Onion Skinning in Animation: Uncovering Origins
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. What is onion skinning in animation?
  2. How did onion skinning get its name?
  3. Early use of onion skinning
  4. Onion skinning in traditional animation
  5. Onion skinning in digital animation
  6. Impact of onion skinning on animation techniques

Delving into the world of animation, we often stumble upon intriguing techniques and tools. One such fascinating technique that brought a revolution in the animation industry is 'onion skinning'. Let's journey to the origin of onion skinning and understand its impact on the animation world.

What is onion skinning in animation?

Onion skinning is a technique in animation that allows animators to view multiple frames at once. This powerful tool provides a translucent visual of the immediate past and future frames, helping animators to craft smoother and more controlled animations.

The Concept

Imagine having the superpower to see the past and future at the same time – that's what onion skinning brings to the table for animators. It overlays the previous and next frames over the current one, making them appear faint or 'ghosted'. This visual guide helps in creating more precise and fluid animations.

Why 'Onion' Skinning?

Now, you must be thinking, why the name 'onion' skinning? Well, the name draws its inspiration from the layers of an onion. Just as you peel an onion layer by layer, the onion skinning technique reveals the 'layers' or frames of an animation, giving a translucent view of the sequence.

Application in Animation

By using onion skinning, animators can easily adjust the position and timing of each frame, making the animation look more consistent and smooth. Whether it's creating a complex dance sequence or a simple motion, onion skinning allows for a refined control over each frame, enhancing the overall quality and fluidity of the animation.

So, that's a brief introduction to onion skinning in animation. Now, let's peel back the layers and uncover the origin of onion skinning, its early use, and its impact on animation techniques.

How did onion skinning get its name?

Ever wondered about the connection between animation and onions? Well, you're not alone. Of course, the origin of onion skinning doesn't involve actual onions, but it does have a fascinating story.

The 'Onion' Metaphor

When you slice an onion, you see a series of thin, translucent layers. This image is exactly how frames appear in the onion skinning technique. Each frame represents a layer of the 'onion', and you can see through each layer to the ones beneath, much like looking at an onion slice.

The 'Skinning' Part

And as for the 'skinning' part, it refers to the process of peeling back or 'skinning' the frames to see the ones underneath. Just like when you peel an onion, you reveal its inner layers. This term is a playful nod to the process of peeling or revealing the frames beneath the current one in the animation process.

So, in a nutshell, the term 'onion skinning' in animation is a metaphorical representation of the process of viewing multiple frames at once, like peeling back the layers of an onion. Now that we've peeled back the name's origin of onion skinning, let's dive deeper into its early use and how it has evolved over time.

Early use of onion skinning

The early days of animation were all about experimentation, and the origin of onion skinning was no exception. This technique was a game-changer, providing animators a way to bring their creations to life more efficiently and accurately.

Onion Skinning and Cel Animation

Onion skinning, in its infancy, was primarily used in cel animation. Cel is short for celluloid, which refers to the transparent sheets that animators would draw on. By stacking these sheets, or 'cels', animators could see several frames at once. This allowed them to create smoother, more natural movements in their animations. The technique was a bit like looking through layers of an onion—hence the name 'onion skinning'.

The Lightbox Innovation

As the animation industry developed, so did the tools. Enter the lightbox. This device, a flat, illuminated surface, made the process of onion skinning even easier. Animators could lay their cels on the lightbox and see through multiple layers at once, making it simpler to track movement and make adjustments. This was another key chapter in the origin of onion skinning, as it made the technique more accessible and efficient for animators everywhere.

With this foundation in place, onion skinning was set to revolutionize not only traditional animation but also the burgeoning world of digital animation. But that's a tale for another section.

Onion skinning in traditional animation

Once onion skinning was born, it quickly became a cornerstone of traditional animation. Let's take a closer look at how this method was applied in the classic animation era.

Creating Fluid Movements

Onion skinning was a game-changer for traditional animation. Why? Because it allowed animators to create fluid, lifelike movements. Instead of guessing where a character's arm was in the previous frame, animators could literally see it, thanks to the transparent cels. This made the animation process not just faster but also more precise. The end result? More realistic and engaging animation.

Mastering the Craft with Disney

When you think of traditional animation, you can't help but think of Disney. The animation giant took onion skinning and ran with it. Disney animators used this technique to create beloved characters that moved and expressed emotions in a way that was unprecedented. So, the origin of onion skinning is not just a technical story, but also a creative one. It's about how a simple method revolutionized the way stories were told on screen.

From the early days of cel animation to the golden age of Disney, onion skinning has had quite a journey in traditional animation. But as we moved into the digital age, this technique was ready to evolve once again—stay tuned for that part of the story.

Onion skinning in digital animation

As technology advanced, so did the animation techniques. Let's explore how onion skinning found its place in the world of digital animation.

Transitioning to the Digital Realm

With the advent of computer animation, the traditional method of onion skinning underwent a dramatic transformation. No longer did animators need physical cels to see previous and upcoming frames. Instead, software programs provided an on-screen, digital equivalent. The essence of onion skinning remained the same—seeing multiple frames at once. But the digital shift meant it could be done more efficiently and with greater precision.

Modern Animation Tools

Today, nearly all animation software, from Adobe Animate to Toon Boom Harmony, includes an onion skinning feature. The function goes by the same name, keeping true to its origins, but its capabilities have expanded. Now, you can adjust the opacity of your 'skins', choose how many frames to view at once, and even color-code them for better visibility. It's clear that the origins of onion skinning have deeply influenced the digital tools we use today.

As we've seen, the journey of onion skinning didn't end with traditional animation. It adapted, evolved, and found its way into our modern digital era. But what does this all mean for the future of animation? Let's find out in the next section.

Impact of onion skinning on animation techniques

Having traced the origin of onion skinning, we can now explore its far-reaching influence on the broader field of animation. Let's get to it.

Revolutionizing Workflow and Precision

One of the biggest impacts of onion skinning on animation techniques is the revolution in workflow. With the ability to see multiple frames at once, animators can work more quickly and efficiently. They can easily adjust the motion and timing of their animations, leading to smoother, more fluid results. So, you could say that onion skinning truly changed the game for animators, making their work easier and their outcomes better.

Enabling Complex Animations

Onion skinning didn't just make animation easier—it made it more complex, too. By allowing animators to see and adjust several frames at once, it became possible to create more intricate animations. Whether it's a character with flowing hair or a bird mid-flight, onion skinning allows for these detailed movements to be captured with stunning accuracy. So, it's not just the workflows that have improved, but the very essence of animation itself.

In conclusion, onion skinning has made a lasting impact on animation techniques. From revolutionizing workflows to enabling complex animations, this technique—rooted in its humble beginnings—remains a cornerstone of the field. And who knows? As technology progresses, the legacy of onion skinning may continue to evolve and shape the future of animation.

If you enjoyed learning about onion skinning in animation and want to discover more animation techniques, don't miss out on 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!