Eyes 2 (updated) – The Eyes are the Windows to the Soul

I’m continuing to update my series of posts about the importance of correctly animating eyes and eye movement. This is an update of a post from March 17, 2008. It was originally titled “Where we look” because it’s about where the audience is looking, but I wanted to emphasize WHY the audience is looking at the eyes of our characters with the new title.

The subject of eye movements is doubly important in animation because the physiology and psychology that applies to our character’s eye movements applies equally to what our actual audience is doing when they watch our animation. Our eyes are not just for perception – they are the key component of social communication between humans.

In other words, understanding eye direction, eye movements, and lid/brow shapes tells us not only how to animate our characters, but also how to understand (and manipulate) the viewer’s experience. It’s two sides of the same coin. In most acting scenes, the animation involving the eyes is the key to success.

First let’s understand where people look when they’re looking at other people (or animals, or anthropomorphic animals, or anthropomorphic anything). We look at faces. More than that, we look at specific parts of the face – the two eyes and the mouth, the so-called triangle of interest.

Gaze patterns of chimpanzees (top) and humans (bottom)

Read the rest of this entry »

The Eyes Have It – Eye Movements Part 1 (Updated)

This post was originally published in March 2008, at a time when there was surprisingly little information about how to animate the eyes of cartoon characters, in either classic animation books or online. I’m happy to say that’s changed, a lot, and I think this series of blog posts had something to do with that. I’m going to update these posts, with fixed links and some edits and additional thoughts. I hope this is useful, especially for students.

The first time I realized I really didn’t know that much about how to animate eyes and blinks and eye movements was in 2006, while working on an indie sci-fi film Battle for Terra. The film features alien characters with HUGE eyes, which magnified every mistake we made in animation.

I realized the few rules I knew didn’t go nearly far enough. I muddled through that film, but afterwards spent time really watching people, and looking closely at what actors do with their eyes. I also looked up some good video reference, and some actual scientific research. This is the first in a series of posts collecting some of what I’ve learned about animating eyes, eyelids, and eye movements.

First, let’s go back in time, to 1936, the early days of our craft. Check out this clip:

Read the rest of this entry »

What we see when we watch

Check out this video — I’ll explain below, but for now just enjoy:

How often do you think about the audience when you’re animating? A lot, hopefully. But when you’re thinking about the audience, do you think about were, exactly, they’ll be looking, from moment to moment, when they watch your scene? On any given frame, can you draw a small circle somewhere on the screen, and confidently say, “They’ll be looking exactly here”? Does that seem like an unanswerable question? In fact it’s not — you should be able to predict, with great precision, exactly where on the screen the majority of the audience will be focused at any moment.

This is crucial information. In our animation we tend to try to impress with broad, entertaining movement, and big dramatic flourishes, without knowing if that’s what the audience is even paying attention to. Fellow animators pay attention to it, and often directors, too. But audiences? Not so much. In fact, it’s easy to frustrate the audience with over-animated scenes that don’t allow them to focus their attention where they instinctively want to. This is one reason some animated films are big hits with the animation community, but fall flat with general audiences.

There are two parts to unlocking the mystery of what, exactly, the audience will be focused upon at any moment. First is the way our visual system works. Even on a small screen, a viewer will only be able to focus on a portion of the screen. Most of any given scene is only appreciated by one’s peripheral vision — fuzzy and desaturated. Only the very center of our visual fields are clear and sharp and full color.

Second, humans all tend to instinctively look at the same things when given options of potential visual targets. Any frame of film has an almost infinite number of things to focus on, and yet humans predictably look at the same stuff again and again. Audiences (or, frankly, humans in general) really like to look at certain things. When multiple interesting things are presented in the same frame, humans have a pattern of what gets visual priority. What’s amazing is how predictable it is. If you misunderstand this, then it’s easy to focus your animation efforts on things that the audience won’t even register.

So what is it that humans like to look at. What visual targets, on screen, have the most drawing power? Is it whatever is closest to camera? The biggest movement? Some facial feature or body part? The mouth of speaking characters? The brightest light? The loudest color? The center of the screen? The above video should make it clear. Read the rest of this entry »

Character animation in virtual reality, part 3: Rise of the NPCs

This is the third post, stimulated by the GDC Animators’ Roundtable, on where character animation might be going as we enter the virtual reality phase in gaming.

So what will be the big step forward in player engagement in VR games, if not some variation on shooting non-player controlled enemies? What is going to have the appeal of shoot-or-be-shot warrior game play in an increasingly real virtual space? What might be transformative in a similar way to Doom and the FPS genre? I think one answer is going to involve much higher quality NPC acting.

The wonderful Alyx Vance, a truly effective NPC

NPC Alyx Vance

Or rather, NPCs that not only act believably, but react to us, and interact with us. This is the next frontier in VR. It will require a step up in gaming AI, and definitely a big step up in the quality and complexity, and deftness, of in-game character animation. But emotionally realistic reactions, and real-time interactions, in relation to the game context and player behavior, offers the potential to thrill and engage on a new, deeper level. Read the rest of this entry »

Character animation and VR gaming – part 2

This is the second of three posts about the Animators’ Roundtable discussion at the Game Developer’s Conference this year.

So why are shooter games so popular, if people don’t actually want to experience the sensation of killing? I tend to understand things through analogy and personal anecdote, so I’m going to frame my thoughts in that way, rather than try to sound  like a bad social psychology journal article. I think most of us, and by ‘us’ I mean especially males, enjoyed competitive group play as kids. I don’t mean sports — we have to be drilled and trained to enjoy sports. Few children start playing sports on their own; it’s almost always under gentle pressure from an adult. I mean instead the kind of ad hoc, free-form kids’ games that often involve some form of attack and defense, like freeze tag or capture the flag. Children also love inventing games that involve role playing. These two types of play are wired into us, in the same way puppies play-fight, and kittens play stalking games.

Boys playing army

Boys playing army

My family moved around a lot when I was young, and the most popular outside game throughout much of my childhood, in multiple locations, was what we simply called ‘playing guns’ or ‘playing army.’ We would get our toy guns (or use a baseball bat as a bazooka if your parents wouldn’t let you have a toy gun), divide up, and head out in opposite directions. Read the rest of this entry »

Character animation and virtual reality gaming — where to now?

This year’s Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco was, of course, fully dominated by the blossoming of virtual reality. It’s still early days, but it was thrilling as to see what’s here, now, and what’s just around the corner when you put on an Oculus Rift or a HTC Vive. These are exciting times!

Animation geek heaven

Animation geek heaven

Despite the excitement, I attended an interesting Animator’s Roundtable Discussion where some serious anxieties were expressed about what might be coming. The discussion focused on what character animation will bring to VR, and how animation (and games) in VR may be different in this more immersive virtual environment. The discussion’s been percolating in my mind for a while, and I want to use this post to organize my thoughts. I’m relying on my often-faulty memory for the gist of the discussion, so apologies in advance to any animators who were there and who remember it differently!

One of the first points brought up was the assertion that perhaps the most popular single type of game is shooter games, and that a large measure of their success derives from the emotional satisfaction of killing non-player characters. While that’s obviously debatable, there’s no doubt that a LOT of popular games put the player in challenging kill-or-be-killed situations, where killing NPC enemies is a constant proximate goal. Many successful games revel in the realistic carnage and high body counts one can rack up with a staggering array of sexy and lovingly detailed weapons. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lunar Year that Was

One of my 2015 New Year’s resolutions is to get back to blogging more often, but first I need to get caught up for 2014. It’s been an eventful and crazy year at Moonbot, and here are some of the things I should have mentioned as they happened.


Joe, Brandon, Bill, me, and Beavan at the Annies

In January, The Scarecrow won the Annie Award for Best Special Production. This was the project that brought me back to Moonbot as Animation Supervisor, and the film and game were a genuine labors of love for the entire studio. Being recognized by our peers at ASIFA-Hollywood was tremendous!

2014 Annie Awards acceptance speech

2014 Annie Awards acceptance speech

In addition to the Annie Award, The Scarecrow also won a Grand Prix and two Golden Lions at Cannes (!), two Emmys, three Clios, and 5 Epica Awards (whew!). And it was viewed almost 14 million times on Youtube. What a great way to start 2014! Read the rest of this entry »

A day in the life of Silent film animators

Sorry if you were expecting something about Windsor McKay or Otto Messmer, but here’s a peek of life at Moonbot Studios while we were making the short film Silent for Dolby. Our stalwart documentarian, Patrick Long, filmed some behind-the-scenes footage, and one of our TDs, Akin Bilgic, set up his time-lapse camera.

The time lapse portion is about 10 seconds in, and was filmed at two frames per minute (so this is a tiny sliver of one working day). Akin filmed two entire work days, from a different camera position each day, and on the second day the camera was right next to me. It was a little unnerving, but I’m happy to have a small record of what I actually do at work. It’s unusual to get to see behind the scenes at a mid-sized studio, and unlike the usual ‘making of’ video that you see on DVDs of feature films, this stuff really was behind the scenes. There’s some nice footage of the directors, animators, artists, and TDs of Moonbot hard at work. Oh, and please ignore my rambling comments made before I’d had my morning coffee. There’s a reason I’m an animator, and not an actor!

And here’s the finished film, Silent. Enjoy:

It was a challenging and exciting project, in part because we started right into ‘crunch’ mode just before the Christmas holidays, and the film had to be complete and rendered in time to be shown Feb. 15 at the Scientific and Technical Academy Awards ceremony. I’m still not sure how we pulled it off!

‘The Scarecrow’ for Chipotle

Wow, it’s almost been a year since my last post. Time flies when you’re busy, and I’ve been busy! The first two of the eight or nine projects (not kidding!) I’ve worked on at Moonbot in the last 12 months are finally public. And here’s the entire short film, The Scarecrow:

And my favorite part, the app/game Chipotle Scarecrow:

Feed the people!

Feed the people!

Read the rest of this entry »

Who says great animation can’t save a mediocre story? Exhibit A: Hotel T

Regular readers of this too-sporatic blog know I believe that great animation CAN save a weak story. The mantra that “Story, story, and story” are the three most important elements in an animated film is still heard throughout the land, but it’s still wrong.  Further evidence of how wrong, or at least how incomplete, can be found in the surprise success of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania.

A drawover by Genndy Tartakovsky from animation dailies*

Read the rest of this entry »

The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch