Onion Skin Animation: Creating Smooth Movement
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. What is Onion Skin Animation?
  2. Tools needed for Onion Skin Animation
  3. How to setup your workspace
  4. Creating the basic movement
  5. Using Onion Skinning to smooth movement
  6. Adjusting the frames
  7. Finalizing and exporting your animation
  8. Tips for creating smooth movement

Imagine you're creating a cartoon, and you'd like to animate your character's movements. You'd want them to move smoothly, with a natural flow, similar to the way people move in the real world. The secret to this lies in a technique called onion skinning. It may sound like a cooking method, but trust me, it’s far from it. This blog will guide you on how to create smooth animation using the onion skinning technique. Let’s get started.

What is Onion Skin Animation?

Onion skinning is a technique used in creating animation that allows animators to see several frames at once. This makes it much easier to create the smooth, flowing movement you see in top-quality animations. The name 'onion skinning' comes from the idea of peeling back layers of an onion. In animation, these layers are the frames of your animation.

Here's how onion skinning works:

  • Layers: Think of each frame in your animation as a layer. The current frame you're working on is the top layer, and the previous frames are the layers beneath.
  • Transparency: With onion skinning, the layers underneath the top layer become semi-transparent. This allows you to see what happened in the previous frames while you work on the current one.
  • Guiding path: By seeing the previous and next frames, you can guide the movement of your character or object smoothly from one position to the other. You essentially create a path for your animation to follow.

The real magic of onion skinning is in the smooth transitions it allows you to create. Instead of guessing where your character needs to move next, you can see exactly where they've been and guide where they're going. It's like having a roadmap for your animation, making the process simpler and the results more professional.

Now that you know what onion skinning is and how it works, it's time to gather your tools and start creating your own smooth animations. I promise, it's not as hard as it sounds—in fact, it's quite fun!

Tools needed for Onion Skin Animation

Alright, so you're ready to start creating your own onion skin animations. The good news is you don't need an entire animation studio at your disposal. A few key tools will get the job done. Here's what you'll need:

  • Animation Software: This is where the magic happens. There's a broad range of animation software out there, but for onion skinning, Adobe Animate or Toon Boom Harmony are great options. Both of these software support onion skinning and are user-friendly, even for beginners.
  • A Drawing Tablet: While it's possible to animate with a mouse, a drawing tablet will give you more control and precision. Brands like Wacom and Huion offer tablets that fit various budgets.
  • A Good Old Stylus: A stylus pen comes with most drawing tablets. It's your brush, your pencil, your magic wand. It's an essential tool that brings your animations to life.
  • Time and Patience: Animation isn't something you master overnight. It takes time and practice, so be patient with yourself. Remember, even the best animators were beginners once.

Once you've assembled your tools, it's time to set up your workspace and jump into the world of onion skin animation. It's an exciting journey, and I can't wait for you to experience it.

How to setup your workspace

Setting up your workspace is like setting up your very own magic kingdom. Everything has to be in the right place, ready to assist you in creating your animation masterpiece. Here's how to get your workspace ready:

  • Organize your Desk: Keep your drawing tablet and stylus within easy reach. If you're using a keyboard, make sure it doesn't hinder your drawing movements. Organize your cables to avoid any tangled messes—they're the real villains in our animation story.
  • Adjust your Chair: Don't underestimate the power of a well-adjusted chair. You'll be spending a lot of time animating, so make sure your chair supports good posture. Remember, a comfortable animator is a happy animator.
  • Set up your Software: Open your animation software and familiarize yourself with the workspace. Look for the onion skinning feature—this is going to be your best friend in creating smooth movement. In Adobe Animate, you'll find it under the timeline panel. In Toon Boom Harmony, it's located in the toolbar.
  • Prepare your Files: Create a new project file in your software. Keep your file names clear and your folders organized. This will save you from the horror of losing work or, worse, having to search through a jungle of unnamed files.
  • Create a Calm Environment: Animation requires focus. Try to minimize distractions in your workspace. Maybe play some soft music in the background, or if you're like me, the sound of silence works best.

And voila! You've set up your workspace. Now, let's take the next step in our onion skinning journey—creating the basic movement.

Creating the basic movement

Creating the basic movement in animation is like learning to walk before you can run. It's the stepping stone to your epic animation journey. Let's get started.

  • Choose your Character: First, decide on the character or object you want to animate. If you're a beginner, start with something simple, like a bouncing ball or a waving hand.
  • Draw your Keyframes: Next, draw your keyframes. These are the main poses of your movement. For example, if you're animating a bouncing ball, the keyframes would be the ball at the peak of its bounce and when it hits the ground.
  • Add Inbetweens: Inbetweens are the drawings between keyframes that make the movement smooth. If you're using the onion skinning feature, you'll see a semi-transparent image of the previous and next frames. This helps you figure out where to place your inbetweens.
  • Play and Review: After you've drawn all your frames, play the animation. If it seems too slow or too fast, adjust the frame rate. If the movement seems off, you might need to add or remove inbetweens. This is where onion skinning really shines—it lets you see the entire movement and make necessary changes.

And there you have it: the basic movement. It might seem like a lot of work, but remember—every great animation starts with a single frame. Now that you've got the basics down, let's move on to the next step: using onion skinning to smooth out your animation.

Using Onion Skinning to smooth movement

Now that you've got the basics of animation down, it's time to introduce a game-changer: onion skinning. This tool, as unique as its name suggests, is about to make your animations smoother than a jazz saxophone solo. So, how does it work?

  • Activate Onion Skinning: In most animation software, there's an option to turn on onion skinning. Once activated, you'll start to see semi-transparent versions of your previous and next frames.
  • Understand the Ghosts: These "ghost" images are your guide. They show you where your character or object has been and where it's going. It's like having a map of your animation journey.
  • Draw with Guidance: Now, when you draw your inbetweens, you'll have a clear sense of direction. You can trace the path of movement from one keyframe to the next, ensuring your animation is fluid and natural.
  • Adjust Transparency: If the "ghosts" are too faint or too distracting, you can adjust their transparency. That way, you can focus on your current frame without losing sight of the overall movement.

Onion skinning is like having a personal animation assistant. It guides you, helps you avoid mistakes, and even lets you peek into the future of your animation. So, make the most of it, and watch as your animations become as smooth as butter on a hot pancake.

Adjusting the frames

So, you've got the hang of onion skinning and your animation is looking smoother. But it's not quite perfect yet. You might notice that some movements are too fast, or maybe too slow. Don't worry, you're not alone. These small hiccups are common, especially when you're starting. Luckily, there's an easy fix: adjusting the frames.

  • Timing is Everything: When it comes to animation, timing is not just a matter of speed. It's about rhythm and pacing. Is your character running or strolling? Are they panicking or calm? The answers will determine how many frames you need.
  • Add or Remove Frames: If a movement feels too fast, try adding more frames. If it's too slow, remove some. Remember, more frames mean slower movement, and fewer frames mean faster movement. It might take some trial and error, but you'll get there.
  • Check the Flow: After adjusting your frames, run the animation to check the flow. Does it feel natural? Is the pacing right? If not, go back and adjust until it feels just right.
  • Use Onion Skinning: Don't forget to use onion skinning while adjusting your frames. It can show you exactly where the movement starts to feel off. It's your secret weapon for perfect pacing.

Remember, animation is a craft. It takes patience and practice. But with each adjustment, you're not just fixing a frame - you're learning. And that's what will make you a great animator.

Finalizing and exporting your animation

Alright, you’ve adjusted the frames to perfection, and your animation is looking smoother than ever thanks to onion skinning. It’s time to put the final touches on your masterpiece and share it with the world. Here’s how you do it:

  • Final Review: Before you export your animation, give it one last look. Watch it from start to finish and make sure everything flows smoothly. This is your chance to catch any last-minute tweaks that need attention.
  • Choose the Right Format: Different platforms support different file formats. Whether it's GIF, MP4, or SWF, choose the one that best suits your needs. Remember, quality matters, so choose a format that won't lower your animation's quality.
  • Export Settings: Pay attention to your export settings. Resolution, frame rate, and aspect ratio can significantly impact how your animation looks when played. Make sure to adjust these settings to match your intended display platform.
  • Save and Export: Now, hit that save button and export your animation. Congratulations, you've just completed your onion skinning animation. Time to celebrate!

Remember, the key to a great animation is not just the movement, but also the way it's shared. Ensuring your animation looks great on the platform you choose is just as important as the animation itself. So, take your time, double-check everything, and then hit that export button with confidence.

Tips for creating smooth movement

Now that you've got a handle on onion skinning and have successfully created your first animation, let's delve into some tips that will help you create even smoother movements in your future projects:

  • Start with Basic Shapes: When you're first starting out, it can be tempting to jump right into complex characters and movements. However, mastering simple shapes first will help you understand motion better. Once you've got that down, you can move on to more intricate designs.
  • Plan Your Animation: Before you start animating, sketch out a quick storyboard. This doesn't have to be anything fancy—it can be as simple as stick figures. But this planning stage can save you a lot of time and headaches down the line.
  • Use Onion Skinning Wisely: Onion skinning is an incredibly helpful tool, but it's not always necessary to have it turned on. If you're working on a particularly complex movement, it might be beneficial to turn off onion skinning temporarily to focus on one frame at a time.
  • Practice Makes Perfect: Animation is a skill, and like any other skill, it takes time to master. Keep practicing, keep experimenting, and most importantly—don't get discouraged if your first few tries don't turn out exactly how you want them to be.

Remember, the key to creating smooth movement in animation is patience and practice. With these tips, and the power of onion skinning, you're well on your way to creating animations that are as smooth as butter.

If you enjoyed learning about onion skin animation and want to explore more techniques to enhance your animation skills, don't miss out on learning from our 'Daisie Original Animation Course' with none another than Alex Jenkins who will you take you through his complete animation process. Dive in and take your animation skills to the next level!