The question that I’ve asked myself at the beginning of this year, after my first term on this course was How can facial expressions help communicate character’s emotions and inner monologue and therefore make the audience empathise with him/her? Even that I had some basic understanding of the subject it was a challenging task. First, what is empathy and why is it important in film or animation? Well empathy is simply our capability to understand feelings of another person, ability to put ourselves in their shoes. It doesn’t always mean that we like the particular person, but we somehow care. As an animator ability to make a wider audience care is important to me. Without making them care people would not be interested in watching my work. In his book “Acting for Animators”, Ed Hooks says that “We humans empathise only with emotion. Your job as a character animator is to create in the audience a sense of empathy with your character” (2011). So if we’re only empathising with emotions, what really are they? It’s really difficult to come up with a definition of emotions, I would say they’re a response or a reaction to what is happening around us. Later in his book Hooks says that “it is impossible to express emotions without thinking” and that’s hard to disagree with. How do I, as an animator show that the character is thinking? Probably the easiest and the most popular way of showing a thought process in a character’s mind is blinking. Blinking makes a character stop for a second, it’s like a mental punctuation point. So that’s what I did in my short animation, whenever the character was changing a thought or was making a decision I made him blink. Blinks are also a great way of adding life to the character. There are different types of blinks in animation, they can be fast, slow, there can be half blinks, there’s even something called “the Pixar blink”(when the one eye blinks few frames earlier than another one). I tried using different lengths of blinks in my animation to add some variety into it. In my research and observation of short and full featured animations and film I’ve noticed that characters blink differently when they’re happy and differently when they’re sad.
Quickly into my research I’ve realised that reading expressions and emotions from still images isn’t really the best way of researching empathy in animation. Facial expressions are motions and motions can’t be caught in a still image. I’ve also then realised that the narrative will be a major part of my research, as it would be rather to achieve empathy in a character without a story and motivation behind characters actions.
While working on my project I came across few obstacles. Early on I made a bad character design decisions, I was being cautious with the style that I was trying to portray, balancing between realism and cartoony style didn’t give me satisfying results, even that I only realised that at the final stage, when I couldn’t do any changes. Design and style can also play an important role when we’re trying to achieve empathy and in a narrative. Establishing a world that the character is can also help with making the audience care and empathic toward our character. We need to inform the audience of what kind of the environment the characters are in, so the audience what be distracted and confused and would rather focus on character’s actions. Another problem that I came across happened while I was doing blend shapes. Exaggeration is important in animation, it is considered to be one of the principles of the art form, that’s why I was trying to get as many exaggerated and over the top expressions as I could, but it was pointed out to me that some of them aren’t appealing at all and don’t work. Again it was the design fault, as I’m confident that it would work with a cartoony looking character. Some of the limitation came also from mistakes that I did the modelling phases. To get the shape of the head that I wanted I’ve used too many edge loops, which later make my work harder as I’ve spent too much time doing blend shapes, with the results that weren’t always satisfying. However, in a way, these not so perfect moth shapes emphasised the role of eyes, eye brows and eye movement in my character.
Early on I was looking at Paul Ekman’s research about facial expressions and his six, or seven universal emotions (anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise and contempt). Few of them are hard to recognised in a still photograph, without any context. As I’ve mentioned earlier, expressions are motions, so presenting them in a still image wasn’t useful for my research. However these basic, or universal emotions were a good start and from them I could move on to other expressions that I could want to achieve. Pixar in their latest film “Inside Out”(2015) decided to portray 5 of them and anthropomorphise them as characters in this movie. What is interesting is that they’ve achieved different emotions by overlapping some of the main one.
Pacing and timing is an important part of animation, especially while doing a series of transitions of the emotions, like I tried to in my short animation. The result could have been better, some frames should been hold for longer, some transitions should have been smoother, it would really improve the final product.
Hooks E., 2011. Acting for Animators. 3 Edition. Routledge.
VanDerWerff T., Chart: How Inside Out’s 5 emotions work together to make more feelings, 2015, [online] VOX Media, Available at: http://www.vox.com/2015/6/29/8860247/inside-out-emotions-graphic? [Accessed date: 30 June 2015]