Juggling with the principles of animation

Even before I learned to juggle, I was interested in animation. It would take a couple years before the overlap became obvious to me, but nowadays I regularly use animation theory in my juggling workshops.

Both are visual motion art forms, focusing on the movement of objects and actors. Like a juggler might take a trick, and give his or her own twist to it, an animator takes an action such as walking, and shapes it into something new.

by Ian Schlaepfer

During the golden age of animation, the artists at Disney found various tricks to make their animations realistic, appealing and interesting. They have been summarized as the 12 principles of animation by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas in their 1981 book The Illusion of Life.

Some of these principles can be directly applied to juggling, while others have less relevance. I will guide you through the relevant concepts, hoping that it gives you new insight on how to manipulate your juggling tricks!


Timing is all about the rhythm of everything. The speed ups, the pauses, the “when” to take action. A variety of slow and fast timing within a scene adds texture and interest to the movement. Also, there is timing in the behavior of a character to establish mood, emotion, and reaction to another character or situation. In animation, every action takes a certain amount of frames. Jugglers are not limited to frames and can change timing on the fly, but some physical challenges might occur when you want to slow down or speed up a certain move.

I like to experiment with tweaking the rhythm of a basic pattern. Juggle to the music, build a pattern and surprise your audience by breaking it, or simply make something mundane into something exciting.

A very pleasing example is here from the Pastels, who have timed all of their act perfectly to the music.

More dynamic play with timing is this ball solo from Peter Davison, whose balls never follow the same rhythm for more than 2 seconds!


Where will you put what? Animators can make actions bigger or smaller. Most important is staging. By putting characters and objects in certain positions, you can often already tell their relationships and direct the audience’s attention. Visual art composition principles also apply here, such as spacial rhythm and contrast. In juggling you have little to no control over the “canvas.” The only way to zoom in is to walk closer to your audience.

Still there is a lot to play with. You and your pattern can be seen from many directions. You can change your relation to the props on stage by moving closer or further from them. Your patterns can change shape, remain in front of you, or go around you. You as an actor can move around.

The animators keep the focus on what is relevant, and avoiding unnecessary detail. Clarity is key!

One of my favorite spaced acts is from Jochen Schell. He makes every trick clean and visual, each new move is distinctive from the last in that way, and the rings are always in the perfect position relative to his body.

Secondary action

This action adds to and enriches the main action and adds more dimension to the character animation, supplementing and/or re-enforcing the main action. Typically it would be something subtle that doesn’t detract from the main action happening, and can be thought of as almost a subconscious action. In juggling, focus often lies on the props. I like it very much when in the background, the body follows through or makes an opposite turn. Also objects can do secondary actions, think of a small 2 throw underneath a higher pattern. While your attention is directed upwards, the small moves underneath can support the whole. Character play, such as facial expressions or certain physical habits, would also be considered secondary actions when they are done during other actions or tricks.

A good example here is Yann Frisch. In his famous magic juggling act, while the main actions are with the cups and balls he always adds some facial character play which makes the composite continually visually interesting.

Another example comes from Stefan Sing. Watch how his ball tricks are always backed up with subtle leg and body moves.


A perfect imitation of reality often looks static and dull. Real life actions are designed to be effective, not entertaining. When the limitless possibilities of the medium allow you to improve on reality, you probably should!

As a juggler you can make your necessary steps into little dance moves. You can pretend to make a trick easier or harder than it is. This concept also applies to prop choice, rather than picking a small and easy ball you could go for a large and interesting one.

One of my favorite juggling acts is from Michael Menes. He takes such simple actions, but by executing them so deliberately they all become fun to watch.


Animators have had to figure out how to make moving pictures look real. Characters and objects have to adhere to the laws of physics. Some of these principles were called “Slow in – Slow out,” “Squash and Stretch” and “Arcs.” Of course, as a real life stage performer you do not need to worry about not following the rules of physics. However, since the expectation exists that you are real, unrealistic moves become interesting again!

The principle of “Arcs” states that all natural movement takes place in arcs. For some actions this is more obvious than others, but as an animator it is important to take all in account. This principle is broken by juggling tricks such as the factory, where the balls are supposed to move in clean straight lines. It is very understandable where the mechanical appearance comes from!
“Slow in – slow out” assumes that things can’t start moving at full speed on their first frame, even the smallest motions have acceleration and deceleration. While you can never do the complete opposite on stage, some dance styles such as popping play with unexpected moves and stops.
Great research on this unrealistic moving and juggling has been done by Guillaume Karpowicz. Both his timing and his lines resemble nothing organic, which is fun to see!

Final thoughts

I hope that with this article you’ve gotten a better understanding of the possibilities of visual juggling. Surely I did during my research!

The overlaps with animation do not end here. Another particular example which I haven’t talked about yet is the challenge for 3D game animators. Their animations need to look good from all angles, as the camera can move around freely. This is similar to the challenges of round stages, where your trick needs to look strong from all sides!

I’m sure that there are many other art forms that have overlaps with juggling. I hope to discover more and more about this in the future, and if you happen to be an expert on music/dance/sculpting/architecture/anything at all, I’d love to read your comparisons too!

Do you know more great juggling examples of the concepts discussed in the article?

As always I love to hear your thoughts, I reply to any message in the comments below or to my email: hello@danielsimu.com

For more open discussion I recommend posting at the JugglingEdge or ObjectEpisodes, I am active on both these forums and will be sure to reply!

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I am a juggler and circus performer from the Netherlands. I travel all over Europe to learn, create, discuss, perform and organise, and I am always looking for fun projects to join! Feel free to contact me about anything :)

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