, observation was the key to his work. Last year, a former Future Boy Conan animator remembered that the goal of the show was to “draw as realistically as possible,” with real weight and detail, despite the cartooniness of the world. He used a mirror as he animated, feeling the line blur between himself and the characters.
Another member of the Conan team, a production assistant, said that the series was based on adding more and more “real sensations and reality.” Everyday details, like the way characters face wind resistance.
To animate a truly great run, Miyazaki argued, all of these things need to be taken into account. It’s about much more than a rote repetition of formulas. As he put it toward the end of his 1980 essay on running:
It may be possible to run on a flat racetrack with unchanging rhythm, steps and posture. But it would be difficult to do so in the hills. There are also different ways of running depending on whether you run in short spurts or for long distances. In order to draw these numerous ways of running, you have to rely on close observation. When one basic form is achieved, it becomes a format and loses its vitality. I think we must make the effort to compare the pattern against reality over and over again through incessant observation.
That’s a wrap for today’s issue! We hope you’ve enjoyed.
This is part of an informal series in our newsletter, tackling the art of motion from a more technical standpoint. A few others include:
Art Babbitt’s “best piece of animation” (members)
Exploring limited animation “on ones” (members)
We’d like to thank Rebekah Machemer for making this latest issue possible. Translating guides like these is no easy feat — Miyazaki often describes his drawing techniques in a colloquial way, which doesn’t map onto the patterns of English.
Don’t miss Machemer’s translation of Miyazaki’s 1989 recruitment ad for Studio Ghibli, either. It’s another invaluable look at Miyazaki’s worldview.
Until next time!
Monthly Animation (月刊アニメーション) published several behind-the-scenes columns by Miyazaki in this style. They’re collected in Starting Point, but sadly without illustrations.
The detail that this run is animated “on ones” is obscured in the VIZ Media translation of Starting Point, which contains a few errors in the running essay (“From Idea to Film, Part II: 1”). We had to use both the English edition and an imported Japanese copy of the book. As a result, some lines quoted here may not appear in the VIZ version.
This is how the VIZ version translates it. To be more specific, Miyazaki writes that the six-frame stride feels omoi (heavy, weighty) and dotabata, an onomatopoeia that suggests noisiness, rushing, thumping and a sense of disorder. Dotabata can also mean “slapstick.”