Building Emotion: The Basics of the Eyes, From Sybex | 4 | WebReference

Building Emotion: The Basics of the Eyes, From Sybex | 4

Building Emotion: The Basics of the Eyes, From Sybex


A focused character, besides having a posture that illustrates this, will behave in a focused manner in the face and especially the eyes. For animators, it can be very tempting to-well, animate. Sometimes the temptation to move things can ruin an effect we're trying to create. Eyes generally move very quickly, but in creating the illusion of focus or intensity, we need to hold back. It is okay for a character to hold a stare for a while. By interrupting the stare too soon, we would dilute the intensity or sabotage the intensity we were after.

Involuntary Distraction Is the Enemy of Performance

Distraction is the enemy of performance. If the audience is distracted by anything born of our animation, they're looking at the animation, not at the character in the scene, and they're missing what's happening. With most of the things you animate, like full body shots, you won't have this problem, they're not as susceptible to this. With the face and the eyes, though, there is so much potential for fatal distraction that you might find yourself focusing on what not to do rather than on what you want to do.

Brow Rules

The rights and wrongs, dos and don'ts for brows are pretty sparse, but here they are.

Limit Your Range

Try, as a conscious effort, not to ever let your brows get to the extremes of their range. It will happen, and for good reason, but if you stop yourself from maxing your brows out, you'll force yourself to be a little bit more resourceful and creative with all the tools at your disposal. I'm far more willing to believe a character who is sad than one who is the saddest he's ever been in his entire life, so sad that his face must hurt from the muscle contortion. I like to give myself that range to play with, but animation on the brow almost always looks better when it lives pretty close to the default shape. Also, as with the mouth, opposites and stepping all apply as simple good general animation principles. If you have a character who's mad on his first line of dialogue, then even more angry on the second line of dialogue, what can you do? If you blew all your range on the first line of anger, you're stuck on the second. Keeping things in a range helps a lot.

Darting Motion

Your brows don't move slowly. You can try it if you like, in a mirror. Try moving your brows up slowly, you can't. On the way down, it's easier, but still not very normal. Brows tend to jump into poses, hold that pose, and then drop back out of it.

Sometimes the Best Shape Is No Shape

My favorite CGI facial acting shot ever-so far-is in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Gollum is a sickly looking outcast, helping the current owner of his "precious" ring. There's a scene where he is talking to himself-not just musing, but clearly of a damaged and divided mind-and the camera cuts help differentiate the two personalities. In one moment, the whole thing went from looking like some of the most beautiful computer animation and motion capture, to surpassing all of that and becoming real. In one shot, Gollum draws back in the frame and just says "What?"

What made this scene stand out for me is that, for much of the film, the character's facial expressions, while wonderfully shaped and animated, were, well, always expressing-going from one extreme to another. There was never a moment's rest in the face. In that one shot, the character started with an angry expression, and an intense glare, and then bang! The muscle tension released, the eyes widened slightly. That was it. The animator resisted the urge to shoot to the opposite spectrum for effect; they stopped it in the area of "nothing," no shape. It was the absence of a shape, the release of the tension, the character's real, genuine, tangible shock at the dialogue exchange that blew me away. The character had been ripped out of himself, for just a moment-a real reaction. It showed me something I might have known, somewhere deep down, but never quantified: getting out of a shape can be even more powerful than going into one. I've looked for ways to use this since, and it has been a remarkable tool in realizing certain emotions and moments. Hats off to whoever animated that scene-great work!

Order of Operations

This is the order in which I like to do things in regard to the face; there are some production issues, but I'll address those. Also, this list is not complete, as there are still mouth emotions to address, but that won't come until the last chapter; on this list they would appear right before finesse.

  1. Sync
  2. Head tilt (up/down)
  3. Eyes
  4. Eyelids
  5. Brows
  6. Finesse


I do my sync first, to get my timing down. This applies to all animation I do. If a scene is mostly pantomime, but there happens to be sound, I'll do the sync first; it helps me get into the timing and feeling before attacking big sweeping motions. I'll also sometimes create myself a dopesheet using my sync timing.

Head Tilt

I do this second, but there are a few catches to what second means. In a big full-body acting shot, I'll do the full-body acting after sync and this third, but in a close-up shot, I will do this second. I treat the tilt of the head as its own entity apart from the rest of the posing of the body. If I work on a floating head in a scene such as we'll do in a minute, up is up, down is down. If I'm working on a character, like the one in Figure 7.19, who is already posed, up and down is a range defined using that pose as the zero-line.

Figure 7.19: A pose from a scene, and how to interpret up, and then down, using that pose as your new base line; it's all merely relative.


In this step in my order of operations list, I've written "up/down" only, and that's because I don't usually like to add in any other head movements until the rest of the steps for the face animation are completed. The up and down gives a good base motion, but after that, if you get the whole head swooping and turning all over the place, it can be hard to keep focus as you continue your work on other things, like the eyes and brows. This potential drawback to the process, we'll actually use to our advantage later. By adding those extra head motions after we've done the rest of our work with the face, we'll make the minute details s little harder to follow, and usually that, just make them look better; you can't sit and nitpick at a moving face! Sneaky, sneaky, sneaky.


This is completely interchangeable in list order with the tilt of the head. In fact, I've only made them separate steps to keep the two thought processes separate for instruction. In my own animation, I do the two at the same time, but I only recommend doing that yourself after you've really learned to distinguish the individual goals. By getting the head and eyes moving early, which is all I've done in Figure 7.20, you get into the real feel of the scene before laying on the more obvious and uncreative brows.

Figure 7.20: With only the tilt of the head and the eyes, you can start to create expressions and thought processes.


This encompasses upper lids in both expression (wide, narrow) and function (blinks). This is the point where the emotion really starts to come through, as in Figure 7.21. We're looking for excitement levels, good places to blink, just getting into the thought process of the character. The lower lids come in here, too, and add in all the thought and intensity that they do. Figure 7.21: I don't trust this guy.


Last but not least on the explicit steps are the brows (Figure 7.22). I got in the habit of doing these last (these and mouth emotions) when I started to really get into facial animation. At first, doing these last was a teaching aid I forced on myself to learn about the other things on the face. It worked so well that I realized brows had actually been hindering my animation-they're a crutch. At this point, I've just gotten used to putting them on at the end, and I recommend it. They can add a lot, but I really think of them as the last resort for creating an expression. Usually, they are the icing-at this point, after all the preceding steps, the expression is already there. Figure 7.22: "No, no, I meant, Santa is real!"


Once all the pieces are in place there's inevitably something that needs to be changed. If you're doing it right, layered animation always has a little bit of do-over and repair. If you're thinking so far ahead that you're not doing things in your Eyes pass because of something you're going to do in your Brows pass, you're not giving each layer its proper, individual, unique attention-you're animating straight-ahead out-of-order! This is where I will decide that part of a scene isn't working; it's where I'll add in other motions on the head, and shift keys around to make thought happen before sound.

Created: March 27, 2003
Revised: November 7, 2003