3D animations are an effective method to learn about complex dynamic phenomena, such as mesoscale biological processes. The animators’ goals are to convey a sense of the scene’s overall complexity while, at the same time, visually guiding the user through a story of subsequent events embedded in the chaotic environment. Animators use a variety of visual emphasis techniques to guide the observers’ attention through the story, such as highlighting, halos – or by manipulating motion parameters of the scene. In this paper, we investigate the effect of smoothing the motion of contextual scene elements to attract attention to focus elements of the story exhibiting high-frequency motion. We conducted a crowdsourced study with 108 participants observing short animations with two illustrative motion smoothing strategies: geometric smoothing through noise reduction of contextual motion trajectories and visual smoothing through motion blur of context items. We investigated the observers’ ability to follow the story as well as the effect of the techniques on speed perception in a molecular scene. Our results show that moderate motion blur significantly improves users’ ability to follow the story. Geometric motion smoothing is less effective but increases the visual appeal of the animation. However, both techniques also slow down the perceived speed of the animation. We discuss the implications of these results and derive design guidelines for animators of complex dynamic visualizations.