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. First, test yourself — jot down what specific visual elements audiences focus on when they look at a film. 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? Brightest light? Loudest color? Anything in the center of the screen? Collect your thoughts, then expand this post. Read the rest of this entry »