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Smear Frames in Animation: What You Need to Know

ben marvazi 2020

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The Magic of Smear Frames: Unlocking the Secrets of Fluid Animation

If you're an animator, whether a seasoned professional or a budding enthusiast, you've likely encountered the term "smear frames" in industry conversations, online forums, or animation tutorials

But what exactly are smear frames? Why do they hold such a respected place in the animator’s dictionary? And more importantly, how can mastering this technique significantly elevate the quality of your work?

Smear frames are more than just a buzzword; they are a cornerstone in the world of animation, serving as a critical tool for achieving fluid motion and seamless transitions between keyframes. 

This technique has been employed by animators for decades, from the pioneers of traditional animation to contemporary digital artists. Its enduring relevance testifies to its effectiveness in solving one of animation's most challenging problems: how to convey rapid, smooth movement in a medium that is inherently static, frame by frame.

An animated character with four faces representing a smear frame

Cover GIF by Rafael via GIPHY

In this blog, we aim to demystify the mechanics of smear frames, offering you a deep dive into their practical applications across various genres and styles of animation. We'll explore the software tools that can facilitate the creation of smear frames, providing recommendations that suit different skill levels and project requirements.

Additionally, we'll tackle some of the most frequently asked questions about smear frames, clearing up common misconceptions and offering insights that can help you apply this technique more effectively.

Whether you're a freelance animator hustling to land high-paying clients, or an animation studio owner striving to produce top-notch work that stands out in a crowded market, understanding the ins and outs of smear frames can be a game-changer for your projects. 

How Do Smear Frames Work?

Smear frames are an extraordinary technique of animation, used to create fluid motion and seamless transitions between keyframes.

When you're in the process of animating, let's say, a character who is throwing a baseball at a high velocity, traditional frame-by-frame animation can often fall short. The rapid motion might appear choppy, disjointed, or lacking in the natural fluidity that you'd observe in real life. 

This is precisely where smear frames become invaluable.

a character with glasses sneezes so that their face elongates with smear frames

GIF by notofagus via GIPHY

By intentionally distorting the shape and form of the object or character in motion, smear frames offer a solution to this problem. They create an illusion of speed and fluidity that is otherwise hard to achieve. It's akin to capturing the essence of motion blur within a single frame, providing a visual cue that our brains interpret as rapid movement. 

This is why smear frames are often considered the animator's secret weapon for conveying speed and action without making the animation feel rushed or unnatural.

Types of Smear Frames: Traditional vs. Digital

When it comes to the world of animation, smear frames have evolved significantly over the years, adapting to the technological advancements that have swept the industry. 

Broadly speaking, smear frames can be categorized into two main types: traditional and digital. Each comes with its own set of advantages and challenges, and understanding these can be instrumental in choosing the right approach for your specific project.

Traditional Smear Frames
A simplistic animation of a ball, bouncing up and down using smear frames

GIF by Happy Motion via GIPHY

In the realm of traditional animation, smear frames are hand-drawn by animators who meticulously create each frame to achieve the desired effect of fluidity and motion. This is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process but offers a level of authenticity and artistic freedom that is hard to replicate. 

Traditional smear frames have been used in many iconic animations, from the golden age of Disney to modern-day masterpieces. The tactile nature of drawing each frame allows for minute adjustments that can make all the difference in the final outcome. 

However, it's worth noting that traditional smear frames require a high level of skill and experience to execute effectively. They also demand a significant investment of time, which might not be feasible for all projects.

Digital Smear Frames
A character with blonde hair and glasses kicks a pink ball, which ricochets and hits him in the back displaying smear frames as it moves

GIF by Kate Hummer via GIPHY

On the other hand, digital smear frames have become increasingly popular with the advent of advanced animation software. These programs come equipped with specialized tools that simplify the process of creating smear frames, making it more accessible for animators at all skill levels. 

Digital smear frames offer the advantage of speed and efficiency, allowing for quick iterations and adjustments. They are particularly useful in scenarios where time is of the essence, such as in fast-paced commercial projects or animations with tight deadlines. 

However, while digital tools offer convenience and speed, they may lack the nuanced control that comes with hand-drawing each frame.

Which Smear Frames Should You Use?

A mountain with a colorful background transitions into a woman in a yoga pose in her living room with smear frames

GIF by aranchamora via GIPHY

So, which type of smear frames should you use? The answer largely depends on the specific needs of your project and your own skill set. 

If you're aiming for a more organic, hand-crafted feel for your animation, traditional smear frames are the way to go. 

But if you're working on a project with tight deadlines or limited resources, digital smear frames can be a lifesaver. 

Ultimately, both types have their place in the animator's toolkit, and understanding how to leverage each effectively can set you apart in this competitive industry.

Where to Use Smear Frames for Maximum Impact

A slinky cat moving in and out of the logo

GIF by Cindy Suen via GIPHY

Smear frames are not a universal fix for all animation challenges; rather, they excel in specific scenarios. Their utility is most pronounced in action sequences where the objective is to convey a sense of rapid, fluid movement. 

Imagine a superhero soaring through the sky at breakneck speed or an intense car chase scene down a winding road. In such instances, smear frames can be the difference between an animation that feels static and one that pulsates with energy and life.

Moreover, smear frames have a unique ability to add a comedic effect by exaggerating movements for a more dramatic and humorous outcome. For example, if you're animating a character who slips on a banana peel, using smear frames can accentuate the fall, making it not just visually interesting but also hilariously exaggerated. 

Software Tools for Smear Frames

An animator with a drawing pad underneath text "animake this"

GIF by gifnews via GIPHY

While smear frames can be created manually in traditional animation, various software tools can make the process more straightforward and efficient. 

Programs like Adobe Animate, Toon Boom Harmony, and Blender offer features that can help you create smear frames effortlessly. These tools come with specialized smear frame options, allowing you to manipulate shapes and forms with ease.

Investing in the right software can save you time and effort, enabling you to focus on the creative aspects of your animation projects.

FAQ about Smear Frames

several confused emojis fading in an out


1. Are smear frames only used in 2D animation?

No, smear frames are used in both 2D and 3D animation. The technique may vary, but the underlying principle remains the same—to create fluid motion.

2. Can smear frames be overused?

Yes, like any other technique, overusing smear frames can make your animation look unnatural or forced. It's essential to strike a balance.

3. Do all animation software support smear frames?

Most modern animation software comes with features that support smear frames, but it's always good to check before investing in a new tool.

4. Are smear frames suitable for all types of animation?

Smear frames are versatile but work best in specific scenarios like action sequences, fast transitions, and comedic effects.

5. How do I get started with smear frames?

The best way to get started is by studying examples from renowned animators and practicing the technique in your projects.

Mastering Smear Frames for a Thriving Animation Career

A scene from the Animaniacs series, where one character hits another character with a large hammer, clearly displaying smear frames


Smear frames are more than just a nifty trick; they're a powerful tool that can make your animations more dynamic and engaging.

By understanding how smear frames work, where to use them, and what tools can assist you, you're well on your way to creating animations that not only look great but also resonate with your audience.

If you found this guide on smear frames helpful and you're looking to take your animation career to the next level, our Animation Business Accelerator Program provides insights, resources, and a supportive community to help professionals navigate the evolving landscape. 

If you’re an animator who’s looking to start your own studio or grow your career, check out our blog on How to Start an Animation Studio to kickstart your animation career today, or give our free Masterclass a try first if you’re curious.

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