How to Make a Run Cycle in Pixel Art

This tutorial was originally written by unseven. The author gave me permission to post it here since it's no longer available online.

Have you noticed a lot of people ‘rips’ 8-bit Mega Man run cycle? That’s because it’s good. You should too (for practice!)

It’s just 4 frames long and still one of the best examples to begin with. Why? Because it relies solely on good key frames, which means you can clearly see all 'ends’ in the animation loop. Look at those legs and arms, all twisting the torso, stretching out the body!

In this tutorial we will see how to create this run cycle step by step.

Key frames, that’s where you should start your animation. No matter how long is gonna be your animation, it has to strike one or several good poses. So let’s start with legs, because that’s not only the hardest part of the animation, but one of the things that most influences the rest of the body (tip: the most important part is actually the spine, but we’ll get to that later).

I’ll cut the theory and go straight for it: think diagonals.

I like it when it feels very 'speedy’, hence the exaggeration. A fully-stretched leg, pushing the body forward, while the other is on its maximum knee bent, that’s where one’s body makes all the effort to run. The rest just follow through.

This is 1 end from our animation. What’s the exact opposite of stretching our legs to moving forward? The other end: steppping. Whereas our previous frame is all personality, this one is quite the timid one. Both knees bent, a bit lower and 'squarier’.

Oh, by the way, you’ll have to do the same thing for each leg, but it doesn’t have to be now, specially if you’re gonna add more frames to it later. Anyway, here goes:

Are you going to add more frames? Good! Let’s add 1 more to each one we already have, so 4 x 2 = 8 frames. That’s an excellent number.

Notice that after stretching the leg to its maximum, it goes up a bit, and the knee start to bend, while the other foot prepares for stepping onto the ground.

Both legs start going different directions: stepping foot goes behind, lifting foot, forward.

Do the same to the other 2 frames, and we get this result:

Nice! Let’s add the rest of the body now (remember to keep it a little bent too, since we project our body forward while running):

Not nice. Let’s start adding some movement, let the whole body talk! The first thing here is to lower the body when each foot steps. The knee bends most by the weight of the falling body from the initial push, getting ready for another one. Got it? Since we have 8 frames, I like to lower 4 of them, having 2 highs, 2 lows, 2 highs, 2 lows. And it’s only a 1 or 2 pixels difference:

That’s a bit better. Now we’ll add some follow through and overlapping, because not everything happens at the same time. That means keeping the chest (and belly in some cases) intact - because the spine is the most important thing - and moving up and down all the other things a bit like it’s following the chest (shoulders, arms, hands, head, carry-ons etc.) I start with the head, and start small, because the head is what viewers first identify in an animation, and they tend to follow it as a reference, so they don’t get lost. The head is their main show, so don’t go too nuts on it:

Doing the same with arms and shoulders. Notice that his right arm is not going after the chest but the shoulder. So it’s actually a chain reaction: chest > shoulder > arm. If I had a bigger example (let’s say, a giant enemy), it could be even longer and slower: chest > shoulder > arm > forearm > hand + weapon. Also, since the arm carrying the sword is a bit heavier, it moves more (2 pixels here). Oh, and I’ve already added some basic movement on that yellow fur based on the shoulders:

OK, remember we also use our arms to run, right? So we can use extra energy and keep balanced while doing it. Let’s get those arms moving back and forth, and since one of them is carrying a sword, this one should move less because it’s heavier, and the other much more to compensate:

When the left leg goes forward, the right arm goes forward and vice versa, so we keep balance.

Lastly, since we also twist our body while doing this right-left exchanges, I usually do an illusion by just also moving shoulders back and forth a bit (the movement extends to arms, too). Bigger sprites might need redrawn chests, but shoulders help a lot on that anyway:

And that’s it! You can keep tweaking here and there, like I did with the fur, sword angle and subpixel animation.

Some Tips

Good luck!

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