facial expressions


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]


Blendshapes and blinking gif

Recently I was working on blendshapes for my character. As I’ve previously mentioned, most of the expressions that I wanted to portray were suppose to be illustrate sad and rather negative emotions. I was trying to make some expressions asymmetrical, as in my research I found out that asymmetry brings interest to  the character and gives the pose energy. It seems that the expressions are symmetrical mainly when character is either bored, or in a position of authority, or has no emotions.


closedmouth widemsile surprise smile2 smile skepitcalfaces shock sadness2 sadness puffed_cheeks frown




Norm, Tuesday Tips – Asymmetry in facial expressions. 2014 [online] Griz and Norm blog, Available at: http://grizandnorm.tumblr.com/post/79975572030/tuesday-tips-asymmetry-in-facial-expressions-a

Eye brows

Last week I covered large eyes, but what about another facial feature that is also expressive and can be used in improving facial expressions and character performance? There is something about the eyes and eyebrows that draw our attention to them.  .  In “The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expressions”, Gary Faigin says : “ We instinctively feel that the eyes provide our most direct link to the person within. The brows too seem to have a life of their own”. As opposed to the eyes, eye brows are capable of bigger shape change and they also can change the shape of the eye. Later, in the same book, Faigin says: “Considering how much can be expressed by the eyes and brow, it is surprising that there are only five muscles responsible or it all (…) Our control over these muscles is so fine-tuned that we can express virtually the whole range of emotions with just a little twist here, a little lift there: our perception is so practiced that we can instantly recognize the differences.”

Eyebrows can be useful in exaggerating the performance, like in this example, from Ace Ventura(starts around 0:20):

But they can also be used in more serious performance, not as exaggerated, but still noticeable:

But let’s focus on animation, in this short clip from Pixar’s “Ratatouille” we can see that a lot of emotions is communicated through the eyebrows. Clearly the exaggeration works, we can especially see it in chef Skinner performance. Even that his brows are almost hidden under his huge hat, we can see how much more alive his performance is because if the brows:

While doing my research about eyebrows I came across a good advice provided by Pixar’s animator, Victor Navone, which says that to make the brows stand out and make sure that the audience won’t miss the movement, it is a good idea to have the brow animation preceding any head or body movement. It also can be used to show that character is thinking.  He also mentioned other tips such us:

  • As the pitch of the voice raises the brows go up
  • As the pitch of the voice lowers, the brows likewise drop
  • When asking a question where the answer is already known, the brows raise
  • When asking a question where the answer is truly unknown, the brows lower
  • Spontaneous facial expressions (surprise, fear, pain, etc.) tend to be symmetrical, where as expressions we choose to make (curiosity, suspicion, contempt, etc.) can be more asymmetrical.




Faigin G., 1990 The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expressions

Large eyes

Is there something more recognisable in animation characters than their big eyes? Doesn’t matter if it’s anime, or western animation, large eyes are a troop that is very popular in the industry. It can be understandable when it comes to Japanese animation, as according to research Japanese people read faces differently to Westerners. As they live in a culture that values humbleness, modesty, a culture that is rather closed and supressed emotions, rather than expresses them, it’s easier for them to read what another person is feeling by looking at their eyes. Same research claims that Westerners, Americans in particular(as they’re were the subject of the study) look at the mouth first. This tendency could be seen in something as trivial as internet emoticons. While in the West we focus more on mouth, where J represents a smile and L illustrates sadness, emoticons used in Japan concentrate on eyes (^_^  – smile,  ;_;,  or (‘_’) – sadness).

But why would this style be popular in Western animation? As I’ve mentioned above we’re supposed to look at the mouth first. One of the reasons might be simple. We associate large eyes with things that are cute. It’s an easy way to make our character more appealing and likable. It has been started in early Disney films and it is still popular to this day. It was so popular that it influenced Japanese manga artists who used it in their work. Large eyes, small noses and chins appeal to viewers as they make them look cute, like babies, which creates the illusion of innocence and vulnerability. This style is in particular popular in Disney and the way of designing their female characters. It’s pretty well illustrated here, where we can see how different female characters would have looked with normal eyes. It’s an interesting attempt, but I think it could have been executed better, eyebrows also play an important role in how we perceive the character and they make them look weirder now.  What I’ve noticed in Mulan’s example is the fact that her large eyes are making her stand out from the crowd, straight away we can tell she’s the main character. We can also see large eyes in toys such as Bratz dolls. These dolls are overly sexualised and promote a specific image of a women, which could be harmful, especially to young girls. A Tasmanian artist, called Sonia Singh, decided to challenge this by giving these dolls a makeover. another artist, Nicolas Lamm, created a doll which is very similar to Barbie doll, but her body looks more like an average girls body, rather than super skinny Barbie dolls. What’s interesting Time magazine interviewed few children about it and the feedback was mostly positive. What’s interesting is the fact that student seemed to relate to this doll more that to the unrealistically looking Barbie.

There’s a well-known quote, which says that “Eyes are the window to a soul” – the origins of this quote are unknown, some say it was Da Vinci, others say it was Shakespeare. I feel that our emotions are always coming through the eyes, we can tell if someone is happy, or sad by looking at the eyes. They also tell what kind of person we are. If someone is shy he won’t maintain the eye contact, they will look around the room, or at the floor. When a person is confident it’s the opposite. Eye movement can also tell us what the person is thinking for example when we’re looking up this usually means that a person is remembering something that happened in the past. All of those can be used to tell a believable story through the character, make his/her expressions more interesting and also natural. I feel like the viewer might not notice it, as it’s something that we rather do automatically, not thinking about it, but character animators should be aware if this techniques. As I’m going to use a lot of close ups in my animation these eye movements will help me get my point across better.

Khazan O., 2013, The Psychology of Giant Princess Eyes [online] The Atlantic, available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/11/the-psychology-of-giant-princess-eyes/281209/ [Accessed date 18.05.2015]

2015, ‘Sexy’ Bratz dolls given a make-under [online] Daily Telegraph, available at:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11359647/Sexy-Bratz-dolls-given-a-make-under.html [Accessed date: 18.05.2015]


Stampler L., 2015, See How One Artist Dramatically Changes Bratz Dolls to Look Like Real Girls [online] Time Magazine, available at: http://time.com/3676653/bratz-dolls-makeover-real-girls/ [date accessed: 27.05.2015]

Wenner M., 2007, Americans and Japanese Read Faces Differently [online] Livescience.com, available at:
http://www.livescience.com/1498-americans-japanese-read-faces-differently.html [date accessed: 18.05.2015]




Progress – modelling a character

My progress since last week in modelling my main character, Shaun. I still need to model his shirt, add details to his belt(right now it just looks like his shirt is ending there) and add a tie to him. Next would be unwrapping, texturing and rigging him. According to my timetable I should already be doing that so I’m a week behind. There’s also only two months left till the deadline so I might used my backup plan and used a prerigged character for my female character. I’ll probably make the final decision by the end of next week. I’m still not sure about his eyes, as they do look kind of creepy in my opinion, however a similar design worked well in “Hotel Transylvania”, where Dracula’s eyes were similar. Another good example from that movie is Johnny, who also has long, narrow eyes). This short clip gives a good example of how many amazing expressions Sony animators were able to achieve with this character:

It clearly doesn’t just focus on facial expressions, as there’s a lot of running around and body movement but in my opinion the expressions that character makes make the entire scene much more enjoyable and interesting to the viewer, therefore I would argue that they play the major role in making us, the audience empathise with the character.




1 2 3face


Hotel Transylvania - Johnny

Hotel Transylvania – Johnny

Hotel Transylvania - Johnny 2

Hotel Transylvania – Johnny 2

Hotel Transylvania - Johnny 3

Hotel Transylvania – Johnny 3


Sources: image 1: http://www.visualhollywood.com/movies_2012/hotel_transylvania/photos/

image 2: http://pixshark.com/hotel-transylvania-dracula.htm

image 3: http://hoteltransylvania.wikia.com/wiki/Dracula

image 4: http://pixshark.com/hotel-transylvania-dracula-bleh-bleh-bleh.htm

image 5: http://pixshark.com/hotel-transylvania-johnny-stein.htm

image 6: http://hoteltransylvania.wikia.com/wiki/File:Johnny_broom.jpg

image 7: http://www.rotoscopers.com/2012/03/14/first-official-images-of-hotel-transylvania/


Dead eyes characters

In my previous entry I’ve mentioned the role of eyes and dead eyed characters in films like “Polar Express”(2004) and how important the role of eyes is in expressing character’s emotions and making the character more likeable and believable. Having character’s with convincing eyes is important to the overall appeal of the character. For example let’s look at this video, it’s from the comedy show but it does rise an important issue. Conan is a what we could say is an example of a common viewer, a potential target audience. He’s not an expert in animation, computer graphics, games but straight away he can tell that there’s something not right with the character’s eyes.

In an article for The New Yorker, Derek Bradley, from Disney Research has said that “A lot of the dead-eye look can come from the animated motion of the eye rather than the static shape,”(2015) and then “If the dynamics of the eyes are not a hundred per cent correct, then it’s something people pick up on.”(ibid) Therefore I’ve decided to look at some examples of dead eye in animation and compare it to what I consider good examples of eye movement.


In this clip we can see a fair share of face close up so it gives us a chance of examining the facial expressions of the characters. From beginning it is quite hard to ignore the photorealistic design of the characters and it was already slightly off-putting. I have to say that it is hard to pick some eye movements that are out of place, it all looks well done, which is not surprising, as it was a big production. For me the fact that the eyes are design so lifelike, yet they clearly don’t look alive is already ruining the whole animation. Boy’s eyes seems to be very shiny but they are soulless.  His face is also very smooth which makes it look plastic.

“Beowulf”(2007) is another example of motion capture animation and photorealistic characters. It also has the dead eye look. Characters still seem to be soulless. Let take a look at two images from the that scene. The first one is supposed to illustrate anger, while the 2nd one is showing confusion. I feel like they don’t achieve their goals, especially the second one. It’s probably more noticeable in the video clips than in stills. Again, characters look plastic.



Queen Wealtheow from Beowulf reminded me of Queen Lillian from Shrek 2 as they seem to be somehow similar from the design point of view. In comparison to the other characters from the movie, and from Shrek’s universe she’s very close to being photorealistic. Usually characters look more cartoony or some of their features are exaggerated but she seems fairly normal, but we could clearly see that her character isn’t eerie and isn’t in falling into the Uncanny Valley.  What I’ve noticed is that her face and her eyes seem to be much more alive and natural that faces of characters in “Beowulf” or “Polar Express”.  Her expressions are always changing and don’t looks static. There’s also a lot of asymmetry in her expressions.

I’m using an example of “The Incredibles”(2004) because it was released in the same year as “Polar Express” but it was a much bigger success and it was a critically acclaimed movie. Also it focused on human characters, in contrary to other Pixar films that were focusing on toys, bugs, cars or fish. What we can notice straight away is the fact that even that characters look very smooth and maybe plastic it is not off-putting like in the previous examples. Stylized design of the characters is  definitely changing our perception of them. Again their far from the uncanny valley even that they are clearly human. When it comes to the expression again their very natural, sometimes exaggerated and asymmetrical. Thanks to this characters look interesting, alive, audience can emphasise with them and while before I said that they were soulless that it’s not the case here.

What I’ve learnt from this little analysis is the fact that there’s probably a long way until motion capture could marginalise character animators. In an effort to avoid dead eyes in characters I have to remember about the design of said character, it cannot be too realistic and when it comes to animating it, to give it some life I have to remember about eyebrows, eye darts, exaggerated movements and asymmetry.

King D., 2015, Building A Better Digital Eye [Online] The New Yorker, available at: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/cgi-digital-animation-eye [Accessed at: 21.04.2015]

What are emotions?

Until 17th century, the word “emotion” didn’t even exist in the English language. Instead terms such as “passions” or “affections” were used. So what exactly are emotions, and how do they relate to animation?

For years emotions were somehow ignored by psychologists in their research, there was very little work done on that subject and it was only Paul Ekman that really saw potential in that area. He started his cross-cultural research by traveling around the world and showing people images of different facial expressions and asked them to match them with emotions such as: happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger and surprise. He wanted to find out if our perception of facial expression is influence by the culture, or is it universal. That’s why he decided to try his experiment in a remote location, where he was confident that people weren’t exposed to the western culture. He continued his research in Papua New Guinea, where he did the same experiment. After getting his results he established the idea of six basic emotions, which was a very popular opinion throughout the years, but it is being challenged right now by other researchers.

One of the criticism of his research was based on a fact that the pictures that he was showing to people were posed and over the top. We know that emotions don’t exist without a context, in a vacuum. This is something that has also came up during my tutorial sessions, researching expressions and facial animation is ok, but without the story, the context it tends to be meaningless and won’t help me improve as an animator.

So why are animators obsessed about emotions and facial expressions? Personally I think that everyone is somehow interested in it, as we all want to know how our minds work. Animators use it to their advantage. They can transform a single thought into something creative and amazing and share it with others. Understanding character’s emotions is important when it comes to telling the story and acting. I think that unlike the actors, or directors or other people from the film industry who can show other valuable skills, animators ability to show what character is thinking, how is he feeling, is important when it comes to getting a job, that’s what makes animator’s work stand out.


BECK J., 2014. Hard Feelings: Science’s Struggle to Define Emotions [online]. The Atlantic, Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/hard-feelings-sciences-struggle-to-define-emotions/385711/  [24.02.2015]