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]


Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

Recently I’ve watched a Ted talk presented by Pixar’s filmmaker Andrew Stanton, who wrote and directed “Finding Nemo”(2003), “WALL-E”(2008) and wrote scripts for Toy Story movies and Monsters, Inc. In his talk he spoke about storytelling, how he approaches it when he’s writing a script and why do we love stories.

Stanton says that we all love stories because “Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories.”(2012). I think that’s something that gets overlooked sometimes when we discuss stories. It seems to me that the main reason people like stories, whether is it a novel book, or a movie, or a story on a radio, we seem to think that it all comes down to the entertainment, how we, humans want to be entertained. But his point is different, or at least he gives it a fresh perspective, as he sees it from a different angle.

As a storyteller/writer you should “know your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal”. This is important – it shows that stories should be well planned ahead and the ending should be figured out from the start so the middle part is the journey to that goal. Coming up with endings is hard, I realised that while planning and writing the story for my final project and I’m still not satisfied with it.

Another point he makes is to ““Make me care” — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care. We all know what it’s like to not care”.(2012) This is something that every scriptwriter should have in a back of his head, that the only way to catch audience’s attention, to entertain them is by making them care. Later on he goes on about how we should make the audience put things together, make them work for it. So instead of giving them everything on a plate, let’s make it fun for them to solve it for themselves. As he says “We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.“(2012).

A character should have a spine, a goal, something they’re striving for. He gives examples of Pixar characters, such as WALL-E, or Marlin from “Finding Nemo”, but what’s really interesting is what he says at the end, that these goals can sometimes lead to some bad decision making, that characters get in trouble because of them, there are new obstacles in front of them. And that’s what makes stories much more interesting and entertaining.

He also talks about how he was struggling in the early days of Pixar, while writing “Toy Story”. At the time there was a certain formula for animation movies. For example there was a lot of singing involved and there was some romance. The story wasn’t working out and Disney was panicking, so they wanted all these things in the movie. But Stanton and the rest refused, and as he says: “And thank goodness we were just too young, rebellious and contrarian at the time. That just gave us more determination to prove that you could build a better story. And a year after that, we did conquer it.”(2012). It shows that there are no hard rules in storytelling, there are only guidelines. However liking the main character is something he says is a “fundamental”.  I think it would be hard for the audience to relate to an unlikable character, especially in the animated movie. Although there are examples of successful stories with unlikable characters in main roles, I’m thinking about House from “House MD”, or Kevin Spacey’s character from “House of Cards”, but I’m not totally convinced they’re unlikable. They might be evil(in House of Cards case), or rude and cynical like House but there’s something about their characters that people like.

According to Stanton one of the most important ingredients that a story should have is a sense of wonder. “Wonder is honest, it’s completely innocent. It can’t be artificially evoked. For me, there’s no greater ability than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling — to hold them still just for a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder”(2012).

He ended his talk with saying that drawing from our own experiences, our own stories is also something a storyteller should do. “Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core.”(2012)

Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story, 2012. [online] TED talk. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_stanton_the_clues_to_a_great_story/

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]

New “Inside Out” trailer

“Inside Out” is a new Pixar’s movie that is coming out this summer. The subject of the movies is close to my research as it tackles the issues of emotions. The main characters are Riley, a girl who just moved to a new city and 5 emotions that are leading her actions. What this trailer reveals is the fact that two important emotions, Joy and Sadness, lose control over her actions and get kicked out from the “control room”. It looks like from that point Anger, Fear and Disgust are going to guide Riley, so I can imagine where this story would be going. They either going to focus on puberty and growing up, as she seems to be a teenager, or go slightly darker route and focus on mental illnesses. Nevertheless I am pretty excited about that movie. I took few screenshots showcasing the facial expressions that characters are having. I’ve noticed how important the asymmetry is, especially when it comes to the eyebrows, character portraying anger is a great example of that.

joy1 joy2

disgust1 disgust2 disgust3anger1 anger2 anger3

It also reminded me of this little short:

And this old Disney, propaganda short, which cleverly tells the audience that they should always follow the reason, and shows how the public can be manipulated by the emotions: