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Performant Expandable Animations: Building Keyframes on the Fly

Animations have come a long way, continuously providing developers with better tools. CSS Animations, in particular, have defined the ground floor to solve the majority of uses cases. However, there are some animations that require a little bit more work.

You probably know that animations should run on the composite layer. (I won’t extend myself here, but if you want to know more, check this article.) That means animating transform or opacity properties that don’t trigger layout or paint layers. Animating properties like height and width is a big no-no, as they trigger those layers, which force the browser to recalculate styles.

On top of that, even when animating transform properties, if you want to truly hit 60 FPS animations, you probably should get a little help from JavaScript, using the FLIP technique for extra smoother animations! 

However, the problem of using transform for expandable animations is that the scale function isn’t exactly the same as animating width/height properties. It creates a skewed effect on the content, as all elements get stretched (when scaling up) or squeezed (when scaling down).

So, because of that, my go-to solution has been (and probably still is, for reasons I will detail later), technique #3 from Brandon Smith’s article. This still has a transition on height, but uses Javascript to calculate the content size, and force a transition using requestAnimationFrame. At OutSystems, we actually used this to build the animation for the OutSystems UI Accordion Pattern.

Generating keyframes with JavaScript

Recently, I stumbled on another great article from Paul Lewis, that details a new solution for expanding and collapsing animations, which motivated me to write this article and spread this technique around.

Using his words, the main idea consists of generating dynamic keyframes, stepping…

[…] from 0 to 100 and calculate what scale values would be needed for the element and its contents. These can then be boiled down to a string, which can be injected into the page as a style element. 

To achieve this, there are three main steps.

Step 1: Calculate the start and end states

We need to calculate the correct scale value for both states. That means we use getBoundingClientRect() on the element that will serve as a proxy for the start state, and divide it with the value from the end state. It should be something like this:

function calculateStartScale () {
  const start= startElement.getBoundingClientRect();
  const end= endElement.getBoundingClientRect();
  return {
    x: start.width / end.width,
    y: start.height / end.height
  };
}

Step 2: Generate the Keyframes

Now, we need to run a for loop, using the number of frames needed as the length. (It shouldn’t really be less than 60 to ensure a smooth animation.) Then, in each iteration, we calculate the correct easing value, using an ease function:

function ease (v, pow=4) {
  return 1 - Math.pow(1 - v, pow);
}

let easedStep = ease(i / frame);

With that value, we’ll get the scale of the element on the current step, using the following math:

const xScale = x + (1 - x) * easedStep;
const yScale = y + (1 - y) * easedStep;

And then we add the step to the animation string:

animation += `${step}% {
  transform: scale(${xScale}, ${yScale});
}`;

To avoid the content to get stretched/ skewed, we should perform a counter animation on it, using the inverted values:

const invXScale = 1 / xScale;
const invYScale = 1 / yScale;

inverseAnimation += `${step}% {
  transform: scale(${invXScale}, ${invYScale});
}`;

Finally, we can return the completed animations, or directly inject them in a newly created style tag.

Step 3: Enable the CSS animations 

On the CSS side of things, we need to enable the animations on the correct elements:

.element--expanded {
  animation-name: animation;
  animation-duration: 300ms;
  animation-timing-function: step-end;
}

.element-contents--expanded {
  animation-name: inverseAnimation ;
  animation-duration: 300ms;
  animation-timing-function: step-end;
}

You can check the example of a Menu from Paul Lewis article, on Codepen (courtesy of Chris):

Building an expandable section 

After grasping these baseline concepts, I wanted to check if I could apply this technique to a different use case, like a expandable section.

We only need to animate the height in this case, specifically on the function to calculate scales. We’re getting the Y value from the section title, to serve as the collapsed state, and the whole section to represent the expanded state:

    _calculateScales () {
      var collapsed = this._sectionItemTitle.getBoundingClientRect();
      var expanded = this._section.getBoundingClientRect();
      
      // create css variable with collapsed height, to apply on the wrapper
      this._sectionWrapper.style.setProperty('--title-height', collapsed.height + 'px');

      this._collapsed = {
        y: collapsed.height / expanded.height
      }
    }

Since we want the expanded section to have absolute positioning (in order to avoid it taking space when in a collapsed state), we are setting the CSS variable for it with the collapsed height, applied on the wrapper. That will be the only element with relative positioning.

Next comes the function to create the keyframes: _createEaseAnimations(). This doesn’t differ much from what was explained above. For this use case, we actually need to create four animations:

  1. The animation to expand the wrapper
  2. The counter-expand animation on the content
  3. The animation to collapse the wrapper
  4. The counter-collapse animation on the content

We follow the same approach as before, running a for loop with a length of 60 (to get a smooth 60 FPS animation), and create a keyframe percentage, based on the eased step. Then, we push it to the final animations strings:

outerAnimation.push(`
  ${percentage}% {
    transform: scaleY(${yScale});
  }`);
  
innerAnimation.push(`
  ${percentage}% {
    transform: scaleY(${invScaleY});
  }`);

We start by creating a style tag to hold the finished animations. As this is built as a constructor, to be able to easily add multiple patterns, we want to have all these generated animations on the same stylesheet. So, first, we validate if the element exists. If not, we create it and add a meaningful class name. Otherwise, you would end up with a stylesheet for each section expandable, which is not ideal.

 var sectionEase = document.querySelector('.section-animations');
 if (!sectionEase) {
  sectionEase = document.createElement('style');
  sectionEase.classList.add('section-animations');
 }

Speaking of that, you may already be wondering, “Hmm, if we have multiple expandable sections, wouldn’t they still be using the same-named animation, with possibly wrong values for their content?” 

You’re absolutely right! So, to prevent that, we are also generating dynamic animation names. Cool, right?

We make use of the index passed to the constructor from the for loop when making the querySelectorAll('.section') to add a unique element to the name:

var sectionExpandAnimationName = "sectionExpandAnimation" + index;
var sectionExpandContentsAnimationName = "sectionExpandContentsAnimation" + index;

Then we use this name to set a CSS variable on the current expandable section. As this variable is only in this scope, we just need to set the animation to the new variable in the CSS, and each pattern will get its respective animation-name value.

.section.is--expanded {
  animation-name: var(--sectionExpandAnimation);
}

.is--expanded .section-item {
  animation-name: var(--sectionExpandContentsAnimation);
}

.section.is--collapsed {
  animation-name: var(--sectionCollapseAnimation);
}

.is--collapsed .section-item {
  animation-name: var(--sectionCollapseContentsAnimation);
}

The rest of the script is related to adding event listeners, functions to toggle the collapse/expand status and some accessibility improvements.

About the HTML and CSS: it needs a little bit of extra work to make the expandable functionality work. We need an extra wrapper to be the relative element that doesn’t animate. The expandable children have an absolute position so that they don’t occupy space when collapsed.

Remember, since we need to make counter animations, we make it scale full size in order to avoid a skew effect on the content.

.section-item-wrapper {
  min-height: var(--title-height);
  position: relative;
}

.section {
  animation-duration: 300ms;
  animation-timing-function: step-end;
  contain: content;
  left: 0;
  position: absolute;
  top: 0;
  transform-origin: top left;
  will-change: transform;
}

.section-item {
  animation-duration: 300ms;
  animation-timing-function: step-end;
  contain: content;
  transform-origin: top left;
  will-change: transform;  
}

I would like to highlight the importance of the animation-timing-functionproperty. It should be set to linear or step-end to avoid easing between each keyframe.

The will-change property — as you probably know — will enable GPU acceleration for the transform animation for an even smoother experience. And using the contains property, with a value of contents, will help the browser treat the element independently from the rest of the DOM tree, limiting the area before it recalculates the layout, style, paint and size properties.

We use visibility and opacity to hide the content, and stop screen readers to access it, when collapsed.

.section-item-content {
  opacity: 1;
  transition: opacity 500ms ease;
}

.is--collapsed .section-item-content {
  opacity: 0;
  visibility: hidden;
}

And finally, we have our section expandable! Here’s the complete code and demo for you to check:

Performance check

Anytime we work with animations, performance ought to be in the back of our mind. So, let’s use developer tools to check if all this work was worthy, performance-wise. Using the Performance tab (I’m using Chrome DevTools), we can analyze the FPS and the CPU usage, during the animations.

And the results are great!

The higher the green bar, the higher the frames. And there’s no junk either, which would be signed by red sections.

Using the FPS meter tool to check the values at greater detail, we can see that it constantly hits the 60 FPS mark, even with abusive usage.

Final considerations

So, what’s the verdict? Does this replace all other methods? Is this the “Holy Grail” solution?

In my opinion, no. 

But… that’s OK, really! It’s another solution on the list. And, as is true with any other method, it should be analyzed if it’s the best approach for the use-case.

This technique definitely has its merits. As Paul Lewis says, this does take a lot of work to prepare. But, on the flip side, we only need to do it once, when the page loads. During interactions, we are merely toggling classes (and attributes in some cases, for accessibility).

However, this brings some limitations to the UI of the elements. As you could see for the expandable section element, the counter-scale makes it much more reliable for absolute and off-canvas elements, like floating-actions or menus. It’s also difficult to styled borders because it’s using overflow: hidden.

Nevertheless, I think there is tons of potential with this approach. Let me know what you think!